October 06, 2008

Wendell Berry a socialist? Yes, it's libertarianism vs agrarianism again

An argument has broken out in an obscure part of the blogosphere between libertarians, paleoconservatives, and agrarians. You may think you don't care, but I'd like to suggest that arguments like these tend to be more substantive than the typical democrat vs republican swill we're treated to on blogs like Kos and Instapundit.

Libertarian David Gordon wrote a piece critical of Rod Dreher and the "crunchy cons", which provoked responses from Jerry Salyer in the paleocon magazine Chronicles, and from Daniel Larison at Eunomia.

I've talked, briefly, about libertarianism before, and dismissed it as a one-size-fits-all ideology that ignores local realities. I should probably admit that I'm not the best critic of libertarianism because I dismiss it as childish -- an overly simple and simplistic ideology. But this disagreement between Gordon and his critics gives me the chance to bring up one point that I didn't before.

Agrarianism's chief conviction, it seems to me, is that we must take responsibility for what we do. Its arguments for localism are toothless without this conviction behind them. As Wendell Berry points out in many of his essays, the modern, industrial, global economy prevents us from adequately taking responsibilty for our actions because we can't even see what the consequences of our actions are. As I wrote in a previous post:

Our non-agrarian society makes it very difficult to take full responsibility for what we do. According to the agrarian writer Wendell Berry, "When there is no reliable accounting and therefore no competent knowledge of the economic and ecological effects of our lives, we cannot live lives that are economically and ecologically responsible." [Berry, "The Whole Horse"]

Berry thinks that in modern society there is in fact "no reliable accounting," and "no competent knowledge" of what we are doing. "We are thus involved in a kind of lostness in which most people are participating more or less unconsciously in the destruction of the natural world, which is to say, the sources of their own lives. They are doing this unconsciously because they see or do very little of the actual destruction themselves, and they don't know, because they have no way to learn, how they are involved." [Berry, "Two Minds"]

Localism is desirable for agrarians because it helps us to learn what the consequences of our actions are, and limits our destructiveness when we make mistakes.

Given, however, a global society like ours, we need some other ways of learning "how [we] are involved." And this is just where libertarianism fails, and why it ought to be rejected.

The unregulated free market beloved of libertarians, far from educating us about the consequences of what we do, tends just as often to obscure them. It reduces all the complex history of an item to a single number, the price. But even mainstream economists acknowledge that the price frequently fails to reflect even quantitatively (much less qualitatively) much of the "costs" that we pay as a society for the goods we produce. This is, of course, the problem of externalities. The most common example is the price of a gallon of gas, which fails to account for the environmental damage caused by its extraction, refining, transportation, and consumption.

Short of moving towards a local economy, the best way to account for all of the externalities that the market price fails to reflect is... government regulation, in the form of strict penalties for destructive behavior, subsidies for less destructive behavior, mandatory disclosures, and the list goes on.

Libertarians reject all of this, and in so doing set themselves up as obstacles to achieving the kind of responsible society agrarians want.

But enough of that. Larison's and Salyer's answers to Gordon are interesting and I recommend them. Given the economic events of the past month, though, Dreher makes the wittiest riposte:

In the meantime, can I just say how much I hate that Wendell Berry and all the farmers for bringing the entire US economy and global financial system to the edge of the abyss with their financial recklessness. If only we'd had less regulation of the moneymen, like fundamentalist libertarians want, why, we wouldn't be in this fix. Right?

February 09, 2008

Modern infantilism -- does Benjamin Barber have the solution?

The subtitle of Benjamin Barber's latest book hints at his dislike of consumerism. Frustrated with the ubiquitous glorfication of "the market" in our current political discourse, Barber asks the following almost rhetorical question:

"After all, when religion colonizes every sector of what should be our multidimensional lives, we call the result theocracy; and when politics colonizes every sector of what should be our multidimensional lives, we call the result tyranny. So why, it might be asked, when the marketplace -- with its insistent ideology of consumption and its dogged orthodoxy of spending -- colonizes every sector of what should be our multidimensional lives, do we call the result liberty?" [219-220]

Continue reading "Modern infantilism -- does Benjamin Barber have the solution?" »

November 25, 2007

Ron Paul's libertarian problem

A few supporters of congressman Ron Paul have discovered and responded to my posts about the libertarian presidential candidate. Since I linked to a popular DailyKos post suggesting that Paul was a racist, the least I can do is to point out two sources suggesting that he isn't -- see this and this.

If you're curious about Paul, read them all for yourself and make up your own mind.

Personally, I doubt that racism can fairly be attributed to Ron Paul.  I don't doubt that some of his supporters are racists -- Clinton and Obama and Giuliani almost certainly have their racist supporters, too -- but Paul seems like too much of a libertarian to be a racist himself.

However, racism is not my biggest problem with Ron Paul.  His libertarianism is.

Look, I don't disagree with libertarians that a large state can be dangerous.  It tries to monopolize the use of force, and its power is so great that it makes good sense to be afraid of it.  Yes, the state can never be compassionate, altruistic, or responsible in anything like the sense that an individual can be.  It's also true that an overly-large state can be an obstacle to responsible stewardship, because it substitutes an individual's direct control over some portion of his assets with a far less-direct political influence over how the state uses those assets that have been confiscated in taxes.

All of that, I get.  Libertarianism and agrarianism together have no use for an overweening, monstrous state.  (If they did, they'd be called "socialism" or "communism.")

But here is where I believe libertarianism and agrarianism part company: libertarianism picks out individual liberty from among the many human goods and holds it up as the preeminent end-in-itself.  Liberty trumps everything else.  Agrarianism holds that individual liberty must be balanced harmoniously with the health of the family, the community, and the place (or "the environment" if you prefer that term).  There is no trump; each conflict between human goods must be evaluated in the context of the particular circumstances applying at that time and place.

For libertarians, the only legitimate reason to constrain an individual's freedom of action is when that action hurts another person.  "Hurting another person" usually amounts to the same thing as reducing another person's freedom.  For the libertarian, this is the ultimate goal.  If there are pleasant side effects, then all the merrier for everyone, but the maximization of liberty is still the goal even if there are no pleasant side effects, or even if the side effects are unpleasant.

You can see this kind of thinking in Paul's response to his critics' charge that he's a racist:

The true antidote to racism is liberty. Liberty means having a limited, constitutional government devoted to the protection of individual rights rather than group claims. Liberty means free-market capitalism, which rewards individual achievement and competence, not skin color, gender, or ethnicity. In a free market, businesses that discriminate lose customers, goodwill, and valuable employees – while rational businesses flourish by choosing the most qualified employees and selling to all willing buyers.
I'm not a racist, argues Paul, because I'd never advocate using the power of the state to constrain an individual's freedom because of their race.  The true libertarian cannot be a racist because racial discrimination conflicts with the ultimate goal of maximizing freedom.

Paul also claims that there are pleasant side effects when individuals are given the maximum amount of freedom possible, namely that racism withers away in an environment where the free market "rewards individual achievement and competence, not skin color, gender, or ethnicity."  David Bernstein's comments on this view demonstrate how myopic it is.  Paul, like many other libertarians, cannot account for private racism because of his idealized and fictional view of how the market works unencumbered by the state.  Whether anything about libertarianism compels this fictional view of the market is an interesting question.  But that's not the point here.

The point is that even if you were to convince Paul that this pleasant side effect of free market economics won't pan out, this wouldn't be sufficient in itself to change Paul's opposition to any state-organized efforts to fight racism.  Because Paul is a libertarian, you'd have to convince him that that racism has limited people's liberty to a greater extent than it would be limited by government intervention.  Goal #1, liberty, must be maximized at all costs, even if those costs include the indignity of overt racism, or racism's destructive effects on the community, or its harm to the non-human environment (if any).

Ditto for any other government policy -- environmental, financial, military.  And ditto for any level of government. The libertarian doesn't care whether the constraints on an individual's liberty comes from the U.N. or the feds or the state or the town council.  All of these are "collectivist" and as such are a potential enemy of freedom.

In fact, from an agrarian perspective, libertarianism's fatal weakness is that it's an industrial, one-size-fits-all ideology.  It's "industrial" because it claims to be applicable universally, in every time and place.  When libertarians make universal claims for the primacy of individual freedom over other human goods, they're ignoring local variations of opinion and taste much the same way the neocons ignored these things when they argued for invading Iraq.

Agrarians should also reject libertarianism because it reduces the complex features of a good human life to just one of those factors: liberty.  This is analogous to the difference between agrarian agriculture and industrial agriculture, where the latter reduces a complex activity dependent on a keen awareness of local variation to just three things: phosphorus, nitrogen, and potassium.  The failings of this reductivist approach to agriculture are clearly described by Michael Pollan in his Omnivore's Dilemma, and are recognized by successful farmers who reject the industrial model, like Joel Salatin.

Sure, the government might be "too big" right now. But the libertarian's answer to this problem is akin to the guy with the arthritic knee who says to himself, "if one Tylenol is good for my knee, the whole bottle of pills ought to be really great."  That's the kind of guy that dies of liver failure.  We may be choking on bureaucracy, but the libertarian's enthusiasm for the opposite extreme ought to scare us a little.

October 15, 2007

More popular

Agrarianism must be getting more popular.  Stephen Colbert is mocking us now:

Our nation is at a Fork in the Road. Some say we should go Left; some say go Right. I say, “Doesn’t this thing have a reverse gear?” Let’s back this country up to a time before there were forks in the road — or even roads. Or forks, for that matter. I want to return to a simpler America where we ate our meat off the end of a sharpened stick.

In other news, over the last two weeks I've taken advantage of my light schedule to post on this blog again, but tonight I start a seven-day (at least) stretch of 12-hour night shifts. I'll try to keep posting, though. Wish me luck.

October 11, 2007

Agrarian responsibility, and why that means we can't ignore the world news

Agrarianism, like any other -ism, is shorthand for an enormous number of practices, ideas, and commitments. But if I were going to sum it up as briefly as possible, I might say that agrarianism is what happens when you take "responsibility" seriously. (You could make similarly suggestive but incomplete statements about other -isms, for example, that libertarianism is what you get when you take "freedom" seriously, or that fascism is what you get when you take "authority" seriously. Obviously a whole lot more needs to be said, but these statements are accurate and provocative starting points.)

Our non-agrarian society makes it very difficult to take full responsibility for what we do. According to the agrarian writer Wendell Berry,

When there is no reliable accounting and therefore no competent knowledge of the economic and ecological effects of our lives, we cannot live lives that are economically and ecologically responsible. [Berry, "The Whole Horse"]
Berry thinks that in modern society there is in fact "no reliable accounting," and "no competent knowledge" of what we are doing.
We are thus involved in a kind of lostness in which most people are participating more or less unconsciously in the destruction of the natural world, which is to say, the sources of their own lives.  They are doing this unconsciously because they see or do very little of the actual destruction themselves, and they don't know, because they have no way to learn, how they are involved. [Berry, "Two Minds"]

The reason that we "see or do very little of the actual destruction ourselves" is that the nature and scale of our work in the modern economy diffuse the effects of our actions over enormous distances and long time periods.  So enormous and so long, in fact, that we have almost no way of actually observing these effects and seeing that they are the results of what we've done.  We see the consequences only in the aggregate -- newspaper articles decrying rainforest destruction in Brazil, videos of starving sweatshop workers in Malaysia, lamentations for the disappearance of butterflies in Alabama.  And we wonder, from our kitchen tables in Chicago or Colorado, how any of that could possibly be connected to our own 45-mile commute in to work from the suburbs each day, or to our weekly trips with the kids to Wal-Mart for some of those low, low prices.  Even if we do make the imaginative leap required to believe that our spending money at Wal-Mart contributes incrementally to the abuse of child laborers halfway around the world, we'll find it hard to say that in any sense we're "responsible" for that outcome.  And even if we get that far, it's hard to convince ourselves to alter our comfortable behaviors for the sake of people we know only as abstractions and who we'll never meet, much less love.

It is different in a local (agrarian) economy.  When the local clothing store locks its workers, who are also your neighbors, in its stores overnight so that it can shave five cents off the price of a t-shirt, you're much more likely to see the connection between your patronage of that shop and the mistreatment of your neighbors.  You're much more likely to feel some responsibility for the person living across the street named Bob than you are for "malaysian sweatshop workers" in a nation you'd be hard pressed to find on a map.

There are many other examples implicating the deleterious effects of over-large scale and hyperspecialization on our capacity for taking responsibility.  Let's say you're a small-town lawyer.  You take a case defending the local factory from a lawsuit brought by its employees after an explosion that killed two workers and put five more in the hospital.  The same questions about whether it's ethical or not to take that case arise for the lawyer who works for a five-hundred person law firm representing a multinational company sued by the same workers, for the same explosion, in a state fifteen hundred miles away.  But the first lawyer is better able to take responsibility for his actions.  He lives close enough to the accident site to see what the damage has done.  He may know, as a citizen of the community, whether the factory owners have acted fairly or rapaciously in the past.  He is more likely to work on the whole case from start to finish than if he were an associate at a big firm, who may never actually meet the clients and whose participation may be limited only to drafting a few memos covering narrow aspects of the discovery in the case.  Both lawyers may decide to work on the case or not, but it's extremely unlikely that the big firm lawyer will really have taken responsibility for his decision.  How can he?  He can't see the effects of his work, and he has no real connection with the place that those effects are felt.  The same problems confront virtually all of us who work in the modern "global economy."

This need to take responsibility for our actions leads Rick Saenz to advocate dealing with righteous people that we've met and know well, and Wendell Berry to suggest that we broaden the context of our work by narrowing its scale.  This, and not some purely esthetic preference for small farms, is what lies behind the agrarian opposition to the global economy and the preference for the local.

Saenz goes further, in his post on "knowing your neighbors."  When I finished reading the post I found it hard to decide if I liked it enough to recommend it, or hated it enough to post an argument against it.  I suppose that it's both.

In the course of arguing that we ought to pay attention to the local landscape, Saenz also says that we shouldn't concern ourselves with the "affairs of nations and empires"; that we shouldn't bother to "form opinions about the causes of war and famines and prosperity and tyranny," and that we shouldn't "track natural disasters in far-off places."  Why?  Because we can't actually do anything about these things anyway, and any time spent paying attention to these things distracts us from paying proper attention to our local environment.

I disagree.

Someone less charitable than I could easily read Saenz as arguing against curiosity, and for a strictly instrumentalist use of our powers of perception and wonder -- "if we can't use information, we're better off not having it at all."  I won't do that.  But I think Saenz fails to understand that his own agrarian project is profoundly dependent upon our paying even closer attention to the news around the globe than most of us normally do.

If agrarianism is not simply to be just an esthetic preference, we have to make the effort to understand how we are responsible, by our participation in the modern economy, for things that we can't easily see or easily trace back to things that we've done.  The problem with globalization is that at the same time that it gives us each some small power to improve or degrade a landscape half a world away, it makes it extremely hard to see or know exactly what we're doing.  Those sweatshop laborers in Malaysia suffer what they suffer because we choose to buy their employers' products.  If we shop at Wal-Mart, we need to pay attention to the news from Malaysia or we are shirking our responsibility.  And even if, as Saenz suggests, we refuse to shop at Wal-Mart, we'll still need to understand what's going on in Malaysia.  Any close attention that we pay to our local environment will inexorably -- since we don't live in an agrarian economy, yet -- reveal that it is caught up in an economic system that ties it to Malaysia and other places.

Until we no longer live in a global economy (and I'm doubtful that this will ever happen), we will have to expend more -- not less -- effort at understanding the ties between our local place and places on the other side of the globe.  To use one of Saenz' examples: let's say your city council is about to "waste another few million of our tax dollars."  These days, that's likely to be because it's contemplating cutting a deal with BestBuy to level two or three square blocks of homes to make way for a new mega-store parking lot, or because it wants to let Kodak off the hook for millions of dollars of taxes to entice it to relocate locally rather than move to Malaysia where the government there is paying death squads to kill labor organizers in order to keep wages low.  No one who ignores, as Saenz suggests we do, the news from Malaysia is likely to really understand what their own local city council is doing.

The problem with globalization, as Wendell Berry tells us, is that it combines huge-scale activities with myopic vision.  The answer is not to increase our myopia.  To take proper responsibility means that we must make even more of an effort to understand what we're doing.  And even if, like Saenz suggests, we opt out of the global economy and try to do for ourselves, we will still find ourselves living in communities that are tied into the global economy (and even Saenz recognizes that this "opting-out" will often have to be done piecemeal).  Attention to the local demands that we pay attention to the global, or, as Wal-Mart would prefer it, we won't understand what's going on globally or locally.

October 08, 2007

Rick Saenz on agrarianism

Over at Dry Creek Chronicles, Rick Saenz has been putting together a series of posts on "the lost tools of living." Together, they amount to a fairly comprehensive (if idiosyncratic) explanation and defense of agrarianism:

Many hands make light work
Knowing your neighbors
Training up children
The family economy
Supplying our needs

Any of my readers who have ever wondered what the heck this whole "agrarianism" thing is that I'm always on about ought to read through this series of posts. I agree with much of what Saenz says; my disagreements are mostly around the edges -- points of emphasis, esthetic considerations, and the like. Occasionally we disagree profoundly about a central point of doctrine (if we even want to call it that), but that's what's going to make responding to Saenz so much fun.

I'm looking forward to posting more about this soon; I'll try to cram it in among all my residency obligations. Wish me luck! For now, all I'll say is that I think the idea of responsibility is the most fundamental of all the agrarian ideals Mr. Saenz has described so far. Until next time, have fun reading his posts. . . .

August 19, 2007

Hurrah for the small farmers!

From the Ulterior Epicure:

It might take a little extra planning for me to “buy local,” but it’s what most of the world does. I love it. I don’t need my eggs flown in from Alabama, my corn shipped from Nebraska, or my milk over-nighted from those happy cows out in California. I can get them all right here, just 10 miles down the road every weekend. Plus, I enjoy the weekly communal time with those who work the land that surrounds me, and quite frankly, escapes me during the office-bound busy work week. Hurrah for the small farmers!
We here in Hyde Park have a farmers market every Thursday morning in Harper Court, which I've sadly not been able to attend this year. I always seem to be either working, sleeping, or out of town on Thursday mornings. There's still plenty of summertime left, though, and then the glorious autumn harvest; I'm looking forward to hooking myself up with some good locally-grown food soon.

July 26, 2007

Lost bird

"Lost: tame bird. Will not bite! Cannot defend itself from dogs or cats. Please call for reward."

Flyers with this announcement went up on almost every lightpost and street sign in my neighborhood last week, accompanied by a black-and-white photo of a small bird with a longish beak. Unfortunately, I haven't seen the bird, and that makes me sad.

The silver lining in this lost-bird story is that people are capable of missing their pet bird. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if the person who went to all the trouble to post all those reward flyers actually loved that little bird. People can be self-absorbed and destructive, but they can also be loving -- and it's probably a good thing to remind ourselves of this every once in a while.

So I thought about love as I walked home. I started thinking about those of us who are so convinced of the non-equivalence, moral and otherwise, of people and birds that they would interpret this love for a missing bird as evidence that people sometimes misplace their emotions, or (more generously) that people have such a surplus capacity for love that they can afford to squander it on a being that isn't somehow intrinsically worthy of it. These people might say that humans alone can validate another person's love and can sometimes compel it, but a mere bird can only be the indifferent target of irrational emotion.

Surely you know people that think like this. You might even think this way yourself. After all, it does make instinctive sense to think of human beings as special in many ways, including perhaps their "appropriateness" as objects of our love.

But how can we know enough to be sure of this? If we can be confident about anything in the world, I think that we can be most confident about our ignorance. Religions, it seems to me, exist because at some level we're aware that we have no idea what the hell we're all doing here, or why, or what the point of it all is. Religions exist because we humans feel profoundly uncomfortable with this ignorance, and we mostly prefer faith -- just a belief in something we're not logically or empirically compelled to believe in -- to raw blubbering ignorance. We're uncomfortable not knowing what happens to us after we die, so we make up a story and believe in it rather than live with uncomfortable ignorance. We don't know why we're here, so we put our faith in a religious story that tells us why we're here and what we're supposed to be doing.

I'm not arguing against faith. I'm just saying that I think the ideas and stories we have faith in, that we believe without compulsion, are things we create and are not given to us by God. No, scratch that. I'm saying that even if there's a God that has given us anything, it's too difficult to distinguish which of our many yearnings and wishes and beliefs are God-given and which are conjured up by ignorant people just like ourselves. We have to remember that although faith may be a good thing, it's definitely not knowledge.

So what does this have to do with a lost bird? Even if many of you would agree with me that faith isn't knowledge and that we're ignorant about a lot of things, I'm surprised how many of us will act as if they know that loving a bird is a slightly foolish thing to do. But if it's a noble thing to love another person, why is it foolish to love a bird? Or to put the same thing a different way, if loving a bird is foolish, then aren't we just as foolish when we love each other?

It seems to me that in the dark of our ignorance, we could be a bit more generous than that. As far as I know, love is a wonderful thing, and it doesn't have to be hoarded up as if it were in danger of running out. Moreover, birds are wonderful too, and there's no evidence that we squander our love if we give some of it to a bird. So for all you humans-are-the-only-worthy-beings people out there, you can put a cork in it.

I don't believe you.

April 17, 2007

Great agrarian blog

While I've been working and sleeping and procrastinating and watching Grindhouse at the theater (yay, me!), Rick Saenz has been putting together a string of great posts (which is another way of saying that he's been writing a great blog). Here's something that I wish I had said (blame Rose McGowan and her machine-gun leg for that):

It’s odd how when we come to understand the shortcomings of modern industrial culture we are quick to embrace someone’s speculative, totally untested antidote, whether it be engaging the culture or retreating into intentional community, while at the same time we are quick to reject any proposal that we would do well to return to an earlier way of living. We hope that doing things differently might make the symptoms go away, but aren’t much interested in tracking down our mistakes and undoing them.
Exactly! Just what I've been trying to say for years, but haven't really said as well.

April 09, 2007

What else are we missing?

From the Washington Post, one of the best articles I've read in a long time.

"If we can't take the time out of our lives to stay a moment and listen to one of the best musicians on Earth play some of the best music ever written; if the surge of modern life so overpowers us that we are deaf and blind to something like that -- then what else are we missing?"

March 29, 2007

Reevaluating Wendell Berry

It's satisfying whenever I hear that someone else agrees with me that Wendell Berry isn't merely an "elegist for a way of life that [will] likely never be reclaimed."

Here's Rick Saenz:

Later when I read Allan Carlson’s book The New Agrarian Mind I more or less agreed with his assessment of Berry as an elegist for a way of life that would likely never be reclaimed. Which led me to downgrade my opinion of Berry some, since by then I was persuaded that agrarianism could be reclaimed, at least in my little corner of the world. But now I think that assessment is unfair; I read Berry and not only find much to agree with but even concrete guidelines on how to proceed. . . .

September 22, 2006

Thoughts about Wendell Berry...

. . . . but not by me.

Rick Saenz over at Dry Creek Chronicles has this to say about the agrarianism of Wendell Berry.

August 30, 2006

Europe's Christian roots?

I read Without Roots alongside Kwame Anthony Appiah's Cosmopolitanism because they seemed to exemplify two common responses to the problem of cultural intolerance and violence. Appiah's book describes the familiar liberal response: we can avoid violence by recognizing that most differences between people aren't as serious as they seem, and by treating the differences that remain as irrelevant to the practical problem of living together. The book by Pera and Ratzinger promised to argue for some version of the cultural conservative's response: stable toleration requires that we all recognize some fundamental "moral essence" of humanity; the Christian tradition of Europe recognizes this moral essence; therefore the foundations of a stable, nonviolent society must somehow embrace our Judeo-Christian roots.

I'm not very sympathetic to the accretions of right-wing opinion that cling to the religious traditionalists like barnacles, but on one point at least, they're more effective than the liberals. The conservatives say that there are moral values that we must recognize as universal and superior to all others. Otherwise, our efforts at peaceful toleration will allow hideous evil to flourish. Toleration based on relativism rather than on absolute moral standards cannot recognize the evil of regimes like Mao's or Stalin's.

Liberals, of course, recognize that murder can't be tolerated, much less genocide. The problem is that liberal arguments aren't usually very good at explaining why. A morally crippled person, reading Kwame Anthony Appiah's arguments, might easily fail to see why a society or regime like Stalin's ought to be one of the "losers" when it conflicts with a regime or society that prohibits torturing political opponents in gulags. Appiah certainly doesn't give compelling reasons; he simply says that there will be winners and losers when irreconcilable values conflict, and that the losers won't be happy about it. The closest Appiah comes to actually giving a reason is when he says that some values (like not hurting others) are actually shared almost universally; the defenders of Hitler are not very numerous. But even if this is empirically true, Appiah can't give a reason why it's a good thing that this is true.

The problem that most liberals face, no matter how morally upstanding they may be, is that reasoned arguments are the most subtle and difficult means of distinguishing good from evil. I don't know whether there's a philosophical consensus about whether it's even possible to reason about the concepts of good and evil without resorting to non-rational discourse, such as the language of faith. But one thing's for sure: it's much, much easier to talk about good and evil in the language of faith and religion than it is to talk about these things using rational arguments. That's why most people who aren't moral philosophers in fact look to things other than reason when they make judgments about morality. Something's evil because the Bible or the Koran or their priest or their mother says it is, or beause it just is, period. No reasoned arguments necessary (or possible?).

This is why the conservatives are more effective than most liberals, at least on this question. Joseph Ratzinger can explicitly appeal to faith in order to say "this, my friends, is evil." Appiah perhaps ought to do this too, but his attachment to reason and fear of un-reason lead him to make hand-wavy gestures at the point when he wants to argue that some things just shouldn't be tolerated.

Ok, so on that much I think Without Roots is a better book than Appiah's, because it's more straightforward and honest. But what about the rest?

Pera and Ratzinger: Saving the world by invading Iraq and outlawing gay marriage

Joseph Ratzinger is, of course, the Pope, but he wrote these materials when he was merely one of the most influential thinkers high up in the hierarchy of the Catholic Church. Pera is an Italian politician, and one of the most interesting things about this book is to see how Ratzinger keeps his distance from politics, preferring to discuss ideas and issues in the abstract or in historical terms, while Pera is more willing to apply these ideas to practical policies. This dynamic is fascinating. Ratzinger alone is very measured, interesting, and even compelling. One can't help but admire his historical knowledge, and his tone is scholarly and pleasant. It's easy to simply think along with Ratzinger, but when you read Pera's contributions, you can no longer be a curious spectator. With Pera, you have to declare yourself as an ally or an enemy. And since Ratzinger nowhere says that he disagrees with Pera and often claims to agree with him, you realize that if ideas have consequences you'd better be either for Ratzinger or against him.

Here's what Ratzinger says: the history of Europe is a long, slow process of moving religion out of the public sphere -- Ratzinger wants to bring it back. The initial moves of this long process were good ones. In the Western Roman Empire, temporal power was divided from spiritual power, with the former resting with kings and the latter resting with the Pope. This was good because human pride makes absolute power too dangerous. It's not clear where along the road to the modern secular state Ratzinger thinks Europe ran off the tracks, but he certainly thinks it has done so by now. Today, Ratzinger says, Europe's "broad Christian consensus" is threatened. The modern European state has succumbed to a "hollow" belief in technology and progress as a secular substitute for spiritual values. Totalitarianism and dictatorship remain a real threat because the relativism that permitted the regimes of Stalin and Hitler is stronger than ever.

The proper response to this sorry trajectory is to ensure that any future European Constitution protects fundamental human rights as "values that take precedence over the jurisdiction of any state." Modern abominations such as cloning, "trafficking in organs for transplants," and gay marriage would be stopped in their tracks.

I'm sympathetic to Ratzinger's worries about an unbounded faith in technological progress. And he's surely right that without some absolute moral values that limit the permissible uses of new technologies, we will again have to confront massive horrors of the sort that we saw in the 20th century. I'm thinking here about, you know, mass genocide and nuclear annihilation. That's why it's so lame to end, as too many conservative screeds against secularism do, by trotting out organ transplants and gay marriage as the sort of horrors that should motivate us to change essential aspects of modern state power. Unless you're a believer in a very particular interpretation of a very particular bit of religious scripture, the threat of gay marriage is not going to chill you to the core.

It only gets worse when you read Marcello Pera's pieces. As a practicing Italian politician sympathetic to Ratzinger's views, Pera allows himself greater license to talk about specific political controversies. The war in Iraq is the best example. Pera praises the Bush Doctrine generally as a shining example of what a leader with moral convictions can do, and he praises the invasion of Iraq specifically as something Bush and the U.S., but not the hollow and hopelessly secular European states, had the courage to do. If it's true that Ratzinger's brand of moral absolutism would be reliably translated by politicians like Pera into policies like George W. Bush's, then I know where I stand. I'm against it, full stop.

Kwame Anthony Appiah's liberalism leads him to belittle people's cultural and religious convictions, but Pera and Ratzinger's religious convictions lead them to all but explictly reject toleration. We can believe in whatever we want, so long as we submit to the authority of leaders espousing the Christian (and specifically Catholic) religion. What else can Ratzinger mean when he chooses such a particular "evil" as gay marriage to condemn? It would be fine if, like Appiah but without Appiah's hemming and hawing, Ratzinger had espoused absolute moral values that could at least pretend to be universal.

Reading both of these books, I get the sense that any solution to the toleration problem is a fine balance between Appiah's toleration and Ratzinger and Pera's convictions. But I'm not optimistic that any one author or theorist will get it right. If we manage to achieve it in practice, it's going to be because both sides check each other's excesses.

August 22, 2006

Cosmopolitanism's limits

Last winter when I was in Hyde Park to interview for a residency spot, I stopped in at 57th Street Books and found two books on the front table. One was Kwame Anthony Appiah's Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers. The other was by Italian politician Marcello Pera and Joseph Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI), entitled Without Roots: The West, Relativism, Christianity, Islam.

I thought it would be fun to read them together. One offered "cosmopolitanism" as an antidote to the inevitable conflicts that arise in a globalized "world of strangers." The other saw a threat to "tolerance and civility among peoples of diverse convictions" in Europe's "apostasy toward . . . the spiritual roots of European civilization" as George Weigel's preface puts it. Nonviolent coexistence demands some degree of toleration, and toleration seems to demand that we embrace some kind of relativism. Could one really argue for a renewed commitment to religious values on the grounds that this apparent absolutism is more conducive to toleration than some form of relativism? This post addresses Appiah's book; I'lll talk about Pera and Ratzinger separately.

Anthony Appiah: Virginia Postrel on steroids

I admit that the comparison might not be entirely fair, but for the sake of brevity I'm going to call Kwame Anthony Appiah the thinking man's Virginia Postrel (or perhaps Thomas Friedman, if you prefer).

Appiah argues that we can't be cosmopolitans until we give substantial weight to our shared humanity, relative to the weight we give to our shared identity with our co-religionists, countrymen, or ethnic group. The "golden rule of cosmopolitanism" according to Appiah is something like the Roman playwright Terence's "I am human; nothing human is alien to me." When it comes to culture, we ought to recognize the empirical reality that there is no such thing as cultural purity. Every culture has been "contaminated" by others, whether by trade, migration, or Hollywood movies. "We do not need, have never needed, settled community, a homogenous system of values, in order to have a home. Cultural purity is an oxymoron."

This does not mean that there are no differences among peoples. In fact, the threat of cutural imperialism shouldn't be overstated, because even when the same television show is seen worldwide, different peoples have different reactions to it. Even when Coke is marketed around the world, local people often prefer local beverages when they're available. "And whatever loss of difference there has been, [people] are constantly inventing new forms of difference: new hairstyles, new slang, even, from time to time, new religions."

But if homogenization isn't a problem, why do so many people think that it is? According to Appiah, it's because they don't like change. "So why do people in [the world's villages] sometimes feel that their identity is threatened? Because the world, their world, is changing, and some of them don't like it."

Well, duh. It isn't that people don't like change per se; they don't like change that threatens their identity. The problem with all of this breezy talk about sources of conflict that, illusory or not, lead people to kill each other in mass numbers, is the same problem that Postrel and Friedman have also failed to solve. Appiah never takes the proper measure of the non-cosmopolitan's objections to our modern circumstances. You can see this when he equates threats to a person's identity with a mere distaste for change in general. These are clearly problems of a different order of magnitude. We can't conjure away the problem Postrel-style by describing millions of people who feel the need to kill or be killed in a war against modernity as merely stubborn.

Appiah also sets up an all-too common straw man to represent those who argue that elements of our tradition should be preserved. He speaks as if all these people simply want to foreclose choice, and force everyone to be small farmers. For instance (p. 103-4):

Above all, relationships are changing. When my father was young, a man in a village would farm some land that a chief had granted him, and his [family] would work it with him. If extra hands were needed in the harvest season, he would pay the migrant workers who came from the north. . . . Nowadays, everything has changed. Cocoa prices have not kept pace with the cost of living. Gas prices have made the trasportation of the crop more expensive. And there are new possibilities for the young in the towns, in other parts of the country, and in other parts of the world. Once, perhaps, you could have commanded your nephews and nieces to stay. Now they have the right to leave; in any case, you many not make enough to feed and clothe and educate them all. So the time of the successful farming family has gone; and those who were settled in that way of life are as sad to see it go as some of the American family farmers whose lands are being accumulated by giant agribusinesses. We can sympathize with them. But we cannot force their children to stay in the name of protecting their authentic culture; and we cannot afford to subsidize indefinitely thousands of distinct islands of homogeneity that no longer make economic sense.

This is simply modern superstition thoughtlessly repeated. The economy (conceived of as a natural "force" for which we are not responsible) has made it impossible to pursue a way of life that has sustained many generations of people. Despite the economic impossibility of pursuing the old ways of life, the abandonment of these old ways and the adoption of the modern ways is glorified as a "choice" that young people freely make. Appiah doesn't recognize the contradiction, perhaps because he's so eager to condemn those who would "force" their children to remain on the farm as enemies of free choice. But who are these people? We here a lot from Anthony Appiah and Virginia Postrel about these family-farming tyrants, but we're never told who they are. It's just assumed that they exist. But I haven't met one, or read their articles or books, or seen any of the draconian stay-on-the-farm laws that they're trying to pass.

I suspect that, if we were really more concerned about "freedom" than about defending modernity as such, we'd be willing to acknowledge that much of what young people do when they leave the family farm is done because there isn't any other real choice to make. Economic realities, to the extent that they make the family farm unprofitable, make moving to the cities a necessity and not a choice. Appiah (and Friedman) can argue that the family farm doesn't make economic sense, but they can't have it both ways and simultaneously claim that the abandonment of the farms is a glorious example of personal freedom.

The fact is that the modern economic realities that are condemning family farms in favor of global agribusiness are not natural events. We subsidize global agribusiness, not family farms. Much less do we subsidize "thousands of distinct islands of homogeneity," whatever that might mean.

Appiah does discuss more serious sources of conflict than changing hairstyles and new slang. He points out that the conflict in the United States between people who favor and who oppose legal abortion is not a conflict over fundamentally incompatible values. Instead, it's a conflict over how the shared values of life and freedom ought to be applied in a particular case. The conflict between observant Muslims and observant Jews wouldn't be as fierce if they didn't both share similar beliefs about the importance of Jerusalem. The resistance to British colonization of Ghana was fiercest among the most Westernized Ghanaians, who shared with the British the values of nationalism and self-determination.

Appiah comes close to acknowledging that when people disagree like this, reason will often fail. These differences don't arise because people aren't being reasonable. There are going to be winners and losers, and the losers will be very angry, and they may respond with violence. But I suspect that to just say this and stop would be to admit the defeat of cosmopolitanism, and Appiah is unwilling to do this explicitly. Instead, he turns quickly away from a discussion of winners and losers to a discussion of habit. He acknowledges the limits of reason: "I have learned in a life of university teaching and research that even the cleverest [why not simply "most intelligent"?] people are not easily shifted by reason alone. . . " The point of conversation and cultural interchange isn't to arrive at a consensus about values. "...[I]t's enough that it helps people get used to one another." End of chapter.

Sure, living with someone different teaches us about them and makes them less unfamiliar. But if Appiah wants to suggest also that it makes us more tolerant of them, he leaves it as merely a suggestion. Who wants to kill Iraqi Sunnis? Iraqi Shiites, not Alabama Baptists. Who routinely killed Irish Catholics? Irish Protestants, not Buddists in Japan. Will cosmopolitan cultural interchange lead to a safer and less violent "world of strangers?" Appiah doesn't argue convincingly that it will.

June 12, 2006

Quote for the day

"Tomorrow's landscape is being created by the way each of us spends our money on food." -- Joel Salatin

June 11, 2006

Robert G. Kaiser defends the press, convincingly

The Washington Post's Robert G. Kaiser asks an interesting question: "Why does The Washington Post willingly publish "classified" information affecting national security?"

His answers are entirely persuasive.

"Some readers ask us why the president's decisions on how best to protect the nation shouldn't govern us, and specifically our choices of what to publish. The answer is that in the American system of checks and balances, the president cannot be allowed to decide what the voters need to know to hold him accountable. A king may have such power, but the elected executive of a republic cannot, or we will have no more republic."

NYT editor Bill Keller probably agrees with most of Kaiser's nuanced but appropriately combative piece. Unfortunately, the evidence of Keller's good sense is cited by some right-wing watchdog groups as evidence of a "liberal bias" at the NYT.

Anti-fascist bias would perhaps be a better way to describe it.

February 23, 2006

Protectionism and national security

Via Prof. Bainbridge, Dan Oesterle distinguishes between national security and protectionism:

The argument against the Dubai acquisition is old fashioned protectionism in the guise of national security. National security is a legitimate concern and we should be able to block acquisitions in the name of national security but national security can also be a false front for raw protectionist sentiments. At issue here is, first, whether the national security concerns are legitimate and, second, the government's mechanism for deciding such cases [emphasis added].

When Prof. Oesterle asks whether the national security concerns are legitimate, he misses exactly half of the question. The other half, of course, is whether the protectionist concerns are legitimate. Oesterle seems to think that our national security is always consistent with global free trade, or at least that the two have nothing whatsoever to do with one another. But to assume that the sources of our goods and services and the way we distribute these goods and services among us is irrelevant to to national security is to define "national security" much too narrowly.

President Bush himself takes a larger view of national security when he acknowledges that our dependence on foreign oil should be resisted. His call for fighting our addiction to oil is a national security argument. But it's also, simultaneously, a "protectionist" argument. Unfettered global trade, unbalanced by any prudent "protectionism" whatsoever, threatens our national security by leaving us utterly dependent on others for necessary goods and services.

Wendell Berry asks the questions that Oesterle doesn't:

We thus are elaborating a direct and surely a dangerous contradiction between our militant nationalism and our espousal of the the international "free market" ideology. How are we going to defend our freedoms (this is a question both for militarists and for pacifists) when we must import our necessities form international suppliers who have no concern or respect for our freedoms? What would happen if in the course of a war of national defense we were to be cut off from our foreign sources of supply? What would happen if, in a war of national defense, military necessity required us to attack or blockade our foreign suppliers? We have already fought one enrgy war allegedly in national defense. If our present policies continue, we may face wars for other commodities: food or water or shoes or steel or textiles [The Failure of War (1999)].

Prime-time executions

An LA Times editorial calls for bringing executions out into the open:

Like the crimes for which it is a punishment, the death penalty is an affront to civilized society. It should not be reformed — it should be abolished. But if California is going to keep at it, let's try a reform that will remind us what we are doing while at the same time making sure, without help from a doctor, that the condemned prisoner is really dead. The state should convene a firing squad — and be certain to schedule the execution for prime time.

Regardless of whether you support or oppose the death penalty, I think this is a good idea. Watching executions won't change the minds of many diehard supporters or opponents of the death penalty. But it would challenge those of us who've ignored the issue to make a decision. It would force all of us to confront the reality of what the state is doing in our name.

The point is to encourage us to take responsibility for what we do. We can't do that until we know just what it is we're doing.

February 06, 2006

Good news

Canada to Shield 5 Million Forest Acres (NY Times)

Scientists say the agreement should preserve not only the few hundred spirit bears and other black bears, but also one of the highest concentrations of grizzly bears in North America as well as unique subspecies of goshawks, coastal wolves, Sitka blacktail deer and mountain goats.

"It's like a revolution," said Merran Smith, director of the British Columbia Coastal Program of Forest Ethics, an environmental group. "It's a new way of thinking about how you do forestry. It's about approaching business with a conservation motive up front, instead of an industrial approach to the forest. . . .

Because 15 feet of rain can fall in a year, the Great Bear has never suffered a major forest fire. That has allowed some of the tallest and oldest trees on earth to thrive, including cedars more than a thousand years old.

February 05, 2006

Agrarian blogging

Now that I'm getting close to wrapping up my time in law school and moving on to an emergency medicine residency, I've been thinking about my blog and what I want to do with it. For one thing, I'll be blogging a lot more about medicine and health policy. But that's not the only thing I'd like to change.

I started this blog in part because I wanted to make arguments for agrarianism. I agree with Wendell Berry that that the contest between agrarianism and industrialism "defines the most important human difference, for it divides not just two nearly opposite concepts of agriculture and land use, but also two nearly opposite ways of understanding ourselves, our fellow creatures, and our world."* Looking back on what I've done so far, I don't think I've done enough of that. And I have no excuses! There's so much to say from an agrarian perspective about current events, and few people are saying it. There's no agrarian equivalent of the Daily Kos or Instapundit to steal my thunder. And the whole liberal/conservative argument is missing the most important questions entirely.

Despite my slovenly neglect of agrarian blogging, a few weeks ago Daniel Larison at Eunomia graciously linked to me as an "agrarian blog." Let me just say that I'm flattered, and in return I'm adding his superb blog to my blogroll. I'm sure my agrarian and paleo readers will love his blog (yes, that means you, Nick R.). I don't always agree with Mr. Larison, and he doesn't always agree with me, but that's OK. His consistently intelligent commentary and thoughtful responses to comments are a pleasure to read.

As a way of achieving my agrarian-blogging goals, I ask a favor of my readers: if you see a post that's indistinguishable from a typical conservative or (more likely) liberal rant (because I'm just bashing George W. Bush, for example), please don't hesitate to call me on it. Ask me in the comments: "why should we read this crap? Where's the agrarian beef?"** Thank you all in advance.

* "The Whole Horse" (1996). This essay is available here.
** An unintended and bad agrarian pun. Sorry...

January 29, 2006

School problems

This article from the LA Times points out that almost half of the students entering Birmingham High School in Van Nuys don't graduate. The article goes on to ask: "What happened to the class of 2005? It is a question, not just for Birmingham, but for all American schools."

Whoa, wait a minute.

Before we assume that this is a "school problem" -- and open up the tired debates over parents failing to send their kids to school "ready to learn," teachers failing to motivate the laggards, kids watching too much TV instead of doing homework, and the state failing to provide enough money -- we ought to ask if this abysmal graduation rate is more than just a school problem.

We're fond of pointing out the miserable fate that awaits high-school dropouts, and the lesson we take away from these facts is that kids shouldn't drop out. That's fine, as far as it goes, but isn't there another lesson?

Consider: what does it say about our economy that even though half the kids in high school drop out without graduating, the good jobs that require a high-school education and much more are being filled nicely, thanks. There's no shortage of well-educated workers corresponding to the excess of kids who drop out of high school. Our economy is humming along, getting more efficient all the time. From an economic productivity standpoint, there's no problem at all.

Conclusion? Well, if I didn't know better, I'd have to say that we're suffering from an efficiency problem. The information economy doesn't actually need very many people, so we're going to have to think of something else to do with all these kids. Hmm, thinking, thinking.... Aha! I've heard the army is stretched a bit thin right now.

January 25, 2006


It's January in the northern hemisphere, so it's not surprising that I saw Orion tonight. The air was cold, the sky was clear, and as usual, Orion was the first thing I noticed when I looked up.

I remember seeing Orion almost every night in the fall of 1993 when I was on my three-month NOLS course in the wildernesses of the West. Although my life has changed in many ways since then, and although the scenery on the ground is very different, the constellation looks the same. Somehow, that's comforting.

Even though we tend to glorify change, and dynamic is almost always taken as high praise, I don't think human beings can thrive without a few permanent things in their lives. Most of us need some things that we can anchor ourselves to. Without some anchors, we'll probably be miserable at best; at worst we'll be lost, confused, misguided, and dangerous.

Richard Sennett wonders about the consequences for real people of a culture that most highly values a kind of person that doesn't exist (or at most is very rare).

"A self oriented to the short-term, focused on potential ability, willing to abandon past experience is - to put a kindly face on the matter - an unusual sort of human being. Most people are not like this; they need a sustaining life narrative, they take pride in being good at something specific, and they value the experiences they've lived through. The cultural ideal required in new institutions thus damages many of the people who inhabit them."

With all apologies to Jack Horkheimer, I hope you'll read the rest of Sennett's essay, and I hope you'll keep looking up.

January 18, 2006

Technology superstitions

David Ignatius quotes Elizabeth Kolbert from her New Yorker piece: "It may seem impossible to imagine that a technologically advanced society could choose, in essence, to destroy itself, but that is what we are now in the process of doing."

The fact (and I think it is a fact) that most people believe technological sophistication somehow leads us to make wise decisions ought to make us wonder: why do people think that?

What connection is there between technological know-how and wisdom, or even basic prudence? Answer: none at all.

January 16, 2006

Writing about Wendell Berry

One of the best things about writing a paper on Wendell Berry, which I'm doing now, is having to read Berry closely. It's really a joy.

Perhaps the biggest rhetorical strength of Berry's essays are also their biggest rhetorical weakness: they're very poetic (or impressionistic,or allegorical). They're not particularly analytical or explicit. On the one hand, this makes them very inspiring for someone like me who reads Berry sympathetically. On the other hand, someone who isn't inclined to give Berry the benefit of the doubt is likely to dismiss his work as devoid of solid argument and evidence.

What I'm finding, as I work on my paper about Berry's relationship to the political philosophy called liberalism, is that a close, analytical reading makes his essays really sparkle. There is really a lot of solid argument in them, but those arguments are delivered poetically, which means the reader has to contribute a lot of himself if he's going to see what the argument is.

For example, I think Berry makes a powerful argument that the modern way of seeing the world makes it very difficult to take responsibility for our actions, and because of this it's dangerous. Of course, what exactly this "modern worldview" is takes some teasing out. Think of the uncritical enthusiasm for technology, the myth that pursuit of self-interest benefits the community, and the belief that the future will be better than the past. The modern worldview has historically led us to denegrate the merely local. It has encouraged hyperspecialization over generalization. And these two things -- globalization and hyperspecialization -- prevent us from even knowing the effects of what we do, let alone taking responsibility for them.

It's a profound critique of the way we aspire to live, that I think is largely correct. Puzzling through all of this is really, really fun.

December 09, 2005

Old folks and young folks

Blogging here hasn't been the top priority lately, as you can tell. I've been busy with end-of-semester work and with interviewing for residency programs. I'll be able to blog more regularly after about another week or so.

Even though I'm busy, I must point you to this article from the LA Times about day-care centers that care for children and the elderly both. It's pretty amazing that something like this would warrant a big newspaper article at all, but we've been sequestering people by age for quite a while now. A lot of us have forgotten what old people can do for the young, and vice-versa.

When I worked on an ambulance, we would often get called to these huge assisted-living complexes which felt to me like warehouses for old people. Those places were predictably depressing. I suppose we do it because it's more efficient, but it sure as hell isn't very joyous. The same thing is true, I suppose, of other communities segregated by age. Like, say, the neighborhood where I live in Ann Arbor. Everyone here's a young adult, so it's a more hoppin' place than some of those big retirement communities in Denver were. Even so, I think it'd be nice if we had a few more retirees living among us. For one thing, the neighborhood would almost certainly look less dumpy.

Anyway, the article made me smile, and I hope you'll take the time to read it.

November 21, 2005

Immigration and the farm economy in Fresno

Many of the problems with poverty and immigration I brought up in my last post are exemplified by Fresno, California.

This article in the Washington Post describes the poverty in a city which just happens to be surrounded by "the richest farmland in the world."

. . . Fresno is still, in many ways, a farm town. The city's dominant industry, agriculture, depends on a cheap, seasonal work force that keeps renewing itself as successive new waves of immigrants arrive.
. . . .

But, [the mayor] said, illegal immigration is perhaps the greatest challenge to Fresno. "We're going to have to secure the border, he said, "reform the illegal immigration system and create a plan that addresses the 4.5 million immigrants in California that doesn't involve amnesty or sending them back."

I'm curious about a few things. First, why does the agricultural sector "depend" on low-wage labor in the middle of the richest farmland in america? Is it because food prices are so low that even the best farmland in the world won't produce enough money to pay farm laborers a decent wage and still generate a profit? Is there no attempt to enforce a decent minimum wage in the agricultural sector? If not, why not?

Who owns this "richest farmland in the world"? Are these owners local residents who depend on Fresno for their shopping and entertainment, and who would suffer along with the rest of the city if the economy there deteriorates? Do the owners of this farmland spend their profits locally?

Who buys the crops that the land around Fresno produces? Is there a vigorous market for these crops, or are there only one or two big corporate purchasers (think ADM or Cargill) that can use their market power to depress prices?

Who eventually consumes these crops? Local residents? People in Brazil? Cows? Is the government paying any subsidies to the growers in order to keep prices low?

The effects on poverty of keeping illegal immigrants out of Fresno would seem to depend on the answers to some of these questions. If the entire agricultural economy of the Central Valley is set up to keep agricultural prices as low as possible, and if the distribution of farm income is tilted too steeply towards non-local corporate landowners and purchasers, then the city of Fresno is going to be poor regardless of whether we seal our borders or not.

But no one's talking about these issues. Instead, the only suggestions for reform are coming from politicians like Tom Tancredo, whose solution is simply to get rid of immigrants by whatever means necessary. In the absence of any alternatives, it's easy to understand why the people of Fresno would sign on to that agenda.

(Update: The LA Times has this article on Fresno's "brain drain.")

November 15, 2005


That is the autumn sound of yellowed maple leaves falling from the tree and settling on the forest floor 50 feet away. It is a sound you've never consciously heard. More to the point, it is a sound you didn't know you could hear.

It sounds faintly like nature giving itself a gentle round of applause.

Read this LA Times essay.

November 10, 2005

Creed or Culture?

Via Political Theory Daily Review, this fascinating essay asks: what's really at the root of our national identity?

Yet the patriotism of indignation and fear can only go so far. When the threat recedes, when the malefactor has been punished, the sentiment cools. Unless we know what about our national identity ought to command admiration and love, we are left at our enemies' mercy. We pay them the supreme and undeserved compliment of letting them define us, even if indirectly. Unsure of our national identity, we are left uncertain of our national interests too; now even the war brought on by 9/11 seems strangely indefinite.
The author attacks the idea (which he attributes to Samuel Huntington) that the culture of Anglo-Protestantism is the "dominant strain of [our] national identity." He argues instead that our "ideology" or "creed" (universal principles such as those of the Declaration of Independence) is much more fundamental.

I think the essay's criticism of culture-centrics like Huntington is right. (Nick R., is this where we disagree?)

I do quibble with the author about what, exactly, the American creed consists of, but I'm much more comfortable with these disagreements about creed than I am with Huntington's elevation of culture as the most important element of our national identity. That road, I think, inevitably leads to the doorstep of racism, xenophobia, fascism, and all the other evils I've ever accused Pat Buchanan of flirting with.

November 01, 2005

Plant patents: what am I missing?

It's not surprising that the American provisional authority in Iraq under Paul Bremer would rewrite Iraq's patent laws to allow for patents on plants. (See this and this.) But it raises the issue once more about whether plant patents are a good thing or not.

I understand why patents are useful. In cases where innovation costs a lot of money and/or where it's easy for an inventor to exploit his invention while keeping it secret, patents help inventors to recoup their development costs while ensuring that the public gains access to new information.

But I never understood why patents should be issued for plants, especially crop varieties like wheat and corn. Patents for plants seem less like a means of spurring innovation and more like a tool for redistributing political and economic power from one group of people to another, specifically, from farmers to corporate plant breeders. I don't see how doing this makes anyone other than the corporations better off.

First of all, I don't understand why developing innovative new seeds should cost a lot of money. When it comes to plants, nature takes care of innovation largely by itself. Farmers simply pay close attention to what kinds of plants grow best on their farms, and they save the seeds from those plants to cultivate again later. That kind of innovation is cheap.

Genetic engineering of crops, on the other hand, is expensive. But it's not obvious that this kind of innovation produces superior products. Genetic engineering produces many "new" kinds of tomatoes very quickly, but many of these are inferior plants. They aren't adapted well to the places where they're grown, and so they need lots of pesticides and fertilizers to keep them alive. Very often these varieties are engineered with specific features that are actively detrimental, such as an inability to reproduce, or a dependence upon pesticides and fertilizers. It's no coincidence that these innovations benefit the corporations that "invented" them; it's harder to see how these innovations benefit the society as a whole.

The argument for patents has never been simply that they promote innovation per se; it's always been that they promote socially useful innovation. It's hard to see how patents on plants do this.

Second, I don't understand why agricultural knowledge would suffer from excessive secrecy if patents on plants weren't available. Farmers have always benefitted by sharing their seeds with other farmers -- they've always had the incentive to exchange seeds in the hope of developing better varieties for their own farms.

Plant patents seem less about promoting innovation and knowledge than about shifting power from farmers to agribusiness. If farmers have to purchase seeds from biotech labs that they are forbidden to save or to trade, then the farmers have been deprived of a function which they have performed ably for centuries, namely, adapting their crops to the place where they farm. That function has been transferred to agribusiness, which performs it through biotech rather than by natural selection. I don't understand why this redistribution of power should be good for any society, including Iraq.

Am I just missing something?

September 19, 2005

Liberals? Conservatives? Pah! I'll take the agrarians.

Wendell Berry has a new essay this month in Orion magazine; here's the abridged web version.

I'll be the first to agree that Berry can sound like an old curmudgeon sometimes. His writing is never as sexy as even the most pedestrian essays at, for example, Tech Central Station. But I'd ask you to give Berry some of your time and attention, and see if afterward you don't agree with me that he gets it basically right.* Many of his essays are on the web somewhere; here's one, and here's another.

If for some strange reason you don't agree with me, all the better. Then we'll have a lot to discuss.

* And Tech Central Station? Yeah, they basically get it wrong.