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Tilting at Windmills

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January 21, 2008
By: Kevin Drum

TYLER vs. EZRA....Tyler Cowen muses on human nature:

Let's imagine that we asked a very smart person, but one who disagreed politically with both Ezra [Klein] and me, to pinpoint how Ezra and I differ. I believe that person would see the two of us as having very different blind spots, in both moral and positive terms, but not holding fundamentally different assumptions about human behavior. If Ezra and I chatted about which are the most insightful movies, whether the Washington Wizards should trade Gilbert Arenas, or the best way to get magazine contributors to deliver their essays on time, I don't know how much we would agree....But I'd be surprised if we disagreed any more than I would with the average libertarian, or than he would with the average social democrat.

Of course there is a lesson here, namely that our political views don't stem from our positive views about human nature as much as we might like to think.

But here's the thing: whether the Wizards should trade Agent Zero isn't a moral question. Neither is taste in movies or opinions about how to motivate lazy writers. But aside from a few minor bookkeeping issues, politics at every level from neighborhood associations to the White House is almost exclusively about moral issues — and how we view those moral issues is very much a matter of how we view human nature. Are people mostly responsible for their own fate or are they mostly products of their environment? Do they respond more to carrots or to sticks? Is personal loyalty more or less important than impersonal justice? Do you think other people are likely to take advantage of you if you don't watch them like a hawk? How important is an orderly society? Are we our brothers' keepers?

On those questions, I'd wager that Ezra and Tyler not only disagree, but that their disagreements feed directly into their political views. I recommend that they get together for lunch someday and blog about it.

Kevin Drum 12:25 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (40)

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Is it just me or the blogosphere has indeed become too self-referential? Drum links to Klein who links to Matt who links to who knows who who links to whoever that links back to Drum and then they talk about each other.

Posted by: gregor on January 21, 2008 at 12:32 PM | PERMALINK

I like that. It makes this whole thing like Melrose Place.

Posted by: bend on January 21, 2008 at 12:35 PM | PERMALINK

I recommend that they get together for lunch someday and blog about it.

Ezra has better things to do than trying to wring sense out of an Austrian-school economist who suckles at the teat of the state.

Posted by: F. Frederson on January 21, 2008 at 12:35 PM | PERMALINK

Ezra's post on this today is good. Tyler and the like think that everyone is healthy, white, smart, and well-off, so screw anyone who wasn't clever enough to be born so.

Posted by: Gore/Edwards 08 on January 21, 2008 at 12:42 PM | PERMALINK

Are people mostly responsible for their own fate or are they mostly products of their environment?

This is the wrong question, and it's the wrong kind of question. The question is, are we all in this together, or not? Not "Am I my brother's keeper" but "do I have any empathy?"

Conservatives, on balance, do not. Liberals, more so.

Posted by: craigie on January 21, 2008 at 12:44 PM | PERMALINK

Cowen is implicitly noting how reluctant people are to admit that policy disagreements are based on different moral views. The reluctance is understandable, if we disagree on a positive matter we can analyze evidence together and reach agreement. If we disagree on moral matters, well all we can do is vote.

You're analysis shows how right Cowen is. Even when trying to discuss moral issues, you sneak in positive questions -- "Are people mostly responsible for their own fate or are they mostly products of their environment? Do they respond more to carrots or to sticks? ... Do you think other people are likely to take advantage of you if you don't watch them like a hawk?

The last two are clearly questions about psychology and can be answered with evidence. They concern human nature yes, but not pure ethics. The first is a mixture. One might believe that people are responsible for their fates even though they are products of their environment.

You assume that no one could think that people should be allowed to suffer because of the consequences of their environment. I think that people are the products of their environment and inate characteristics neither of which are chosen. I also think that people should often be held responsible for their actions even, following due process of course, punished. I see no contradiction.

Also you seem to assume that if people were the product of their choices which are un caused first causes (I think this makes no logical sense and couldn't be true in any possible world) then they should always be held responsible for the consequences of their actions. I don't believe that at all. I believe that people should be held responsible only to the extent that it is useful to do so to affect their actions

I tend to suspect that Yglesias agrees with me on these things as he calls himself a consequentialist as I do. I don't read Cowen much, but I think he believes that people deserve the fruits of their ability, effort, prudence, courage etc as a pure moral principle.

Anyway, the interesting point, is that the reluctance to discuss moral issues is so strong that you mostly list positive disagreements when attempting to list moral disagreements.

Posted by: Robert Waldmann on January 21, 2008 at 12:45 PM | PERMALINK

I think you're probably right on your point here Kevin. However, I think this whole notion of "moral issues" is a bit heady. I'm a big fan of Ezra Klein and am totally unfamiliar with Tyler Cowen so I don't have any preconceived notions about his libertarianism or his moral leanings, however, I think it's a productive thing that he's talking about his Ezra's commonalities and I think that in the realm of domestic and foreign politics people just don't do that. We focus on where we "stand," as if we actually stood any where on certain positions. It's so intellectual and becomes incredibly chess matchy and interesting but divorced from the reality of life which is not too intellectual. Which is much more visceral and emotional. And on a moral level, that's the world I'm working for: a world where we understand each other better and can relate better as human beings.

There are huge differences between the president of Iran and the head of the United States. But unless one of them is a sociopath (and I know many would argue that both are) it would be helpful for us to see that on a fundamental level these are two human beings who have the responsibility of representing millions of human beings.

I know I'm now rambling and losing focus on my point. It's just, I don't know if Obama necessarily represents a new approach to politics. I think he might and I support him. But the basic thing is, I think we need a new approach to politics. One where we do take into account the differences of philosophical assumptions but not to such an extent where we are divorced from our commonalities.

Posted by: Andrew Slack on January 21, 2008 at 12:50 PM | PERMALINK

Anyone else think Ezra's writing has gotten a LOT better in the last couple of months?

His writing (style) now reminds me of Julian Sanchez. It's....prettier than it used to be.

Posted by: Rob on January 21, 2008 at 12:51 PM | PERMALINK

"I recommend that they get together for lunch someday and blog about it."

Let's you and him fight!

Posted by: Linkmeister on January 21, 2008 at 12:53 PM | PERMALINK

I recommend that they get together for lunch someday and blog about it.

Do let us know if that happens. I will be sure to avoid reading about it. Bloggers blogging about bloggity blog blog.

Posted by: Quaker in Basement on January 21, 2008 at 1:10 PM | PERMALINK

Tyler and Ezra and Matthew and Johnathan and Joshua and all the NYT, Atlantic, New Yorker, WashPost writers, and "liberal" blog writers. Who are they? Without knowing, let's guess: Private prep schools, highly educated, well-off parents who valued education and groomed their children for the world they would inherit, Ivy-league schools, well-connected through families and friends and educators. Is that incorrect?

Every single one of them supported the war against Arabs in Iraq. Name one prominent liberal writer for ANY media outlet who opposed the war. Maybe one out of 50.

How different are they, where it's important? Their differences are matters of taste and preference, like one prefers jazz and the other alternative rock.

Posted by: luci on January 21, 2008 at 1:25 PM | PERMALINK

Without knowing, let's guess: Private prep schools, highly educated, well-off parents who valued education and groomed their children for the world they would inherit, Ivy-league schools, well-connected through families and friends and educators. Is that incorrect?

As far as Ezra goes, you are incorrect. He went to UC Santa Cruz and transferred to UCLA, neither of which is an Ivy League school. I used to read him when he and Jesse co-wrote Pandagon.

Posted by: Mnemosyne on January 21, 2008 at 1:31 PM | PERMALINK

Interesting post. What I would be interested in is what moral qualities make one a liberal. As a thinking conservative and not a naive ideologue, I reject the conservative equivalent of craigie's "Conservatives, on balance, do not [ have any empathy ]". Such immature judgment of your opponents does not lead to understanding and acts only as a wall that allows the judger to stay in ignorance. I do not believe for a second that liberals are only guided by emotion or are not moral.

But what is it that makes liberals continue to support large government programs as the best solution, when I believe the evidence shows that they aren't?

What makes modern liberals continue to support government enforced race-based and gender-based solutions to life's inequities when it seems that they are contrary to the goal of the color-blind, gender-blind society of MLK's dream?

What is it that makes liberals try to lie about the consequences of and label as mainstream or make acceptable, behavior which is immoral and self-destructive?

What is that makes liberals unable to label Israel as morally superior to their Arab counterparts in the recent struggles in the Middle East?

I'd like to know.

Posted by: John Hansen on January 21, 2008 at 1:32 PM | PERMALINK

I'd be surprised if Ezra and Tyler not only disagreed, but found that their disagreements fed directly into their political views

I think you meant to say "I'd be surprised if it was not the case that Ezra and Tyler not only disagreed, but found that their disagreements fed directly into their political views."


Or, to put it into Perl terminology,

if(not(not(Agree(Ezra, Tyler)) && FedDirectly(Disagreements, PoliticalViews)))
{
BeSurprised(I);
}


Or you could simplify this to

if(Agree(Ezra, Tyler) || not(FedDirectly(Disagreements, PoliticalViews)))
{
BeSurprised(I);
}

Posted by: mk on January 21, 2008 at 1:35 PM | PERMALINK

I've been a liberal Democrat for 40 years. I knew this at an emotional level and was never able to articulate my belief system. So, I started to study some history and have drawn the following conclusions:(in no particular order) IMHO politics is the bastard child of economics and sociology. No one believes they are equal, they believe they are either better than or lesser than their peers. Therefore, the whole concept of equality is bogus. The responsibility of government in this country is to protect the property(rights) of each and every citizen. The responsibility of the people in this country is to correct the government when it fails to do its job. The world's resources are limited. Therefore one man's riches are another man's poverty. Liberals tend to be advocative. Conservatives tend to be adversarial. Just my 20 cents.
http://www.flatustheelder.com

Posted by: Cliff on January 21, 2008 at 1:38 PM | PERMALINK

What makes modern liberals continue to support government enforced race-based and gender-based solutions to life's inequities when it seems that they are contrary to the goal of the color-blind, gender-blind society of MLK's dream?

It always very touched when I read conservatives alluding to MLK's dream of a color blind society. Actually I am quite misty-eyed right now.

Posted by: gregor on January 21, 2008 at 1:39 PM | PERMALINK
But here's the thing: whether the Wizards should trade Agent Zero isn't a moral question. Neither is taste in movies...

I disagree. People who like Michael Bay movies are deeply immoral.

Posted by: Singularity on January 21, 2008 at 1:42 PM | PERMALINK

Ooops. Make that I am always very touched...

Posted by: gregor on January 21, 2008 at 1:43 PM | PERMALINK

What is that makes liberals unable to label Israel as morally superior to their Arab counterparts in the recent struggles in the Middle East?

Morally superior? Care to articulate what such a blanket statement is supposed to mean?

Actually, I'll save you the trouble:

What is that [sic] makes liberals unable to recognize that Israel is the good guy and the Arabs are the bad guys?

Posted by: uri on January 21, 2008 at 1:46 PM | PERMALINK

What is that makes liberals unable to label Israel as morally superior to their Arab counterparts in the recent struggles in the Middle East?

Occupation. Checkpoints. "Security" barriers. Bulldozing houses and orchards. Oupost settlements. Water rights. Group punishment. Destruction of infrastructure. Financial embargoes.

Among others.

Posted by: Quaker in a Basement on January 21, 2008 at 1:57 PM | PERMALINK

uri

Sure I'll "..articulate what such a blanket statement is supposed to mean...

I consider a democratic society which carefully plans military raids to take out terrorist group leaders while only allowing an acceptable amount of civilian collateral damage as morally superior to a society which cheers on suicidal maniacs who carefully plan their attacks to kill as many innocent people as possible.

Maybe I'm wrong, but I don't think any objective view of the history of the conflict will allow that opinion.

Posted by: John Hansen on January 21, 2008 at 1:57 PM | PERMALINK

"As far as Ezra goes, you are incorrect"

I stand corrected.

Posted by: luci on January 21, 2008 at 2:04 PM | PERMALINK

But what is it that makes liberals continue to support large government programs as the best solution, when I believe the evidence shows that they aren't?

What evidence? The only time that large government welfare programs were fully funded was when Johnson first came up with the Great Society, and it worked -- poverty rates went down.

Of course, Johnson also stupidly decided to take us into Vietnam, so the funding for social programs dried up as it was dumped into that bottomless pit, and they've been underfunded ever since.

I love conservatives who ensure that programs will fail by deliberately underfunding them and then say, "See, I told you it would fail!"

Posted by: Mnemosyne on January 21, 2008 at 2:05 PM | PERMALINK

John

If you really believe the situation is that simple, I understand why you are so confident in your assertion of Israeli moral superiority.

Quaker in the basement was kind enough to note a few things that may complicate your view.

Posted by: uri on January 21, 2008 at 2:11 PM | PERMALINK

"But aside from a few minor bookkeeping issue.."

Kevin sounds like a big government conservative here, and this is the only moral issue, correct bookkeeping. That is why we invented money, so we could evaluate moral choices.

Posted by: Matt on January 21, 2008 at 2:13 PM | PERMALINK

Quaker in a Basement

my apologies

Posted by: uri on January 21, 2008 at 2:23 PM | PERMALINK

uri -

And if you consider

Occupation. Checkpoints. "Security" barriers. Bulldozing houses and orchards. Oupost settlements. Water rights. Group punishment. Destruction of infrastructure. Financial embargoes.

morally equivalent to blowing up innocent people at a Pizza place I find it hard to imagine how you can make any moral judgments at all.

Posted by: John Hansen on January 21, 2008 at 3:49 PM | PERMALINK

if you consider Occupation. Checkpoints. "Security" barriers. Bulldozing houses and orchards. (etc.)equivalent to blowing up innocent people at a Pizza place

Sorry, I call goalposts. Your question was: "What is that makes liberals unable to label Israel as morally superior to their Arab counterparts in the recent struggles in the Middle East?"

Now it's you, not me, who makes terrorists the "counterparts" of the Israeli government. If you believe the Palestinian territories are populated only by terrorists, I urge you to question that belief.

Posted by: Quaker in a Basement on January 21, 2008 at 3:57 PM | PERMALINK

morally equivalent to blowing up innocent people at a Pizza place I find it hard to imagine how you can make any moral judgments at all.

What is the purpose of judging one morally superior to the other? For what it is worth, I believe your point is accurate, those actions are not as horrendous as suicide bombings. But I also think Israel's actions are both immoral and seriously counter productive. What we see from the outside as lesser evils, people in the Arab world see as extreme hypocrisy and murderous intent. The deeds of all sides must be addressed and held to the same standards.

Also, since when are progressives against Israel? I've heard many people online rant about the Iraeli lobby's control over both parties.

Posted by: Sojourner on January 21, 2008 at 3:58 PM | PERMALINK

For what it is worth, I believe your point is accurate, those actions are not as horrendous as suicide bombings.

Not to worry; Israel has a lengthy record of blowing up actual innocent people too; most recently and profligately in Lebanon. Note that John "moral judgements" Hansen waves that all away with his belief that Israel is the "good guys" and a feeble, if not laughable, claim that Israel plans its raids so as to minimize civilian casualties (which, if true, the Israelis did a piss-poor job of in Lebanon).

What we see from the outside as lesser evils, people in the Arab world see as extreme hypocrisy and murderous intent.

Because, as Hansen fails to acknowledge, the Israelis commit those deeds in the context of occupying territory that isn't theirs.

I don't really care to open up the broader subject of what measures are justified in resisting what one views as a tyrannical and illegitimate government -- though I suspect that Hansen's "moral judgment" doesn't apply the same to, say, the Nicaraguan Contras (since, hey, we had to be the "good guys" in that scenario!) -- but Hansen's deluded, if not dishonest, portrayal of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict certainly disqualifies him from rendering "moral judgment" except, as intended here, as the basest propaganda.

I might add that the rest of his earlier questions were as intellectually dishonest and flawed as this topic. Some moral paragon you are, Hansen -- though I would agree with your claim that you represent conservatism well. How sad that the fact reflects so poorly on both you and modern movement conservatism. Shame on you.

Posted by: Gregory on January 21, 2008 at 4:14 PM | PERMALINK

On the other hand it is possible, for the sake of argument, to concede that the Israelis are morally superior and to simultaneously excoriate them for: Occupation. Checkpoints. "Security" barriers. Bulldozing houses and orchards. Outpost settlements. Water rights. Group punishment. Destruction of infrastructure. Financial embargoes. I find it strange that the likes of the poster above are unable to do that.

Posted by: gregor on January 21, 2008 at 4:15 PM | PERMALINK

since when are progressives against Israel?

As you indicate, it isn't so much that progressives are against Israel; Hansen's beef is that they fail to recognize what he considers Israel's moral superiority.

Posted by: Gregory on January 21, 2008 at 4:15 PM | PERMALINK

What is essentially wrong with your argument, Mr. Hansen, is that you accuse liberals of comparing apples and oranges while insisting on your own right to do so.

If you want to find moral fault with those who blow up "innocent people at a Pizza place," it makes no sense to measure them against the actions of an occupying state. Instead, one ought to measure them against other non-state actors.

How do you like them apples?

Posted by: Quaker in a Basement on January 21, 2008 at 4:27 PM | PERMALINK

I sense serious "topic drift" here but what the heck...

Sojourner >"...What we see from the outside as lesser evils, people in the Arab world see as extreme hypocrisy and murderous intent. The deeds of all sides must be addressed and held to the same standards...."

Israel has been the aggressor for a very long time & has no "moral ground" to stand on. The Palestinian people have been reamed (for decades) by their natural allies the heads of Arab states (who don`t have any reasonable claim to any "moral ground" either). There are many (of all political stripes) that have spent lifetimes pouring fuel on this conflict so as to reap financial & political benefits.

So who has the moral "high ground" ?

No one, so deal with reality & quit trying to justify mayhem & murder for profit (of whatever type).

The usual justification for all this is that God wants the Jewish people to have the land labeled Israel as their homeland. Maybe this deity does and maybe this deity doesn`t. I have no idea one way or another but I DO know that if people really believed this they would back off and wait for said deity to actually show up and do the work to make all this happen instead of selling arms to both sides and generally stirring the pot from time to time to increase revenue from sales.

Maybe this claimed deity is just a figment of some people`s imagination. I don`t know one way or another so I will wait and see what transpires w/o trying to kill all those that might hold a different opinion than I do.

I will say that, in my long observation of these matters (I am older than the nation-state labeled Israel), those claiming to be on the side of this deity, with very very few exceptions, are the worse examples of what they claim said deity stands for. Don`t know if that indicates anything else or not.

"The bond of our common humanity is stronger than the divisiveness of our fears and prejudices." - James Carter

Posted by: daCascadian on January 21, 2008 at 4:44 PM | PERMALINK

"I sense serious 'topic drift' here..."

I got lured!

Posted by: Quaker in a Basement on January 21, 2008 at 4:50 PM | PERMALINK

morally equivalent to blowing up innocent people at a Pizza place I find it hard to imagine how you can make any moral judgments at all.

And I marvel that you can tie your shoes, until I remember velcro.

Seriously, you will twist logic and reason to the point that they are unrecognizable. Figure out the difference between a non-state actor and official state policy, then get back to us.

Jeebus, you can't keep from embarrassing yourself on these threads, can you?

Posted by: Blue Girl, Red State (aka G.C.) on January 21, 2008 at 4:51 PM | PERMALINK

But what is it that makes liberals continue to support large government programs as the best solution, when I believe the evidence shows that they aren't?

I can't believe I've been sucked into responding to this idiot, but what the hell? I'll indulge my mean streak for a minute...

What you believe has fuck-all to do with nothing.

Posted by: Blue Girl, Red State (aka G.C.) on January 21, 2008 at 4:59 PM | PERMALINK

Quaker in a Basement >"I got lured!"

Hard to resist in such a target rich environment.

"Fear not the path of truth for the lack of people walking on it." - Robert F. Kennedy

Posted by: daCascadian on January 21, 2008 at 5:15 PM | PERMALINK

Are people mostly responsible for their own fate or are they mostly products of their environment?

This is the wrong question, and it's the wrong kind of question. The question is, are we all in this together, or not? Not "Am I my brother's keeper" but "do I have any empathy?"

Conservatives, on balance, do not. Liberals, more so.

Posted by: craigie on January 21, 2008 at 12:44 PM

Craigie speaks the truth.

Posted by: blah2 on January 21, 2008 at 9:03 PM | PERMALINK
But aside from a few minor bookkeeping issues, politics at every level from neighborhood association meetings to the White House is almost exclusively about moral issues

That may be true, but I can't help but note that when I talk to a conservative, we cannot agree about the most basic facts, e.g., which Presidents have dramatically increased the national debt. I never been able to get that.

Something makes certain people resist and deny information that disagrees with what they want to believe.

Posted by: little ole jim on January 21, 2008 at 10:04 PM | PERMALINK
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