Whether Voters are Rational

If they aren’t, why are they so good at getting what they want? Consider the Presidencies of Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. Clinton had to do conservative things to appeal to the median voter, and Bush had to do liberal things for the same reason. Some note that despite this, liberals hated Bush, and conservatives hated Clinton, and say that this shows irrationality. But it also shows voters getting what they want. To the extent both candidates offer the same basic set of substantive policies, the only remaining source of differentiation is a set of symbolic policies, and various forms of cultural signaling. So voters are rational enough, or politicians think they’re rational enough, that they get what they want substantively regardless, and the only thing left to vote on is irrational factors.

On the other hand, there are differences between the Parties. After all, not everything is about chasing the median voter. Another part of winning is to appeal to various constituencies. But aren’t these constituencies pretty good at getting what they want? Pro-gun voters are famously good at getting their way, for instance. The abortion issue has been one of the biggest substantive disagreements in American politics for decades, and people passionate about that issue quite rationally became single-issue voters and took over the respective political parties. But not everyone is strongly pro-life or pro-choice; you need to give people non-substantive reasons to vote as well.

“But wait,” you might be saying. “If similarities between the Parties proves voters are rational, and differences also prove they are rational; if voting on substance proves voters are rational, and voting on style also proves they are rational, what would make them irrational?” Indications of voter irrationality might include: an inability to get what they want; routinely voting for exciting, charismatic or superficially appealing candidates; and voting on style at the expense of substance (not just in the absence of substantive reasons to vote.

The only time recently that I can think of when an American political party really defied the voters was the Democrats passing Obamacare in 2009. When that was happening, voters in Massachusetts rejected their superficial preference for the Democratic Party and elected Scott Brown, a pro-choice, anti-Obamacare Republican perfectly suited to the state’s actual political preferences, to try to stop the bill’s passage. In the 2010 election, similarly, voters rejected Democrats in a landslide. This doesn’t add up to a proof that voters are rational, but it adds up to a lack of evidence that they are irrational. If you go back far enough, you can find other instances of Parties defying public opinion: Dukakis opposed the death penalty in 1988, and lost big; Goldwater rejected the New Deal in 1964 and lost in a landslide.


Sometimes, people indict voters by pointing to their ignorance of certain facts. For instance, “A…1996…survey found that…70 percent believed the federal budget deficit had risen in the previous five years while only 12 percent said correctly that the deficit had declined.” True, but the times when people appear to actually treat the deficit as a voting issue are those times when it really is peaking, such as 1992 and 2010. “Interviewees on the average thought that the unemployment rate of a little over 5 percent stood at over 20 percent.” Sure, but election results famously correlate well to actual economic data. Similarly, I’ve read that voters told pollsters in the mid-80s that they still thought inflation was really high. But again, they seem to have treated inflation as an actual voting issue in the 70s, when it really was high. When it declined, they rewarded Reagan with a 49 state landslide in 1984.

Of course, if election results correlated too perfectly with economic data, we could object that voters were only slightly rational- that they were using a crude criterion and ignoring circumstances. But there are outliers. In the 1982 election, for instance, the economy remained in recession, but Republicans lost only 26 House seats and no Senate seats, less than models would have predicted. Reagan’s “stay the course” message succeeded. As a 2010 New Republic article described it:

“Reagan blamed the Democrats for leaving him with ‘the worst economic mess in half a century.’ ‘Slowly, but surely, we are lifting the economy out of the mess created over the past several decades,’ he said. ‘We are on the road back.’ The Democrats, he charged, had caused the recession through profligate spending, which had caused inflation, which had caused unemployment…

“According to the NBC/Associated Press exit polls, when voters were asked whether Reagan’s economic program would eventually help or hurt the economy, 46 percent said it would help and 45 percent said it would hurt. Forty-four percent of voters blamed the Democrats for the country’s economic ills and only 41 percent blamed Reagan. A mere six percent of voters saw Reagan’s program as a ‘success,’ while 36 percent thought it was a failure. But 49 percent thought that ‘Reagan needs time for his economic program to succeed.’ That was, public opinion analyst William Schneider concluded, ‘precisely the president’s argument in his “stay the course” campaign.’” So apparently, voters can be persuaded to evaluate the policies themselves, not just take a “post hoc, ergo propter hoc” look at the results.


Mark Twain’s “Corn Pone Opinion” was a typical essay on the stupid, conformist masses. In it he wrote “men think they think upon great political questions, and they do; but they think with their party, not independently…In our late canvass half of the nation passionately believed that in silver lay salvation, the other half as passionately believed that that way lay destruction. Do you believe that a tenth part of the people, on either side, had any rational excuse for having an opinion about the matter at all.” But people lined up according to their interests. As Wikipedia says : “Everyone agreed that free silver would raise prices; the question was whether or not this inflationary measure would be beneficial…The debate pitted the pro-gold financial establishment of the Northeast, along with railroads, factories and businessmen, who were creditors who would benefit from disinflation (resulting from demand pressures on the relatively fixed gold money supply against a backdrop of unprecedented economic expansion), against poor farmers who would benefit from higher prices for their crops (resulting from the prospective expansion of the money supply by allowing silver to also circulate as money).”




Ben Carson and the Pyramids

It has come out that Ben Carson believes Joseph built the pyramids to store grain. Vox has an “explainer” article, called “Ben Carson’s bizarre theory about the pyramids, explained.”  It correctly accuses Carson of forcing history into a Biblical context. Vox then itself forces Carson’s remarks into the “religion versus science” narrative. But the matter has nothing to do with science. It does not involve falsification, replicated experiments, laws of nature or anything like that.

What people really mean when they say they favor science over religion isn’t generally that they know even the first thing about science, but that they trust the conclusions of experts they consider authoritative. In the case of the pyramids, the experts would be historians. So “pro-historian” codes as “pro-science.”

So much for the science part of science versus religion. As for the religion part, Vox argues that Carson’s problem is that he interprets the story literally, whereas actually it is “a mere allegory about God’s grace (since God was willing to provide a vision to save so many people.)” There is no further explanation at the internet’s greatest explainer site, which seems to hide all its most provocative and questionable ideas in parenthesis or in passing mentions, while being very earnest and thorough about establishing obvious or incidental matters, such as that experts reject Carson’s theory.

I’m not saying the Joseph story can’t be interpreted as allegory, but I’d like much, much more elaboration on Vox’s interpretiation. At what point does after Abraham does Genesis break into allegory? We have a story that’s moving right along, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and all that, and it seems like Genesis is making historical claims about flesh-and-blood people. They’re the patriarchs, for God’s sake, and really they’re historical figures. They’re acting like real people, not symbols, and doing real people things rather than symbolic things. They have supernatural experiences, of course, but that’s exactly the sort of experiences founders of a religion would be expected to have.

And surely the sons of Jacob don’t suddenly become allegorical figures. We’re talking about the founders of the twelve tribes of Israel. They have to be real people, too, right? We’re getting closer to the present, so don’t we have to keep it more real? And they all end up in Egypt somehow, or else how does Moses get them out? You can’t tell me the Hebrews didn’t think that Egypt thing was real. Joseph’s cruel toying with his brothers when they come for food is very elaborate and realistic.

Of course there’s all the dreams and interpreting. The dreams themselves are heavily allegorical, of course, as the characters in the stories themselves assume. Playing on people’s dreams is exactly how one does rise to power. It seems reasonable to think the story is presenting Joseph’s rise as literal, too. On the other hand, maybe there’s elements of political allegory here.


Vox goes on to talk about Carson’s rejection of the Big Bang. Carson’s argument was that the big bang theory cannot explain the existence of the ordered universe. Carson holds that, as an explanation of the universe, the big bang requires too much faith. Vox quotes a guy at Slate called Phil Plait who says (to paraphrase) “No! No it doesn’t!”

Shouldn’t an explainy article outline the evidence for the big bang (not just link to a guy who links to Wikipedia and some other stuff)?

More importantly, especially Carson hinted at the way the Big Bang blurs the lines between physics and metaphysics, noting the metaphysical theories involving infinite big bangs. Shouldn’t an explanation address this issue.

Relatedly, the big bang theory doesn’t explain where our universe came from. It just takes us really close to the beginning, is all. Beyond that be dragons. That doesn’t mean the theory is wrong. It isn’t supposed to be an explanation of the existence of the universe, but of other things.

Explanations that go further often take us to an eternal realm outside our universe and, if I understand correctly, outside the laws of physics, and so are metaphysical.

Vox does link to another article by Plait at Slate on the separate but related question of whether science itself is faith-based; in other words, whether it requires any presuppositions. Plait’s answer, to paraphrase: “No! No! NO!!! Absolutely not at all!” And then (now quoting directly): “Science is not faith-based, and here’s why. The scientific method makes one assumption, and one assumption only.”  Well, so much for that!

The “one assumption” behind science is that “the Universe obeys a set of rules. That’s it.” Okay, that’s a start. “There is one corollary, and that is that if the Universe follows these rules, then those rules can be deduced by observing the way the Universe behaves. This follows naturally [oh does it now!]; if it obeys the rules, then the rules must be revealed by that behavior.” Not a corollary at all, but more assumptions: that our brains bear a relationship to the rest of the universe such that 1) observations provide reliable data about the universe 2) our brains can understand the laws of the universe, but cannot deduce them as logical necessities (hence the need for experiment); in other words, our reason is powerful but not too powerful.

And are the rules directly revealed by observation of behavior? Of course not (much less can we conclude this has to be the case merely from the fact that there are rules.) The question is what conditions we have to create for nature to reveal her secrets, or what mental processes we have to apply. Plait’s answer is curiously Aristotelian (observation and deduction), but modern science is a combination of mathematics (so the assumption is that the universe’s laws are largely mathematical) and controlled experiment (so the assumption is observation yields laws of physics only under this sort of condition.)

Elsewhere in his piece, however, Plait takes a completely different approach. He does indicate that he endorses the mathematical and experimental approach. Moreover, he argues that science’s purported presuppositions are in fact themselves confirmed by science: “Science is even subject to itself. If the method didn’t work, we’d see it.” Now, this is a much better argument. If the universe didn’t operate on mathematical laws, we wouldn’t be able to derive any mathematical laws.

On the other hand, Plait tells us “science is provisional.” If that’s the case, and if Plait is right that science itself is the basis for our belief in the scientific method, then we have only provisional knowledge that the scientific method works or that the universe is governed by laws.


Tyler Cowen, meanwhile, argues against ridiculing Carson’s belief about the pyramids, writing “we do not make fun of those who believe openly in the Trinity, Virgin Brith, ex cathedra, and many other beliefs which are to my mind slightly less plausible claims…What Ben Carson has done is to commit the unpardonable sin of talking about his religion as if he actually takes it seriously.” He rejects “[t]he notion that it is fine to believe something about a deity or deities, or a divine book, as long as you do not take that said belief very seriously and treat it only as a social affiliation or an ornamental badge of honor. Bully for Ben Carson for reminding us that a religion actually consists of beliefs about the world.”

Obviously, the argument is directed at people who share the assumptions that almost all religious claims are implausible, but that we should generally respect religious belief nonetheless. Apply these general rules to Carson, too, is part of what he is saying.

Cowen is right that the more seriously one takes a religious belief, the more likely it is to trouble the sort of atheist or agnostic who generally claims to respect religious belief. But I am not an atheist or an agnostic, and I find Carson’s pyramid theory silly.

While it is true in a sense that Carson’s pyramids theory comes from taking his religion seriously, taking his religion seriously in no way requires that he hold this theory. His interpretation forces the pyramids into a Biblical framework, but there is no need for the two to overlap at all. Really he is making up his own claims, which are independent of any text or authority. But he doesn’t claim divine inspiration for his own theories. So they aren’t really religious, and therefore are fair game.

And if he did claim divine inspiration, if he thought he himself was a prophet, wouldn’t that be all the more reason to reject him as a Presidential candidate? It’s one thing to elect someone who (falsely, let’s say) believes someone else was a prophet, another to elect someone who is himself a false prophet.

I don’t at all agree that the Virgin Birth is more implausible than Carson’s pyramids theory. It requires a miracle is all. It can never be disproven, in the sense that we can’t have direct knowledge that Joseph impregnated Mary with Jesus. On the other hand, Carson’s theory can be disproven; we have direct, physical evidence of when and why the pyramids were built. Carson’s theory would not, however, require a miracle, which is presumably why Cowen finds it “slightly more plausible.” It is in violation of facts, but not general scientific laws.

If you hold that God (if He exists) cannot or will not perform miracles, you are making a theological claim that is difficult to prove; whereas if you hold that the pyramids were built to improve Pharaohs’ prospects in the next world, you are making a factual claim which is rather easy to prove.

And of course the former claim would imply that all Christianity is wrong (God remains detached from the world; he certainly cannot become part of it.) The latter would not. Religion involves truth claims, yes, but not just any random truth claims.

Debate Over Tax Rates

Marco Rubio’s tax cut proposal has led to debate over how to determine whether a tax plan is progressive or regressive. Rubio’s critics hold that any tax cut that benefits the rich more than the poor is regressive; since the rich have more income than the poor, cutting taxes more or less naturally comes out as regressive by this definition.

For example, Rubio’s tax cut benefits someone in the top 1% by $223,000. Clearly, a middle income person cannot get a tax cut this size, because such a person doesn’t have an income of $223,000, much less pays $223,000 in taxes.

Rubio holds that one ought to instead look at the effect of tax cuts as a percentage of income.

Dylan Matthews at Vox holds that “who gets more money ‘numerically’ is actually what matters here. Tax cuts cost money. That money can either go to poor people, or it can go to rich people.”

If you say one thing matters more than another, you must have an overall moral theory telling you what is important. Matthews doesn’t exactly tell us his theory of distributive justice, but his claim that “that money” can either go to the rich or the poor gives us some hints.

If we’re talking about cutting taxes, “that money” can’t mostly go to poor people. Poor hardly have any money, and they don’t pay much in, so obviously they can’t get a tax cut of $223,000. But if you look at tax cuts as the government giving out money it had all along, rather than refraining from taking away money that belonged to someone else, it is a different matter. We have “that money,” and government has to decide how to divvy it up.

Matthews’ assumption that tax cuts are a thing given us by government may simply reflect a status quo bias that treats current tax rates as natural: If government cuts taxes, it is giving us something we didn’t have before. Or it may be based on an unacknowledged assumption that all money ultimately belongs to government.

But if government justly owns all money, what justification is there for government to “give” some of us more money than others? Perhaps government wants to give us an incentive to work hard, or to work in highly valuable professions.  Is government to decide how much of different kinds of work and products we need, and provide us a salary?  Nobody seems to want that.  Instead, it’s mostly free market exchanges that determine how much people make.  But in that case, how can we hold that all money originally belongs to government?

If all money belongs to government, taxes aren’t a cost.  Taxing the rich can be good intrinsically.  But if taxes are a cost, they need to be justified by the benefits they bring. “Tax cuts for the rich” rhetoric treats high taxes on the rich as a benefit; the tax cut is bad intrinsically because it brings down taxes on the rich.

If I’m right that money doesn’t originally belong to government, and that we should avoid the status quo bias of treating past rates as sacrosanct, then we should judge the fairness or rightness of a tax policy based on where it leaves tax rates. That’s really all we need to worry about. Thus if we think a steeply progressive tax code is good, and a tax cut leaves the code in a steeply progressive state, it’s not a problem.


Ezra Klein, in contrast to Matthew, approaches the matter more sensibly. He argues against Rubio’s tax cuts on the ground that they would require cut or elimination of desirable programs. He seemingly frames this as a defense of the “tax cuts for the rich” rhetoric, but actually it is an independent argument.

Klein’s argument is that Rubio’s tax cuts will force us to cut programs for the poor, especially since he wants to eliminate the deficit and doesn’t want to cut defense spending. Klein says Rubio hasn’t offered spending offsets. But there’s no particular reason to assume the cuts will all hit the poor (or that by fiating his tax cut into existence, we have to also fiat his zero deficit aspiration into existence.) Maybe we means test Medicare and social security, or just cut them across the board or otherwise reform them. Maybe we cut the highway budget drastically. Maybe we take 10% off the top of everything.

In fact, one of the difficulties of the whole policy wonk project is that you can never say what the actual opportunity costs are of anything. Say I want to spend $20 billion on curing cancer. There’s really no counterfactual where we can say what we would have done otherwise, and thus “where the money comes from.” Perhaps it means we get rid of farm subsidies, perhaps it means we don’t do universal preschool when we otherwise would, perhaps it means we eventually increase taxes $20 billion.

Of course it would seem that the same problem applies to individual decisions, but there’s a difference: if I spend $10, I don’t know exactly how I “would have spent” the $10 otherwise, but I at least have some idea of my current priorities, and the kind of thing I spend $10 on. In the case of government, there is no one single actor. Some people are lobbying for a cancer cure, some people are lobbying for agriculture subsidies, some people are lobbying for a tax cut. How much power different groups and actors have determines the result. So it is not “let’s get rid of the least important federal spending and use the money to cure cancer,” but “let’s spend money to cure cancer and see where the chips fall.” A perfectly scrupulous Presidential candidate who always offsets everything in his budget proposal will not solve this problem, because Presidents do not unilaterally set budgets.

Evaluating a Debate on Slavery and the Constitution

In the New York Times, historian Sean Wilentz argues that slavery was not a national institution but a local one, as the Constitution was not a pro-slavery document; it tolerated but did not actively affirm slavery. The United States was not, contra Bernie Sanders, founded on racism and slavery.

At Vox, Julia Azari has a rebuttal. The headline is “Yes, slavery is a part of our national history.” If this headline is anything to go by, she is debating a different thesis than Wilentz is (and indeed, affirming a claim that nobody would ever dispute). Wilentz is debating the claim that slavery was a national institution, whereas she is debating whether it is part of our national history, which is a much broader thing. For one thing, in the history of America and other nations, the process whereby a group of people comes to see itself as a nation involves much more than their forming a government together, or coming under the jurisdiction of a government, though this can be part of the process.

For another, “part of our national history” can mean simply “a thing that happened in this nation.” If Wilentz thoroughly proved his claims about the Constitution and the Founding, it would be ridiculous to use this to prove “slavery is not part of our national history.”

All this is a long way of saying Vox has created a strawman. Perhaps Azari didn’t write the headline, and Vox’s headline writer made a mistake that made her appear non-responsive. Her article opens with an accurate characterization of Wilentz as saying “that slavery in the original U.S. Constitution was a local, rather than a national institution.” However, in the body of her article Azari writes that she’s “disappointed by [Wilentz’s] characterization of American nationhood and of its struggles over race, past and present.” (emphasis mine.) This is back to the straw man version, treating Wilentz’s thesis as being about our organic, volk history rather than about founding principles and documents.

Azari writes at one point “to suggest that the early American republic was characterized by a clear boundary between national issues and local issues is to miss the basis of much of the political conflict from the Founding to the Civil War.” The clear boundary argument I will deal with shortly. But as for the political conflict from Founding to Civil War- Wilentz’s piece is all about this! Calhoun interpreted the Constitution as positively affirming slavery, Lincoln did not, he says. He doesn’t ignore organic development, or how the interpretations of the founding text shape history. The difference is he also looks to the text itself, and concludes that one side, Lincoln’s was objectively right about the meaning of the text, and makes arguments to support this position. Azari takes Calhoun’s side, but ignores these arguments.

Deliberately ignores, in fact. “Others will, I’m sure, take issue with Wilentz’s reading of the Constitutional text.” Which would be necessary to refute his argument. “But I think far more informative for understanding nationhood and race are the events that breathed governing life into the Constitution in the decades that followed.” There we are again with nationhood.


Azari’s main argument against Wilentz is to reject a clear boundary between national and state issues, and so weaken the distinction between national and local institutions: “The provisions of the Constitution intended to clarify what should be left to the states and what could fall under national control have never been obvious in their meaning.” She points to debate over the Constitutionality of the national bank, and over control over navigation of waterways (Gibbons v. Ogden.) Let’s grant for the sake of argument that the Constitution was unclear on these matters, specifically: 1) that the necessary and proper clause is ambiguous (does Congress’s action have to be absolutely necessary for “carrying into Execution the foregoing Powers,” in which case the Bank is out? Or does it just have to be necessary in a colloquial sense, by far the most convenient approach, in which case it’s in); and 2) the interstate commerce clause is ambiguous (does commerce include navigation? If so, New York cannot grant a navigation monopoly on an interstate waterway, as that encroaches on a power enumerated to Congress. Note that this is different from New Deal debates over the interstate commerce clause.) Let’s grant her these ambiguities. It doesn’t follow from this that the boundary was unclear on slavery.

And supposing that you did find ambiguity on the boundary between federal and state power on slavery, what would it mean- that the Constitution maybe gave Congress the power to ban slavery? That would make it a maybe anti-slavery document, not a pro-slavery document, and so could hardly be an argument against Wilentz’s thesis, or an argument for the Bernie Sanders/John Calhoun position that the Constitution or the Founding affirmed slavery. Indeed, she ends up supporting her argument that the Constitution involved the federal government in slavery by pointing to the way opponents of slavery used it to try to stop slavery’s expansion, beginning with the Northwest Ordinances. “The Republican Party was formed in the 1850s around the idea of preventing slavery’s expansion, and around a strong concept of nation. But they didn’t invent either of these ideas.” You mean the nation and opposing slavery kind of went hand-in-hand? I’m so confused- which side is she arguing at this point?

Azari then notes that several Presidents owned slaves, the connection to the Constitution being as follows: “one of the most important purposes of the presidency in the early republic was to embody the national character of the Constitution.” Which is a bit of a stretch as a matter of Constitutional interpretation, but no article like this would be complete without an obligatory mention the slave-owning Founders, in case anyone has forgotten this uncomfortable, hushed-up fact. As Azari says, “Thinking about our early presidents as slaveholders isn’t anyone’s favorite patriotic exercise. But it happened.”


One thing Azari notes is that “it’s not clear what the precise implications of [Wilentz’s thesis] should be, according to Wilentz’s account.” Wilentz gives hints at this in saying it is unfortunate that, in his words, “advocates for racial justice…reject Lincoln and [Frederick] Douglas’s view of the Constitution in favor of Calhoun’s.” I would guess that he finds it unfortunate that they thus leave themselves unable to appeal to the American founding. You can be the sort of radical who demands the consistent application of foundational principles, or the sort who calls for rejecting foundational principles; Wilentz’s article lends support to the view that in this case, the former approach makes more sense than the latter.

But one could argue that this does not make a practical difference, and certainly Wilentz does not spell it out. Then again, Wilentz presents his article as a refutation of those like Bernie Sanders, who asserted at Liberty University that the U.S. “in many ways was created, and I’m sorry to have to say this, from way back, on racist principles, that’s a fact.” Azari and Vox did not run an article saying it wasn’t clear what the implications were of Sanders’ claim.

Wilentz is responding to an idea that is part of common discourse on the left, where people obviously think it has some implications. What these are may indeed be unclear, but if the idea does indeed have implications, then Wilentz’s refutation does, too.

Of course, the Constitution-as-pro-slavery argument is generally just a weapon in the historical portion of the culture wars. For instance, when Republicans had the Constitution read on the House floor after their 2010 takeover, one of the liberals’ objections was that we ought not respect the Constitution so much, due to the three-fifths compromise. Undoubtedly this episode is familiar to everyone writing at Vox, so in a sense it is not necessary for them to be so in-the-dark about what the implications of this argument could be.

But in a sense, the implications really were unclear- okay, the Constitution is bad, what then? We have a U.S. federal government- ought we to dismantle it? Does it have any alternative source of legitimacy, now that the Constitution that brought it into existence and expressed the consent of the governed is debunked?


And certainly people on the left, particularly at Vox, can be quite fanatical about their historical culture wars- show Matthew Yglesias a Confederate flag and he will fly into a fury, largely because he believes secession is treason. Azari’s argument calls this into question in a number of ways; and, while she is in no way obligated to support the Vox party line, it is not at all likely she has any idea she isn’t doing so.

In the first place, when she argues for a blurred line between state and federal authority, she doesn’t mean merely on the question of what federal powers are, but the meta question of who gets to decide them. “[T]he question of whether the federal government was constituted by a compact of states, or represented a distinct entity on its own – a whole greater than the sum of its parts, legally – was a big controversy in the early republic. Andrew Jackson rejected the ‘compact theory’ approach when he rejected South Carolina’s attempt to nullify tariff laws. Not everyone bought it, as evidenced by the eventual secession of the Confederate states. But to suggest that the early American republic was characterized by a clear boundary between national issues and local issues is to miss the basis of much of the political conflict from the Founding to the Civil War.”

I don’t mean she’s wrong here, only that the implications would disturb her readers if they thought about them. She presents the Civil War as an extension of a legitimate conflict over a genuinely unclear issue (in fact, as genuinely being about states’ rights!) So taking up arms for your state against the United States becomes a complex question, not one justifying righteous fury of bloggers 150 years later.

For Wilentz, by contrast, the Civil War was about “a simple question: Did the Constitution of the United States recognize slavery – property in humans – in national law.” This is surely much more in line with the standard Vox position, and yet Azari tears it down and leaves Calhoun’s position strong.

Defending “To Kill a Mockingbird” against Watchman-ism.

At the Daily Beast, Allen Barra doesn’t like To Kill a Mocking Bird, and suggests, to my horror, that Go Set a Watchman will be better. Is such a thing possible?  (Note: I started this blog post after initial excerpts had been released, but before the book was out.)

Barra claims that in the years Watchman went unreleased, the world missed out on a rich and complex story, and instead got a “simplistic and soothing” one. Yes, a soothing story in which features an abused girl trying to seduce a black man; a lynch mob; two children who get in the way of the lynch mob, and appear to be in danger of violence; a mysterious man locked in his house; a rape trial in which an innocent man is sentenced to death; and the attempted murder of two children.

In Mockingbird, good characters have to figure out how to live ethically in a deeply flawed society. One can be like Atticus Finch. He largely conforms and compromises up to a point but is absolutely unyielding when he believes his integrity is at stake. He gets through life by seeing others’ point of view and seeing the good in everyone, but this makes him a bit naïve. On the other hand one can be uncompromising and cut oneself off from society altogether, like Boo Radley, the stark alternative to Atticus’s compromises. Jem, Scout, and Dill Harrison don’t appear to be destined to fully embrace either approach; they appear on their way to finding their own alternatives. Dolphus Raymond simply rejects white society and lives with a black woman, pretending to be the town drunk in order to avoid repercussions.

In Watchman, there is no such difficulty: exposure to a better society, a college in New York, simply redeems Scout from her flawed roots. It promises to be as rich and complex as the Archie Bunker show.

Barra’s claims Mockingbird eclipsed the work of other, better Southern writers (William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor, Tennessee Williams, Truman Capote and so on) because politics fit the civil rights era, and that this politics creates a simplistic, good-versus-evil tale. Yet it is he who is reducing literature to politics, reading Mockingbird as a political tract rather than a story about life or even Southern society: (“At the end of the book, we know exactly what our instincts told us halfway through, that Atticus is a good man, that Tom Robinson, a cipher of a character on paper, is an innocent victim of racism, and that lynching is bad.”) As we’ll see, his own objections to the book are largely political, based on the view that Mockingbird allows too much ambiguity. He might not think saintly Atticus is realistic, but he can’t have his bad guys evil enough.

Barra claims Atticus is “virtuously dull,” that his moral teachings “appeal to a child’s mentality.” But his objection is not that they are straightforwardly true, and therefore boring; his objection is that he disagrees with them. If Mockingbird isn’t defending the obviously, incontrovertibly true, then it isn’t so dull after all, is it?


Here’s Barra on Atticus’s morality: “’The one thing that doesn’t abide by majority rule is a person’s conscience.’ To which a skeptical reader might reply: Okay, yes, that sounds noble when it refers to questions of racial equality. But Atticus doesn’t tell us how we should respond when someone’s conscience tells them (sic) that the Confederate battle flag should fly over the town square or that gay marriage is wrong on ‘religious grounds.’” How very topical and contemporary a concern! Until just a few years ago, it was a given that culture celebrated individual conscience, but this being 2015, individual conscience has taken on rather pejorative connotations and associations, and many, like Barra, hold it in great suspicion. It is a Hobbesian moment, full of worries about individual conscience disrupting the social order. Barra’s review is as much a product of our time as the TV series retelling the story of Thomas Moore and portraying the state as the good guy and the Catholic and his individual conscience as the villain.

So what to do with the person with a troublesome individual conscience? Well, you could at least try to leave him alone, so far as possible. But Barra’s question is really a misplaced one. The question Atticus faces is not to do with someone else whose conscience disagrees with you; the question is what to do about your own convictions when they run against society.

The morality Atticus teaches Scout is simple in the sense that a child can understand it, but there is no guarantee that a more complicated moral code is more correct than a simple one. Of course it is true that Atticus has to make his teachings understandable by a child; but Scout is a highly intelligent child, and he doesn’t talk down to her.   And anyway, social conformity is something every child can understand much more easily than individual conscience; Scout herself shows an instinctive understanding of it, whereas her individual conscience has to develop and mature.

Barra’s critique of Atticus continues. Atticus: “Why do reasonable people go stark raving mad when anything involving a Negro comes up is something I can’t pretend to understand.” Barra has it all figured out: “What Atticus doesn’t seem to understand is that anyone who goes stark raving mad when anything involving a Negro comes up isn’t a reasonable person in the first place.” Atticus: “If you can learn a reasonable trick, Scout, you’ll get along better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view…” Barra: “Oh, I don’t know about that. I think it’s fairly easy to understand the point of view of Dylann Roof. Nor do I particularly want to get along better with people like him.”

Well, that’s very easy to do when racism is so marginal that we can relegate it to the likes of Dylann Roof, a lunatic mass shooter and extreme social outlier. What if the mainstream of society, family members, most of your townspeople are devoted to entrenching white supremacy? Then one doesn’t have the privilege of simply refusing to deal with them, and even understand them; or of writing them off as generally unreasonable.  Unless one wants to go the Boo Radley route.

Barra: “At times, Finch’s sugar-coated myths are downright offensive, as when he tells Scout the “real” story of the Ku Klux Klan. ‘Way back around 1920, there was a Klan. But it was a political organization more than anything. Besides, they couldn’t find anyone to scare.’ He goes on to explain that Klansmen gathered one night at the home of Sam Levy, a Jewish friend of his, and ‘Sam made them so ashamed of themselves they went away.’ I wouldn’t have thought that anyone near or above the age of Scout could read this passage—as blatantly false a characterization of the KKK as D.W. Griffith’s in Birth of A Nation—and not feel that their intelligence had been insulted.”

I don’t have time to look it up, but I’m over 99% sure this is out of context, and Atticus was talking about the Klan in Maycomb, and how it was never really serious there. Atticus’s unwillingness to believe the worst of others sometimes leads him astray, (sometimes it doesn’t- he’s a complicated character) but no, Mockingbird is not Birth of A Nation.


I don’t know anything about any of the Southern authors Barra lists as being better than Harper Lee, but I have a vague idea of most of them as writers whose appeal is to intellectual types. One other book by a Southern writer comes obviously to mind as having mass appeal, that of course being Gone With the Wind. Its appeal of that book certainly doesn’t come from its alignment with enlightened politics, as Barra dismissively alleges about Mockingbird, but he isn’t any happier about it, because its politics are unenlightened. He’s a tough guy to please. “[Mockingbird] was proudly displayed in the living rooms of countless homes alongside Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With The Wind, a paradox that has never been fully reconciled, or even recognized, by Southerners.”*

It’s almost as if there is more to literature than taking political sides! Both books are rooted in Southern culture and history, both tell important stories, both have real characters and are about real life. Watchman seems to be a political conversation, without any real setting. Again, it appears the Scout of Watchman has simply left the South and been redeemed, so there is no struggle and no real story.

* ”Life is full of paradoxes for fools.” – P.J. O’Rourke

Confederate Flag

Those demanding that South Carolina remove its Confederate flag in response to the Charleston shooting generally argue that the Confederate flag is objectively, necessarily a symbol of racism. That isn’t just one thing the flag can possibly convey, and the subjective intention of those flying the flag doesn’t matter. The Confederate flag is a symbol of slavery, these people say, because the Civil War was about slavery. The lack of ambiguity is central to most of the arguments for stamping out the Confederate flag, and to the uncompromising stridency of those who take that stand. If you’re telling a region of the country that they are morally obligated to reject the flag of the army that fought a great, central war in its history, there is no room for ambiguity.

Now, there are various ways one might describe what a war is about. For instance, the Trojan War was about who would control Helen of Troy, but it was also about whether Troy would be conquered or saved; World War I was variously about making the world safe for democracy, recovering Alsace-Loraine, preventing Germany’s encirclement, Wilson’s Fourteen Points, competition of empires, avenging the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, defending the motherland, defending the fatherland, saving Belgium, preserving the balance of power and all sorts of things. World War II was about both realist national security considerations and freedom versus tyranny. One could describe the Cold War was about communism versus capitalism, freedom versus tyranny, mutually assured destruction, spheres of influence, resisting Soviet expansion, and so forth; the Korean War was about the Cold War (so everything in the previous sentence), plus defending the UN and resisting aggression; the Vietnam War about countless things.

Similarly, one might describe the Civil War as being state versus federal sovereignty, the effort to save (or secede from) the union, a war to defend (or destroy) slavery, or simply an effort to fight off an invading army from the north.

So what does it mean to say a war was about something, or that it had a certain objective meaning? To me, it’s obvious: a war is about the thing the sides are fighting over. If one side wins, they get something, and if they don’t, they don’t get it; that’s why they’re fighting. We don’t have to look at anybody’s subjective motivations, or why they want the thing.

On this understanding, the Civil War was about whether the Southern states would secede or be under the jurisdiction of the United States federal government headquartered in Washington, D.C. It was about secession, in other words, and the Union’s campaign to reverse secession. Then, after the Emancipation Proclamation, it was also about slavery.

But the “war was about slavery” people usually don’t cite the Emancipation Proclamation as evidence. They don’t want to make a humanitarian intervention argument (the North was justified in invading sovereign states to end the inhuman institution of slavery.) Rather, they want it to be the case that secession was by itself illegitimate.

Matthew Yglesias at Vox, in explicitly arguing that there should be no respect or recognition for those who fought for the Confederacy, links to a Vox piece arguing that the Civil War was about slavery. What this evidence really supports, though, (like most such arguments) is the proposition that secession was about slavery.  Basically, Southerners feared that Lincoln would insure that any states added to the Union be free, which would bring about an eventual end to slavery.

But this is an argument about subjective intentions, which will vary from person to person.  If South Carolina had its way, it would have seceded in the 1830s over tariffs, and Lincoln was a backer of economic policies the South hated.  You can go and make a proof about the most prevalent mindset of Southern decision-makerse in 1860, but where does that get you?  The whole thing driving moral fervor against the Confederate flag is that it objectively means something horrible, regardless of the subjective intentions of those flying it.

Moreover, treating slavery as responsible for the Civil War (on the grounds that secession was about slavery) works only if you assume to begin with that the South was the aggressor, or the party that started the war. In other words, the genuine point of disagreement is the legitimacy of secession, or more narrowly the legitimacy of the federal government’s stopping secession through military invasion.

Or to make it more concrete: you’re a Southerner in 1861. The decision to secede has already happened. The Union invades. Do you fight it? You aren’t defending the decision to secede, so the motives there aren’t very relevant. (Remember, we’re talking about the battle flag of the Army of Northern Virginia, not the national flag of the Confederacy.) The question is whether your loyalty is to your state, which seceded, or to the union, because your state entered said union in the 1780s.


So flying a confederate flag doesn’t have to mean an expression of support for slavery; it can mean support for the right to secede, or loyalty to state ahead of United States, or simply the remembrance of a fight against invaders from the North. This might seem obvious, but again , people who demand the removal of the Confederate flag tend to be very insistent that the flag objectively means the defense of slavery, and react with fury to any other possible interpretation. Their stridency comes from the fact that they recognize no moral ambiguity in the Civil War, or the decision by Southerners to fight the Union armies seeking to occupy their states.


Now, what about the American flag? Like the Confederate flag, it flew over a country that practiced slavery. In the Revolutionary War, the British promised freedom to slaves who joined them, so to some small extent they had a humanitarian intervention argument going for them, and American victory meant some of these people’s return to slavery.

When people on the left are feeling nationalistic, they treat the mainstream of American history as basically good (we may have had slavery, but at least we weren’t “created for the express purpose of maintaining slavery”- ideals are more important than actions) while everything detestable is assigned to the fringe of American history, represented by the Confederate flag. When people on the left are feeling anti-nationalistic, they might point to any number of atrocities committed in the name of the American flag, and our founding ideals as hypocritical- actions are more important than ideals.

However, they obviously don’t work themselves to a fever pitch demanding that all American flags be removed, and denouncing as monsters anyone who defends or flies the flag. Imagine the emotional energy it would take to become upset whenever you saw an American flag, or a commemoration of George Washington. Imagine if someone acted and felt like this guy at the Huffington Post about the American flag:

I passed a neighbor’s house [while walking]…I stopped in my tracks and blankly stared until a car honked at me to move out of the way.

This house flies a Confederate flag….

Normally, this would elicit some fleeting contempt and I would go about my day. But with the slayings in Charleston very much on my mind, I found myself getting angry… very angry.

Angry at this person, this ‘neighbor’ of mine. Angry at the culture that permits such blatant hatred.

Humanitarianism alone isn’t sufficient to embolden the protests and vituperation against South Carolina’s Confederate flag; nationalism gives them the kind of front-running confidence they need for these exercises. You don’t see protesters demanding to shut down the FDR memorial because the man interned the Japanese.

Indeed, the man who hates his neighbor for the Confederate flag even said himself that “the savagery of slavery is offensive enough to justify any level of outrage….But what might be the most absurd part of this neo-Confederate ‘heritage’ romanticism is that its advocates are simply glorifying treason.” (His proof is that the firing on Fort Sumter meets the Constitutional definition of treason, which is a good point if you think states still owed loyalty to a union they had seceded from.)

Similarly, Yglesias in his above-mentioned post says “the United States has historically been very unusual in its official commemoration of the leaders of a failed rebellion against the government;” and while the United States has done no such thing, some states and localities of course have. It is this symbol of defiance, the rebellion against federal authority, which seems to upset and energize Yglesias and others at least as much as the idea that the flag is a symbol of slavery.

This emphasis on treason and loyalty to the nation or federal government is, again, why the argument against the Confederate cause never centers on the Emancipation Proclamation- that would imply that the Union’s war was only justified once it was a humanitarian intervention.

In fact, progressives can even become quite enraged at the idea that wars of humanitarian intervention are morally unambiguous, that there are clear good guys and bad guys in such wars. I suppose the human rights violations by Saddam Hussein’s regime were roughly on a par with those of American slavery, if we can quantify these things.  Well, here’s a bit of Vox’s review of the film “American Sniper,” about the Iraq War (here they’re not in a nationalistic mood):

[T]he American occupation…alienated Iraqis with its mismanagement of the country… The real story of Iraq’s insurgency is not just one of monstrous al-Qaeda, and it’s not just of a fight between good and evil…

The [American Sniper] narrative sets up the war as a morality play: there are evil terrorists, and Chris Kyle needs to kill them…all of the violence in Iraq is attributed to simple evil, and…Iraq’s millions of citizens are often barely distinguishable from al-Qaeda…The idea that Iraqis could be much else other than terrorists, or that an Iraqi might take up arms for any reason other than to kill Americans, doesn’t really factor in American Sniper’s narrative….[The film presents] the war…as a black-and-white battle against evil al-Qaeda terrorists, when the truth is far murkier…

But the politics of the Iraq war defy the film’s simple…moral framing. American troops were alternately invaders and protectors. They destroyed the Iraqi state (!) and left murderous chaos in its wake…[In] any even remotely honest portrayal, it is impossible to talk about ethics of fighting in Iraq without acknowledging both sides of this moral coin. But American Sniper has the morality of an especially simple superhero movie: our side good, their side bad.


Now, why would one think someone from Virginia or South Carolina should be loyal to the Union and its occupying armies, when their states have seceded from said union? Perhaps the Constitution creating the union of states is more than a contract of convenience between states; perhaps it is an eternal covenant, like marriage. Perhaps the decisions of statesmen in the 1780s are binding for all time, to be venerated.

Pro-union conservatives often agree with this idea. But generally people on the left strongly reject the idea, and certainly almost none of the people on the left who excoriate secession raise a peep when their cohorts ridicule “Constitution worship.” This 2011 article at Salon, strangely, criticizes both veneration of the Constitution and “neo-Confederate ideology.”

Iran Nuclear Deal

Earlier this month, Bret Stephens attempted to decipher Obama’s thinking behind the Iraq deal- what he would say if he were being honest.

Stephens’ premise is that Obama is giving a lot in negotiations, showing a strong desire to get a deal rather than insisting on favorable terms. (Deal supporters claims to agree that Iran is bad, but opponents of the deal say if you really deeply distrust them, you would insist on much stricter terms or walk away.) Stephens therefore has his “honest Obama” try to explain why getting almost any deal is worthwhile to him, rather than attempting to deny that he is giving away the farm. I don’t think he quite captures the best “honest” case for the deal, or, probably, Obama’s actual thinking.

Stephens’s Obama basically argues that we can’t stop Iran from getting the bomb, short of regime change through war, and that isn’t worth it. So we can only hope to delay their acquisition, which a deal will do. Stephens has Obama concedes that “the deal we have negotiated will not, I am afraid, prevent Iran from getting a bomb, should its leaders decide to build one. And eventually they will.” He later offers hope that this isn’t the case, but only if “the Supreme Leader [is] replaced by a new leader cut from better cloth.”

So Stephens forces his Obama to acknowledge that Iran’s current leadership is hell-bent on acquiring the bomb, and that its political decision-makers are monolithic (or that the Supreme Leader is the only one who really matters.) Honest Obama’s case, as a consequence, ends up rather weak.

Here’s a better one:
1) Independent of U.S. sanctions, there are good reasons Iran will not acquire a nuclear bomb. Nuclear weapons acquisition would launch a Mideast arms race, preventing Iran from gaining any permanent advantage over its neighbors and hurting its security overall. Launching its nuclear program as a long-term project gave it options, an understandable course given the time horizons involved (Taiwan, Ukraine and the late Col. Gaddafi all might be wishing they hadn’t given up their nuclear programs/weapons way back when; the future is unpredictable), and given the millions who died in Saddam’s U.S.-backed war of aggression against Iran. However, actually crossing the Rubicon and acquiring a nuclear weapon would uniquely create a backlash. Saddam is now gone and Iran has a lot of influence in Iraq. The revolutionary regime has survived all this time and America hasn’t attacked it. Iran it is in a much more secure position than it was when it launched the program.
2) Iran has strong national pride and will not want to be seen as backing down in the face of international sanctions. Therefore, the sanctions are a stumbling block to Iran following its national interests. The goal, therefore, is to allow Iran to give up its program while saving face.
3) Iran is not a monolithic actor. If we assumed that it were, we could regard it as using different tactics (now intransigence, now a pretense of peacefulness) to pursue the same constant end. But in reality, the different behavior of their regime at different times reflects the fact that hard-liners or soft-liners are up or down at a given time; this isn’t the Kims’ Korea. Ahmadinejad may have been committed to the bomb, while Rouhani may not be. Even if Rouhani is personally secretly committed to nuclearization at all costs, he has acted like he isn’t, domestically as well as internationally, which tells us that it is possible to take such a stance and hold a position of power in the Iranian regime. The Supreme Leader is only one figure among many. We want soft-liners to win internal battles in Iran, and concessions are the best way to do this under the circumstances (see 1 and 2).
4) This is not 1938. Iran is not on a suicide mission and has no expansionist aims; the current regime has not launched any wars to gain territory. Being “a reasonably successful regional power” is enough for Iran. Our goal should be to give it an opportunity to do so, and security to be confident it doesn’t need the bomb as deterrence. There is no plausible scenario in which Iran launches a first strike.
Now, let’s consider a similar Vox’s “devil’s advocate” position, this time with the devil as supporters of military action against Iran.

“Advocates of military action differ from Obama in their assessment of the Iranian regime. They believe the Iranian government is unshakably attached to its nuclear weapons program and will never abandon it willingly. Therefore, the only way to keep Iran from getting a bomb is to destroy its nuclear facilities.

“In this view, Iran’s leaders will never abandon their quest for nuclear weapons because nukes are essential to the revolutionary anti-Western foreign policy Iran has pursued in the Middle East.”

Vox contrasts the critics’ view of the Iranian regime with Obama’s: “The core of the disagreement between Obama and his critics is over the nature of the Iranian regime. Obama sees an Iranian government that’s hostile now, but one that can potentially be reasoned with on specific issues if given the right incentives. “Iran may change. If it doesn’t, our deterrence capabilities, our military superiority stays in place,” he told Tom Friedman on Sunday. The deal is a ‘once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see whether or not we can at least take the nuclear issue off the table.’”

I think the critics’ regime argument is, or should be, somewhat different. Public discussion of Iran focuses monomaniacally on The Bomb, but by itself that doesn’t particularly matter. All regimes are attached to maximizing power and security, and one way of achieving this is to acquire nuclear weapons. The U.S. is “unshakably attached” to its nuclear weapons, as is Israel, as I suppose are Russia, India and Pakistan. And nuclear weapons historically are mostly a deterrent, not an offensive weapon.

Rather, the problem is that Iran is different from most other regimes. It isn’t expansionist or on a suicide mission, but neither was the Taliban. The Iranian regime does things most countries just don’t do, and the U.S. and Israel would really be better off if they can attack it if it does these things on too large a scale, and if it knows they can do so.

Naturally, the U.S. and Israel can’t say “we don’t want Iran to have a nuclear deterrent against our attacks,” so their implication has always kind of been that the bomb would be an offensive weapon. The U.S. under Obama is no longer interested in presenting Iran as a major threat, but Netanyahu certainly is, and key to his argument is the idea that an Iranian nuclear weapon would threaten Israel. When he presented this argument to the U.S. Congress, there were reports that Israeli intelligence agencies disagreed.

An “honest Netanyahu” argument might look like this: “We accept a certain low level of killing by Hezbollah without going to war, but if they really escalate things, or if Iran vastly increases its support for their ability to kill, we want to have the option of crushing Hezbollah and striking or even nuking Iran. If Iran itself directly organizes a large-scale terrorist attack against Israel, we want to have the ability to inflict damage on their regime, including with nuclear weapons (not saying we would, but it would be good for everyone to know we could.) If they have a nuclear deterrent, that changes the calculation in unacceptable ways.”