Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Are We Fascists Yet?

Brian Leiter links--rightly with some reservation--to this article trying to make a sober case for taking the threat of fascism, today, seriously. Her conclusion:
"We are now parked on the exact spot where our best experts tell us full-blown fascism is born. Every day that the conservatives in Congress, the right-wing talking heads, and their noisy minions are allowed to hold up our ability to govern the country is another day we're slowly creeping across the final line beyond which, history tells us, no country has ever been able to return."
And after reading truly deranged and psychotic stuff like this:
"There is a remote, although gaining, possibility America's military will intervene as a last resort to resolve the Obama problem. Don't dismiss it as unrealistic.

America isn't the Third World. If a military coup does occur here it will be civilized. That it has never happened doesn't mean it wont."
it's no wonder that otherwise sane people really begin to wonder. Nonetheless, to suppose that we are actually flirting with fascism itself flirts with crazy; sober and silly are not mutually exclusive. I don't claim that we are definitely not anywhere near fascism, but I do claim that the entire exercise is misguided.

Discussions of this sort presume that Fascism is some sort of natural kind, and that there are antecedent conditions which, when met, will lead in a lawful or law-like manner to a fascist state. I'm willing to set aside the issue of whether or not it is appropriate at all to apply the concept of law to social and political phenomena. Let's assume that social and political phenomena exhibit regularities that, if not strictly lawful, are nonetheless sufficiently law-like. In either case, it's pretty standard to accept that lawful or law-like relations must be consistent over two variations:

1) Generalization: a lawful relation must obtain among a significant number of instances. Just because you caught the flu after getting a new pair of glasses does not mean that your glasses and the flu are in any way related. Similarly, just because Athens won the battle of Marathon after the Spartans failed to show up doesn't mean that in general battles go well when allies fail to appear. For there to be a relevant relation here, there would have to be lots of instances of armies succeeding after allies have failed to show.

2) Counterfactual Variation: Not only must a lawful relation obtain among a number of actual instances, that same relation must obtain over relevant counterfactual variations. So, it happened to be the case that Bismark was able to unify Germany by exploiting a mercurial French emperor. But knowing this doesn't mean that you could have inferred, in say 1866, from Napoleon III's mercurial nature to the likelihood of German unification. Chances are, Bismark would have been equally adept at manipulating a conservative and rigid Emperor of France, just as he successfully exploited Franz Josef. For Napoleon III's mercurial nature to have been causally and lawfully related to the unification of Germany, it would have to shown that had Napoleon III not been mercurial, Germany would not have been unified, along with many such other variations.

So let's ask, are there any relations that can survive these conditions applied to fascism? I don't think so. Most discussions I've had or read on the subject, from Robert Paxton's informative essay to Jonah Goldberg's silly book, get stuck on the generalization condition. Immediately there are problems that arise from trying to decide just what counts as the reference class for 'Fascist Regimes'. There's almost no way to answer this without begging the question. Hitler and Mussolini both represented movements angry about the loss of a purer past, whereas Stalin's USSR rejected the past for the sake of a communist future. So, is worry over a lost, organic past necessary to qualify as fascist? There seems no way to answer this without begging the question: if you really want to include Stalin among the fascists, then no, but if you don't mind dropping him from the list, then sure. No essence or natural kind is going to get in your way whatever you decide.

But what really makes predictions about fascism problematic is the second condition. There are probably no necessary conditions leading to any of the historically fascist states without which we could say with any credibility that fascism would not have emerged anyway. So Hitler's and Mussolini's fascisms were weirdly pagan, whereas Franco's was wed to the Catholic Church. But I see no reason why, mutatis mutandis, an ultramontane fascism could not have emerged out of conservative elements in Germany, nor why some charismatic anarchist leader could not have taken control of the Republicans in Spain and created a secular fascist state. The point is that there are simply no truly insightful comparisons, only superficially insightful ones. What we really mean by fascism is just 'tyranny,' or 'evil'--and so let's worry straightaway about whether any given regime is acting tyrannical or evilly, and not about whether they are rehearsing fascism's encore.

I guess the conclusion I would like to make, after this unintentionally long post, is two-fold:
1) Forget Fascism. It's not a useful concept. Instead of fretting over whether teabaggers represent an incipient fascism, let's just say that these people are really weird, willfully irrational, a little bit scary, and completely unsuitable as dinner guests.
2) More broadly, I think it's time to start a movement: I call on a MORATORIUM FOR ALL WWII REFERENCES. No longer will it be acceptable to think through any truly pressing political problem as if it were just a replay of the 1930's.

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Monday, September 28, 2009

Thought of the Day: Possible Worlds and the Experience Machine

In the most recent Family Guy episode, Stewie and Brian take a journey through several multiverses. Mostly these are just quirky (a literal Disney World) and funny (a world where even Meg is hawt). But the world Merry-Go-round stops when they happen into a world where the man/dog relation is reversed. Brian, as fans know, is a dog who happens to be intelligent, somewhat full of himself, and a complete--pun intended--horn-dog. Immediately upon arriving a super sexy 'pet' woman jumps him and licks him down. He's found his perfect pleasure world: Being a dog, he is the master in this world, and liking human women, access to sex will be much, much easier. He decides to stay.

I started thinking about Noick's experience machine: what if the choice were, not between 'fake' experiences and 'real' experiences, but between possible worlds within an actualist framework? In other words, what if the choice were, not between a pleasant fantasy and hard reality, but between an equally real possible pleasure world, and the merely indexically-present world? The thought experiment would then be the following: suppose that you could leave this current world for an equally real alternative world that happened to be much more pleasurable--would you?

Stewie and Brian decide after a short while that they want to go home. They miss their 'real' friends--a mis-description, since the people in Dogworld are just as real as in the home world. I don't think that the creators of Family Guy were thinking through the metaphysics of possible worlds nor the concept of hedonism, but that makes their resolution of the scenario all the more natural. I'd argue that this amendment to the thought experiment shows that it is the status-quo bias, rather than the reality bias or an aversion to dupery, that is behind most people's preference for the present world.

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Thursday, September 17, 2009

Observation of the Day

On this bloggingheads, Robert Kagan makes the following argument against the effectiveness of international law for solving geo-political and geo-strategic problems: i) Law qua law requires that all parties be treated equally; ii) no nation ever has, nor ever will, treat all parties equally; iii) hence, no legal framework will be applicable to inter-state relations. Of course, I don't think we'd accept this argument at all if it were made on behalf of domestic law: i) Law qua law requires that all citizens be treated equally; ii) as a matter of fact, citizens are not treated equally (richer citizens afford better lawyers, more affluent citizens can affect the legislative process to their advantage more readily, many minorities are at a distinct disadvantage in lobbying for access to public goods and influence, etc.); iii) hence, no legal framework at all will be applicable to intra-state relations.

But I'm not going to make that point. Regardless of the argument's strength, isn't the first premise obviously false? I mean, before the age of Enlightenment, the idea that the laws must treat all individuals equally was, I'm pretty sure, non-existent. In fact, quite the opposite was true: a primary function of laws was to codify, legitimate and enforce the inequalities among parties by virtue of lineage, wealth, status, occupation, etc. And while very few regimes were what I would call admirably just, quite a lot of them were functional and did manage to advance their interests and values through a legal framework, both internally and externally. If I were forced to pin Kagan's basic mistake, it would be the assumption that law has to be naive and/or ignorant of real relations in order to function as law. In some cases, yes, but not all. Per the issue at hand in the bloggingheads, I see no reason legally why the Nuclear Club members can't just insist that they're better, they should have more say in shaping world nuclear policy, and then construct international law to reflect this (which, of course, is exactly what we do!). Now, there are good arguments for why this is an unjust arrangement, but that's not the issue: the issue is whether it's effective.

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Thursday, September 3, 2009

Does the Possibility of Time Travel imply the Impossibility of Free Will? (I)

There seems to be wide agreement among theorists that while time travel is logically possible, altering the past is not. In other words, it's coherent to believe that you might travel into the past one day, but incoherent to believe that while on this journey you might kill your father. If that's right, it means problems for libertarian conceptions of free will.

The initial argument is simple: Let's say that

i) In 1966 George and Lorraine have a child, Marty.

ii) In 1985, Marty time travels to 1955 and runs his father, George McFly, over with a DeLorean, killing him.

iii) In 1966, George is dead and Lorraine is an alcohol-raddled spinster.

Thus, iv) In 1966 Marty is both born and not born.

(iv) is obviously self-contradictory, and therefore logically impossible. Furthermore, since Marty killing his own father is logically impossible, a fortiori it is physically impossible.

If this doesn't seem right, it helps to remember that Marty is a time traveler, not a world traveler. This is the point David Lewis stresses at the end of his important essay ('The Pardoxes of Time Travel'). There is only one 1955, just as there is only one 1966 and one 1985. Marty can travel from one time to another with about as much ease as you or I can drive from home to the supermarket, but just as when you or I visit the local supermarket it is always the same supermarket, so when Marty visits 1955 it is the same 1955 it has always been. Thus, in the 1955 in question, it is timelessly true that Marty was there, and that he was the instrument of his parents' romance, just as it is timelessly true that he is born in 1966 and travels back to 1955 from 1985. There is not one 1955 without Marty, and another 1955 with Marty. Marty is always there, in 1955, even though he is not born until 1966. This only seems to be paradoxical (How can he exist at a time before he is born?). Lewis recommends distinguishing between personal time and external time: For Marty, his arrival in 1955 follows his birth, whereas to an external observer, living through the normal course of time, Marty just appears one day in 1955, while his infant self is born eleven years later in 1966. (This of course poses problems for identity theory, but not for time). If the initial argument is correct, then Marty is, in the strogest sense--logically, physically--unable to kill George in 1955. If one nevertheless wants to insist the contrary, this would have to be in a different 1955, a 1955 which is followed by a 1966 in which no one is born to George and Lorraine, which in turn is followed by a 1985 in which no one identical to Marty travels back in time. In other words, we have here two worlds, not two times--a world in which George and Lorraine meet and have Marty who then time travels in 1985, and another world in which George is killed and no one identical to Marty is ever born. If Marty ends up in that 1966 where George has been killed and no one identical to himself is born, it has not been through traveling back and altering time, but by traveling between one world and another.

This suggests the following argument against libertarianism:

a) A free agent is able to cause one rather than another possible outcome.

b) Marty is not able to cause one rather than another possible outcome.

c) Marty is not a free agent.

d) Since Marty is not special in anyway, no one is a free agent.

Marty, we know, cannot kill George. He cannot do so by accident, but more to the point, he cannot do so intentionally. He may--perhaps overwhelmed by newly-blossomed incestuous longings--desperately want to kill George in 1955, but he cannot and thus will not do so, for we know that he is born in 1966 and that George is his father. But if Marty cannot alter the past and affect the present, so too neither he nor anyone else could alter the present and affect the future. For Marty's inability to kill his own father is not unique to Marty. If Marty is unable, despite the firmest of desires, goals and plans, to thwart George and Lorraine's consummation, then so too are George and Lorraine, whatever their desires, goals and plans, unable to alter that same consummation. George and Lorraine will give birth to Marty in 1966, and there is nothing George, Lorraine nor Marty can do about it. Suppose that Marty informs George that Lorraine becomes an insufferable alcoholic, that their kids are complete losers, etc.--no matter, George will not be able to avert that future, for if he does avert that future, then in 1966 Marty is not born, and so cannot time travel in 1985 and so will not be there to inform George in 1955 get the picture. Finally, if there is nothing special about Marty in 1955, and if there is nothing special about George and Lorraine in 1966, then there is nothing special about you or I today. Que sera, sera.

A libertarian might object at this point: even if we grant that it is impossible to perform actions today that are in contradiction to the future, surely we are free to do other things today not in contradiction with the future. For example, nothing is stopping Marty from moving the teapot in Doc's house from one burner to the other, because nothing about his later travel back to the past is inconsistent with that changed fact. Hence, Marty is free to move the teapot, even while he is not free to kill George. This objection misses the point. Nothing Marty does can change the future, not because the future is just somehow perfectly rigid, but because the future after 1955 results from whatever occurs in 1955, and Marty has always been in 1955, i.e., if Marty moves the teapot, then the teapot's being moved is just a timeless fact about 1955. What is compossible with moving the teapot is Marty's wanting to move the teapot. What is not compossible with the moving of the teapot is the not moving of the teapot. We can say that Marty is free to move to the teapot insofar as he is not stopped from doing what he wants to do, or insofar as his second-order intention towards his decision to move the teapot is an approving one, but we cannot say that Marty is free to move the teapot if by that we mean that Marty could have done otherwise.

Lewis' attempts to get out of this predicament seem only half-hearted. Lewis argues that, if we restrict the range of facts we are considering, then Marty is able to kill George. For example, Marty's killing George is compossible with Marty's desire to be his mother's lover, George's oafishness, the fact that George is weak and easily fooled, his ability to purchase a gun, etc., and insofar as we restrict ourselves only to facts like these, there is a sense in which it is appropriate to say that Marty could kill George . But as we expand the pool of facts that need to be included, the range of possible actions decreases, and once we consider all the facts, then it is impossible that Marty kills George. Lewis, in other words, does not really show that free will makes sense, he only manages to stipulate a use of 'could' or 'possibility' that is not baldly self-defeating; nothing Lewis says can be taken as proof that we really are free.

Anyway, I will address some further complications in a later post. I suspect there is something wrong or missing in the above argument, but I can't quite identify what it is. One point I will address is the following: the above account of time-travel certainly seems to suggest a four-dimensionist picture of time, and there have been attempts to make libertarianism compatible with four-dimensionalism. I don't find these persuasive. First off, I think the argument fails. Secondly, from what I have read, libertarian four-dimensionalists at best succeed in supplying a way in which we can think of choices as random events or points. I'm not persuaded: it seems to me that, even among libertarians, it's important not only that the agent be the cause of an action, but that s/he be responsible for that action, yet if an action is truly random, it may be the cause of some event, but I don't see why the agent would be responsible.

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Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Privy me this, Hayekians...

A brief, somewhat sour, query: Opponents of Marx are fond of arguing that, whatever else might recommend him, surely it matters that Marx was, all in all, wrong. Marx predicted a falling rate of profit, the internal collapse of the capitalist system, the increasing enlargement and impoverishment of the Lumpenproletariat, the triumph of communism--none of which, in fact, actually happened.

Friends of Marx of course protest such allegations by pointing out that 'real communism' has never been tried. The Soviet Empire, Yugoslavia, Cuba, China, North Korea--none of these nor any other of the historically communist regimes resembled very much the sort of ideal candidate Marx had in mind in his prediction of the sublation of a capitalist into communist mode of production. Each one had been governed by a leader or party that was explicit about making theoretical and practical amendations to the program provided in books like Das Kapital. However, this sort of counter-argument basically never works. It's hard to find an opponent of Marx accede this point and agree that only historically existing communist regmies have failed, not Communism or Marxism. 'No,' goes the reply,'communism was tried; conditions weren't perfect, but they were enough, they all failed, and so maybe we should stop continuing to find excuses and just admit that Marx was wrong and that Marxism is false.'

Ok, I have no wish to deny the opponent of Marx his point. But what I want to know is this: Shouldn't we accept that Hayek, too, and other such 'social democracy is just the first step towards totalitarianism' theories, be chalked up along with Marxism under the 'wrong' column?I say this only because I recently re-perused Hayek's The Road to Serfdom, and was struck by how many predictions he courageously offers, and how many of those have turned out to be--it has to be safe to say by now--wrong. Hayek viewed the fascists parties of Germany and Italy as not just successors to, but as the natural outgrowths of, earlier social democratic parties and policies. Social welfare policies will lead, even despite intentions, to serfdom and tyranny. Democratic conferral of such powers is no sufficient precaution against these eventualities. Any attempt to conflate economic with political liberty will ineluctably result in the negation of both. It's as clear to me at least that none of these turned out to be true. And there is no reason to think that they are just around the corner. In other words, most of the antecedent conditions that Hayek lays out have long obtained, and hardly any of the consequents have followed. That makes them false.

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