Wednesday, November 27, 2013

"elitist philanthropy" and charitable prioritization

Ken Berger, the CEO of Charity Navigator, has penned an amusing takedown of his competitor and my favorite charity review site, It is amusing for more than just its transparently self-serving nature. For example, Mr Berger has modified the phrase "effective altruism", frequently employed by GiveWell and its fellow travelers, into "defective altruism".

His main complaint is that GiveWell has the gall to compare against each other not only charities operating within a common cause but also the different causes themselves.
By contrast, defective altruism is—by the admission of its proponents—an approach that not only unjustifiably claims the moral high ground in giving decisions, but also implements this bold claim by weighing causes and beneficiaries against one another. In this, it is not moral, but rather, moralistic in the worst sense of the word.
Italics are his. The idea is that an individual who is really passionate about one area of giving--say, funding and volunteering at animal shelters--shouldn't be deemed an ineffective donor because that won't save as many human lives as mosquito net distributions and deworming campaigns.
In recent articles extolling the virtues of this approach, the GiveWell blog has cited the work of several allies, among them Peter Singer, who spoke about the concept in a recent TED Talk. In an example of the Sophie’s Choice that the movement offers the donor community, Singer posed the following question: Which is the “better” thing to do? To provide a guide dog to one blind American, or cure 2000 people of blindness in developing countries? Even had he not employed the adjective “American,” which was clearly intended to make his audience feel a distinct pang of cultural guilt, it was obvious which choice Singer thought was the “better” of the two; indeed, he said the choice was “clear.” 
Nobody enjoys the prospect of weighing lives in the balance, yet it's something that reality forces upon us. Resources are scarce and tough decisions must be made. The innocent yet profound assumption at the root of "effective altruism" is that each human life is equally precious. When this is fully appreciated and the resulting charity evaluations are presented to donors, it would be surprising if the philanthropic options available weren't harshly clarified.
[In] taking on this cause and using the bully pulpit of its website as its forum, GiveWell truly is doing more harm than good to both the donor community and those thousands upon thousands of organizations that are doing much-needed work in areas that the defective altruism fringe deems unworthy.
I doubt that GiveWell is prepared to say that any subject area of charity is truly unworthy. Giving to a well-managed charity in your preferred area is almost certainly better than not giving anything to any charity at all, assuming GiveWell's more humanitarian and cosmopolitan values are not as highly prioritized by the donor.

Mr Berger goes on to ask what would happen if everyone were as ruthlessly and singlemindedly cosmopolitan as GiveWell?
GiveWell has a particular fixation with global health and nutrition charities. It at least implicitly recommends that one should support charities only in those cause areas. It is therefore not surprising that it has recommended only a handful of charities to its users. If we all followed such a ridiculous approach, what would happen to:
  1. Domestic efforts to serve those in need?
  2. Advanced research funding for many diseases?
  3. Research on and efforts in creative and innovative new approaches to helping others that no one has ever tried before?
  4. More local and smaller charitable endeavors?
  5. Funding for the arts, and important cultural endeavors such as the preservation of historically important structures and archives?
  6. Volunteerism for the general public, since most “worthy” efforts are overseas and require a professional degree to have what Friedman calls “deep expertise in niche areas”?
  7. Careers in the nonprofit sector? Since the spokespeople for this opinion suggest that it might even be ethical to have a “lucrative job in an immoral corporation” so that you can be a so-called “do-bester” and give all the money away, it is unclear who would then run the charities to which defective altruists would give.
One possibility is that the greatest humanitarian problems would be eradicated, one by one, in order of severity. This doesn't seem like an obviously bad approach to me. But more importantly this is a ridiculous rhetorical question to ask. In no world remotely similar to our own will everyone adopt the ethical approach of Peter Singer. GiveWell indeed couples its services with a particular worldview, and perhaps, it markets that worldview as it makes its recommendations. The CEO of Charity Navigator may not think that is appropriate, but it seems to me that the world doesn't exactly suffer from a glut of GiveWell's worldview.

The question that comes to my mind when reading the example above is How many people even know about this possible trade-off? An American donor will see the need for guide dogs and may even know a blind American or two, but is much less likely to see so vividly the needs of poor foreigners. Even when the needs of foreigners are observed, like in those television commercials featuring gaunt African children with flies buzzing around them, they are observed at emotional remove because distant strangers are abstract, and because of a deep, biologically ingrained inability to really feel the plight of those who are not family or who do not belong to our tribes. Even the bleedingest-hearted of cosmopolitans recognize our moral obligations to distant strangers only intellectually. 

This biological deficiency is compounded by cultural biases that favor members of our tribe and steeply discount the moral demands of foreigners. Hence the inane insistence that we should take care of our poor before we fix the problems in other countries, despite the fact that the poorest five percent of Americans lie comfortably within the 60th percentile in the global incomes. And hence the cavalier attitudes toward the massive losses of life attendant to the foreign policy of America and its allies.

These are the hurdles that lie in the way of GiveWell's peculiar worldview achieving dominance and devastating the broader philanthropic sector that provides Mr Berger with his job. The danger is not that GiveWell's philosophy is taking over. Everything GiveWell does to enable people to appreciate the needs of foreigners goes a little way toward correcting an existing imbalance in philanthropy. It does not introduce a new imbalance.

As it happens, I do agree with Mr Berger that GiveWell's top pick charities are not the only charities that deserve support. They deserve more support than they are getting, and greater awareness of this fact is the service to humanity that GiveWell provides. But you can still support the opera if you choose. There's nothing wrong with giving to your alma mater. I, for one, give most of my charitable money to GiveDirectly, one of GiveWell's top picks. But close behind (and on par if I count my volunteer efforts) comes the American Civil Liberties Union, which saves far fewer lives than, say, mosquito net distributions, but which I believe is nevertheless important for making the world's most powerful nation something closer to the beacon of freedom to the world that its citizens like to think it is. I also like to throw some money in the direction of Wikipedia when Jimmy Wales comes around begging. Not too many lives are saved by Wikipedia, but its mission of bringing the world's knowledge to every human being is profoundly beautiful, and it Wikipedia powerfully expands the capabilities of individuals everywhere to pursue their interests and further their own unique ends. And so I close with Mr Wales.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

in which I come out (swinging) as an ethical intuitionist

Reading John Rawls's A Theory of Justice as a libertarian was illuminating in many ways, not least of which was how surprisingly libertarian his ideas are. Yes, he has his "difference principle", by which no policy leading to unequal outcomes should be implemented unless it benefits those worst off in society, and yes, he advocates a redistribution of wealth. But he also proposes that certain civil liberties are absolute, and the world is not enough to justify their abridgment. That's further than even I'm willing to go.

But perhaps the most valuable thing I got out of the book was learning the name for what my own peculiar take on ethics actually is. Rawls taught me that I'm an ethical intuitionist. These are the passages from Rawls, himself no intuitionist, that led me to this conclusion (A Theory of Justice, Section 7):
Intuitionism holds that in our judgments of social justice we must eventually reach a plurality of first principles in regard to which we can only say that it seems to us more correct to balance them this way rather than that.
We cannot take for granted that there must be a complete derivation of our judgments of social justice from recognizably ethical principles. The intuitionist believes to the contrary that the complexity of the moral facts defies our efforts to give a full account of our judgments and necessitates a plurality of competing principles. He contends that attempts to go beyond these principles either reduce to triviality [...] or else lead to falsehood and oversimplification, as when one settles everything by the principle of utility. The only way therefore to dispute intuitionism is to set forth the recognizably ethical criteria that account for the weights which, in our considered judgments, we think appropriate to give to the plurality of principles. A refutation of intuitionism consists in presenting the sort of constructive criteria that are said not to exist.
The distinctive feature, then, of intuitionistic views is [...] the especially prominent place that they give to the appeal to our intuitive capacities unguided by constructive and recognizably ethical criteria.
There's a prominent portion of political philosophy devoted to ideal theory--that is, describing the nature of the ideal, just society. These attempts commonly attempt to describe--and normatize--all of human ethics with one or a few principles. So we have utilitarianism and its variants, which reduce all ethical considerations to some kind of sum of individual pleasures or happiness units minus discomforts (or utilities minus disutilities). But it's easy to walk this theory off a cliff of some absurdity like slavery, whereby the utilities of slaveowners might outweigh the disutilities of slaves (and how do you compare utilities between distinct persons?). Of course in the 21st century we all know deep down in our bones that the utilities of slave owners (qua slave owners) and their defenders (qua defenders thereof) count for, in technical terms, fuckall. Oppressors like slave owners are real life utility monsters.

Or you have "rights" paradigms, whereby ethical considerations are delimited by certain rights of individuals (or groups?), like the right to free speech or to property or to the pursuit of happiness. But rights paradigms can be driven off a cliff too by the mere question "Says who?" Are rights from God? I don't believe in God, and neither do some reasonable folks I know. Do rights come from nature or are they self-evident? They're not self-evident to me, and all a priori derivations I've seen transparently reduce to simple assertions. Even if you accept that rights are something more than nonsense upon stilts you can run into problems if you take any given right to be absolute. Imagine a thought experiment where the salvation of some large number of people required the one-time sacrifice of an innocent child. Would we really bite the bullet and take that child's right to life to be inviolable?

Or you have "contractarian" paradigms, whereby justice is determined by the deliberations of some wise--or even better, ignorant--posse of ... well, deliberators--folks like you, me, and Joe the Plumber. But of course there never actually is a contract that anyone really decorates with her Jane Hancock. And the contractarian methodology encompasses the authoritarianism of Hobbes, the liberal egalitarianism of Rawls, and the classical liberalism of Locke--at the end of the day it's really just some political philosopher describing from his armchair the way things ought to be, the particulars of which are just as susceptible to malicious thought experiments as other hopeful theories.

The point of the above is that any attempt to derive the rules bounding ethical behavior inevitably leads to absurdities if interrogated by a sufficiently ornery interlocutor, and the absurdities are usually arrived at well before any exotic desert island, lifeboat, or trolley problems are deployed to their characteristically devastating effects. And why shouldn't this be so? The thing that all of these ideal theories have in common is that they attempt to reduce complex-adaptive realities to bite-size, deterministic formulae. It is unclear to me that physical reality itself--the domain of that most hallowed and rigorous science, physics--can be described neatly in closed form by immutable mathematical formulae. Why would we think that ethical behavior, which is so much more mushy and complex, could be so cleanly described?

Of course all of these theories have been tweaked in multiple ways to take the edge off and to avoid biting some bullets, but this can only go so far without the tweaks beginning to look like contortions. And the contortions beg the question: is it the theory that provides the ethical solutions or acceptable solutions that guide the theory?

Ethical intuitionism acknowledges all this and says "Don't panic." This doesn't mean that these ambitious efforts are all in vain. Physics is useful even without a grand unified theory, and the same is true for ethics. Constructing a theory of ethics or justice can provide perspective. Where one theory of justice gives an absurd result, perhaps another can step in and offer something more useful. Is this getting the cart before the horse, picking among theories for something that gives us what we want to hear? Yes. The ethical intuitionist embraces the use of moral gut checks, acknowledging that this what we do anyway with any theory. Our moral guts have a lot of experience not only from our evolutionary past but from our everyday interactions with others in society. We check our guts for what seems right, but we continue to develop theories of justice, rights, utilities, etc, to help us understand why our intuitions give the results they do, and more importantly, to shed some light on problems where our moral guts are completely out of their element. Our intuition leads our reason on and on in an iterative dance.

If we can't rationally deduce our way to ethical truth, does that imply moral relativism? Probably, but moral relativism isn't as bad as it's made out to be. As uncomfortable as it might be at first, it is just a fact that we have no guarantee of moral truth, and likely the best we can do is fumble in the dark.

While it was John Rawls who taught me I was an ethical intuitionist, I found succor in Amartya Sen and the Idea of Justice, which I read shortly after aToJ. Sen's approach to justice is not to characterize what a perfectly just society looks like. It is instead to start with the world as it is, with its clear and present injustices, and suggest movements toward greater justice in areas uncontroversial to most moral frameworks. It doesn't matter if liberal egalitarians and Randian libertarians disagree on the fundamentals of justice if, for a given issue, their prescriptions for justice intersect.

I almost titled this post the Idea of Jelly, because it is impossible to pin Sen down to strong normative declarations. When Sen discusses human rights or other controversial, underivable devices, he merely presents them, describes their usefulness, and quickly acknowledges these devices do not solve the problem of justice when it comes time to describe their theoretical deficits. He refuses to ride any idea off a cliff.

I found Sen's treatment of rights especially illuminating. Where in my youthful innocence I yearned for an a priori, irrefutable derivation of natural rights (negative rights of course, of the libertarian variety), it never occurred to me that even were such a derivation possible it would nevertheless not be accepted by those subscribing to competing philosophical systems. Sen doesn't even try to argue that rights come from anywhere. Rights are asserted in the forum of public reason and whatever survives scrutiny is--not true--something we can work with.
The 'existence' of human rights is obviously not like the existence of , say, Big Ben in the middle of London. Nor is it like the existence of a legislated law in the statute book. Proclamations of human rights, even  though stated in the form of recognizing the existence of things that are called human rights, are really strong ethical pronouncements as to what should be done. They demand acknowledgement of imperatives and indicate that something needs to be done for the realization of these recognized freedoms that are identified through these rights.
As an ethical intuitionist, I think this is the best we can do. But on the bright side, I actually think it's enough for progress.

Friday, July 5, 2013

Commentary on discrimination and the semi-open border

I have a new post up at Open Borders: The Case. Broadly, it's about the relationship between discrimination and immigration restrictions. It comes in two more or less orthogonal parts (I'd considered splitting it up into two separate posts). I'm fairly confident in the first part, about how racism has been an integral part of immigration restrictions in the US from the get-go.
Though I view it as strategically unwise--not to mention unfair and not altogether honest--to denounce immigration restrictions as inherently racist, it's also unwise to ignore the blatantly racist history of American immigration policies. Chris Hendrix has blogged about the first major restrictionist legislation, the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, but even before this, naturalization (as opposed to immigration) was restricted on explicitly racist grounds. The Naturalization Act of 1790 restricted naturalization to "free white persons" of "good moral character". This may not be surprising for a nation that allowed legal slavery of Africans and those of African descent for nearly a century, but this racial requirement was the law of the land until the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952. Immigration isn't the same as citizenship, yet this unpalatable history is clearly relevant to today's discussions of immigrant assimilation (citizen or otherwise). 
[...] Explicit racism in immigration restrictions persisted after the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1952 formally severed the concepts "American" and "white". In a curious collusion of Mexican emigration restrictionists and American immigration restrictionists, "Operation Wetback" was launched in 1954 to deport illegal Mexican immigrants and limit further Mexican immigration. The dangers, of course, are that a long history of racist justifications for immigration restrictions doesn't just disappear down the memory hole when the law is officially changed and that explicit racism in American immigration policy has merely been replaced by implicit racism. One place to start looking for such implicit discrimination would be in the federal Secure Communities program, which has been criticized for encouraging racial profiling.
I was on more unfamiliar ground in the second part of the post, where I started talking about class-based discrimination and how the distinction between low-skilled and high-skilled immigration is a manifestation of this kind of discrimination. I cheated a little bit because I don't think that the reluctance of folks to accept low-skilled immigrants always comes from the kind of politics of disgust I describe. There are legitimate differences in the economic cases for the two (or more) classes of immigrants and it's fair enough that people may be skeptical about some nontrivial welfare state economic effects without me impugning their motives. And yet, for me, mistrust of the foreigner, in immigration and other matters, is fundamentally about not recognizing the full and equal humanity of some Other, which is the same dynamic underpinning racism, classism, sexism, etc.
Another, more subtle kind of discrimination is at play in the modern immigration debate, even in more enlightened quarters: discrimination against lower classes. A recent incarnation of this is the moralized evocation and denunciation of a "moocher class" composed of the lazy poor who take handouts from the government and give nothing back to society in return. The reality is somewhat different, with many upper class individuals failing to realize when they have benefited from government programs. As with racial discrimination, discrimination by socioeconomic class makes generalizations about large groups of individuals and judges them to be somehow worth just a little less than the dominant group.
[...] The low-skilled migration restrictionists do not seem to be concerned with removing poverty so much as with removing poverty from view. I suspect the distinction between low- and high-skilled immigrants is really a euphemism for discriminating against poor and lower class immigrants. High-skilled immigrants, regardless of absolute wealth levels, are usually richer than low-skilled immigrants and they are certainly more educated. High-skilled immigrants have grown up in families that would be considered culturally elite or at least middle class in their countries of origin (this is how they attained the human capital to qualify as "skilled"). As such, high-skilled workers will more easily fit into "nice" parts of the rich world, like suburbs and medical schools. And they will do the host country the benefit of adding diversity to these institutions, making them appear more inclusive while still keeping out the riff-raff. They will not need to live in dense slums many-to-a-room in living conditions middle class natives find distasteful.
I would love to read more about this dynamic. The idea that middle- and upper-class people don't even realize they're the beneficiaries of government programs is telling, and I wonder how often policies benefiting the more comfortable classes are cloaked to prevent their recognition as transfer programs while policies aimed at the poor are kept nakedly apparent as wealth transfers. This is certainly the case with things like the mortgage interest rate deduction. As a (comfortably middle-class) buddy put it. "I should have to stand in line at a run down public building to get a mortgage tax rebate check. And they should drug test me too. Otherwise I might just spend it on crack."

Anyway, read the whole thing at the Open Borders blog and tell me what you think.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Martin Luther King Jr and open borders

UPDATE: I've edited this post slightly to shorten it and make it a little more readable.

Since I believe one of the best strategies for the opening of the world's borders is to cast it as a civil rights issue, I thought it would be a good idea to go back to some of the classical rhetorical pieces of the American Civil Rights Movement and read them in the light of free migration. There is one readily apparent similarity between racial segregation and immigration restrictions. Racial segregation limits the mobility of certain persons on the morally arbitrary basis of the color of their skin, and this is done regardless of whether people on the "other side" of the segregation are willing to interact peacefully. A closed border restricts mobility and voluntary, peaceful interaction on the morally arbitrary basis of which side of the border a person happened to be born on.

The work and rhetoric of Martin Luther King Jr seems like the obvious place to begin. In April 1963, King organized marches and sit-ins of public spaces in Birmingham, Alabama, intentionally violating the segregation laws of the time that proscribed blacks from sharing certain public and private spaces with whites. King was arrested and jailed, and from his cell he wrote what became known as his Letter from a Birmingham Jail. In the letter King responds to critics who have urged him to pursue his goals of racial equality with patience and through legal channels, rather than violating the laws of the land. There is already a parallel here to the demands of immigration restrictionists that aspiring migrants "wait in line" despite the fact that there is no real "line" for many migrants.

King begins his letter defending himself against charges of being an "outside agitator" stirring up trouble in a place where he isn't welcome. The following doesn't really relate to open borders in an obvious way, but it's a beautiful statement of the kind of cosmopolitanism that underpins the call to open borders.
Moreover, I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial "outside agitator" idea. Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds. 
He moves on to defend the timing of his nonviolent activism and his decision to act directly rather than wait for political negotiations to bear fruit.
You may well ask: "Why direct action? Why sit ins, marches and so forth? Isn't negotiation a better path?" You are quite right in calling for negotiation. Indeed, this is the very purpose of direct action. Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored. My citing the creation of tension as part of the work of the nonviolent resister may sound rather shocking. But I must confess that I am not afraid of the word "tension." I have earnestly opposed violent tension, but there is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth. Just as Socrates felt that it was necessary to create a tension in the mind so that individuals could rise from the bondage of myths and half truths to the unfettered realm of creative analysis and objective appraisal, so must we see the need for nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood. The purpose of our direct action program is to create a situation so crisis packed that it will inevitably open the door to negotiation. I therefore concur with you in your call for negotiation. Too long has our beloved Southland been bogged down in a tragic effort to live in monologue rather than dialogue. 
The connection I'd like to draw here is that aspiring migrants who are scared or otherwise hesitant to migrate through unofficial channels have no political voice with which to negotiate for their rights to enter the land of their choosing. Migrants who are willing to brave the move without legal authorization of the host country gain no political voice by doing so, but by acting directly, seizing their rights in spite of the law, they raise the probability of reform just by virtue of their presence. Without the legal tension created by the presence of illegal immigrants, there would likely never be any movement toward opening borders, regardless of how powerful the arguments for open borders might be. Such arguments would be hopelessly academic.
My friends, I must say to you that we have not made a single gain in civil rights without determined legal and nonviolent pressure. Lamentably, it is an historical fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily. Individuals may see the moral light and voluntarily give up their unjust posture; but, as Reinhold Niebuhr has reminded us, groups tend to be more immoral than individuals. 
We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct action campaign that was "well timed" in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word "Wait!" It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This "Wait" has almost always meant "Never." We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that "justice too long delayed is justice denied."
For years now we have heard the words "Wait in line!" It rings in the ear of every migrant with piercing familiarity. This "Wait in line" has almost always meant "Never."
We have waited for more than 340 years for our constitutional and God given rights. The nations of Asia and Africa are moving with jetlike speed toward gaining political independence, but we still creep at horse and buggy pace toward gaining a cup of coffee at a lunch counter. Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say, "Wait." But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate filled policemen curse, kick and even kill your black brothers and sisters; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six year old daughter why she can't go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky, and see her beginning to distort her personality by developing an unconscious bitterness toward white people; when you have to concoct an answer for a five year old son who is asking: "Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?"; when you take a cross county drive and find it necessary to sleep night after night in the uncomfortable corners of your automobile because no motel will accept you; when you are humiliated day in and day out by nagging signs reading "white" and "colored"; when your first name becomes "nigger," your middle name becomes "boy" (however old you are) and your last name becomes "John," and your wife and mother are never given the respected title "Mrs."; when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next, and are plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of "nobodiness"--then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait. There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to be plunged into the abyss of despair. I hope, sirs, you can understand our legitimate and unavoidable impatience. 
One of the most powerful paragraphs in the letter. When I read this I thought of the environment of uncertainty in which immigrants in the US live, especially in places like Joe Arpaio's Arizona, where immigrants and suspected immigrants have suffered popularly lauded degradations like forced marches in pink underwear, meals of moldy bread and rotten fruit, and childbirth given in shackles. While in the rest of America, undocumented immigrants live constantly at tiptoe stance, lest some traffic violation result in their deportation following indefinite detention in a jail cell. And this is all for the equivalent of a cup of coffee at the lunch counter: the right to live and work peacefully among those born within the border.

Meanwhile millions of our brothers and sisters in the undeveloped world smother in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of the affluent societies of the developed world, their tongues twisted and speech stammering, explaining to their children why they can't move to the places where work is plentiful, water is clean, and wages are high.
You express a great deal of anxiety over our willingness to break laws. This is certainly a legitimate concern. Since we so diligently urge people to obey the Supreme Court's decision of 1954 outlawing segregation in the public schools, at first glance it may seem rather paradoxical for us consciously to break laws. One may well ask: "How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?" The answer lies in the fact that there are two types of laws: just and unjust. I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that "an unjust law is no law at all." 
Now, what is the difference between the two? How does one determine whether a law is just or unjust? A just law is a man made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas: An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust. All segregation statutes are unjust because segregation distorts the soul and damages the personality. It gives the segregator a false sense of superiority and the segregated a false sense of inferiority. 
The last line speaks to one of the less savory arguments against open borders: that the global poor suffer their lots because they are less intelligent or lack the work ethic of the citizens of the rich world or some other failing. After more discussion of the differences between just and unjust laws, King sets up one of his chief foils: the white moderate.
[I] must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro's great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen's Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to "order" than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: "I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action"; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man's freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a "more convenient season." Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection. 
I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that law and order exist for the purpose of establishing justice and that when they fail in this purpose they become the dangerously structured dams that block the flow of social progress. I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that the present tension in the South is a necessary phase of the transition from an obnoxious negative peace, in which the Negro passively accepted his unjust plight, to a substantive and positive peace, in which all men will respect the dignity and worth of human personality. Actually, we who engage in nonviolent direct action are not the creators of tension. We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive. We bring it out in the open, where it can be seen and dealt with. Like a boil that can never be cured so long as it is covered up but must be opened with all its ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light, injustice must be exposed, with all the tension its exposure creates, to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured.
It isn't the racists or the committed nativists and nationalists who are the biggest roadblocks in the way of open borders. We will never win them over and it's barely worth the effort of trying beyond countering their arguments for the benefit of observers. The great roadblock consists of basically sympathetic people who are nonetheless wary of the apparent radicalism of open borders; or people who simply do not realize the scale of humanitarian benefits on the table; or those who have no problem with immigrants personally, but assume that immigration must be zero-sum, with jobs gained by foreigners equaling jobs lost to natives.

The point of this post is not to twist Dr King's eloquence to favor open borders. I have no idea if he believed in open borders or if he gave the matter much thought either way. The point is to take the words of this celebrated moral leader and use them to show how the civil rights for which he struggled parallel the rights of international immigration. At root, these rights are expressions of the universal moral equality of human beings. King's sphere of concern certainly extended beyond African-Americans and far beyond America's national borders. In a speech against US involvement in the Vietnam War, he made this call to cosmopolitan compassion:
This I believe to be the privilege and the burden of all of us who deem ourselves bound by allegiances and loyalties which are broader and deeper than nationalism and which go beyond our nation's self-defined goals and positions. We are called to speak for the weak, for the voiceless, for the victims of our nation and for those it calls "enemy," for no document from human hands can make these humans any less our brothers.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

a Biblical frame for immigration liberalization

I was reading this Atlantic write-up of the excellent website Open Borders: The Case and I was surprised when the article concluded that what was really needed was Mark Zuckerberg to ride in to the rescue. Zuckerberg has started deploying resources to make it easier for skilled workers to immigrate to America, but this is small potatoes compared to what he could be doing:
Lobbying his unparalleled audience, the largest online community the world has ever known, to create an army of open borders supporters--that is the kind of connect-the-world change that Zuckerberg has already created with Facebook. Perhaps not this year, or even five years down the line, but Zuckerberg might eventually use his clout to start a global debate about the borders that keep Marvin from the marketplace. The lure of trillions of dollars for all, the potential elimination of world poverty, and a solid moral footing preached by Naik and Clemens probably won't convince a majority without backing from major business leaders.
Don't get me wrong. I am in favor of fabulously rich individuals devoting their wealth to advance worthy causes, but my awake-at-4AM mind jumped to "Why doesn't the Catholic Church devote (a lot) more energy to pushing for liberal migration policies around the world?"

The Catholic Church, as a large, well-funded, and international institution with a vested interest in removing barriers to movement seems particularly well placed to press for open borders in an effective way. Unlike most things I would like the Catholic Church to do (like accept women's reproductive rights, contraception, and some facts of human sexual diversity), this would not require the Church to radically rethink any theology or rewrite any catechisms. The Church already acknowledges the human right of migration and has some powerful rhetoric it can deploy in its favor. The following was taken from the website of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops (it was one of the first pages to come up when I asked the Internet what Catholics think of immigration):
Both the Old and New Testaments tell compelling stories of refugees forced to flee because of oppression. Exodus tells the story of the Chosen People, Israel, who were victims of bitter slavery in Egypt. They were utterly helpless by themselves, but with God's powerful intervention they were able to escape and take refuge in the desert. For forty years they lived as wanderers with no homeland of their own. Finally, God fulfilled his ancient promise and settled them on the land that they could finally call home.

The Israelites' experience of living as homeless aliens was so painful and frightening that God ordered his people for all time to have special care for the alien: "You shall treat the alien who resides with you no differently than the natives born among you; have the same love for him as for yourself; for you too were once aliens in the land of Egypt" (Lv 19:33-34).

The New Testament begins with Matthew's story of Joseph and Mary's escape to Egypt with their newborn son, Jesus, because the paranoid and jealous King Herod wanted to kill the infant. Our Savior himself lived as a refugee because his own land was not safe.

Jesus reiterates the Old Testament command to love and care for the stranger, a criterion by which we shall be judged: "For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me" (Mt 25:35).

The Apostle Paul asserts the absolute equality of all people before God: "There is neither Jew nor Greek . . . for you are all one in Christ Jesus" (Gal 3:28). In Christ, the human race is one before God, equal in dignity and rights.
This is powerful stuff, and it made me think how different this language is from the usual rhetorical framework for the immigration debate. In the US at least, the focus is always on economics, with the burden of proof lying on the immigration advocates to show that there are huge economic gains to be had and high school drop-outs won't be hurt too badly, and of course that migrants aren't terrorists by nature. These are all silly arguments, and Catholic thinkers somehow manage to cut to the moral heart of the matter, powerfully asserting what most of us seem too embarrassed to declare outright: All human beings are morally equal. We are all worthy of the same ethical consideration. And if we can do something to help a fellow human being in need, that is, all else equal, a fine thing. We should want to help even if we decide for some practical reasons that we can't. Wanting to help is the starting point.

Getting bogged down in technical debates about whether and exactly how much immigration benefits natives risks an ethical blunder, ceding the terms of the debate to restrictionists who will focus on economic minutiae that would be absurd in other contexts. (If a new invention were predicted to perhaps cause a 1% decrease in the wages of 6% of the population while everyone else benefited from the productivity gains, no one would blink). Of course we all want pareto-optimal policy changes, where absolutely everyone benefits by the departure from the status quo. Yet this happy congruence is clearly not always either possible or even relevant.

The granddaddy example of this is slavery. In the early nineteenth century, the debate over abolition was colored by the fact that entire economies were built on the peculiar institution. If slaves were freed, a lot of plantation owners would suffer severe economic setbacks. Abolition of slavery, possibly the greatest moral victory the world has ever seen, did not happen because slave owners were persuaded they would be made better off by the deal. Abolition was achieved because the abolitionists persuaded enough free people of the moral truth that slaves are human beings and are therefore should be accorded basic human rights.

The civil rights victories over the Jim Crow regime were likewise not achieved by sophisticated economic arguments about how integration and human capital development among blacks would ultimately benefit even white supremacists. No, it was Martin Luther King Jr and other Civil Rights leaders appealing to the sense of fairness among the empowered.

Women did not win their suffrage and the rights to work and own property by convincing the contemporary enfranchized that men would stand to gain materially from women's empowerment. No, feminists persuaded enough men in power that the radical notion that women are people was simply true. The injustice of enforcing power structures based on amoral accidents of birth was laid bare.

Expanding empathy played a role in each case above, getting the privileged parts of society to see that, but for a roll of the dice, they could have been born with a different color of skin, or a different gender, or in chains, or on the wrong side of a border. Even a morally perfect being or a divinely chosen people could find themselves with the short ends of these sorts of sticks.

At its most basic articulation, the policy of open borders asserts the individual's presumptive human right to move freely about the world, and live where she wishes to live. The status quo global policy of constraining an individual to live where she was born, for the morally arbitrary fact that she just happened to be born there, is a transparently unjust institution. The only relevant economics is that this injustice is magnified by the poverty it inflicts on hundreds of millions of people.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

US Muslims by the numbers

I was interested to read Reihan Salam's recent post on the future of Islam in America. He offers his perspective growing up Muslim (his parents had immigrated from Muslim majority Bangladesh) and opines that American Muslims will grow more secular over time (just as the rest of the country seems to be doing). But it was the quantitative information he quotes that really jolted me.
The best survey evidence offers only a limited and inconclusive portrait of America’s Muslim community. The Pew Research Center estimates that there are 2.75 million Muslims living in the United States, and that 63 percent were born outside of the country. Of this foreign-born slice of the Muslim population, 45 percent arrived in the United States after 1990 and 70 percent are naturalized U.S. citizens. This population is incredibly diverse. Roughly 13 percent of all U.S. Muslims are native-born African-Americans. Some U.S. Muslims are highly educated professionals leading integrated lives, while others are less-skilled workers earning poverty-level incomes in ethnic enclaves.

According to Pew, 69 percent of U.S. Muslims claim that religion is an important part of their lives; 47 percent report attending worship services on a weekly basis. These numbers closely parallel the numbers for U.S. Christians. It is also true, however, that one-fifth of U.S. Muslims seldom or never attend worship services, a sure sign of secularization.

Another sign is that a large majority of U.S. Muslims appear to be comfortable with religious pluralism. Pew found that 56 percent of U.S. Muslims believe that many different religions can lead to eternal life while 35 percent believe that only Islam will get you there. Similarly, 57 percent of U.S. Muslims believe that there are many valid ways to interpret Islamic teachings, as opposed to 37 percent who maintain that only one interpretation is valid. Suffice it to say, the notion that many different religions are of equal value is not likely to be embraced by the religiously orthodox. Indeed, one possibility is that this more relaxed approach to the demands of religion represents a way station on the road to abandoning religion entirely.
2.75 million is less than 1% of the US population! If I had needed to guess, I would have said maybe 3%. What's more, I'm guessing the majority of the Muslim population in the US is concentrated in cities within a few US states (not all coastal, apparently the largest Muslim population by percentage is in Michigan?!). This means it's probably quite easy for large swathes of the American population to go through life without ever working closely with or having long-term interactions with a single Muslim. This must be especially true for the subset of the population that doesn't attend college. I am pretty sure I didn't really meet any Muslims until I attended university (still in Oklahoma). And of course since then I went more coastal and more urban, so Muslims are common enough to me that I can be shocked by these demographic revelations.

Anyway, I don't want to excuse intolerance or Islamophobia, but is it any wonder that so many people in the US just aren't sure about Muslims? They're completely alien to much of the country.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Sam Harris and Islamophobia

I've been following the kerfuffle between Glenn Greenwald and Sam Harris over, well, I guess it's over whether Sam Harris is some kind of bigot or not. The big Glenn Greenwald post (with the half dozen hyperlinks per paragraph that is his wont) is here. Everything I'm going to quote in this post comes from what I think is the latest from Harris. I don't think Harris is a bad person or is intentionally bigoted, but I do think Islamophobia is a real thing and a useful concept.

Quoting Greenwald's definition of Islamophobia:
It signifies (1) irrational condemnations of all members of a group or the group itself based on the bad acts of specific individuals in that group; (2) a disproportionate fixation on that group for sins committed at least to an equal extent by many other groups, especially one’s own; and/or (3) sweeping claims about the members of that group unjustified by their actual individual acts and beliefs.
He continues:
This is extremely useful, being both clearly stated and clearly wrong. The meaning of “Islamophobia” is not at all like the meanings of those other terms. It is simply not easy to differentiate prejudice against Muslims from ordinary racism and xenophobia directed at Arabs, Pakistanis, Somalis, and other people who happen to be Muslim. Of course, there is no question that such bigotry exists, and it is as odious as Greenwald believes. But inventing a new term does not give us license to say that there is a new form of hatred in the world. How does the term “anti-Semitism” differ? Well, we have a 2000-year-old tradition of religiously inspired hatred against Jews, conceived as a distinct race of people, both by those who hate them and by Jews themselves. Anti-Semitism is, therefore, a specific form of racism that, as everyone knows, has taken many terrible turns over the years (and is now especially prevalent among Muslims, for reasons that can be explicitly traced not merely to recent conflicts over land in the Middle East, but to the doctrine of Islam). “Sexism,” of course, is a bias against women, not because of any doctrines they might espouse, but because they were born without a Y chromosome. The meanings of these terms are clear, and each names a form of hatred and exclusion directed at people, as people, not because of their behavior or beliefs, but because of the mere circumstances of their birth.
I think Harris makes a number of wrong turns generally, but here's where I'll start. It would be nice if everything could be so clear-cut as "You're allowed to bear prejudice against any group of people as long as the grouping is not based on a biological attribute of birth." But it's murkier than that. Xenophobia directed at nationalities is still xenophobia, as Harris acknowledges above, but nationality needn't depend on blood. Sexuality is another example. While it's become a favored political talking point in the marriage equality movement that gays and lesbians are "born that way," I've always thought human sexuality was too complex for this to be true for all non-heterosexual activity in all circumstances (there's no possibility for a cultural component to sexual experimentation?). Even if the homophobes were right all along that homosexuality is a choice, we would still be left with benighted people fearing, hating, and discriminating against an Other group of people for irrational reasons, and "homophobia" would still be quite a useful term.

The case of atheists should hit home for Harris. Atheists are also a group distinguishable only by their ideas, but fear and hatred of atheists feels like just another manifestation of garden variety xenophobia. I reckon, hazardously perhaps, that the mistrust of atheists is primarily based on the misunderstanding of what atheism is (nihilism and hating Jesus, right?). The mistrust is facilitated by the general social acceptance of maligning atheists because they are scary Others. This is an irrational mistrust of a whole group of people based on ignorance and has nothing to do with considered judgment of the actual ethical consequences of failing to believe in supernatural phenomena. I predict, hazardously for sure, that this attitude toward atheists will crumble as more atheists come out of the closet and everyone realizes atheists are just folks, much like gays and Muslims.

But even by Harris's own standards, Islamophobia should be at least potentially a real phenomenon because Islam is in almost all cases a matter of the circumstances of birth, family, and early childhood, just as Christianity is in most of America. Harris recognizes this when, elsewhere, he points out that he reserves his harshest criticism for people who convert to Islam, because they haven't been brainwashed into the faith from birth. But you don't get a free pass to make "sweeping claims about the members of [a] group unjustified by their actual individual actions and beliefs" just because you note that some small fraction of the group actually chose to join the group. The social and cultural ties that bind a person to the faith of their upbringing are incredibly strong (even where apostasy is not a crime). In religious societies, identification with the social faith is just the default, so it says very little about a person in a predominantly Muslim society (including neighborhoods in pluralistic countries) that he or she identifies as Muslim. Generalizations about such individuals are therefore suspect.

The heart of what makes Islamophobia a legitimate category of bigotry is the motivated misrepresentation of what Muslims believe (or, in the slightly more forgivable case, the uncritical swallowing of such misrepresentations). Consider the following characterization of black people: "Black people like to collect welfare instead of finding gainful employment because it is their biological nature to be lazy." This is a racist statement because of the pernicious and false generalization of the entire set of black people. If you are a racist with more modern sensibilities, you might say "Laziness is part of African-American culture." Something similar can be done with Muslims. "Muslims are predisposed to suicide bombing and genital mutilation because it is in the nature of Muslims to be violent." If you are clever, you will tweak this idea thusly: "Violence is the nature of Islam." I think Harris does something like this. In the following passage, all the emphases are mine.
So “Islamophobia” must be—it really can only be—an irrational, disproportionate, and unjustified fear of certain people, regardless of their ethnicity or any other accidental trait,because of what they believe and to the degree to which they believe it. Thus the relevant question to ask is whether a special concern about people who are deeply committed to the actual doctrines of Islam, in the aftermath of September 11th, 2001, is irrational, disproportionate, and unjustified. 
Contrary to Greenwald’s assertion, my condemnation of Islam does not apply to “all members of a group or the group itself based on the bad acts of specific individuals in that group.” My condemnation applies to the doctrines of Islam and to the ways in which they reliably produce these “bad acts.” Unfortunately, in the case of Islam, the bad acts of the worst individuals—the jihadists, the murderers of apostates, and the men who treat their wives and daughters like chattel—are the best examples of the doctrine in practice. Those who adhere most strictly to the actual teachings of Islam, those who expound its timeless dogma most honestly, are precisely the people whom Greenwald and other obscurantists want us to believe least represent the faith. 
Well, this is a very easy difference of opinion to resolve: One need only study the doctrine of Islam—not merely as it existed in the 7th century, but as it exists today—and ask some very basic questions. What, for instance, is the penalty for apostasy? Interestingly, it isn’t spelled out in the Koran—there, apostates are merely promised their just deserts in hell—but it is made painfully clear in the hadith, and in the opinions of Muslim jurists and Muslim mobs everywhere. The year is 2013, and the penalty for apostasy, everywhere under Islam, is death. I have yet to meet an apologist for the religion, however evasive, who could lie about this fact with a straight face. (Perhaps Greenwald would like to be the first.) Needless to say, I receive emails from former Muslims who are all too aware of what it means to be a former Muslim. Depending on where they live, these people run a real risk of being murdered, perhaps even by members of their own families, for having lost their faith.
The bold phrases all betray Harris's never-wavering certainty that he knows the true nature of Islam. This is, of course, impossible, because Islam means many different things to many different Muslims, let alone self-described enemies of Islam. I've argued this before, but it will probably bear repeating for a long while: religious belief is adaptable to circumstances. It is trivial to find passages in the Bible that explicitly support slavery and others that explicitly condemn homosexuality. And yet the (mostly) Christian West eradicated legal slavery over a century ago and gay rights are quickly becoming the norm. Islam is no different. Harris is simply interpreting the Quran and the hadith in his preferred way. He and others in his wing of the New Atheism movement are no better than religious fundamentalists when they employ scriptural "literalism" and focus all their attention on stoning homosexuals and putting infidels to the sword. I put "literalism" in quotes because the Quran and hadith (like the Old and New Testaments before them) are large, old, multi-authored, and at times self-conflicting. It is simply impossible to read such literature in any kind of facile word-for-word manner. As with interpreting the American Constitution, you're going to bring your priors along for the ride.

Harris sometimes acknowledges that there are liberal, moderate, and/or pragmatic Muslims. Clearly liberal Islam is possible, both in Western pluralistic countries as well as in predominantly Muslim countries. To be honest I don't have much knowledge of Islam and I won't pretend I do. Most of what I know came from Robert Wright's Evolution of God, which argued persuasively that God's temperament correlates suspiciously with geopolitical facts in the scripture era histories of both Christianity and Islam. For a dose of empiricism, here is a Pew study of six Muslim countries from mid-2012 that reports broadly positive attitudes toward democracy and gender equality, and negative attitudes toward extremist groups such as al Qaeda. Here is a Wikipedia page on liberal Islam that presents possibilities for Islam very different from the caricatures of Harris-wing New Atheism. Intuitively, if Christianity can support worldviews as vastly different as those of Roman Catholics and Quakers, it seems likely that Islam can manage such variation as well (and does, for all I know).

If liberal Islam is possible, why does Harris insist on caricaturing the entire faith as barbaric? What purpose does that serve? He often points out that women and minorities suffer the most from Islamic doctrine. I take him at his word on this. But his rhetoric alienates all Muslims, whether they are victims, reformists, or oppressors. Further down in his piece, Harris describes a nightmare scenario where an "avowedly suicidal" Islamist regime obtains a nuclear arsenal. He argues that in such a scenario the West would be forced to consider a preemptive nuclear strike to ensure its survival. I think he takes some shortcuts in his scenario, but I'm not going to argue with his logic here. Instead, I want to ask how Harris's approach to Islam and Muslims is going to impact the probability of such a nightmare happening. What is more likely to move the Islamic world in a more secular, liberal direction? A) We attempt to persuade a billion or so Muslims to adopt atheism by showing the moderates that they have been (this whole time!) misinterpreting their scriptures, which are far more brutal and tyrannical than they heretofore understood, or B) We engage the Islamic world more in cultural and economic exchange, and highlight the efforts of the liberals and reformers who are already demonstrating how their faith is compatible with secular, cosmopolitan values.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

a dose of anarchism

I think the biggest reason I stopped being an anarchist (after identifying as such for my four years in university) was sheer laziness. Despite loving to write and talk about political philosophy, I could only take so much "B-but, who would provide roads/schools/fire departments/police/space programs/killer drones??" It really wears one down.

So it was a delightful blast from the past to read the lead essay in the current Cato Unbound forum by Michael Huemer. I've linked to Huemer before for his wonderful essay arguing that migration is a human right. The new essay at Cato Unbound is a teaser for his recently published book The Problem of Political Authority, which is currently nestling in my queue. He argues in the essay that all the arguments for the legitimacy of government authority fall short. When I was an anarchist, it was for exactly these reasons. I still find these arguments against government legitimacy compelling. Here are some disconnected highlights.

[T]hose who kill large numbers of people to bring about some political change are dubbed “terrorists” and are widely condemned, regardless of whether their goals are desirable . . . unless they work for a government, in which case they are called “soldiers” and may be praised as heroes. When an individual is forced to work for someone else, this is called “forced labor” or “slavery” and is widely considered unjust . . . unless it is imposed by a government, in which case it may be called “conscription,” “national service,” or “jury duty.” 
(“If you don’t want a government, simply move to Antarctica!”) Very briefly, the problem with this suggestion is that it presupposes that the state owns all the territory over which it claims jurisdiction, or that for some other reason it has the right to exclude people from that area. But there is no way to establish such a right on the part of the state, unless one has already shown that the state has legitimate authority. This therefore cannot be presupposed in an argument designed to establish the state’s authority. 
Imagine that someone proposed that the key to establishing social justice and restraining corporate greed was to establish a very large corporation, much larger than any corporation hitherto known—one with revenues in the trillions of dollars. A corporation that held a monopoly on some extremely important market within our society. And used its monopoly in that market to extend its control into other markets. And hired men with guns to force customers to buy its product at whatever price it chose. And periodically bombed the employees and customers of corporations in other countries. By what theory would we predict that this corporation, above all others, could be trusted to serve our interests and to protect us both from criminals and from all the other corporations? If someone proposed to establish a corporation like this, would your trepidation be assuaged the moment you learned that every adult would be issued one share of stock in this corporation, entitling them to vote for members of the board of directors?

Anarcho-capitalist critiques like this all boil down to the notions that (1) any non-government entity who behaved in the ways governments routinely behave would be regarded with moral horror, (2) there's no compelling reason to think that rights violations by governmental actors should be measured by a different ethical metric than rights violations by non-governmental actors, and (3) even if there were a reason to judge them differently, there is no non-arbitrary way to choose who gets to become a member of this ethically unbounded institution.

I find it hard to articulate why I'm not an anarchist. Perhaps in some ways I still am. I do think that an agent of the state is morally responsible for their actions performed for the state. I don't think an election confers any more legitimate authority than emergence from a royal womb. At the same time, I think there's good reason to think the Leviathan does lessen violence between its subjects. A government is also an effective way to deal with collective action problems, especially those arising on the scale of modern populations. I think the benefits outweigh the costs, even though I'm not particularly a utilitarian.

And anarchism has its own contradictions. The whole notion of private property that animates so many anarcho-capitalists has about as much justification as political authority. And the world itself is already anarchic: there is no one world government (this should come as a relief to right wing conspiracy enthusiasts). So it seems pretty obvious by virtue of example that anarchy is liable to degrade into territorial gangs that rule by force. The honest anarchist faces a nasty bullet to bite in that none of the best places in the world to live can at all be characterized as anarchic, minarchic, or having a weak government. I doubt many anarchists would willingly trade living in one of the modern liberal democracies for any exotic anarchy found in history (medieval Iceland or wherever). Finally, the prohibition against coercion at the heart of anarchism is a universal acid that can dissolve many more human interactions and institutions than just the government: there is no consent to be born, for example, and childhood is an experience of profound coercion, even in the most enlightened families.

So, I'm (still, maybe) an anarchist in that I do not respect the authority of any government in a pretty fundamental way, for all the reasons you can read about from Huemer. But I'd mostly like us all to keep carrying on as if our governments did have some kind of authority. I would also like to have my cake and eat it too. When dusting off all my old anarchist thoughts for this post, I noticed a parallel with religion/atheism, and not the old Neither Gods Nor Masters parallel that freethinkers go on about. There is the argument that religion has to have provided some evolutionary advantage given its ubiquity and costliness. Whether or not religion is still necessary for group cohesion or whatever, it probably was at some stage of human development. But at no point was any religion ever true in any prosaic sense. Likewise, political authority may be illegitimate but still useful.

My recent tolerance toward religion provides another parallel. I've come to think it's quite a bit more important for religion to be benign than for it to cease altogether. I'm okay with religion sticking around if we get to keep the feel-good stuff like holidays and community and a metaphorical platform for discussing moral ideas, but we get rid of all the out-group hostility and outdated cultural mores. And it's even better if all the logically impossible beliefs are only nudge-and-wink beliefs. Modern theistic belief systems are evolving, at least in the West, to accommodate knowledge from atheistic science and secular Enlightenment reasoning.

Maybe something similar can be hoped for in the realm of political philosophy: a theory of a government that is defanged by some basic insights from anarchism, where government is granted some authority to do warm and fuzzy things like enforcing traffic laws and providing a social safety net while we play along, smiling and nodding at the mostly harmless chicanery. But the inherent absurdity of political authority would be close enough to the surface of consciousness that a government would be inhibited from doing substantial evil. Today, most of us treat IRS employees as civil servant bureaucrats doing their fairly mundane jobs. Meanwhile we lionize soldiers and insist on shielding them from the criticism we might be applying to whatever wars they are participating in. And we expect politicians to behave basely; indeed the clever among us excuse them because "they're only doing what they have to do to get (re)elected," especially when they're on our team.

With a little influence from our anarchist and anarcho-curious friends, more mainstream folks would probably continue to treat the tax collectors about as well as they treat employees of the DMV. The anarchist's sanity check "What if my neighbor demanded under veiled threats my money to build a school?" wouldn't get much traction because hey--"Someone's gotta build a school and those anarchists take themselves too seriously anyway." Taxes aren't really extracted by gun-waving government goons in most cases; they're collected from a populace participating in a civic norm, as close to tipping as to robbery. Most people are not visualizing shouting gunmen kicking down their front door and offing the family pet when they're figuring out their taxes.

But with any luck, the politically mainstream would start to treat actually violent policies (wars, targeted killings, American-style mass incarceration, and the like) with a bit more skepticism. The anarchist's sanity check "What if my neighbor butchered a bunch of innocent people the next town over because they were in the vicinity of arguably less innocent people she was aiming at?" carries greater weight because there is no good excuse to kill innocent people.* We would treat police and soldiers as grown-ups capable of making their own informed moral decisions (which eager young military recruits do not realize their actions will quite likely result in the deaths of innocents?). And we would feel at least as much outrage at the politicians advocating human rights violations (again, especially if they're on our team) as we feel when similar crimes are committed by foreign regimes.

The point is that you don't have to buy the whole worldview to get something useful out of anarchism. Admittedly, I probably have the cart before the horse in this post. We would have an easier time holding the politically powerful morally accountable for their crimes if we first regarded their victims, usually the marginalized members of society, as worthy of our full moral consideration.

*outside of far-fetched philosophers' thought experiments