Book Club: The Edge of Reason 10, the rational state

Plato vs Aristotle

We have arrived at the next to the last chapter in our long discussion of Julian Baggini’s The Edge of Reason: A Rational Skeptic in an Irrational World. To briefly recap, the first part of Julian’s book (chapters 1-3) was about “the judge,” i.e. the myth of reason understood as an impartial replacement for human judgment; part II (chapters 4-6), “the guide,” was concerned with the Platonic myth of reason in charge of unruly emotions and desires; part III (chapters 7-9), “the motivator,” discussed a third myth, that reason, by itself, motivates us to action. These last two installments refer to part IV, “the king,” an analysis of the role of reason in politics and society at large.

Julian begins chapter 10 by acknowledging the rather obvious point that human beings tend to run their societies in a rather irrational manner. From which it would seem to follow that it should be possible to build better societies based on reason. And yet, every time we have tried such an experiment, implementing a radical new view of how things ought to do, it has resulted in abysmal, and more than occasionally bloody, failure. Why?

As in previous sections, it all goes back to Plato (see? There is a point, after all, for the name of this blog…), particularly the Republic, which Baggini describes as “one of the most unworkable, unattractive utopias ever conceived. Plato advocated a society in which a separate Guardian class is raised from childhood and ‘women and children are to be held in common among the Guardians’. Rulers ‘will have to employ a great deal of fiction and deceit for the benefit of their subjects’, ‘mate the best of our men with the best of our women’ and ‘bring up only the offspring of the best’.”

Of course, Plato had a reason for proposing such a radical departure from the way things were done then, since he learned his political lessons from the failure of the Athenian democratic experiment (which, among other things, ended up killing his mentor, Socrates), and the general decline of Athenian power.

I think Julian is right in framing the Republic in terms of what he calls Socrates’ mistake: “Socrates begins by asking Glaucon whether he agrees with the principles that lie behind his exposition. ‘Does practice ever square with theory?’ he demands. ‘Is it not in the nature of things that, whatever people think, practice should come less close to truth than theory?’” For Socrates the problem is “to show what fault it is in the constitutions of existing states that prevents them from being run like ours.”

The mistake, in other words, is to put theory ahead of practice, assuming that whenever things go wrong that’s because the implementation of the theory was insufficiently accurate, not because the theory itself is unworkable. This type of Socratic error has been repeated in all utopias attempted ever since, on whatever side of the political spectrum.

Also, one corollary of the Socratic-Platonic assumption is the idea that there is one universal conception of justice (remember that part of the Republic has the goal of identifying the characteristics of the just state). But there are serious objections to this too, exemplified for instance by a thought experiment proposed by Amartya Sen in The Idea of Justice.

Consider a “story of three children and a flute, all of the children having some claim to the instrument. One says she is the only one able to play it, another that he is the only one with no other toys and the third that she made it. Sen argues that ‘we may not be able to identify, without some arbitrariness, any of the alternative arguments as being the one that must invariably prevail.’” I think that’s right: different plausible arguments could be constructed in favor of each of the three kids, without any of them being a knock-down against the others. And this isn’t evidence of some kind of failure of ethics to arrive at “truth,” but rather a good illustration that rational arguments tend to underdetermine the answers to ethical problems.

Julian faults Plato, again, rightly, in my mind, for putting reason on the side of theory, thus automatically shifting the burden of failure to practice. But reason can, and indeed should be, practical as well. As he reminds us, “pragmatic” is considered a bad word in politics precisely because of this Platonic remnant that principle is superior to practice, but “a principle that can’t be implemented is just a bad principle. … Political reasoning cannot be a priori. Experience has to have a more engaged and ongoing role to play. … That way lies the absurdity uttered by Ferdinand I, the Holy Roman Emperor: ‘Let justice be done, though the world perish.’”

What, then, is the answer? Conservatism, says Julian! Wait, wait, don’t just throw stones at him (or me), let’s first hear him out. He makes an argument that there is something fundamental on which both conservatives and progressives really ought to agree on, reasonably.

Consider “Burkean conservative philosophy [as] eloquently articulated by Roger Scruton. For Scruton, society is like a living organism, and individuals are not distinct ‘atoms’ of autonomous self-determination, as characterized by liberalism, but parts of a whole which only flourish when that whole is itself flourishing. This means that human life only makes sense, values only have currency and projects only have meaning when understood as part of a social history that extends both before and after our own lives. … Conservatism is therefore ‘an exercise in social ecology’ whose goal is ‘to pass on to future generations — and if possible enhance — the order and equilibrium of which we are the temporary trustees.’”

Put this way, the basic idea of conservatism, then, is that society is like a delicate ecosystem, and that therefore one should be careful about how to tweak it, and certainly be weary of any radical attempt to tear it down. Baggini proposes that “liberals” (by which he doesn’t mean American-style libertarians, but politically progressive, left-of-the-spectrum individuals) should have no trouble agreeing with this commonsensical precept. The difference is in what tweaks to make, and how much to tweak, keeping in mind that modern conservatives would readily accept the value of what in the recent past appeared as radical reforms, such as the abolition of slavery, or women’s vote (though many are still largely, but presumably only temporarily, not on board with equal rights for gays and transgenders).

The idea, then, is that “the process of designing a better society has to start by looking at the society we have, since we cannot build a new one from scratch to replace it.” And guess who was the first to propose just such an approach? None other than Plato’s famous rebellious student, Aristotle:

“He began by examining the political systems currently in existence, seeing their relative strengths and weaknesses. He never made the mistake of thinking about the relative merits of oligarchy, democracy or monarchy in purely abstract terms. … He had a realistic expectation that political philosophy can never be clear-cut and that a certain amount of unclarity and imprecision is inevitable.”

Of course, the point is not that we should accept Aristotle’s specific conclusions, but rather that his approach — in an important sense antithetical to that of Plato — is the way to go. As Baggini puts it, in perfect Aristotelian fashion, “to be as rational as possible means not trying to get more from rationality than is possible. In no domain is this true more than in politics.”

Julian then examines some of the most disastrous recent attempts to establish utopias by wiping out (as opposed to tweaking) previous systems, particularly the communist regimes of the 20th century, all of which quickly degenerated into tyranny and caused the death of hundreds of millions of people. The communist mistake, in a sense, is the same as Plato’s: despite Marx’s alleged attention to historical realities, communists have always put pure theoretical reasoning ahead of practice, attempting to turn history itself into an exact science.

I refer the interested reader to Julian’s discussion of the concept of surplus value and the role it plays in Marxist theories. He acknowledges that surplus value is a real thing, but he rejects the Marxist analysis of the role it plays in society, and therefore the Marxist recipe for how society ought to be changed.

Baggini has a little more sympathy for anarchists, but he charges them with committing the opposite mistake to that of the Platonists and Marxists: ignoring theory altogether in favor of too much emphasis on practice: “Bakunin is clearly advocating something close to what I have been arguing for here. ‘Natural and social life always precedes thought (which is merely one of its functions) but is never its result,’ while ‘abstract reflections’ are ‘always produced by life but never producing it.’ However, his inverted Platonism is as simplistic as the view it replaces. … Bakunin writes as though the truth simply flows from the facts in some unmediated way.”

Sure enough, historically speaking, anarchism — though not responsible for the atrocities of communism (and fascism) — has not really fared particularly well: “You can count on the fingers of one hand the number of anarchist cities or communes that have been established long enough to leave a mark on the world, and each lasted for months rather than years.”

I am going to skip Julian’s analysis of yet another case of exaggerated “theoretical” rationality, that of economic theory, and leave you instead with his conclusions regarding political systems: “if anyone proposes a radical new model of how we should organize society then we have good grounds to suspect that the model is grossly and dangerously simplified. … To be truly rational we need to acknowledge the limits of our rationality: nothing is more irrational than an unwarranted faith in reason.”

117 thoughts on “Book Club: The Edge of Reason 10, the rational state

  1. SocraticGadfly

    I’ll 75-80 percent accept Dan’s follow-up on environmentalism. If we’re talking Earth First, Animal Liberation Front, or similar, I’m not one of them. But, I don’t think most of them are Frankfurt School aficionados, either. More Bakunin or similar.


    And, we’ll agree to disagree on the issue of rights. This is one area where, to pick up an old thread, I’ll call myself a cosmopolitan.


  2. brodix


    It should probably also be taken into account the degree to which the US had enormous territorial, mineral, energy resources, along with a motivated immigrant population and forming at the very dawn of the industrial age.
    When you consider the bottom up dynamic energies let loose by this, any form of monarchy had no legitimate historical foundation and wouldn’t have worked anyway, given the lack of need for a single authoritarian structure. As you point out, while the root cause of the Civil War was slavery, it did fully put to rest the Articles of Confederation, so Lincoln would have been the first legitimate candidate for a monarch.


  3. brodix

    Which conveniently overlooks the roll of government debt, almost 20 trillion US, since Carter, helping to both siphon excess money out of the economy and spend it on Keynesian “pump priming.” With the resulting Ponzi scheme of having to borrow ever more to pay the interest, etc, thus creating ever more government debt, as the other side of the asset value, aka, “treasuries.”

    Hayek isn’t necessarily responsible for the outright looting of the system. What part of his theory validates destroying the demand side of the economy by the elites stealing everything not nailed down?

    Most theories are just whitewash.


  4. brodix

    Individual interest and greed are not necessarily the same thing. We all have interests, up until the point they are sufficiently satisfied. Going beyond that is greed.


  5. Massimo Post author


    “It seems to me that the US Constitution is a good example of political theory wedded to practice, that has survived the test of time.”

    Right, but the US Constitution is one of those instances of ecological engineering that Baggini is talking about. It wasn’t laid out a priori, but was the result of previous experiences in the colonies, and it has been modified since, via amendments. Indeed, most Europeans are astonished that the US is still on its “first republic,” meaning that it hasn’t undergone multiple rewriting of the Constitution, as it has happened in France, for instance, in order to adjust to the changing times. (No, I’m not suggesting a constitutional convention now, it would be a total disaster given the current American political climate.)

    Liked by 1 person

  6. SocraticGadfly

    Massimo, that said, that’s also because the thing is too damned hard to rewrite, especially given the “weight” of the US Senate. Another example of how Scalia-type originalism is bullshit. Virginia was about 12x the population of New Hampshire in 1790. California is today 60x the population of Wyoming. Large states both North and South in 1787 might have hesitated to put the equal representation in quite such a Procrustean bed with clairvoyance.

    If only one of the “sinful seven” Republican Senators would have found different scruples, or whatever, and been the final vote to convict Andrew Johnson, we might have been better off today for that reason alone.


  7. saphsin

    Who else is a leftist here? I’m still in the beginning-middle stages of learning a huge amount of literature so I may be discussing this while being cornered here.

    I’ll start with this, yes societies “are usually the result of organic changes” but what kind of organic changes? I mean sure, there were systems that were discretely planned and implemented, but most of it was through the decisions of powerful interests shaping society in the direction that served their interests (often at the cost of everyone else, though not always) and they slowly made it fit to work the way they wanted to. On the side of the public’s interest (rather than those of narrow elites), popular democratic forces also made it fit through fighting for measures that served their own interests, and they just figured it out and made it fit. Those include more democratic forms of education, political democracy, welfare state, and so on.

    None of these things were carefully modeled and planned anymore than Marxists did with their visions, they were just vague & abstract ideas of how they preferred society to be organized (except Marxists jump farther with their visions so it’s clearly even more vague and difficult to implement) They just tried to do things and make it fit, despite imagining a society that never quite existed before. You just have to take a look at the arguments against slavery abolition for instance, and reactionaries made similar arguments as they do today against the minimum wage and alter-globalization.

    If you suddenly try to force slavery by force, you’re going to completely ruin the national economy and force the slaves into more exploitative positions than they were before being freed. Similar argument today how increasing the wages will lead to inflation and unemployment, and will harm working American more than help them, and how our global economic system is necessary and if you try to change it to be less exploitive, your’e going to prevent 3rd world countries from developing. It’s amazing how the same rhetoric repeat over and over again.

    And the thing is, just like how Americans struggle against Right-Wing Economic ideas today, workers back then took the pro-Slavery arguments very seriously, because they were very hard to answer. It’s hard to imagine how implementing certain changes will lead to consequences that are said to be desirable by those who advocate them if you can’t see the future result. No one has the right theory in how to better organize society and no one ever did, we just test things to see if it works, and make gradual changes to make things fit better. But they all succeeded despite not having one, but just rather fighting for their interests.

    It’s amazing how people can collectively organize society to make it work, academics are just so indoctrinated to think in terms of modeled systems that they can’t imagine stuff like this. To given an example of how people are able to organize society without any sort of social theory, there are places in the US where the Christian Right have been able to design their own localized economies that have been able to maintain some level of independence from the rest of the U.S. Capitalist system. They have this very extensive network of merchants & services within their Congregations who collectively make decisions in aiding those who are in economic need, and that creates great cohesion and cooperation within the Christian Right in an age where people feel they just can’t just rely on the ravages left of the neoliberal policies, especially in the rural areas.


  8. saphsin

    All this talk about “we should organize society based on human nature” is nonsense. Not because it’s not true, but it’s because trivially true. People have made arguments against every type of society based on what they expect of human nature since the beginning of civilization, it’s nothing new. The basic empirical question is it’s very difficult to know how people will actually act within a certain product of social structures & institutions, and what kind of consequences will be produced from them. Everyone disagrees within this debate, and not being able to recognize that means you haven’t even bothered entering the debate yet.

    Liked by 2 people

  9. saphsin


    I honestly have no clue regarding the strong claims made by Dan about influence from the Frankfurt school to U.S. progressives. I’ll look into it but like you, I seriously doubt it. The fact of the matter is though that the vast majority of the population can’t tell the real difference between conservatism and liberalism if you asked them because most citizens no coherent or consistent political ideology. Decades of public opinion research have consistently revealed that the majority of the US public is not centrist, or conservative. Nor is it liberal – it’s politically ignorant. (This isn’t an opinion, it’s a statement of fact. If you don’t like it, or it makes you feel icky because it goes against what you believe, look up the research yourself.) What citizens do is sympathize with a narrow set of policies and make word associations with them to the labels “liberal” and “conservative” and then they pick teams to identify with. To the extent that they’re affected by actual political philosophy, it’s to accept the bounds of debate that academics have set themselves up to in the elite media (such as the debate being about markets & freedom vs. government & human rights) and accepting these unquestioned premises.


  10. saphsin

    One more thing, I think like I’ve learned at least a dozen ways to properly understand the term “liberalism” as it has been understood by different people across history. It’s a problematic term with multi-meanings (though they are not disconnected) because the problem with a lot of political terminology is that they’re often co-opted and understood for their own purposes. Arguing about whether people really understand what true liberalism is pointless.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. saphsin

    “If theory doesn’t work in practice then on what basis could it be called a good theory? Any theory which wouldn’t actually work is just bad theory…..That was one of Baggini’s points. But a number of people, from Plato to modern Marxists, seem impervious to that obvious fact.”

    No Massimo, the very obvious fact is that people disagree with what theory works, on all sides. Of course people didn’t believe in theories they also simultaneously suspect don’t actually work, that’s ridiculous. It’s a strawman if that’s what you actually meant (because that’s what it seems you literally meant” Because we presently live in a society that neatly fits comfortably with your political ideology, you don’t have really the same type of trouble challenging the possibilities & limits of your theories, just like how if someone is satisfied with Relativity & QM doesn’t have the trouble of going through the trouble of testing alternative unification theories and failing. That doesn’t mean alternative theories are therefore wrong because we don’t know enough yet.

    As for the theories of Modern Marxists, the vast majority of it isn’t even about alternative societies, but analysis of economic history & how the present Capitalist system works, and with respect to that, even if you completely take out the part about utopian visions, much of it is vastly superior to the theories of most liberal progressives in my opinion. (in fact, that’s how it was for Marx. The vast majority of what they wrote was their analysis of Capitalism & Industrialization, and wrote very sparsely and vaguely about alternative societies. It’s amazing how people don’t know that in his entire ouevre, you can literally count the number of sentences in which he used the word socialism with the fingers of one person’s hands.)

    And to be clear, I’m not a Marxist and think some of it IS ridiculous, but not for the reasons people in the comments above are saying.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Coel


    All this talk about “we should organize society based on human nature” is nonsense. Not because it’s not true, but it’s because trivially true.

    Both trivially true and nonsense at the same time? And yes, it might be a fairly obvious point to make, but it’s one overlooked by Marxists and most far-left theorists (and other utopians), who theorize their ideal society and then get puzzled that people won’t vote for it. (So they then blame that on anyone from “big corporations” to the Bilderberg Group having corrupted the media, the voters and the elections.)

    One could excuse them for having misconceived human nature, but surely we have enough information about that by now to have a fairly good idea? And de facto people don’t vote far-left or Marxist, they vote — on average — pretty much centrist (another trivially true point that is still worth stating).


  13. Massimo Post author


    “All this talk about “we should organize society based on human nature” is nonsense. Not because it’s not true, but it’s because trivially true.”

    I don’t think it is. But I would put it in the negative: one should not attempt to organize society while ignoring basic aspects of human nature. For instance, because we are social animals, and yet in need of autonomy to pursue our goals, systems based on too much emphasis on the social (e.g., communism) or the individual (e.g., extreme capitalism) are unlikely to lead to flourishing.

    “Nor is it liberal – it’s politically ignorant”

    Agreed, though that was not always the case. For instance, in Italy the political situation has now devolved to something similar to the US, with two major “poles” made of a number of parties that always vote in block, and the names of the parties have little to do with ideas and ideologies. It’s mostly about the charisma of individual candidates (e.g., Berlusconi, until recently).

    But when I was growing up we had a liberal party, a socialist one, social-democrats, communists, movimento sociale (pretty extreme right), Christian democrats (right-center), and so forth. And a good chunk of the Italian population knew and understood the ideological differences, and was paying attention to the platforms, not so much to individual politicians.

    “No Massimo, the very obvious fact is that people disagree with what theory works, on all sides.”

    That wasn’t my point, I think, or Baggini’s. The problem is when people think that the theory is unassailable (Plato, Marxists, plenty of others), so that they rationalize any empirical failure as “the theory wasn’t implemented well enough.” The political equivalent of the no true Scotsman’s fallacy, if you will.

    Liked by 2 people

  14. SocraticGadfly

    Saph — I remain leery of the word “leftist,” though it probably describes me well on domestic policy. My political choices are made on foreign as well as domestic policy, which is another reason I don’t vote Democratic for president, or other federal offices when I have a choice. At the same time, too large a chunk of self-identified leftists, on the other hand, come close to, or even fully engage in, a knee-jerk anti-Americanism on foreign policy. (That said, I’ve learned things even from them, like thinking critically about why we did NOT bomb Croatia as well as Serbia in the mid-1990s, even though Croatian paramilitaries had their own war crimes in Bosnia.)


  15. astrodreamer

    Interesting new book: The Enigma of Reason by Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber (Harvard, 2017). Is reason a social construct? Is there any relation between ‘reasons’ and Reason? Baggini’s subtitle prominenetly features the word ‘irrational’. Can we assume that a thorough definition of Reason to its very edges renders are definition of the Irrational by exclusion as it were. Is it in fact a “rather obvious point that human beings tend to run their societies in a rather irrational manner”? or does the double use of the word ‘rather’ indicate some room for argument? Are there any ideas in this book that challenge the biens pensants of 1875? It seems like the edges are not so much explored or peered beyond but barricaded. What do we make of Habermas’ remark “The borders of truth are movable”? Is not the entire question elided of the distinction that might be made among reason, rationality, logic and truth?


  16. synred

    I honestly have no clue regarding the strong claims made by Dan about influence from the Frankfurt school to U.S. progressives

    I’d never heard of the Frankfort school. I read Emma Goldman and Bakunin. Couldn’t make head or tails of Marx or Lenin.


  17. wtc48

    I’m not any better qualified in Poly Sci than in philosophy, but I’m convinced that the basic framework of the Constitution, as laid out in the Federalist Papers, is a work of genius, while the actual Constitution (originalists be damned) is the product of political compromise. It was intentionally left amendable, and was meant to be a living document, not tablets of stone. If there ever were a single body of opinion in a position to rewrite the whole thing, I would invoke Murphy’s Law: if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

    Liked by 1 person

  18. Daniel Kaufman

    I dislike ‘leftist’ but especially dislike ‘progressive’, which if we are talking about actual political history rather than simply a recent renaming of something, is not, in my view, a noble political tradition, but quite the opposite.

    Because ‘liberal’ has been so adulterated and means so many things, now, I prefer ‘classical liberal’, to denote the Lockean/Millean tradition.

    Not only is this tradition the one on which our polity was actually designed — plus some sprinklings of Roman republicanism — but I think it is one of the few truly noble political philosophies and it has, relative to its competitors, the same advantage that democracy has over its rivals: it is the worst, except for all the others.


  19. synred

    The first amendment only forbid congress from restricting speech — not the president, the states or the university of California. Indeed elsewhere everything not explicitly given to feds is given to the states.

    I would hope that even Scalia would not have been that literal.


  20. saphsin

    No as I’ve said, you’ve probably have no even entered the debate to be aware what the Far Left believes. Even most Marxists today don’t actually believe that human nature is malleable or anything like that. Many are much smarter than that.


    “I don’t think it is. But I would put it in the negative: one should not attempt to organize society while ignoring basic aspects of human nature. For instance, because we are social animals, and yet in need of autonomy to pursue our goals, systems based on too much emphasis on the social (e.g., communism) or the individual (e.g., extreme capitalism) are unlikely to lead to flourishing.”

    Many Leftists are aware of this and don’t believe that they don’t put too much emphasis on the social at all (or rather I think it’s a poor division, as if individual psychology & needs is estranged from social cooperation, and vice versa) They’re just more ambitious on considering the range of social organizations are possible given what we believe we know about human nature. Many Leftists have always considered the needs & impulses of the individual and have argued against the Capitalist system on that basis (especially some of the anarchists). Many of both Marxist & Anarchist scholars study behavioral economics, anthropology, and economic history to make guesses on how alternative social organizations may be possible and worth testing out. Now you may disagree with their thought process on how they speculate and make conclusions on this subject, but you have to enter into the debate where you first acknowledge where they take these considerations seriously.

    Also, if you’re saying that our present system, Monopoly-State Capitalism with a Welfare State, is a society is optimally designed for balancing the interests of the individual & the community, I find that bizarre intuitively on the one hand and suspect it’s a claim that you probably have no real empirical evidence on the other.

    “That wasn’t my point, I think, or Baggini’s. The problem is when people think that the theory is unassailable (Plato, Marxists, plenty of others), so that they rationalize any empirical failure as “the theory wasn’t implemented well enough.” The political equivalent of the no true Scotsman’s fallacy, if you will.”

    I can’t speak for all Marxists (because leftists are not all the same, though I think libertarians tend more monolithic) but the ones I know don’t quite believe “their theory wasn’t implemented well enough” they look for new alternative theories that inhibit the same values (creating a more egalitarian & less exploitative society) but with new ideas of different forms of social organization. Some leftists are probably stuck in their heads with bad and discarded ideas though.

    There’s this very confused discussion I feel like we’re having. If I may, I’ll write up a very simple and silly analogy to help get rid of the intuitive B.S.

    We’re designing a recipe for a cake. A group of people are constantly testing out new recipes and the last result we come up with that isn’t completely sour was the design of a recipe that has mixed results (let’s call it welfare state capitalism) and those people who have faith in this recipe are of group A (let’s called liberal progressives) A number of people who are far more ambitious of group B see some serious flaws in this recipe for however, and dream of creating a much better cake. A few of the people in group B however, go a bit crazy and careless in the direction of the recipe (even to the disapproval of others in group B) and end up making a really putrid cake.

    Based on this, people in group A say that therefore because of these failures, the the very ambition of group B is flawed. Group B find this kind of accusation, bizarre. Just because some attempts of group B went horribly wrong or were insufficient (or destroyed by foreign military force….) doesn’t mean that therefore thus, group A’s recipe is therefore the best cake possible.

    Group B believes that it’s pretty obvious that it’s not, considering the best recipe we have is just one coincidentally developed by the circumstances of knowledge we have right now, it’s not a recipe that displays any reason to suspect it has reached the epitome of all possible recipes. That would be quite weird, because that would mean that we have reached this conclusion after trying an the entire range of possible recipes, a range we’re not even aware of. Group B strongly suspects that there are probably different combinations of ingredients we don’t quite know that will produce a better recipe, and that Group A is jumping to conclusions of a recipe that was only very recently designed in human history.


  21. saphsin

    I think this point of view is quite well summarized in this quote from a discussion of prison abolitionism, so just replace prisons with capitalism (oh and I’m skeptical of prison abolitionism, though so is the author of the article):

    “Of course, people think such a world is impossible. Prisons will always be necessary, they believe, because some people will always be warped and cruel. But I object to this way of looking at things: it accepts an erroneous chain of reasoning often held by conservatives, namely that human nature is prone to violence and viciousness and this is an ineradicable part of us. The reason I call this view “erroneous” is that I don’t think it’s a correct inference: the argument is that because humans have always been a certain way, they must always be a certain way. This is no more logical than if, in 1900, I had said “there has never been a successful man-made aircraft, thus there will never be a successful man-made aircraft.” Or, if I had said (as I did) in 2016, “America has never elected a president who has openly bragged about committing sexual assault, thus America will never elect a president who has openly bragged about committing sexual assault.” When we assume we can judge the full range of possibilities for the future from the evidence we have about the past, we can end up cramping our ambition through self-fulfilling prophecies, or underestimating certain risks.

    The truth is that we don’t know the degree to which crime can be controlled by addressing social causes. We don’t know it, because we’ve never seriously tried it. But we do know that there are cities in the United States that have incredibly low crime rates, where violent crime hardly ever occurs and property crime is incredibly infrequent. We are far from understanding why that’s the case. Since we know that it is the case, though, we know that it’s possible to create places in which crime is almost nonexistent. Violent crime has consistently been dropping in the United States despite the public perception otherwise (not helped by Donald Trump’s demagogic attempts to terrify people). It is impossible to know how much further it could be made to drop. (Nor is that because we’ve been locking up all of the criminals. States with low crime rates can also have very low incarceration rates, whereas states like, for example, Louisiana have both incredibly high crime rates and incredibly high incarceration rates.) Since very low-crime societies are possible already, even when they consist entirely of perfectly ordinary human beings, it does not actually seem especially naïve to believe that both crime and prisons can essentially be eliminated from the world. I refuse to see Anders Breiviks as an inevitability; I believe he is the product of a perverse racist ideology, one that can be countered and eradicated.”


  22. saphsin

    One last comment just to clarify, I think the above comment about prison abolitionism is actually even more ambitious than going beyond capitalism. Because prisons have a very specific function “we should lock people up as a form of punishment or to keep others safe” and that’s difficult to reason away. Capitalism however, is a combined product of an amalgamation of functions, so you don’t automatically run into the same problem. Many leftists for instance, are not even against market systems.


  23. synred

    Robert Marion “Fighting Bob” [1] La Follette Sr. (June 14, 1855 – June 18, 1925) was an American Republican and Progressive politician. He represented Wisconsin in both chambers of Congress and served as the Governor of Wisconsin. A Republican for most of his career, he ran for President of the United States as the nominee of his own Progressive Party in 1924.


  24. saphsin


    I don’t even know what it means to be “anti-American” it seems to me a completely incoherent notion. If I oppose state military policy, how it that any more “anti-American” than being critical of police policy, or our health insurance policy, or the electoral college? (we have our answer, because the military has symbolism related to national identity attached to it, rather than being analyzed as an institution like that of any other)

    But yes, there are some leftists who have this knee-jerk reaction of harshly judging American Foreign Policy without evaluating other smaller-imperialist countries & state governments with the proper standards.

    Liked by 1 person

  25. Massimo Post author


    I don’t think we are communicating clearly, given that our positions seem otherwise to be pretty close, politically speaking.

    “Many Leftists are aware of this and don’t believe that they don’t put too much emphasis on the social at all”

    That may be, but the way actual communist regimes have tried to do things during the 20th century was by using a “beehive” model of human society, which does not work. Too much emphasis on collectivism, too little on individualism. (And yes, I am aware that degree of individualism varies from culture to culture, especially, for instance, US vs Japan, China, with Europe somewhere in the middle.)

    “Many of both Marxist & Anarchist scholars study behavioral economics, anthropology, and economic history”

    I’m sure they do. But they don’t seem to internalize the message. I am by now convinced that a Marxist society (in the strong term of the sense) is inevitable, and an anarchist one approaches the level of oxymoron.

    “if you’re saying that our present system, Monopoly-State Capitalism with a Welfare State, is a society is optimally designed for balancing the interests of the individual & the community”

    I never said anything like that. I simply said that most Western societies are currently organized in a fashion somewhere between extreme collectivism and extreme individualism, with the US closer to the latter.


    Well, I consider myself a progressive liberal, in the European sense of “liberal” (or in the sense in which Republicans use it as an insult against Democrats). I don’t think it’s a despicable position at all. Indeed, if one stays clear of rather extreme and perverted version of it, it seems to me the only viable way forward. Basically, the Scandinavian social-democratic model.

    Liked by 1 person

  26. synred

    American foreign policy deserves criticism: Remember the Maine, panama (“we stole in fair an square”, Philippines (Gen. Arthur MacArthur), Guatemala (a friend of mine was a mercenary in the CIA army that invaded (he was only 18)), El Salvador, Chile, Iran (52), Iraq (WMD), Haiti, Mexico (we gave back what we didn’t want (Mexico City), Vietnam, etc.

    Liked by 1 person

  27. synred

    Well, I consider myself a progressive liberal, in the European sense of “liberal” (or in the sense in which Republicans use it as an insult against Democrats).

    Me too!

    Traruh Synred — President “Paper Millionaires for Democratic Socialism PAC”


Comments are closed.