Saturday, March 19, 2016

Some thoughts on political idealism and America's role in the world

From time to time I will be posting either here or at Language, Life and Logic (as appropriate) essays or extracts from my essays or selected comments from The Electric Agora. My latest piece, Science and Disenchantment, was published there a day or so ago. I may repost it here after the comments have closed in a couple of weeks.

For now, here is something based on an exchange that took place earlier this month...

Commenting recently at The Electric Agora, David Ottlinger accused me of "defeatism" because I expressed reservations about his optimistic and idealistic ideas about the possibility and scope of democratic debate and public advocacy.

Here is a (slightly revised) extract from my response:

... The thing is, you seem to want to speak for 'reason' or some such, to rise above the fray. But my gut feeling, at any rate, is that in the end one has to bite the ideological bullet and – well, join the fray (if one wants to be an activist, that is). But then, unfortunately, you leave the high ground of reason behind for something like rhetoric. (Like that opinion piece [an article by Conor Friedersdorf criticizing outspoken conservatives] you referred me to: it was nicely done, but quite polemical and tendentious.*)

I am not a natural activist. That may be why you see me as defeatist, but I've got nothing against activists – at least not against those who are not engaged (as many of them are, as it happens) in trying to undermine the things I hold most dear.

You obviously hold certain things dear, not just abstract ideals but some good things about the culture you grew up in and are committed to. I too can see some good in American culture, but simply don't share your belief that the political structures can be made to work again as they once did. The economy, as I see it, is also a problem.

Regarding the New Republic article [a piece by Heather Hurlburt defending military humanitarian interventionism]: the issues are difficult, and have (as the author suggests) been made more difficult by previous flawed interventions. Part of the tragedy is that the US, by over-reaching and over-promising and by its perceived hidden agendas and very mixed motives, is rapidly losing respect in the world. Not so long ago you could still see it (or at least I could) as the cavalry riding to the rescue. Not any more. That myth has soured.

What I see now is a rapidly fading superpower with looming budgetary and social problems trying to maintain its geopolitical sway in a changing world and, to that end, involving itself in various far-away regions like Ukraine, for example, and the South China Sea (as well of course as the Middle East). NATO expansion (was it really necessary?) has arguably exacerbated tensions in Eastern Europe and pushed Russia in an unfortunate direction. American activities in the Western Pacific/South China Sea could be seen as an attempt to retain a role the U.S. once had and which China is now seeking to take up. These are dangerous times.

Which brings me back to that article. Was the author suggesting that the US should send troops into Burma?!

I don't deny that there have been effective humanitarian military interventions in the past and that there will be more in the future. But one important determinant of success is that the flag of the intervening power should inspire respect and trust.

* For example, you can't just dismiss the notion (as Friedersdorf appears to do) that immigration alters the ethnic balance of a country and that these changes (in America and most other Western countries) have generally been encouraged by and worked to the benefit of the left.

And this is an earlier comment of mine on that thread (which prompted David Ottlinger's reference to the article by Heather Hurlburt):

[Quoting him] "... I believe you severely underestimate the extent to which we are dependent on experts to make determinations about serious issues."

My views on expertise probably differ from yours more on the issue of 'moral expertise' than in other areas.

"The question of whether economic history since 1960 is more consistent with monetarism or Keynsianism or whether the history of various military interventions is more consistent with limited interventionism or isolationism is just going to be too complicated, way too complicated, for voters to make determinations on without experts."

Or even with the assistance of 'experts': because in a sense there are no experts here. Let me explain.

Macroeconomic theory is a contested area, and moral and ideological commitments clearly come into it. I think it was Wilhelm Röpke who said that inflation is a 'moral problem'. And this goes to the heart of my response. In decisions concerning choices between various economic approaches or frameworks both factual (relating to whether descriptions and predictions map onto the real world) and moral/ideological factors come into play.

Similar factors apply to judgments about military interventions. There are practical questions about consequences, and then the moral dimension. To a large extent the question of whether to launch a military attack on Iraq and kill its leader (or do the same in Libya) could be seen as a moral problem. And moral problems simply cannot be dealt with in an objective or fine-grained sort of way like we deal with technical or scientific problems. I must confess that before the Iraq war, I was undecided about it: it was only after the event that it became clear to me that it had been a mistake. The predictions of the advocates of intervention were all proven to be wrong. And I think most people don't need the help of experts to see this. There were no WMD. Iraqis did not embrace democracy and live together in prosperity and harmony. Likewise the disastrous intervention in Libya.

Other 'interventions' in the past have been arguably even more clearly morally flawed. Take the Allied bombing campaigns in Europe towards the end of World War 2 directed at civilian targets (e.g. Dresden) or the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I don't think we need to call in the experts here. I know where I stand.

I also know where I stand on economic questions (though I am not an economist). It may be that I have chosen to believe the wrong set of experts. Time may tell. General predictions have been made (you can never give precisely timed predictions in this area). How it finally plays out will not necessarily clearly validate or vindicate (or invalidate) any particular framework, but some predictions will be shown to have been more accurate than others.