The Progressive Case Against Public Schools, or, What Bleeding Heart Libertarians Should Say

I’m not a libertarian, but some of my good friends are and I tend to think that there are lots of really promising areas of agreement with libertarians. The blog Bleeding Heart Libertarians was founded with just that goal in mind: to find the points of agreement between libertarian and progressive goals, and indeed (in my view) to argue for the superiority of libertarian perspectives for addressing some matters of mutual concern.

I often associate this libertarian caution at state over-reach to address the demands of social justice with F. A. Hayek but it’s a broad and puissant tradition in the literature. Basically, it’s entailed by the reality of unintended consequences and the perils of public choice: we don’t always fully know how our efforts will bear fruit and we do know that interested parties are often maneuvering to turn those efforts to their own advantage.

by Matt BorsAn example of a potentially promising direction for BHL is this recent Andrew Cohen post on abolishing state administration of schools. Though public schooling is a progressive shibboleth, I happen to think that that makes it a prime target for ideologically-blinkered reasoning by progressives: John Dewey’s vision of the public school is a far cry from what we’ve actually created (and indeed public schooling has long been a space of indoctrination and the active production of inequality) but through the miracle of equivocation we defend it all the same. Yet Cohen proceeds as if the case of public schooling is insufficiently strong according to his somewhat tendentious definition of the justifications for state action as a remedy for harms. But this seems to take up the weaker argument and ignore the stronger one!

Here’s the kind of argument I’d like to see from BHL:

  • Progressives should recognize that the ideals of public school and the realities are widely divergent. For example, many public schools play a role in the school-to-prison pipeline and other direct harms against–especially–African-Americans. (One can spin many other detailed and nuanced stories of this kind that highlight the harms to the least advantaged, the way some educational experiences actively dissuade intellectual curiosity, encourage students to think of themselves as incapable, or extend state coercion into families but only when those families are poor or non-white, etc.)
  • Public schooling produces much of the real inequality we experience in the world through the production of metrics for merit. Despite the fact that some propagandists for public schooling argued that it would act as a democratic leveler, this claim has been completely disproven by subsequent events.
  • Public schooling supplies an opportunity for the state to directly and actively interfere with children in politically motivated ways, as evidenced by the textbook controversies that come from Texas among many other examples.
  • Whites and the upper-middle class benefit disproportionately from subsidies and school boundary plans that directly and actively exclude non-whites and poor students. The evidence in many cities (including mine) is that private schools are better racially integrated than public ones, both demographically and socially. The evidence here is mixed, though, and worth teasing out: many private schooling options were explicitly designed to perpetuate segregation.
  • Yet even whites recognize that the latest efforts to test and measure the efficacy of public schools have further perverted the actual educational efforts to which schools are supposed to be devoted. Increasingly, schooling is designed to make testable pupils rather than democratic citizens.
  • There is a clear alternative: state management can be abolished while preserving (and indeed equalizing) state funding. From a libertarian’s perspective this may be second-best to purely privatized schooling, but let’s remember those public choice problems, eh?

Now, of course it may be that a well-informed libertarian (and progressives!) would have objections to some of these points. But it seems like the difference between “only remedy harms” and “first, do no harm” is one that should always favor the latter, and I can’t understand why a libertarian would choose the narrower path. I take it that we see this kind of approach in Radley Balko’s work and there’s been much more demand for it as Balko’s case comes to look a lot like those of Black activists and organizers: that’s precisely the kind of coalition I imagined BHL would champion. Of course, as an outsider to BHL it may be that I’m simply not understanding the internal motivations for this particular approach, which seems born of the kind of political philosophy that tries to exclude public choice considerations and empirical data and do its work through deliberately abstruse thought experiments. But I’d argue that both libertarians and progressives should move away from such arguments whenever other opportunities are present.

Meaning in Life: Projects Without Goals

What is meaning in life?

A couple weeks ago we had a visit from David Benatar, who kindly shared a chapter from the new book he was writing. The chapter he shared was on meaning in life, and it was–as much standard analytic philosophy is–pretty narrowly focused on making distinctions and arguing against various perspectives. In keeping with Benatar’s general mood (he famously thinks life is full of too much suffering, so it’s wrong to have children) he depicted meaning in life pretty pessimistically.

(Note: I won’t cite the paper here because it was a draft, but there are some general themes that run through this literature that I’ll discuss.)

Ironically, philosophy is mostly understood as the pursuit of meanings and values–or perhaps the meaning and value–for life and existence, yet few professional philosophers actually devote themselves to this question. Perhaps this is a problem for professionalism, but I suspect it is just that we hate faux-profundity and it’s hard not to sound faux-profound when you ask this question.

Making a difference

The major analytic theorists of meaning in life tend to describe it as the pursuit of an “impact” or “consequence”: they’re tied to a purpose with a goal. For Susan Wolf, for instance, meaning in life is achieved through active engagement in what she calls “projects” that have positive objective value. The major constraint on meaning in life is understood as a problem of the cosmic scale of time and space and our obviously small place in it. Without a God devoted to us each individually, it’s hard to understand how any goal-oriented conception of meaning in life could do much good. No matter how much we achieve, we will be specks in a large and uncaring universe: the death of the sun (or perhaps the heat death of the universe) will wipe away all mundane knowledge and wealth: even the greatest philosophers, scientists, saints, artists, and politicians will be forgotten.

If there is a God, then the only possible meanings are ones decided upon by Him (or Her or It) and they are largely alien to us. God may wish to assemble more souls in Heaven than zir adversary does in Hell; God may wish that each person find a unique and loving bond with zim; or God may wish simply to see how all this creation works out. These purposes are always already someone else’s, though: God’s. Even for the theist, it remains to be seen why God’s goals would or even could bind or guide us, why we wouldn’t feel a bit like Pinocchio once the strings are gone, but we have the additional problem that a creator’s purposes and meanings effectively eliminate the possibility of developing or discovering our own cosmic meanings.

So far, so existential: if you adopt a goal-oriented conception of meaning then life sucks (meaninglessly) and then you die. But it seems like the existentialists have already offered us an alternative. Not just Camus’s existentialism, which really does look like a kind of sour grapes, celebrating the pointlessness of Sisyphus’s punishment because we must, because there’s nothing better to be had. Unfortunately, here is where the Heideggerian tradition of existentialism–with its antihumanism–seems to offer a possibility that is too often ignored: that meanings in life only really make sense as process-oriented, bounded projects.

…in Life

Let’s start with the “bounded-ness” of our meaningful projects: too often, we follow the Greek adage that one ought “call no man happy until he is dead.” This gives us both an objective and success criterion: one must successfully and actually achieve some set of goals to be happy, to have meaning, etc. But a bounded conception of meaning in life assumes that meanings happen in, well, life. It doesn’t try to transcend the lifespan from birth to death, nor does it accept this as a sour grapes alternative to immortality in an afterlife or the God’s-eye view that can incorporate future generations and the fate of the human race.

This is because projects that supply meaning in life are fundamentally process-oriented. That process sometimes has goal: writing produces a blog post, an academic paper, or a novel, but does that mean that parenting is over when it produces an adult human being? Just as we acknowledge that the lives of the idle rich might be full of ennui or meaninglessness because of their laziness, so too a meaning-granting project isn’t primarily satisfied by the end that it achieves. Indeed, we very often pursue projects that are doomed to failure or incompleteness in a knowing way: we eat carefully and exercise even when we know that these pursuits can only–at best–forestall our inevitable demise.

Benatar is convinced that meaning can only be found in transcendence: that which breaks through the bounds of our existence. That is, he thinks, what we’re reaching for when we ask for life to have a meaning, and it’s usually impossible or very difficult and thus most people fail. But if you reject transcendence, you can still have meaning: you can find it not in the pointing-beyond of transcendence, where one’s life is about something greater that itself, but in the coherence and tensions of one’s projects, which necessarily entails community and intersubjectivity. Calling it a circulating-within the span of birth and death, the way that one’s activities fit with the activities of one’s family and friends and neighbors and fellow citizens.

Put it this way: lots of projects have goals. But projects with goals can never satisfy the demands of “meaning in life” because we finish them but live on. It doesn’t help if you pursue a really big project, one that will continue after your death: at some point, the project will succeed or fail. If it fails, then your life had no meaning. But it if succeeds: your life still had no transcendent meaning, because the project is over and now bounded by the start and completion. So it’s a kind of category mistake to seek meaning in life in the achievement of such projects. This blog post won’t give me meaning in life, because it’ll be done and I’ll get back to other work. But writing: that can give my life meaning. Activities and practices give life meaning: fine, that’s an empirical claim. But what I want to say is that activities and practices give life meaning and they’re the only thing that can.

The Most We Can Ask of Meaning

Temple of AthenaIn this sense, meaning is inextricable from what Martin Heidegger called “world.” “World” is what Heidegger describes by the Greek temple’s capacity to “fit together and at the same time gather around itself the unity of those paths and relationships in which birth and death, disaster and blessing, victory and disgrace, endurance and decline acquire the shape of destiny for human being.” World isn’t just a place, it’s a phenomenological simple: it’s the structure of our spatial and temporal being. There’s lots to hate about Heidegger (seriously, fuck you Martin) but I think he gets this right: meaning in life is just the way that events of value and importance are unified by culture, architecture, language, and habits. Meanings don’t point beyond themselves, they organize and unify the circulation of characteristic events.

Heidegger liked to switch subjects and objects in sentences like this one: we don’t give meaning to things, rather things give us meaning. We don’t have a world or a language; language has us. (Literally: “Language is the house of Being. In its home man dwells.”) Self and world are equiprimordial, which is just a fancy way of saying they arise together, make up a single transactional unit, etc. This is just irritating syntax and I’ll never believe the dumber Sapir-Whorf versions of Heidegger’s project. But: we can embrace the mundane and tarry with the ordinary. We can accept that our lives and projects will end rather than building worlds of meaning that would require us to be immortal.

Moreover, while it’s easy to adopt a transcendentalist position from which this all looks kind of unsatisfying, that transcendentalism is the problem. No doubt: if we want meaning in life to be achieved outside of life, we’ll be disappointed. If we want our human lives to take on a cosmic scale, then it is inevitable that we’ll succumb to the crushing ennui of our failure when we remember our finitude. There’s plenty of theology and metaphysics underpinning that fantasy: an eschatological project that radically alters or ends the cosmos, a desire for all the world to experience my end as the end. This is where maybe Heidegger had a point about the problems that technology and Christianity have created: bad metaphysics can make you suffer. The disappointment was always already unavoidable so long as we adopt the fantasies of mix bad metaphysics with the wrong frame for the question.

From Wendell Berry’s Manifesto:

Invest in the millennium. Plant sequoias.
Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest.
Say that the leaves are harvested
when they have rotted into the mold.
Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.

Berry’s mad farmer doesn’t actually think the sequoias are his crop: he doesn’t plant them hoping to have an effect a thousand years later. Berry’s farmer is trying to make sense of what it would mean to live a life bounded by the seasons, one that doesn’t reach beyond the circular temporality of sowing, reaping, and lying fallow but embraces such cycles and ecologies as the model for human lives.

Scanlon’s “Giving Desert its Due”

A couple of years back Tim Scanlon did a blog post and comment-section discussion on PEA Soup. Here’s one bit:

In earlier work, including my Tanner Lectures on the significance of choice and Chapter 6 of What We Owe to Each Other, I rejected the idea of moral desert because I identified it with the idea that the fact that someone has behaved badly can make it a good thing that he or she should suffer some loss. I still find the latter view morally unacceptable. But it now seems to me that this rejection of desert is too quick. Desert should not be identified with this retributivist idea. There is, I believe, a distinct category of valid desert-based justifications. A desert-based justification for treating a person in a certain way claims that this form of treatment is made appropriate simply by facts about what that person is like, or what he or she has done. By simply, I mean without need to appeal to other factors such as the good consequences of treating the person in this way or to the fact that this treatment is called for by some institution or practice that is independently justified. Moral blame, gratitude, and some honors and distinctions can be justified in this way, and these justifications do not presuppose that the qualities that form the basis for justification are all under the person’s control. The responses are justified simply by what the person is like, or has done. By contrast, legal punishment, insofar as it involves forms of hard treatment such as fines or imprisonment, cannot be justified purely on the basis of desert, nor can significant differences in economic reward be justified in this way. I argue for these views in “Giving Desert Its Due,” which has just appeared in Philosophical Explorations.

I’m just today reading the article in Philosophical Explanations, and it has some interesting features that bear on some of my recent work with Daniel Levine. For one thing, he tries to argue that when we distinguish moral from legal blame–that is, when we distinguish blaming from punishment–we can start to justify withdrawing our personal willingness to have special relationships and obligations to a person based on what they are like or what they have done. For instance, if your male neighbor abuses his wife, it’s reasonable to find yourself less trusting of him, less willing to enter into friendship or shared projects, and less happy for him when things go well in his life… and thus less unhappy when things go badly. (page 11)

But what’s important is that these attitudes are all of the “special” designation: conditional attitudes which we cannot grant equally to all and thus appropriately deprive most people of–and now the neighbor as well. It is appropriate to “withdraw good will” towards a person if they act in certain ways. This is the distinction: everyone, regardless of their behavior, deserves certain unconditional kinds of respect. But conditional forms of respect are conditioned and thus winnable and loseable: esteem, deference, and honor; disesteem, disdain, and contempt.

So far, so good. Now, we know on Scanlon’s account that in some sense responsibility is merely a matter of attribution: so we blame and praise and engage in all the special interpersonal relationships because our actions are attributed to our character. We don’t just blame or praise an action, we blame or praise the person for being the kind of person who would engage in that action.

Now as it happens, I am not convinced that we need to so quickly conflate acting and being. Because what happens in punishment, at least in our society, is that everyone simultaneously withdraws good will towards the prisoner, while simultaneously we become willing to inflict suffering upon them. Scanlon focuses on this second element, and deplores it as not appropriate when we decide not just to acquiesce (by being less unhappy) to their suffering, but to actively visit it upon them, to act (often at our own expense, and obviously so in the criminal justice system) to make them worse off.

Interestingly, this rule-following punishment that Scanlon deplores is at the heart of the social production of norms in community. It’s at the heart of common pool resource management, including the management of the common pool of social reasons and thus our community and its mores, so there’s a strong practical sense in which Scanlon is probably wrong. More on this in moment.

Where Scanlon really seems to go wrong is in the special kind of deprivation in the widespread withdrawal of special relationships that Scanlon calls for in addressing the wrongdoer. It takes an odd kind of individualist contractualism to assume that the universal deprivation of good will and willingness to share projects is somehow unobjectionable. Shared projects are at the heart of human agency. They are the basis not just of the special respect of friendship and love, but of the shared practices that make dignity possible. We have ample evidence of this, that the conditional and unconditional interpersonal relationships are not as easily prised apart as Scanlon claims here.

I think we must probably accept that Scanlon has the wrong end of this problem. Probably it should work something like this: we deem it acceptable to visit suffering on another in a directed manner as a response to normative failures like wrongdoing. But we do so under the understanding that the punishment is a part of the restoration of the conditions of special interpersonal relationships–of good will. We punish so that we can go back to trusting and collaborating. Anything else is inappropriate. Thus we restore the priority of the conditional over the (allegedly) unconditional reactive attitudes, acknowledging as we do so that these never really were unconditional attitudes in the first place, that reactivity always trump unconditionality and honor always trumped dignity.

I need to think some more about what that means for the latter half of the paper, where Scanlon tries to tie these questions of punishment and moral blame to economic distributions and redistributions. I’m sympathetic to his conclusions there, but having undermined his foundations I’ll have to see if I can justify an alternative means to that end.

The “Humanitarianism” of Living in Prison Until Death

The profile of Judith Clark from last month has me worried:

We are more willing to impose death when the killer is painted in monochrome—if we can define him or her by the horror of the crime. Many think this is just; that is what blame and punishment are about. But in rare public comments to the magazine of Washington and Lee University’s law school, where she has taught, Clarke argued that no person should be defined “by the worst moment, or worst day” of his life. She laboriously constructs a complex and sympathetic portrait of the accused, working with a far more varied palette, sketching out the good and the bad, unearthing the forces that drove a killer to the terrible moment, and insisting that judges and juries and prosecutors see the larger picture, weighing not just the crime but the whole person. She seeks not forgiveness but understanding. It takes only a small spark of it to decide against sentencing someone to death.

It seems like such a laudable goal: to demonstrate that since even the worst criminals are ultimately unworthy of the death penalty, lesser criminals ought not to receive it either. Yet I see the appeal in the death penalty, too. As Arendt puts it in Eichmann in Jerusalem:

And just as you [Eichmann] supported and carried out a policy of not wanting to share the earth with the Jewish people and the people of a number of other nations…we find that no one, that is, no member of the human race, can be expected to want to share the earth with you. This is the reason, and the only reason, you must hang.

I’m sympathetic to Arendt here, but I worry that the great mass murders and our outsized vengeance justifies a whole system of lesser punitiveness (like the supermax) that we ought to rein in. Maybe we can’t.

And to a large extent that paragraph is self-refuting: “as though you and your superiors had any right to determine who should and who should not inhabit the world.” On Arendt’s view, that kind of authority could never exist (what theory of political authority or consent would justify it? how could it be epistemically reliable? who would hold it in check? what does the claimed authority do to the regime that claims it?) and yet our courts regularly assert it. And, yes, this is the same boring claim made by opponents of capital punishment everywhere, an argument that Arendt acknowledges was just as valid in Eichmann’s case as in any other but “this was not a very promising case on which to fight.” Clark disagrees, of course: while hard cases make bad law, they do make good tests of general principles.

I think it’s notable how simple and straightforward the arguments against the death penalty are, and how convoluted and twisted the arguments in favor of it are. It seems we must go to considerable cognitive trouble to justify what we know is wrong (and we know it is wrong because murder is so often what we are punishing in the first place.)

So a life sentence is more humane. It’s the most ethical of the punishments, right? My friend Sarah Shugars challenges this humanism, again in the context of Tsarnaev:

a life sentence allows us to pat ourselves on the back for a job well done: our judgement was harsh but humane. Our prisoner will get no appeals while he lives in extreme isolation – cramped in a 7 x 9 cell and fed through a slot in the solid steel door. But at least he will have his life. We are progressive after all.

There is something wrong with this dynamic.

I’m not sure what to recommend in the Tsarnaev trial – whether life or death is ultimately a worse fate. But more broadly we need to rethink our options. We need to recognize the deep, systemic failures of our prison system and identify new strategies and options for reparation and justice. If we want to be harsh, we can be harsh, but let’s be honest about what we are and what we want from our punishments.

After all, if we’re quibbling over whether someone should die slowly or die quickly – we’re hardly arguing about anything at all.

Life without parole (LWOP) is a weird kind of humanitarianism. It’s often defended by reference to how easy death is in comparison, which hints at how little there is of humanitarianism in our drive to sentence wrongdoers to life rather than death… to make them live rather than make them die.

Perhaps thinking similar thoughts, Corey Robin shares this poem from Primo Levi, “For Adolph Eichmann”:

O son of death, we do not wish you death.

May you live long as no one has ever lived:

May you live sleepless for five million nights,

And every night may you be visited by the grief of everyone who saw

The door that closed off the way of return click shut,

the dark around him rise, the air crowd with death.

For Primo Levi, a life sentence is not about mercy: it’s the ultimate punishment, or it is supposed to be. It’s the only way to make the harms received equal to the harms perpetrated.

We see this same conflict in the work of the ACLU. They call LWOP both “a living death” and “swift, severe, cheap, and fair,” depending on whether they’re criticizing its use for nonviolent offenders or offering it as an alternative to the death penalty. It’s torture unless it’s justified; or, it’s torture, but some people deserve torture. That can’t be right.

LWOP seems to exist only to make sense of our greater economy of punishments, not because in itself it’s recognizably fair.

This idea–that there’s something like an order or an economy to all the bad things people can do–strikes me as pernicious and nonsensical. Arguably, it’s that first effort to rationalize our revenge that makes room for mass incarceration: it’s only when we try to make all this resentment and anger sensible and procedural that we end up with the highest incarceration rate in the world.

Can we imagine a real alternative to the death penalty, though? And if we can’t, is there much point in pushing the issue? What about life with parole? Is this imaginable?

Anders Breivik got 21 years, so clearly it’s possible, though even in Norway he can be imprisoned indefinitely if he’s still considered a threat.

We’d all be better off if some of us decided to stay home.

Map of WalkoutsToday is National Adjunct Walkout Day, but instead of participating I’ll walk-in to the Jessup Correctional Institution and I won’t walk-out until my class and other responsibilities are done. Mostly that’s because I think the adjunct problem is less important than the mass incarceration problem, and my students would be worse off if I decided to stay home. I’d be a cad to complain to them about my plight, in any case: they make less than a dollar a day, if they’re lucky enough to get jobs at all. But my situation is probably a bit unique: most students won’t complain if their teachers cancel class. They consider themselves better off when we stay home.

On the commute to Jessup, I’ll get caught in traffic. It seems like I always do! And there’s something I like to remind myself as I’m driving: I’m part of the problem. It always seems like the car in front of me is the problem, the one who just cut me off. But to the car behind me, I’m the one in the way. Traffic works that way: we think we’re the victims of traffic, but really we’re the perpetrators. We’d all be better off if some of us decided to stay home.

Low wages work sort of the same way. It seems like they’re the employer’s fault, or the competition’s. But the employers are just trying to save money (and yes, that means they don’t care as much about the quality of the education they provide as they do about costs, though adjuncts provide high quality educations anyway). And our fellow adjuncts are bidding down wages because they are willing to work for so little, but they can rightly point to me as the problem, working–for free!– at a prison alongside three other jobs when I ought to be bidding wages up. Collectively, we have made ourselves cheap. We’d all be better off if some of us decided to stay home.

Anyone with a PhD can make more money in another field: we’re smart folks, with skills that other people will pay to learn, which they will then use less well than we could–for more money. So a walkout makes sense. What makes less sense is coming back. We’d all be better off if some of us decided to stay home.

Now of course I’m ignoring the obvious: universities are corporatized businesses run in such a way as to exploit their labor force, to separate us from the value of our labor. Without shareholders, the primary beneficiaries of that exploitation are other workers in the same firm: administrators, senior faculty, and the like. But still: that exploitation depends on a reserve army of underemployed PhDs willing to take the job, which of course pays poorly but comes with great heaps of respect and esteem. So it’s still true: we’d all be better off if some of us decided to stay home.

So all we need to do is decide who will stay home. For that we’ll need collective bargaining–unions–and we’ll need to understand that the unions are only going to be effective if, after the walkouts, some of us decide (or are forced) to stay home. But maybe in that case we won’t all be better off: maybe the people who have to stay home or leave the academy will be worse off. Or maybe many of us would be better off if only someone would convince us that working at GEICO would be a better job.

Three reports worth looking at if you want to have an evidence-based discussion of these issues: