John Davenport: The Case for a Constitutional Convention

My grad school friend John Davenport (Philosophy, Fordham) has an interesting essay up at the GPS site, well worth working through, on the need for a constitutional convention to amend the U.S. Constitution. I don’t have the time to comment on it at the moment, so for now, I’ll just commend it to your attention. Feel free to comment either here or there.

“GPS,” incidentally, stands for Gotham Philosophical Society, a quasi-academic philosophical society based in New York, and founded and run by my friend and erstwhile Felician colleague Joe Biehl. I wonder whether Joe’s work for GPS might be fodder for Derek Bowman’s Free Range Philosophers project; in any case, it’s a valuable and much needed contribution to intellectual life in the NYC metro area.

32 thoughts on “John Davenport: The Case for a Constitutional Convention

    • Maybe, but that seems like a bit of a blanket statement that ignores the entirely reasonable things he says. Without agreeing or disagreeing with the rest of the essay, I would be willing to accept his proposals 3, 4, 5, 7, 8, 10, 12, 14, 16, and 18 in section II. They all seem sensible and unobjectionable, as does his overall claim that a constitutional convention is necessary.

      The U.S. Constitution is a remarkably flawed and archaic document; the only reason we put up with its flaws is that we assume that we can’t do better. But Davenport is right to say that we can. You’re right that he doesn’t say enough about principled limits on the scope of government, but I’d still say that agreement on 10/18 proposals with someone is significant. At this point, my own assumptions lean as much to the left as to the right or anywhere else.


      • A remarkably flawed document? It certainly has its problems but it is remarkably well done. If his amendments pass, THEN it very well might be a remarkably flawed document.

        I disagree with him and you on items 3, 4, 5, 7, 8, 12, and 18.

        In fact the only items of his that I agree with are 16, and maybe 10.

        Regarding his overall argument, he offers no serious consideration of objections to his perspective. He seems to assume that reforms that move us closer to a democracy are good reforms. To be fair, it’s possible that he offers these contrary perspectives elsewhere.


        • I don’t understand your surprise at my statement that the Constitution is archaic and flawed. For one thing, you yourself concede that it “has its problems.” Well, that’s exactly what I’m saying. To say that it’s “remarkably well done” is perfectly consistent with saying that it’s remarkably flawed. It could be both (and is both). The Constitution was written in 1787 and ratified a year later. You’d expect a legal document written 230 years ago by a committee of morally mixed lawyers to have its flaws. Consider, by comparison, the works of Sigmund Freud, written only a century ago. Even if you think they’re works of genius, it’s hard to dispute that they’re flawed and archaic, and need an updating. If Freud needs an updating, why not the U.S. Constitution? Why is the one thing too obvious to belabor, but the other too surprising to credit?

          I can’t go through the whole document, but consider five big flaws in the Constitution.

          (1) Your big concern is the need for a fundamental principle limiting the scope of government. (In my view, the issue is scope, not size–what the government is permitted/required to do, not how big it is.) There is no such principle in the Constitution. The Constitution approximates such a principle in two places–Article I, Sections 8-9, and the Bill of Rights. I’ll address the Bill of Rights later, but Article I, Section 8 is a mess. For one thing, the enumerated powers listed there are treated as a hodgepodge of functions without any unifying principle. What, for instance, is the principle that dictates that a government should operate post offices and uphold the “privilege of the writ of habeas corpus”?

          It’s not a merely academic question. For 200+ years, American jurisprudence has struggled over an unresolved question: does the Necessary and Proper Clause apply strictly to the enumerated powers in Article I, Section 8 and to absolutely nothing else? Or does it apply to the General Welfare clause in the Preamble? On the first interpretation, the government can only perform the functions listed in Article I, Section 8-9, and no others–even though no explicit principle governs the enumerated powers listed there. On the second interpretation, the government can do anything that promotes the general welfare. The first leads to an arbitrarily narrow (and broad) conception of government. The second could lead in principle to a totalitarian state.

          The practical dispute arose as early as the Washington Administration, when the Administration needed funding to hire administrative staff and was told that no such funding was available because funding presidential staff was not an enumerated power of the Constitution. Presumably, Washington should have paid for his staff out of his own pocket. That sounds absurd, but it wasn’t entirely absurd at the time. It’s absurd now. (They were operating with a literal version of the first interpretation.)

          It’s worth noting that Alexander Hamilton (one of the most famous architects/defenders of the Constitution) explicitly argued that there was no rational way to set limits on the powers of government, inferring that the government ought not to have such limits. He makes the argument in Federalist #31, and it’s the basis of the second interpretation I list above.

          Davenport doesn’t mention (1), but if I staged a constitutional convention, I’d want to fix it.

          (2-3) The Constitution permits both gerrymandering and filibustering, two practices that strike me as blatantly, obviously irrational. The hyperlink for “filibustering” goes to an article by Rep. Tom McClintock, a conservative, who makes a persuasive case against it. There’s a huge literature in political science on the problems with gerrymandering. The problems are exacerbated in a state like New Jersey, where we have gerrymandering on top of exclusionary zoning policies and arbitrary municipal subdivision. These are policies that don’t even pretend to be based on any principle; they’re just arbitrariness enforced by law.

          Gerrymandering and filibustering counts as two separate flaws.

          The Bill of Rights is supposed to provide principled limits on government, but many of the Amendments are, to put it bluntly, poorly crafted.

          (4) The Second Amendment concerns a crucial government function: the regulation of weapons. A government has to exercise a monopoly on the legitimate use of force. For that reason, it has to regulate private possession of weapons. The Second Amendment states the principle by which the U.S. government regulates weapons. But what is the principle? It’s unclear. Frankly, it’s unclear what the Amendment is saying. The claims it makes are couched in the archaic language of “militias.” But we neither have militias today nor believe them “necessary to the security of a free State.” The contemporary counterpart of an eighteenth century militia is supposed to be the National Guard, but who believes that the National Guard is the bulwark of our freedom? And what does the National Guard have to do with the regulation of weapons?

          The third clause of the Amendment asserts (in passing!) a “right of the people to keep and bear Arms,” but it’s not clear from the wording whether this right is relative to membership in a militia, or free standing. If it’s freestanding, the text makes no effort to reconcile the content of the right with the government’s need to possess a monopoly on the use of force. How can I, as a private person, have an unlimited right to bear arms if government possesses a monopoly on the use of force? The Amendment not only doesn’t answer the question, but isn’t written as though it regarded the issue as fundamental. But it obviously is.

          Incidentally, I’ve discussed the issues involved here. (15 page PDF)

          (5) The Fourth Amendment is also crucial, but it poses an obvious interpretive problem. Logically, it takes the form of a conjunction: a & b. But it’s totally unclear what the conjuncts have to do with one another. The first clause states a right. The second clause jumps to a procedural point about warrants. What is the logical relationship between the procedural point and the substantive one? The reference to “reason” implies that there ought to be one, but the Amendment is written as though there isn’t one. That’s a flaw. Granted, the issue has been discussed in detail in the literature, and coherent views have been worked out on the topic. But the fact remains that the text is flawed. The further discussion remedies the flaw, and a constitutional convention would write the remedies into a better text.

          I’ve discussed Fourth Amendment issues here.

          The part of Davenport’s argument that I most agree with is the need for a constitutional convention. I think the preceding flaws (and others like them) are enough to reach that conclusion. We can’t really discuss the specific proposals without getting into the details of the case for and against them.

          If I attended a constitutional convention with Davenport, I’m sure I would disagree with him about many things, but that’s how politics works: we sit down and make agreements with people with whom we disagree.

          I don’t think it’s a fair criticism to say that he “offers no serious consideration of objections to his perspective.” The whole point of posting the essay is to invite objections to which (if I know him, and I do) he will give serious consideration in proportion to the seriousness of the objection. But it’s already a long post, and you can’t criticize him for not doing what he hasn’t done after spending so much time doing what he has.


          • I think “Remarkably Flawed” usually means some fundamental flaw. As I understand it, it’s not compatible with remarkably well done. But whatever. I understand your point, and I agree that it has problems.

            (1) is a concern. (2-3) not so much. I’m not convinced that filibustering is a bad thing. Gerrymandering is a bad thing. (4) and (5) I’d have to think about some more, although you do raise some good points.

            A constitutional convention would only work if everyone agreed on fundamentals. That’s why it worked the first time – they were all lockeans. It would not work if some of the participants wanted limited government and some wanted a democracy that ran smoothly and had nearly unlimited power over the economy.

            I think that if Davenport is making a bunch of proposals that make the government more democratic, he should justify the goal of making the government more democratic. Everything he says hinges on that goal being a worthy one.


            • I would still insist that “remarkably flawed” and “remarkably well done” are perfectly compatible descriptions of a complex text. I’d just repeat the example of the works of Sigmund Freud: they’re remarkably flawed, but they’re arguably works of genius. I’d say the same things of the works of John Locke or of Ayn Rand’s novels, and of many other things.

              I don’t think (1) is just a concern. It’s a fundamental failing of the Constitution. The Constitution is in large part supposed to be a legal blueprint for limited government, but objection (1) says that the Constitution cannot, as written, achieve that goal (for the reasons I gave).

              A standard left-liberal argument holds that a strict, narrow reading of Article I, Sections 8-9 of the Constitution is both ad hoc and restrictive (which it is). Government cannot be limited to the powers enumerated there. So it follows that government does whatever is “necessary and proper” to advancing “the general welfare.”

              Granted, such liberals would grant that government has to be constrained by the rights identified in the Bill of Rights (itself an open-ended list), but the Constitution doesn’t specify the content of those rights, and certainly doesn’t specify them in a libertarian way. Put that together, and you have strong constitutional support for a very extensive state of the sort we’ve had since the New Deal. I’ve said that my political views incline toward the left, but even I don’t accept the idea that the state’s powers should be unlimited. We need a principled account of the limits of the state. Left liberals don’t take that issue sufficiently seriously–but neither does the Constitution. That’s a fundamental flaw common to both.

              Let me put aside the question of whether a constitutional convention would only work if we agreed on “the fundamentals.” Maybe that’s true, maybe false, but we clearly disagree on other nearby issues that are easier to resolve. Contrary to what you say, I’d say: (1) The Constitutional Convention of 1787 absolutely did not involve people who agreed on fundamentals. (2) It’s either false or misleading to say that all of the participants (or even most of them) were Lockeans. (3) And even if they had been Lockeans, that wouldn’t have proven that they agreed on fundamentals.

              On (1): the Constitutional Convention (and ratification debates immediately afterward) included prominent people who accepted the moral legitimacy of slavery and those who didn’t; people who thought women should be enfranchised, and those who didn’t; people who believed in limited government versus those who believed in unlimited government; people who believed in a strong federal government (Federalists) and people who didn’t (anti-Federalists); people who believed in natural rights versus those who didn’t (or believed the Constitution should have a Bill of Rights versus those who didn’t); people who believed in a standing army,and those who didn’t. I’ve already mentioned that Hamilton believed that government should be unlimited in its powers, which Madison and Jefferson rejected.

              This is a much wider range of disagreements than the ones that divide say, John Davenport from me. I would reject many things Davenport says and vice versa, but neither of us accepts slavery or the disenfranchisement of women. Both of us agree on the legitimacy of a strong federal state. Both accept the legitimacy of a standing army, etc. etc. So if the first Constitutional Convention was a success, it was a success despite the absence of the kind of fundamental agreement you insist on. There was no such agreement. (I include the ratification debates in this discussion because had the Constitution not been ratified, it wouldn’t have come into existence. Hamilton played a bigger role in ratification debates than at the original convention, but I think it’s entirely fair to include what he says in the Federalist Papers as describing the consensus of those who framed and adopted the Constitution. Same with Madison, Jay, and all the rest.)

              On (2): Locke’s influence on the American founding is a complex issue. I think it’s more accurate to say that he had a strong influence on the founding as a whole, alongside a small set of other thinkers. It is not accurate to say that all of the American founders were Lockeans, and I think it’s a stretch to say that the Constitutional Conventions operated within a Lockean consensus.

              Here is how a well-known historian puts the issue:

              More directly influential in shaping the thought of the Revolutionary generation were the ideas and attitudes associated with the writings of Enlightenment rationalism–writings that expressed not simply the rationalism of liberal reform ut that of enlightened conservatism as well. …

              The citations [to then-contemporary European political theorists] are plentiful, but the knowledge they reflect, like that of the ancient classics, is at times superficial. Locke is cited often with precision on points of political theory, but at other times he is referred to in the most offhand way, as if he could be relied on to support anything the writers happened to be arguing. Bolingbroke and Hume are at times lumped together with radical reformers, and secondary figures like Burlamaqui are treated on a level with Locke.
              (Bernard Bailyn, The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution, pp. 26, 28).

              In other words, there was a strong Lockean influence on the founding, but it varied along several dimensions: the individuals affected by Locke, how well they knew Locke (if they did), what part of Locke influenced them, how they transmitted the influence into practical affairs. That doesn’t necessarily translate into a strong Lockean consensus at the convention.

              (3) Finally, a Lockean consensus wouldn’t necessarily have implied fundamental agreement, anyway. Both Ayn Rand and Murray Rothbard were indisputably Lockeans of some sort (both invoked Locke, and both had Locke-inspired views), but while Rand believed in the legitimacy of a limited state, Rothbard was an anarchist. That’s a fundamental disagreement among Lockeans that arises from ambiguities within Locke. Examples like this could be multiplied dozens of times over. I’d hate to imagine, by the way, what would have happened had we convened a constitutional convention of Objectivists and Rothbardians.

              One thing you’re ignoring in all of your comments is the possibility that people of good will who differ on ideology can forge lasting political agreements better than people of common ideological affinity but who lack good will, or otherwise lack the dispositions, habits, and virtues required for political activity. It’s a commonplace that marriages hold together not because the partners share a common philosophical outlook, but because they love each other and are willing to work together to keep the marriage in tact. Something analogous could be true of politics. (I’m not disputing that married partners have to agree on some principles in common, as do the parties in a political agreement. My point is that two people sharing the same ideological outlook may fail where two people lacking that degree of ideological affinity may succeed.)

              Last point: I think it’s interesting to note that late in life, Ayn Rand articulated the view that political change ought to take place, not through ideologically-driven activism, but by seeking common ground with people of diverse ideological outlooks on particular issues. She makes the point in her 1972 essay, “What Can One Do?” in Philosophy: Who Needs It. Her point was not that ideological or philosophical issues are unimportant to politics, but that political change cannot take place in a successful way through groups united only by ideology. The essay implicitly repudiates the idea behind both the Objectivist and libertarian movements. It strikes me as one the subtlest and most astute things she ever wrote. I think it’s unfortunate that what she says in it seems to have gone entirely ignored by her adherents today.


              • Having mentioned Bailyn, I should probably mention that Jerome Huyler, an Objectivist, has written a book taking the contrary position, Locke in America: The Moral Philosophy of the Founding Era. In it, he argues for the claim that Locke’s “influence on eighteenth-century America, broadly, and on the American Revolution, more narrowly, ‘was massive‘” (p. 251, his italics). Addressing the Constitutional Convention of 1787, he claims that “there was near total consensus concerning the authority of Locke’s moral and political teaching” (p. 251, his italics). In making these claims, he argues explicitly against the views of John Dunn and Gordon Wood, among others.

                I haven’t studied the issue in detail, so I may have been wrong to deny that the Constitutional Convention operated within a Lockean consensus. (I’ve studied Locke in detail, but not his influence on the American Revolution or Constitutional Convention; I’ve skimmed Huyler’s book, but not read it through with care.) The convention may have operated within a Lockean consensus; it may not have. To figure it out, we’d need some account of what counts as a “Lockean consensus,” and then a historical inquiry into whether there was one. My main point is that the issue is too complex for blanket statements either way.


          • Now see, this post illustrates why it would have done me well to have studied for a civics exam in high school. Not that I’d remember any of it any more than I remember geometry, but at least I kinda learned geometry.

            More seriously, a high school civics requirement couldn’t be expected to provide all citizens with a detailed understanding of the problems you’re discussing, let alone a nuanced historical appreciation of the influence and non-influence of Locke. But it could provide everyone with the basic background knowledge to follow and participate in such a discussion. That is not true today. Hell, our President doesn’t even know how many articles there are to the Constitution, and one would hope that presidents would have rather more knowledge of it than we should hope for from ordinary citizens.

            I think I agree with Raymond that a constitutional convention today would be unlikely to produce very good results, or maybe even any results, because the disagreements run so deep. But that’s mainly cynicism on my part (reasonable cynicism, I think). You’re right to remind us that the parties to the convention in 1787 disagreed on a host of fundamentals, and I agree that it’s possible “that people of good will who differ on ideology can forge lasting political agreements.” I just don’t see much good reason to believe that any group of people who would be parties to such a convention today would be people of good will. I also worry that no substantive agreements would gain sufficient consensus among ordinary people to be widely accepted as legitimate. So my reasons for pessimism might be a little different than Raymond’s, depending on just what he thinks about the possibility of lasting consensus among ideologically divided people of good will. But I don’t expect to see a constitutional convention any time soon, and I’m not sure I think it would be a good idea given our circumstances.

            Then again, I don’t see much reason to be optimistic that the problems you and Davenport are discussing will be ameliorated by regular means, either. So I’m just a grumpy little Eeyore over here.

            I do, however, really want someone to put together a cartoon of Objectivists and Rothbardians holding a constitutional convention.

            Liked by 1 person

            • I’d have to think more about your “reasonably cynical” point to know what to say. I guess the issue turns on questions of time line. If we need reform, but reform is neither forthcoming via a convention nor via regular means, either we have to (a) forswear the possibility (or desirability) of reform, (b) emigrate, or (c) re-conceive reform on a longer timeline that allows for the possibility of reform over some long-haul.

              Option (a) is pretty hard to palate. Option (b) is hard to pull off. So we’re left by default with (c).

              As for a Randian/Rothbardian cartoon, it seems a perfect fit with the Atlas Society’s recent drawing contests. But as I’m persona non grata there, someone else will have to make the request.

              Liked by 1 person

      • It’s hardly a surprise that Davenport makes substantive assumptions that he does not defend. His post might be long for its genre, but it’s a blog post, not a comprehensive work in political philosophy. I have no strong opinions on many of these proposals, and I’d like to read some objections and defenses of them, but I hope the objections go beyond pointing out that the proposals are based on some substantive assumptions that not everyone accepts, because, well, if we learned anything from Rawls, it’s that any serious political proposals are going to be based on some substantive principles that not everyone accepts.

        I’m sympathetic to worries about expanding the power of government, but I’m not sure I see how many of Davenport’s proposals are aimed at expanding the power of government. Granted, he’s not gesturing towards limiting it, either, but the proposals are focused on procedures and aim at making government more representative rather than disproportionately influenced by wealthy elites and more functional rather than stuck in gridlock. Both of those aims are consistent with policy agendas that aim to decrease federal oversight in a large number of areas and with policy agendas that aim to increase it.

        I can see four potential avenues of criticism here. 1. Government is not disproportionately influenced by wealthy elites and is not stuck in gridlock. 2. Government should be disproportionately influenced by wealthy elites or stuck in gridlock. 3. Government is and should not be disproportionately influenced by wealthy elites and stuck in gridlock, but these particular proposals will not adequately address those problems. 4. Government is and should not be disproportionately influenced by wealthy elites and stuck in gridlock, and these proposals might well address those problems, but they violate some important rights or principles.

        Perhaps one of the important principles that some or all of these proposals violate is the principle that we should seek to limit the power of government. But if so, I’m not seeing how. I’m genuinely curious to hear substantive objections, though, whether to that effect or some other.

        For what it’s worth, my substantive objection will be to #18. I object to any direct federal requirements on educational curriculum on the grounds that the people best placed to make curricular decisions are people who are actually teaching the courses, and actually teaching them in the particular schools where they are taught. I object to state mandated curricula for the same reason. The reasonable demands of standardization can be met via standardized exams, with schools left to determine how best to prepare their students for those exams. So I would happily support a required exam in civics, one that includes the areas that Davenport mentions. But I reject the proposed requirement that students must necessarily take an entire course devoted to civics, let alone that such a course be designed in accordance with some federal mandates. Students at the high school where I will begin teaching in August could, for example, pass such an exam as readily as they pass other standardized exams despite the fact that the curriculum does not include a special course for civics. Students study the history and principles of government, law, and economics in the current curriculum as part of their broader study of Western literature, history, and philosophy. If they can pass a standardized test on the basis of that curriculum and no more additional preparation time than is required for other standardized exams, as I am quite confident they could, it would be unreasonable for the federal government to demand that the school completely redesign its curriculum to accommodate a one-size-fits-all solution. Half of the trouble with public education in the United States is a product of bureaucratic influence over curricula (the other half is money); more bureaucratic control is neither appropriate nor necessary.

        So I suppose that’s a way in which we might see Davenport as proposing to expand the power of government inappropriately. I take it that my criticism is a minor and friendly one, though, insofar as the alternative I propose is merely an alternative means to the same end.

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        • On second thought, I think you’re right about Davenport’s proposal (18). I wrote too quickly, and was focusing on the content rather than the compulsory nature of the course. That said, it seems to me that if you object to the compulsory nature of the civics class, you could for the same reasons object to the compulsory nature of a “required exam” on civics. Perhaps both should be dispensed with.

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          • I don’t object to the compulsory nature of it as such; liberty is over-rated, and some people only need to be coerced because they’re corrupt in the first place. I’m happy to accept the idea that every citizen should have to display basic competence in understanding what our constitution and laws are, and so on. What I object to is (i) the notion that there is one right way to achieve the end, and (ii) that bureaucratic rules will help rather than hinder the achievement of such an end. Rejecting either would be sufficient to reject Davenport’s proposal as it stands. But we should reject both. Yet neither tells against the notion that there should be some unobjectionably measurable standard of basic competence for high school graduates. Even if I were more wedded to liberty and all that jazz, I wouldn’t reject the notion that the government can set up standardized tests to signal basic competence without violating anybody’s liberty. You don’t want to signal your basic competence according to federally acceptable standards by passing the GED exam? Ok, fine, exercise your liberty. Good luck getting a job. You don’t want to signal your basic competence according to federally acceptable standards by passing the civics exam? Ok, fine, exercise your liberty. Don’t expect to vote, though.

            It’s easy to imagine abuses of this idea, but hard to see why we should judge the idea on the basis of its potential abuses.


            • Your comment strikes me as too cavalier about the value of liberty. I would argue that human flourishing requires a clear distinction between what exclusively belongs to an agent (e.g., body, actions, bits of the physical world external to the agent), and what doesn’t, and requires the agent to exercise exclusive control over what belongs exclusively to him. We can’t flourish unless the distinction is made and protected in a consistent way. That’s what I take the rationale of government to be. A government that doesn’t do it, or doesn’t do it well, is to that extent defective as a government. But part of doing it well is doing it consistently, and part of doing it consistently is having an explicit, articulable set of principles that regulate the use of force.

              I don’t think it’s reasonable to think that any corrupt person, in any sense of “corrupt”–with respect to any species of corruption–can be dealt with by force, with no limits on how much force is to be used, under what circumstances, or with what rationale. The principle governing the proper use of force (and/or the proper way of dealing with corrupt people) has to be a lot narrower, and a lot more precise on that. Acting on the principle in the first sentence wouldn’t just lead to abuse. It would be abuse. It would be a violation of justice.

              Nor is it reasonable to think that any desirable state affairs can, simply qua desirable, be brought about by initiating force against those standing in the way of bringing it about. If any desirable states of affairs can be brought about by force-initiations, we need an account of what they are, and why they can be brought about, as distinguished from the cases in which force can’t be initiated simply to bring about a desirable state of affairs. Surely the latter class is a not a null set. And even if there are cases in which force can be initiated, limits have to be put on how. Acting on the principle stated in the first sentence strikes me as unjust.

              You say that it’s hard to see why we should judge an idea on the basis of its potential abuses, but even setting aside what I’ve just said, if a principle is especially liable to abuse, and the consequences are particularly harmful when the principle is abused, we ought to err on the side of caution. In cases like that, evaluating the possibility of abuse is, practically speaking, part of the task of evaluating the principle itself–not its truth, but the probable consequences of its implementation. We’re not evaluating the principle’s operation in a Platonic realm, after all, or as a mere exercise in conceptual analysis, but for its practical effects in the real world. But initiatory force fits the bill: even if you don’t think it’s an abuse per se, it’s very liable to abuse, and very harmful when abused. So one can’t evaluate recommendations for initiating force without in the same evaluation considering the possibilities of abuse.

              My point is not that the verdict you give on the principle is exactly the same as the verdict you give on the abuses of the principle. My point is, practically speaking, it’s not as though you could recommend implementation of the principle while bracketing the issue of abuse. That would be like giving someone a prescription for a drug, identifying the proper way of using it, but insisting that the issue of potential abuse was not your concern as a prescriber. “Surely a description of proper use entails that improper uses are abuse, but what does that have to do with my prescribing the medication?” Answer: a lot!

              The preceding would have to be integrated with an account of the proper function of the state, since the state is one of the primary force-wielders out there. In decades of reading political philosophy, I’ve never seen a properly worked-out account of the proper function of the state. But whatever it turns out to be, it’s not clear to me that education or exam-giving ought to be one of those functions. It may currently be a function of the state we live in, but it’s not clear to me why it would be the province of an ideal state. One constant problem created by government involvement in education is the systematic disadvantaging of private institutions that arises as a result. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg of the relevant problems.

              It’s also possible to argue that those who have children incur, in that act, the responsibility of educating them–a responsibility they can’t necessarily pass on to or coercively impose on others. In general, we need a worked-out account of which responsibilities have to be collectivized (and assumed by the state), and which don’t. I have ideas on that subject, but don’t know of a worked out account. One idea I have is that one of the paradigmatic functions of a state is the protection of citizens against unjust boundary crossings. Education has little or nothing to do with that, so it’s a puzzle why one and the same institution should assume responsibility for both activities.

              To know whether a state violates liberty, I’d say you need to know whether the state takes “things” (stuff) from anyone that belong by right (in justice) to the possessor. But that presupposes answers to the questions I’ve just mentioned. Personally, I’m inclined to think that almost all states systematically violate liberty across the board. We just put up with it, justifiably, because the feasible options we face are so limited. Undoing some violations of liberty could be a lot worse than enduring the ones we have.

              In the case of scholastic competence, I don’t see why there have to be federal or government standards at all. You could have private accreditation agencies that administered certification exams, and schools, functioning as consortia, that opted into or out of the accreditation process. If you opt in, you get accreditation. If not, not. But you’d be free to do either. Likewise, for individuals, either you opt in with an accredited school or not. If you do, you take the relevant kind of exam. If you pass the exam, you face one set of options in life. If not, not.

              Finally, I don’t see why any of that (scholastic competence) should be tied to voting. A person could in principle not get a high school degree but be entirely competent to vote. By the same token a person could have collected several doctorates (including one in economics), but morally speaking be the kind of asshole who shouldn’t vote. There is no clear connection between formal education and the capacity to vote (well), and contrary to appearances, neither Jason Brennan nor Bryan Caplan has shown that there is. They’ve assumed that there is, then tried to work out the details.

              For that reason, I would reject all attempts to deny people the vote based on anything but a minimal test of cognitive capacity. If you’ve reached the age of consent, and have the capacity to make your own decisions and consent to them, you can vote. I guess that excludes the severely mentally retarded, but even that needs to be worked out.


          • What I love about your response is that it finally (I think!) reveals a fundamental disagreement between us that doesn’t have anything to do with moral luck (which I’m still not sure was a fundamental disagreement). Since it’s pretty fundamental, I don’t think we’ll get very far in elaborating it, let alone adjudicating it, in blog comments. But I can at least lay out the basic points on which I think we disagree. This will be a pretty bare, dogmatic statement of how I see things rather than an argument meant to persuade you to see them that way. I was being cavalier in my earlier post, in keeping with my tendency to be flippant and glib in comments when I should probably know better. The following isn’t intended to be glib, flippant, or cavalier, but I’m not pretending that I’m offering reasons for taking the view I’m sketching out; I’m just sketching it out. It’s all just vanilla Aristotelian stuff, so I doubt there will be any surprises here.

            As I see it, there is a variety of things that we should do, and there is no fundamental reason why laws backed by the threat of coercion should not require us to do them. Since these are things we should do, there are good, even decisive, reasons for us to do them, and if we are reasonable we will do them for those reasons. If we refuse to do them, we are being unreasonable, and there is no fundamental right to liberty to which we can appeal against legal requirements that we do them.

            Of course, there is a pretty large range of choices and behavior that law should not regulate, but not because people have some fundamental right to liberty. Rather, the law should not regulate some areas even though what we should do in those areas is clear and determinate, because legislation would be ineffective or counter-productive. Hence legislation may be unwarranted even in cases of what are sometimes called ‘perfect duties’ when legislation of those duties would be ineffective or counter-productive. In other areas, what we should do may be clear but indeterminate, roughly equivalent to what are sometimes called ‘imperfect duties.’ In still other areas, what we should do may be clear and determinate for a wide range of people in a wide range of circumstances, but admit of regular exceptions due to differences either between people or between circumstances. And of course, in a very large number of cases, what you or I or Janet should do may be clear and determinate, but not for reasons that generalize broadly. In all three of these latter sorts of case, laws requiring us to act in some determinate way might prohibit us from acting in ways that are reasonable. It is here that laws would violate people’s liberty, by prohibiting us from acting in ways that are in fact reasonable. [One catch: sometimes laws can make one or another option from among a formerly indeterminate range of reasonable options the reasonable one, and in such cases they need not violate anyone’s liberty; the simplest examples here are laws about which side of the road we drive on, but arguably at least more substantive determinations might be warranted as well]. The value of liberty so understood might also tell against some laws prohibiting unreasonable behavior on the grounds that the laws in question, while perfectly effective and not counter-productive, interfere in one way or another with people’s ability to exercise reasonable choice. Indeed, such concerns might even justify a general policy of avoiding legal restrictions on people’s behavior unless overwhelming considerations weigh in favor of such restrictions. But liberty understood as the general freedom to choose regardless of whether the choice is reasonable is neither of any value in itself nor a necessary condition for the value of liberty understood as the freedom to choose reasonably.

            In a sense, then, my view is fundamentally anti-liberal. But I don’t think it’s anti-liberal in practice, for a few reasons. First, the principles are all terribly vague, and deliberately so. Two or more people might agree to all those principles and disagree pervasively about what they think is reasonable, what they think is clearly reasonable, what they think is clearly and determinately reasonable, and so on. I myself am often unsure about these things. There’s certainly plenty of room for debate about them. But even when I feel most confident in my judgments, the range of things that I think are clearly and determinately reasonable is not extremely extensive. I am pretty generous about what I regard as a plausible theory, but any plausible theory will have to acknowledge that the range of reasonable options that we all have in life is extensive. In principle, one might think that this range is so extensive that most laws constraining choice would be illegitimate. I don’t think so, even in my least confident moments. But the point is that one needn’t be led to totalitarian conclusions by these principles, and shouldn’t be, because on any plausible view the range of reasonable options is extensive.

            Moreover, one might think that the range of reasonable disagreement about what is and isn’t reasonable can provide us with reasons not to settle such disputes via legislation. Certainly I think we should reject this view in its Rawlsian formulation, which seeks to restrain the kinds of principles and reasons to which we can appeal in public reasoning (and hence ends up being intensely restrictive), and I also think we should reject it in any form (including Rawls’) that suffers from self-referential inconsistency by taking one controversial view as the arbiter of reasonableness. The version in which I accept it is a fairly circumscribed one: when there is widespread disagreement between intelligent people of good will, we should, other things being equal, avoid legislating such disputes. Ultimately, though, I think this principle really only carries much weight in cases where it is genuinely unclear whether one or another party to the dispute is right. Otherwise put, it’s a matter of whether or not it really is unclear whether the proposed legislation is unreasonable, not whether a bunch of people disagree about it; widespread disagreement among intelligent people of good will should sometimes lead us to doubt that our own views are sufficiently warranted to be backed by law. Of course, widespread disagreement might also tell against legislation on the grounds that it would be ineffective or counter-productive, but that is a different point.

            Probably the most important reason why this view is not anti-liberal in practice is that it is consistent with a great deal of skepticism about whether or not legislators and bureaucrats are adequately positioned to determine what is and isn’t reasonable for a wide variety of people in a wide variety of cases. Such skepticism seems particularly warranted given the nature of modern nation-states. Unlike some, I do not think we should be trying to get rid of modern nation-states. But I do not think that they are capable of reliably forming such judgments well, and they are susceptible to abuses that should lead us to be cautious in legislating people’s behavior.

            When I said that I didn’t think the potential abuses of an idea were good grounds for rejecting an idea, I should have been clearer that I take this to apply to ideas and not to institutions, policies, or distributions of power. An abuse of an idea just gets the idea wrong. The idea that there is such a thing as human nature and that it plays a fundamental role in determining what is good for people and what a good human life is like has been abused to justify slavery, racism, the subjection of women, and rigid demarcations of social class and status; that does not tell against the idea that there is such a thing as human nature and that it plays a fundamental role in determining what is good for people and what a good human life is like. Belief in Darwinian evolution has been abused to justify many of the same things; that does not tell against Darwinian evolution. It’s pretty easy to come up with other examples, and in fact it’s pretty hard to think of an important philosophical idea that hasn’t or at least can’t be abused this way. To take such abuses as casting doubt on the ideas is just fallacious, I think.

            But of course the same is not at all true of institutions, policies, distributions of power, and the like. Giving absolute power to one individual might seem like a great idea because it would be super efficient, and if we could find some kind of philosopher-king who was guaranteed to be sufficiently virtuous and wise to make all the right decisions, maybe absolute monarchy would be a great idea. But obviously the potential for abuse is relevant here, even on the unrealistic assumption that we could find a perfect ruler; unless that ruler’s perfections extend to incorruptibility, immortality, and invulnerability, then the potential for abuse is by itself a pretty good reason to reject absolute monarchy.

            I think this distinction applies pretty clearly to my general principles about the broad legitimate scope of law and my endorsement of relatively limited government; it is no objection to my ideas about law that they might be susceptible to abuse, but it would be a plausible objection to much proposed legislation and policy that it would be susceptible to abuse. It’s just that I can raise the second objection against specific proposals consistently with the more general principles.

            The distinction was obscured in my earlier example because the idea in question is an idea about a policy, so objecting to the policy on the grounds of its potential abuse is, in effect, an objection to the idea. I’m not sure it’s a very strong objection, though. If the objection is supposed to be that a civics exam requirement could be abused to indoctrinate citizens or to prevent certain classes of people from having equal political rights, my answer to that would be: well, if the exam is designed in a way that requires indoctrination or ends up preventing certain classes of people from having equal political rights, then we should do away with the exam, but why should we expect the exam to be designed that way? I don’t think the GED, ACT, or SAT indoctrinate students in any objectionable sense, and the exclusion of certain classes from the rewards that come with having passed or scored well on one of those exams has other causes. Perhaps if we remain determined to do nothing to counteract the virtual guarantee in this country that poor students will not receive adequate education, we should not have a civics exam requirement. You can guess that my response will be that we should be more focused on the first problem than the civics requirement anyway.

            I don’t see why displaying some basic competence in civics should not be a requirement for voting; admittedly, individual votes hardly make much of an impact, but votes in general have tremendous consequences for lots of people, as we’re now seeing. Voting is something I do that has consequences for other people; why should I not be required to obtain a basic understanding of politics before I can do it? I don’t think I’d be willing to go nearly so far as Brennan does (if I understand him correctly; I haven’t really read his stuff on this issue), because Brennan seems to want something much stronger than basic competence and more like expertise; I think basic competence is a reasonable standard, but expertise is not. I need to have a license to drive a car, quite rightly, because what I do with my car can have tremendous consequences for other people, such that I should be required to display basic competence before I can drive; why see voting differently? I realize that not everybody accepts the legitimacy of licensing even for things like driving, being a physician, carrying a gun, and so on. So perhaps your resistance to passing an exam to be qualified to vote is part of a broader resistance to licensing. Ultimately, though, I’m not sure it matters much whether it’s turned into a formal requirement to vote. We could just make it a formal requirement for a high school diploma or its equivalent in the GED.

            Lest our disagreements seem to lie entirely on the realm of abstract principles and relatively trivial questions about civics exams, let me add some more substantive claims that are relevant to the case at hand. My claims about law and reasonableness are intended to be vague, but among the substantive things that I think we have decisive reason to do is to promote and preserve the common good of our society, which I take to be the set of conditions that are conducive to the flourishing of all of its members. Basic education I further take to be indispensable to human flourishing, at least within the conditions of our society. So I think that each of us has an imperfect duty to promote and preserve the availability of good basic education for everyone in our society. I happen to think that our current system of public education does not achieve this goal and is unlikely to do so without pervasive reform, but I do not think it even remotely plausible that the goal can be achieved by abolishing all forms of public education and leaving parents alone responsible for educating their own children (this is largely an empirical claim about what will actually work; I could in principle be convinced that some sort of purely private system would work and would be a preferable means to achieving the stated goal, but as of right now I’ve yet to see anything that makes me regard it as even plausible, let alone likely, let alone worthy of endorsement, except in the abstract utopian world of libertarian thought experiments). My own proposed solution to this problem is decentralization of curriculum, general standardized exams, and massive increases in funding. Those massive increases would be coming out of taxpayers’ pockets. The cry that taxing them violates their liberty does not move me an inch.

            So there you have it, fundamental disagreement! I think. I admit I was a bit surprised at some of what you said about your own views, because I don’t see how they’re consistent with your general tilt towards the left in politics. Your principles seem like a variation on standard libertarian fare, and as such they sound deeply opposed to pretty much all of the Democratic party’s platform these days. I’m sure you have reasons for thinking otherwise, I’m just curious what they are.


        • dir, sorry for the late reply. I have to do it outside my day job hours.

          “I hope the objections go beyond pointing out that the proposals are based on some substantive assumptions that not everyone accepts.”

          Of course. I don’t think only that he is making assumptions, but that his assumptions are wrong. Specific proposals of this kind have to be evaluated in light of the goals and broader purposes of a constitution.

          Davenport’s proposals are not aimed at expanding the power of government. BUT they are aimed at making government function more smoothly, and increasing the democratic elements of the government. One of his assumptions is that democracy (majority rule) is a good thing. Another is that less gridlock is a good thing. I disagree with both.

          I agree with you regarding your four “potential avenues”, and I think you lay that out quite nicely. I hold #2:

          “2. Government should be disproportionately influenced by wealthy elites or stuck in gridlock.”

          Basically the average voter is uninformed, and holds a number of systematic biases, including bias against markets, bias against foreigners and immigrants, and a number of others. If democracies actually listened to the average voter, we would have far worse policies than we do. The reason the U.S. government is better than its average voter is because the more enlightened and libertarian leaning wealthy and influential people hold disproportionate sway.

          Bryan Caplan did a great job of layout the case for this. Here’s just one post of his:

          His last sentence is a summary of my view: “Democracy as we know it is bad enough. Democracy that really listened to all the people would be an authoritarian nightmare.”

          To combat this, I think any constitutional reforms should REDUCE the scope of government or REDUCE the element of democracy. This could include eliminating the popular vote for president and placing putting it back into the hands of the state governments. Putting choice of senators back into the hands of the state governments. INCREASING the ability of wealthy people to influence elections and policy outcomes, by striking down all barriers to political expenditures. And by allowing a filibuster or requiring a supermajority in the HOUSE for all new spending measures.

          I think this addresses several of his proposals. A few others I would challenge on the grounds that they reduce federalism, and concentrate power in the federal government. The federal government should not have power over state elections by making gerrymandering illegal. And the federal government should not have power over student education.


          • Well, I’m glad you’re being honest. To be similarly honest, I think your apparent assumption that the actual distribution of wealth has anything remotely resembling a connection to virtue, intelligence, or anything else that would make rich people’s opinions any more reasonable than non-rich people’s is a fantasy that probably requires psychotherapy rather than rational argument. I’m no fan of sheer majority rule, and I am in fact often inclined to deny that I am any kind of democrat on the ground that majority rule is silly and most people are stupid (I tend to think that I’m a Platonist who thinks that there just aren’t any philosopher-kings around). But I think rich people tend to be stupid, too, and badly motivated on top of it, usually more badly motivated than poor people, let alone moderately wealthy people (who, as Aristotle already recognized, are the least likely to be corrupted by their economic interests). So if I had to choose between majority rule and rich-person rule, I’d choose majority. You seem to be heartily endorsing rich-person rule, or at least rich-people-get-more-influence-than-poor-people rule. I appreciate that your response has articulated some positions that explain why you oppose Davenport’s proposals, but I hope you also appreciate that you haven’t begun to give anything that could even be confused for a reason for accepting those positions. If not, just consider the following: you assert (I think) that we should increase the ability of wealthy people to influence elections and policy outcomes (I don’t know whether you already recognize that wealthy people have a virtual monopoly on these things, so I won’t assume that you believe so). You don’t offer anything like a reason why that should be so.

            Let me offer a reason why it shouldn’t be so: rich people are no more likely to have any insights into what would be good or right than non-rich people are, and they’re vastly more likely to be motivated to believe that something that wouldn’t be good or right would be, because it would protect their economic interests. Hence rich people’s opinions are not only no better, but are distinctively likely to be biased (empirical evidence: most of the people who deny that global warming is caused by human beings are either rich people who have an economic stake in businesses that would be subject to regulation if such a view were accepted, or undereducated people who have accepted such a view when it was offered to them by such people; virtually everyone with actual scientific credentials and no economic conflicts of interests thinks that human beings contribute to global warming, such that any belief to the contrary had better be based on some really good science; but numerous rich people proffer a belief to the contrary without anything that looks like good evidence; conclusion: rich people are apt to be epistemically corrupted by their wealth). If anything, we should distrust the political intuitions of the rich. Until our society starts distributing wealth on the basis of intelligence (instead of inheritance and luck, as it does now), there is no reason to think that there is even a correlation between wealth and good political opinion.

            I suspect you’ll find all that terribly unconvincing. At least we’ll feel the same about each other, then, no?


          • Upon re-reading my own response, I find two features that might be misleading and that I should clarity. First, it might come off more hostile than it was intended; I don’t mean to be dismissing your claims, just inviting some further defense of them. Second, the brief argument against increasing the political influence of wealthy people is supposed to be a crude overgeneralization for the sake of argument, not a fully nuanced statement of my own considered views on this score (I think it’s clear that it is a crude overgeneralization, but not that it’s meant that way). In a more serious treatment, I would qualify all of that a whole lot. This is what I get for dashing off responses in the wee hours of the morning.


          • djr, thanks for the response. Don’t worry about being harsh.

            I wasn’t trying to offer a sufficient argument for my view. I was just presenting a basic outline of why someone might completely disagree with Davenport, and therefore why his proposals and assumptions are far from obviously right or true.

            But I do think I can defend my general argument. Again, don’t take this to be a sufficient argument. But it’s a taste.

            It seems we already agree on the irrationality of the average voter. But if you do want further justification, “Against Democracy”, by Jason Brennan, and “The Myth of the Rational Voter” offer some empirical justifications.

            Where we do disagree is on the following: (a) wealth correlates with virtue, intelligence, or “anything else that would make rich people’s opinions any more reasonable than non-rich people’s” and (b) rich people’s political opinions are better than poor people’s opinions.

            Regarding (a), the correlation between wealth and intelligence in the U.S. has been reasonably established. Here’s one meta-analysis, and there are others:

            The correlation with virtue depends on your definition of virtue. In MY definition (the objectivist definition), virtues include, quite prominently, those qualities that are required for economic success. So there would almost be a correlation by definition. But I’ll leave that aside for now. Intelligence is a sufficient correlation.

            (b) is the bigger issue. Here’s an article from the Huffington Post that summarizes rich people’s political opinions:

            And here’s a paper by two political scientists:

            Basically they both say that rich people, generally, hold more libertarian views. This is consistent with other data too. In general richer people are more socially liberal, more economically conservative. They are less likely to support increases in the middle wage, more likely to support gay marriage, less likely to support foreign wars, etc.


          • Ray,

            David is disputing your view, but I’m not sure I even understand it. Taken at face value, the view you’re taking is not just a rejection of Davenport’s proposal of a constitutional convention, but an abandonment of liberal constitutionalism as such. What you’re defending is just a straightforwardly class-based politics in which the “constitution” is engineered to favor one class over the others, based on claims about the presumed positive traits and beliefs of members of this class versus other classes. If that really is your view, then you don’t believe in liberal constitutionalism at all. You’re regarding a constitution as a set of ad hoc legal rules that favors one social class over another. But liberal constitutionalism involves a commitment to impartiality. The rules can’t be written to favor a specific class. They have to be written so as to benefit humans qua humans. They can’t be ad hoc, either. They have to apply in a uniform way.

            So, to clarify your view, here are some questions.

            1. On gridlock, is your view that there should be universal, uniform gridlock across the whole federal government? In other words, is your view that literally the whole federal government should just come as close to a complete halt of activity as is possible? Or is your view that gridlock is desirable as applicable to some parts of government but not others? Taken literally, your words imply the first option. It’s as though you literally think the federal government should stop functioning altogether. But that’s no different from anarchy at the federal level. And anarchy is an obvious abandonment of liberal constitutionalism.

            2. You say you want to reduce the element of democracy in government, but then you say that spending measures should be subject to supermajorities in the House of Representatives. Why stop there? If you want to reduce the element of democracy in government, why not abolish Congress altogether? In fact, why not just adopt a monarchy? That would be a reduction of democracy to zero. You’re saying that you want to reduce democracy, but then you’re stopping well short of your own conclusion. Clearly, if you favor retaining the House, you favor retaining some elements of democracy. But if you really favor rejection of democracy, then you should adopt measures consistent with that premise (like monarchy). As it stands, what you’re saying just seems an ad hoc compromise between accepting and rejecting a democratic politics.

            3. Imagine that a state gerrymandered its districts in the following way: It got social science showing that black people tend to vote Democratic. It then got social science showing that Democrats tend to favor interventionist economic policies. It then gerrymandered its districts so as systematically to dilute the votes of all and only black people, and said so, explicitly, in its justification of what it was doing. It then announced: “We’ll gerrymander the districts back into a different from once black people start voting Republican. But as things currently stand, we cannot allow black people to have access to political power.” Suppose the practice started spreading to other states in just that form. Would you insist that the federal government not have the power to intervene?

            4. The article by McClintock that I mentioned earlier contains this criticism of filibustering as currently practiced in the US Senate.

            Second, the Senate should restore the parliamentary principle that debate must be germane to the pending piece of legislation. The Senate may pride itself on colorful tales of Huey Long reading Cajun recipes on the Senate floor. But how does this practice fulfill the role of the Senate as a deliberative body? Time on the Senate floor is a critical and limited public resource. Tolerating irrelevant speeches squanders that resource and makes a mockery of the Senate. Senate rules already require germane debate during the first three hours of a legislative day—but not after that! Go figure.

            I would be inclined to answer his question by saying that the practice subverts the Senate’s role as a deliberative body. It makes a mockery of rational deliberation to permit people to make sustained, irrelevant assertions in the course of a debate–particularly when the same body prohibits doing so for the first three hours of the legislative day. In other words, the Senate’s rules seem to condemn the irrationality of the practice while indulging in the irrationality of the very same practice.

            Are you willing to defend it? I can see defending it if your aim is to abolish Congress altogether. But what is the justification if you see value in popular representation and deliberation of the sort that Congress was devised to allow? If there is value in popular representation and deliberation, I would insist that it can’t be promoted by a rule that involves as blatant a violation of rationality as this. I’m not sure whether you accept filibustering because you reject popular representation and deliberation and want to subvert it altogether, or you accept filibustering because you find it a rational rule for purposes of conducting a discussion. But imagine we adopted it in this discussion. I think it’s obvious that it wouldn’t serve a justifiable purpose. I don’t see how it becomes rational when applied to a political body.


          • Glad I didn’t give the wrong impression.

            I don’t find the correlation between wealth and intelligence illustrative of anything relevant. Wealthy people will likely tend to score better on IQ tests and other measures of intelligence because they’re better educated. Access to good education in this country is largely determined by the wealth of your parents. They don’t need to be super wealthy, but if they’re poor, chances are your education will be pretty lousy, and whether or not you can make up for it is pretty much a matter of luck. So the correlation shows nothing.

            Even on the Objectivist view that posits a tight connection between virtue and economic success, economic success is no indicator of virtue. I know that many Objectivists go around talking as though it is, but there’s good reasons that Objectivists recognize that should lead them to the opposite conclusion. Objectivists are quite well aware of how much our country does to interfere with the economy in ways that favor those who are already wealthy and to otherwise give people unfair economic advantages. Even if Objectivists were right to see a tight connection between virtue and the traits conducive to economic success, there is no reason to think, in our economy as it actually is, that anyone who is wealthy is especially virtuous, and lots of reason to think that people lacking Objectivist virtues are wealthy. I would go further than that, since it seems pretty clear to me from observation that the traits and actions conducive to getting rich in our society are often vicious, and I reject the whole notion that wealth is an aim of virtue in the first place, as I reject much of Objectivism (it probably matters that I have known some very excellent human beings who have even taken vows of poverty). But it seems more important to note that even on Objectivist principles, there is no good reason to think that there is a general overlap between wealth and virtue in this country or in any other we know of.

            So too, the fact that extremely wealthy people favor libertarian policies doesn’t seem to get us very far. Even if we suppose that all those wealthy people are highly intelligent and that they’re at least broadly virtuous, unless we’re just defining intelligence to include endorsement of libertarian policies, there’s no reason to infer from the correlation that their intelligence — rather than, say, their perceived economic interests — lies behind their endorsement of libertarian policies. Besides, there are plenty of intelligent rich people who don’t endorse libertarian policies, so there’s inevitably an explanatory gap between being smart and rich on the one hand and endorsing some political view or other on the other. Intelligence as standardly measured is not a good predictor of objectivity or reasonableness; if anything, it is a good predictor of the ability to rationalize one’s prejudices in sophisticated ways.

            A more serious version of my original claim would acknowledge that the poor are subject to their own special biases, even beyond those generated by the general correlation between poverty and lack of education. This is consistent with wealthy people being liable to their own special biases, which is all that needs to be true for us to reject the notion that the rich should have more political influence as such than other people when it comes to making policies that affect everyone. I’d be happy to rest my case for this on my own extensive experience hanging out with very wealthy people and with poor people (having, at one extreme, grown up in rural Ohio where many of my fellow students in high school were on welfare, and, at another extreme, taught at Dartmouth College and Rice University). There are, of course, plenty of decent people everywhere, but very wealthy people in my experience tend to be more liable to an unwarranted sense of entitlement, narcissism, and difficulty appreciating the different circumstances that non-privileged people face; this is especially common, I think, among rich people who grew up rich, while people who became rich, by contrast, too often tend to see everything in terms of money and thereby lose sight of much of what is of value in life. This is just personal experience, of course, but it’s buttressed by the fact that loads of other people across time and culture have reported the same experience. Aristotle thought so, as have many, many people between Aristotle and me. Admittedly, “well, this is my experience and lots of people agree” is not going to look like a good reason to people who don’t have that experience and disagree. So you probably won’t find it convincing. But in the absence of some more reliable basis than my own experience and the testimony of centuries, I’m not going to give it up just because it doesn’t cohere with Objectivist principles.

            Ultimately, this issue might be irrelevant, since the real question seems to be whether government should systematically privilege one economic class over others. I don’t think so, I don’t see any reason to think so, and I don’t see how thinking so is consistent with endorsement of the principles behind the U.S. Constitution. Irfan has already made the most relevant points on that score, though, so I’ll rest the case there, for now anyway.


          • Irfan and DJR, this doesn’t allow me to reply to your comments directly. So it’s a reply to another comment instead, but it’s intended as a reply to your comments. Sorry for the delay.


            I’m not opposed to liberal constitutionalism. I was merely stressing how far I am from supporting democracy. Please take my comments to be in the present context, and not universal principles of constitutional government.

            So when I say gridlock is a good thing, I mean relatively to where we are today. If I could make congress function more or less smoothly than it does today, I am inclined to go with LESS smoothly. That’s because most laws are harmful rather than helpful. It does not mean that all congresses and legislative bodies should function with as much gridlock as possible.

            In the context of a limited government, deliberation is a good thing. Perhaps even increasing the smoothness of the operation of congress would be a good thing. But only in the context of a limited government.

            Also when I say I want to decrease the element of democracy, I mean relative to the way it is now. I would bring it closer to the original constitution, where only the house is elected democratically. I’m not sure how EXACTLY I would design the government, but closer to the original than to today. I would not eliminate all democratic elements – democracy is good in a certain context. It functions better locally than globally, and functions better when it is checked by other elements of government that are not directly democratic.

            On the issue of Gerrymandering, I think I was wrong before. Since the House is going to be decided democratically, it might make sense to think of the districts that elect the house as lying within the power of the federal government, rather than the states. On the issue of the filibuster, I don’t want to eliminate it today, because it provides some check against simple majority government. But it’s possible that within the context of a limited government, it has no role to play. I can’t answer that question at this time.


            I think you need some empirical studies to validate your views here. Whether the current structure of the economy is so perverse that success is not correlated with the objectivist virtues is one we cannot answer from the armchair. I would find it quite odd if the economy were THAT perverse and yet our livelihoods continued to improve and be as great as they are in the U.S. But that’s just my intuition. I could be wrong.

            Regarding IQ, it is far too heritable in the U.S. for it to be the result of education. Any evidence for your view?

            Also to be clear the current government is not just disproportionately influenced by the wealthy. It is also disproportionately influenced by academics and experts in particular fields.


          • Well, let me answer your question like this. I’m not a real doctor, but I come from a family of real doctors: my mother, father, brother, sister-in-law, one uncle, one cousin, and almost all of our family friends were (or are) MDs. So I got the impression early on that “real doctor” = MD.

            Around the age of eight or nine, I discovered the (to me) hitherto undiscovered fact that there was another (supposed) species of “doctor,” called a “Ph.D.” The discovery came as I took an inventory of “doctor’s offices” in my neighborhood and came across one with someone’s name followed by the title, “Psychologist,” followed by those mysterious letters, “Ph.D.”

            Puzzled, I went home to ask my father the meaning of my discovery:

            Little Irfan: Dad, what kind of doctor is a “Ph.D.”?

            Dad: They are not doctors. They are frauds. “Ph.D.” is a big fraud.

            Little Irfan: Frauds?

            Dad: Yes, frauds. They pretend to be doctors, but all they do is talk. Then they send a bill. It is fraud.

            I was thunderstruck. A fraud! Perpetrated in the open! In our respectable neighborhood! By ordinary-looking people who mowed their laws and weeded their gardens just like us!

            Later in life, I went on to join this guild of frauds. Indeed, my ultimate aim is to join the very guild of frauds my father had justly excoriated.

            So yes, there is something fishy here. But my IQ is high enough to decline to explain exactly how I’ve managed to become as rich as I am–despite being the fraud that I am.


  1. Looking back on this conversation, I think I’d tweak one thing I said about Locke’s influence on the American Revolution and Constitutional Convention (in #2 of my March 16 9:37 am comment): Citing a passage from Bernard Bailyn’s Ideological Origins of the American Revolution, I said: “I think it’s a stretch to say that the Constitutional Conventions operated within a Lockean consensus.”

    Since then, I’ve audited an undergraduate course on the American Revolution, and done a bit more reading than I had back in March. I no longer think it’s a stretch to say that the Constitutional Conventions operated within a Lockean consensus; it may well have, depending on how one defines “Lockean consensus.” But I still don’t think that affects the point I was making: as I said back in March, the Lockean consensus was broad enough to allow for disagreement on fundamental issues, and was too weak to determine the beliefs of all relevant actors at the Convention.

    Having read both Bailyn and Wood since then, with special attention to what they say about Locke’s influence on the Revolution and Constitution, I’d argue that one can’t trust what either of them say about Locke’s influence on either thing. They haven’t read Locke carefully enough, and don’t understand him well enough, to evaluate his influence on historical events. (This is really a blog post of its own.)

    That said, having read Huyler’s Locke in America, I’d argue that one can’t trust what he says about Locke or Locke’s historical influence, either. As far as I’m concerned, Huyler’s book is little more than an attempt to graft Objectivism onto Locke, and then graft an Objectivist Locke onto the Revolution and Constitutional Convention. The book is Objectivist cherry-picking at its worst. (Obviously, that’s little more than a verdict without supporting argument, but I don’t have time right now to produce the argument for it. I think it’s a verdict that any impartial reader would come to.)

    The best book I’ve read on the subject (or part of the subject) is Steven Dworetz’s The Unvarnished Doctrine: Locke, Liberalism, and the American Revolution. The book covers the Revolution rather than the Convention, but makes a good case that the Revolution was inspired, to some significant degree, by a Lockean consensus that made its way to North America via “the teaching of the New England clergy.” But the Locke in question defended a “theistic liberalism” based as much on Locke’s Second Treatise as on his Reasonableness of Christianity. The Christian-theistic assumptions are central rather than peripheral to the sort of Lockeanism that influenced the Revolution, and are at light years’ remove from Objectivist or libertarian assumptions about politics.

    That said, I have a long way to go before I’m up to speed on this literature.


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