Benjamin Studebaker

Yet Another Attempt to Make the World a Better Place by Writing Things

How to Be Excellent

I have a new piece out for Psyche on excellence in Plato and Aristotle. You can read it here:

I was really happy to be able to give proper emphasis to the background social conditions that play such a large role in Plato and Aristotle’s work. Many popularizations of ancient philosophy take too many of their cues from the Stoics, presenting virtue as attainable in a vacuum.

How to be excellent | Psyche

The Consequences of Catholicism for Political Theory

There’s an endemic debate over what people are saying when they refer to ‘the west’. Is the west defined by its whiteness, its wealth, its liberal democracy? Should we call it the ‘highly developed countries’, the ‘advanced economies’, the ‘first world’, or the ‘global north’? I think most of these terms misses what is distinctive about this set of places. The countries we think of as ‘western’ are all countries where Catholicism was once dominant but is now in varying levels of retreat. Western countries are ‘post-Catholic’.

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On the Relationship Between Infrastructure Spending and Corporation Tax

The Biden administration has come out with a $2 trillion infrastructure plan. The United States is very behind on infrastructure spending–according to the American Society of Civil Engineers, the US faces a $2.59 trillion infrastructure shortfall over the next 10 years. Biden’s bill isn’t large enough to fill that gap, and a significant percentage of its spending is for other purposes. $400 billion is slated to go to nursing home services, a pressing need in its own right, but not one of the needs which the ASCE tracks in its reports. If you add it up, it looks like roughly half the Biden bill’s spending directly addresses the needs identified by our civil engineers, while the other half funds other projects. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this–it’s very normal for politicians to attach pet programs to popular bills that meet essential needs, and many of Biden’s pet projects have value. But it does mean that this bill’s infrastructure spending is less substantial than it initially appears. It will still leave us with a significant infrastructure shortfall. The more interesting issue–and the one I wish to discuss at some length–is the decision to pair this infrastructure bill with an increase in the marginal corporation tax rate.

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The Dilemma Over How to Reproduce the Elite

I’ve been reading Edward Watts’ book, The Final Pagan Generation. Watts focuses on Roman elites born during the reign of Constantine in the 310s. These Romans were born when paganism was still dominant in the empire, and they died near the end of the century, when pagan temples were being ripped down and destroyed. Christianity slowly crept through the empire between the 310s and the 390s, but even pagan Roman elites did very little about it. Why? Trying to oppose Christianization could result in loss of imperial favor. It was a risky career move. But it goes further than this. Roman elites relied on patronage networks. These patronage networks were predicated on exchanges of favors. When these elites began their careers, there was broad toleration of both paganism and Christianity. The religious division had not yet become the primary marker of political identity. Consequently, elite patronage networks often contained both Christians and pagans, and this meant that pagan Roman elites often owed favors to Christian elites and vice versa. During the reign of Julian, the last pagan emperor, pagan elites often defended their Christian friends from Julian’s effort to purge the Roman school system of Christian teachers. The Christian teachers were part of the elite network, and individual pagan elites felt a loyalty to their network that was more powerful than religious identity. They owed their positions to the patronage system and they put the patronage system first. In the United States, we have made an effort to eliminate patronage systems in favor of ostensibly fair, impersonal, meritocratic mechanisms. But while our system of elite reproduction differs from Rome’s, we have not fully eliminated the role of interpersonal ties in elite reproduction. I want to suggest that our system of elite reproduction is caught between the old patronage model and a more impersonal, technocratic model. Both the old and new models have some disturbing features, and this keeps us from fully embracing one or the other. But in trying to balance the two models together, we have created a system of elite reproduction that is too opaque to function properly.

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Are Declassed Professionals in the United States like Surplus Song Dynasty Civil Servants?

I’ve been reading Youngmin Kim’s A History of Chinese Political Thought. In one of his chapters, he argues that during the Southern Song Dynasty (1127-1279), a peculiar kind of “metaphysical republicanism” took root. As the Chinese population increased, the Song state struggled to create enough jobs in the state bureaucracy to accommodate larger and larger numbers of educated young men. Unable to pursue political power through the conventional pathways, these young men invented a new kind of political theory to make sense of their positions (or lack thereof). Kim’s description of this theory is eerily reminiscent of the kind of thinking that has become increasingly popular among what I like to call the “fallen” professionals–people with university degrees who have been unable to secure stable, prestigious positions within the power structure.

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