Benjamin Studebaker

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

Tag: Liberalism

The Ungoverned Globe

I have a new piece out at Aeon on the liberal international order, its inadequacies, and the difficulties with replacing it. You can read it here:

Liberal Hypocrisies and the Alternatives to Them

All social orders are supported by “legitimation stories”. These are the reasons orders give us to support them, or at least to stay out of their way. Legitimation stories don’t have to be true, but they have to be persuasive. The social order has to create a set of conditions that are similar enough to the stories that we mistake what we have for what we were promised. Legitimation stories are chiefly about “good order”. Order is straightforward–social orders promise to protect us from violence, starvation, instability, and precarity. They promise to make us feel secure. “Good” is less obvious, because “good” tends to mean different things to different people in different contexts. Liberal legitimation stories understand “good” in three senses:

  1. A good order is one in which the subjects of the order are “free” or have “liberty” in some relevant sense.
  2. A good order is one in which the subjects of the order are treated as “equal” to one another in some relevant sense.
  3. A good order is one in which the order “represents” the subjects in some relevant way.
  4. A good order is “dynamic”, it is capable of delivering real change.

The trouble is that terms like “free”, “equal”, and “representative” don’t have stable social meanings. Our understandings of these terms can easily slide out of alignment with the understandings we need to have for legitimation stories to work. If we understand “equality” to mean “a fair distribution of resources” but the liberal order wants us to understand “equality” as “everyone gets to have their say”, the order has to convince us that we’ve misunderstood the meaning of equality. It has to get us to think about it in a whole different way. When gaps open up between the conditions the order produces and our expectations, it is often because the order has lost control over how we understand the words it uses to tell its stories. When this happens, the order appears “hypocritical”–it appears to say one thing and do another, to tell stories it has no intention of realising. That’s what today’s post is about–the liberal order’s hypocrisies.

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A Platonist Critique of Rawls

One of the things that has always bothered me about Rawlsian liberalism is its emphasis on consensus. The Rawlsians want a state which ‘all reasonable people can accept’ or which ‘no reasonable person can reject’. To accomplish this consensus, Rawlsians have to hollow out the good until it contains only uncontroversial values. Controversial principles are not, by definition, accepted by all reasonable people. The Rawlsians therefore have a tendency to depoliticise the controversial. This results in a political theory which is committed to conflict avoidance. Families that avoid conflict tend to have conflict blow up in their faces, and the same is true for states.

But beyond this, Rawlsian liberalism produces a state which is based on lowest common denominators. This is where Plato comes in.

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Plato and the Frankfurt School

These days I get to supervise all of the history of political thought courses at Cambridge. It keeps me busy during term time, but it helps me think about things. The other day I was doing a supervision on the Greeks, when something clicked for me. I think Plato and the Frankfurt School have something important in common.

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Can We Fix Those Media Bias Charts?

Have you seen those charts that try to sort media outlets by political orientation? They have bothered me for years. They tend to use a single left/right scale, and they tend to position the centrist media as if it were “balanced” or “unbiased”. When of course the reality is that the centrist press has its own position, one which is distinct from both the left and the right. So I’ve been thinking–can I make a chart that fixes this? Can we chart political orientation in a useful way?

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