Podcast Interview

Here’s a link to an interview I did with the people at Finding Genius. (The joke about “still looking” has already been taken…)

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The Academic Minute

Here’s a very brief description of a part of my work, on The Academic Minute, a podcast that gives brief descriptions of what professors around the world are up to.

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Andrea Grimes in Dame.

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Book Chat on WAMC

You can hear me in conversation about Democracy in Crisis with WAMC’s Alan Chartock here.

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Democracy in Crisis

My new book comes out with Imprint Academic on January 4th. Amazon link.

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I never did like the Romans…

Check out Walter Scheidel’s piece on the fall of Rome in Aeon.

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The Apolitical Nature of Liberalism

On Friday, as the major networks called the presidential race for Joe Biden, cheering erupted in the streets of my hometown, Rosendale, NY, as it did in many towns and cities across the country. Joy, mitigated with relief, characterized most responses as people realized the election was over.

But a not uncommon additional sentiment was exhaustion. For most Americans, the last four years consisted of a daily barrage of norm violations, lies, self-dealing, administrative abuses, and illegalities compounded by denial in the face of one of the most serious health threats to face the world since the early part of the twentieth century (and I leave aside a host of other outrages like the ever-present presidential tweets and commentary which served as a sort of droning background noise for the entire four years).

As one woman I spoke with briefly on the street put it: “Thank goodness it’s over; I can go back to thinking about my life!” I imagine this is not at all an uncommon sentiment. After all, we, collectively, have devoted an extraordinary amount of time in the last four years to the public drama emanating out of the White House. I’ve followed politics in the United States closely since I was a teenager, but I can’t remember spending quite so much time doing so as I have during the Trump Presidency.

So on the one hand, the exhaustion seems understandable, as does the desire to concentrate on non-political issues and concerns. But it also reflects a deeper underlying gravitational pull away from the public sphere that characterizes liberalism, and poses a distinct danger to the American democratic project.

The basic premise of liberalism – built into the Latin roots of the word – promises liberty: it’s the desire to maximize space within which we can act without interference, consistent with allowing similar space for others. Political theorists usually refer to this way of thinking about liberty as “negative,” as in Thomas Hobbes’ infamous definition of it as an “absence of external impediment.” Early liberals saw impediments or interference in the demands of government, though – following John Stuart Mill – we can think of public opinion, mores, and norms as other forms of interference, even though they may lack the force of law.

For liberals, human beings need this sort of space to pursue their particular conception of the good life. The government should not tell us what to think, believe, or pursue as an end, so long as we’re not harming others in that pursuit. As rational creatures, we can determine (or not) our own goals and ends, and the state remains as neutral as possible on the question of the good life.

But this reveals a strange apolitical nature at the heart of the underwriting political theory of liberal democracy because the centripetal pull of individual conceptions of the good life pull us away from public concerns into our own private worlds. Success in and focus on the private sphere eclipses our view of the public sphere and makes possible the valorization of the private life.

This is not, of course, to argue that we don’t need some sort of private existence. The household, the family, leisure time, all provide us with welcome relief from the harsh light of the public sphere. But it is to argue that a political theory which points away from the public sphere so definitively run the risk of neglecting to adequately patrol the public sphere.

I suppose what I want to argue is that at its roots, liberalism is a political theory which holds out the possibility of ignoring the public sphere. With adequate constitutional constraints, the government should function like a clock, requiring only the periodic adjustment of an election. I hear versions of this in the relief people express at the election of Biden. Once Biden takes office, we can relax and tend to other affairs.

The truth, unfortunately, is not so simple. Maintaining negative freedom requires not only the lack of external impediment, but also taking the time to ensure that no such impediments will be erected. And this orients the citizen always back toward the public sphere. We cannot resolve political problems definitively. They require, rather, constant monitoring, negotiation, and intervention, and not just by our elected representatives.

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This op-ed from The Poughkeepsie Journal.

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Idleness Grants

I’m not even sure what to say about this. Maybe I should apply?

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Masks and Liberalism

This morning I watched yet another video of a violent encounter between an unmasked grocery store patron and clerk refusing service. Predictably, the unmasked patron claimed that the order to wear a mask infringed on his freedom. Sadly, too many of these encounters turn violent, and it’s unfortunate that frequently underpaid workers find themselves in the position of having to remind patrons about state or local ordinances regarding masks.

For the purposes of this post, however, I’m going to set aside the appalling regularity of inexcusable violence (physical or verbal) that characterizes these encounters. I’m also setting aside alternative explanations for the conflict over masks. Mask wearing in some parts of the country parallel existing political divides and so plays a role in group identity, and there are debates about the relative value of public and economic health. These factors may indeed amplify conflicts, but I’m interested in the frequently repeated claim that mask regulations represent an unwarranted restriction on freedom.

Mask refusers regularly make basic mistakes about the idea of freedom and how it applies in a liberal society. To most readers here, these arguments may seem obvious, even painfully so. But clearly for a certain section of the population, some basic reminders are in order.

A widespread conception of freedom is to understand it as simply equivalent to non-interference. I am free to the extent that no one restricts, prevents, or otherwise meddles with my ability to act (or not act). In philosophical literature, this version of freedom typically goes by the name of “negative” freedom, (in)famously defined by 17th century political theorist Thomas Hobbes as an “absence of external impediment.” Hobbes went so far as to consider any situation in which an individual had a choice as a free one. Thus, to use one of his examples, if I’m on a ship foundering in a storm and I throw my goods overboard in an attempt to lighten the load, I do so freely. Most people sensibly reject this rather extreme version of negative freedom, and allow carveouts for significant threats or coercion. Thus, if I give my wallet to a burglar with a gun at my head, I cannot be said to do so “freely.” Determining what counts as coercion, of course, is tricky, and lies at the root of many philosophical debates.

Liberalism allows for reasonable infringements on negative freedom when one’s actions harm others: in Robert Nozick’s words, “I can leave my knife wherever I will, but not in your chest.” Nozick’s claim is a version of John Stuart Mill’s harm principle, that the state or society can only interfere with a person’s liberty if their actions will cause – or potentially cause – harm to others. All other interventions represent unjustified restrictions on freedom. Like coercion, of course, properly defining harm can sometimes be tricky. But many examples are clear enough. The state can require properly functioning brakes, turn signals, and other equipment on your car because the alternative risks harm to others. Similarly, I cannot legally dump my used motor oil in the local creek because of the harm it does to the environment. In both these cases the state can restrict my ability to act freely in the interest of protecting others.

The above provides an adequate explanation for why your state or locality’s masking regulations represent legitimate infringements on your ability to do what you like. Substantial evidence exists that wearing masks reduces the spread of the COVD virus; the state restricts your freedom in the interest of protecting others. You are no more justified in saying you’d like to take the risk of not wearing a mask than you are of saying you’d like to take the risk of driving your car without brakes. In both cases, it’s not a question of risk to yourself, but rather to others.

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