Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Deliberation and Social Science

This will be my last post. Thanks again to the Prawfs, especially Dan Markel, and to all those who graciously and generously discussed the ideas of my new book.

Just a final point of clarification. Some commentators in this blog have challenged our claim (my co-author is Guido Pincione, a brilliant Argentine philosopher) that political deliberation fails because it overlooks reliable social science. These critics have suggested that social science is not reliable. But if this is true, those who advance political positions in deliberation are knowingly deceiving their audiences. For in that case a defender of the minimum wage (to continue with that example) should say "I support the minimum wage because I want to help the poor, but I don't have the slightest idea whether the minimum wage will do that." That most people who support the MW in the political arena perpetrate discourse failure --that is, that that their reasons for supporting the MW are not truth-sensitive-- is shown by the fact that they conceal their supposed belief in the unreliability of social science, since if they didn't, their own view wouldn't make sense and, most important, they would fail to gain adepts. They are not epistemic skeptics; on the contrary, their statement pressuposes an economic theory according to which the MW does not produce significant unemployment.

Now suppose that the effects of the MW on employment are controversial, according to the most reliable literature on the subject. In that case, the supporter of the MW should acknowledge that. She should say "I support the MW, but I must warn you that, while the issue is controversial, it is just possible that the MW will cause unemployment." That supporters of the MW virtually never say this reinforces our suspicion that we are in the presence of discourse failure (that is, that the defense of the MW can be traced to truth-insensitive processes such as rational ignorance or posturing.)

And again, our view is not that the public is stupid. 

Take tax cuts. We all like to display our progressive credentials by blasting Bush's tax cuts with  clichés such as "they are giveaways to the rich". But have we done a conscientious study on the effects of these tax cuts on economic growth or on the poor? Of course not. As we all know, tax economics is  particularly complex. In many instances, lowering taxes stimulates the economy; in other instances, it doesn't. I don't have the slightest idea (and I am too lazy to find out) whether the Bush tax cuts will help or hurt the economy or the poor. And if I may say so, I doubt that many of the readers of this blog have undertaken the study that is needed to overcome rational ignorance before pronouncing on the wisdom of the tax cuts. And we are law professors!

Again, thanks to all. I look forward to discussing ideas in this excellent forum.

Posted by fteson on July 26, 2006 at 05:05 PM in Fernando Teson | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Thursday, July 13, 2006

More on Deliberation

A great discussion, thanks all.

Just to clarify a few points raised. Ethan is right that the view that the public is ignorant is as old as Plato. But we are neither elitist democrats nor (res horribilis!) non-democrats. On the contrary, we commend the average citizen who does not get involved in politics. She has better things to do with her life than either (1) acquiring the vivid, mostly false, social theories that succeed in the political arena; or (2) learning the complex, opaque social theory that she needs to deliberate in the manner recommended by deliberativists. We would even say that someone who gets involved in politics under the current conditions infected by discourse failure should be criticized, not praised. Again: someone engages in discourse failure when he utters a public political position that stems from a truth-insensitive epistemic (or cognitive) process. Thus: if I say that we should protect our "jobs" from foreign competition because I don't understand economics, I suffer from rational ignorance. If I say the same thing because I expect to get nominated to highly-paid government (or labor union, or whatever) job, then I'm guilty of posturing. The structure of incentives in the modern redistributive state generates discourse failure. People will predictably adopt positions at odds with reliable social science (economics, pol sci, etc)

Someone observed with dismay, in apparent support of our views, that deliberation failed in the blue states, given who they voted for, etc. But our theory is not about how people vote. It is about what people say in politics. It is a theory about discursive behavior. More specifically, we do not simply claim that people get their facts wrong (as Ethan says, this is old hat), but that they get their social theories wrong. The public systematically misunderstands how society works (in a future post I will list the specific patterns of discourse failure).

Finally, Ethan suggests that the public may deliberate about values, not facts or theories, and perhaps in that case rational ignorance and posturing are not as harmful. We address precisely this point in Chapter 6 of the book, where we criticize "the moral turn". This is the attempt by politicians and citizens (and, alas, sometimes scholars) to overmoralize political issues. We believe that most (not all) political controversies are causal, not normative. Examples: how to end poverty, how to reduce crime, etc. etc. Many political actors and political theorists treat these problem as one of values, not empirical theory.

But do you know many people who think we should have more poverty and more crime?

In that chapter we examine the various attempts to justify the moral turn, and we think that with respect to most (not all) political issues, this is illegitimate because most political issues have a consequentialist structure. We propose the Display Test to  check whether a political issue is genuinely normative or not. For example, suppose you defend the minimum wage in the name of the poor. If reliable economic research tells us that the minimum wage hurts the poor (by generating unemployment), can you legitimately claim that defending the MW is a moral issue, so that economics doesn't relly matter? In other words: can you proudly admit that your proposal, if adopted, would hurt the poor? If you cannot, then you've flunked the Display Test.

(In the book we show that public defenses of the minimum wage almost always conceal its downsides. Academic debates do not, but we're mostly analyzing public deliberation, not scientific seminars. Our point is precisely that the public does not take into account what is said in scientific seminars!)  This may seem obvious, but leading deliberativists such as  Guttman & Thompson, Christiano, Habermas, Nino, Rawls (in Political Liberalism) believe that the main problem in liberal society is that citizens have lasting moral disagreements and that deliberation is the way to settle them. We, on the contrary, believe that a main problem in modern society is that people err in politics, in the sense of acquiring or uttering views divorced from reliable social science. The public commits empirical mistakes. The moral turn, then, is yet another form of discourse failure.

Posted by fteson on July 13, 2006 at 09:58 AM in Fernando Teson | Permalink | Comments (12) | TrackBack

Monday, July 10, 2006

Is Deliberation Good?

Hi all, and greetings from Buenos Aires (where I had to endure seeing my beloved national team fall to the Germans in the World Cup). I thank my friend and colleague Dan Markel for inviting me to return to this excellent forum.

I'd like to talk about political deliberation. Whatever their political views, almost every liberal agrees that political deliberation is a good thing. Resting on John Stuart Mill's shoulders, most people think that the more public debate and deliberation, the better. The idea is that political deliberation increases our chances of getting things right (even if we fallible creatures cannot possibly reach the ultimate truth of political perfection.) 

I think this is wrong, and so I argue in my upcoming book, RATIONAL CHOICE AND POLITICAL DELIBERATION: A THEORY OF DISCOURSE FAILURE (Cambridge U. P. , August 2006) [with Guido Pincione]. The public will not deliberate in accordance with truth-sensitive principles; on the contrary, the public will err in accordance with definite patterns. The idea is that acquiring reliable knowledge about social theory (economics, pol sci, etc)  is very costly to the average citizen, so he will rely on theories by default that are mostly false (for example: "we need to protect our industry against foreign competition", "higher crime results from lenient courts", etc, etc). The public, in short, is rationally ignorant. Reliable social science is hard because it is opaque and complex. Folk knowledge is easy to apprehend because it is vivid. Knowing this, politicians and others use, for electoral purposes, a rhetoric that feeds into these false theories. As a result, public deliberation does not bring us closer to the truth. On the contrary, deliberation increases error. We call this phenomenon discourse failure.

In the book we discuss and reject many moves that deliberativists make. I look forward to sharing aspects of the book with readers in the next two weeks, and, of course, welcome criticisms, comments, and sugestions.

Posted by fteson on July 10, 2006 at 03:46 PM in Fernando Teson | Permalink | Comments (15) | TrackBack

Thursday, December 08, 2005

War and Speech: A Moral Puzzle

Let’s assume, without deciding, that the following propositions are true:

1)  Americans have a robust First Amendment right to criticize the government. This includes both the decision to go to war and the conduct of war.

2)  The United States is facing a ferocious and determined enemy in Iraq. 

3)  The United States has a just cause, which means that victory by the United States is the morally preferable outcome.

4)   Certain forms of speech (for example, strong demands that U.S. troops withdraw) objectively aid the enemy (say this speech emboldens the enemy, so more U.S. troops die and chances for victory are reduced), even if the speaker does not intend to do so.

If all this is true, isn’t the speech in question morally objectionable, even if constitutionally permitted? Certainly, the fact that I have a legal right to say something doesn’t morally justify my saying it. If telling you (frankly and truthfully) that your new haircut makes you look ridiculous will hurt your feelings, maybe I should refrain from saying it. This is why the only way I see morally to justify someone who aids the enemy with his speech is to deny assumption 3), that the United States has a just cause. In that case, the correct moral position is indeed to demand that the troops return. But if  one accepts 3), then I cannot see how one can avoid the conclusion that the speaker is acting immorally.

Posted by fteson on December 8, 2005 at 10:04 AM in Fernando Teson | Permalink | Comments (49) | TrackBack

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Trade and Poverty: A Case of Discourse Failure?

Let us agree that world poverty is a major scourge and that the international community as a whole, as well as governments, have a moral obligation to try to alleviate it. The issue is very topical now. It permeates meetings at the United Nations, developed countries' summits, and scholarly writings. Of the latter, there are two research communities that have addressed the question: human rights scholars (especially those concerned with socioeconomic rights) and global justice philosophers.

When I started research on a piece I'm writing with my colleague Jon Klick, I was stunned by the fact that almost no writer in these two fields discusses the fact that, according to a nearly unanimous economic literature, free trade helps the poor (please, don't ask me to prove this here: I recommend two non-technical books, Baghwati's In Defense of Globalization, OUP, 2004, and McCullock, Winters and Cirera: Trade Liberalization and Poverty: A Handbook, 2001).  Now, it's not as if they consider the issue and disagree that free trade helps the poor (although that would be bizarre, given the evidence). They simply ignore the issue.  I conjecture there are two reasons for this weird ommission. First, many human rights advocates and global philosophers are left-of-center, and therefore they do not want to concede that free markets may help the poor. They favor internal regulation of markets and they may think it is somewhat inconsistent for them to recommend international free trade. The other reason has to do with professional distortions. Human rights scholars tend to be economically illiterate.

Philosophers, on the other hand, have a prejudice against social theory. My sense is that they tend to think that all solutions to social problems are conceptual or normative: we just think about what equality requires, and enact the appropriate policies (e.g., transfer from rich to poor). But I've been persuaded the hard way that this apporach is wrong. The answer to most social problems is empirical, not normative, and world poverty is one of them. These writers are not only guilty of discourse failure (that is, of ignoring a relevant issue for truth-insensitive reasons).  They are hurting the poor.

Posted by fteson on December 6, 2005 at 11:12 AM in Fernando Teson | Permalink | Comments (8) | TrackBack

Friday, December 02, 2005

On International Legal Process

Let’s face it it: we lawyers like process. If there’s a voting or other social decision mechanism out there, we lawyers are inclined to say that it must be followed. In international law, for example, most lawyers believe that the use of force must almost always be authorized by the United Nations Security Council (self-defense is the only exception.) That is the right process, they think.

The issue is more complex, however. One could say that the legitimacy of process depends on the pedigree of the participants. For example, we would not say that decisions adopted by majority vote by the governing board of the Maffia are entitled to respect. I do not suggest that the UN Security Council is like the Maffia (although at times the UN General Assembly comes close) but the truth is that life or death decisions, such as rescuing people from genocide, may be blocked by governments that lack democratic legitimacy (either China, though veto, or undemocratic nonpermanent members by voting against the resolution). This does not seem right. A principled defense of process trades on the political legitimacy of majority vote in a democracy. The United Nations, however, is not a democratic legislature, and while it should not be unduly trashed, it should not be unduly romanticized either.

And, if as Eric Posner and John Yoo have argued (LA Times,  April 19, 2005) the UN is a forum where countries band together to counter United States hegemonic power, and if (two big ifs) the United States is trying to do the right thing, then abiding by process doesn’t seem such a good idea. (The same reasoning applies, of course, to any other country.)

Contrast this suspect international legal process with the one established by NAFTA (or the European Union.) It was unforgivable for the United States to ignore the NAFTA ruling in the Canadian lumber case (and I’m relieved that the administration has reversed course). That is a dispute settlement system agreed upon by three democratic nations, and it is therefore validated by appropriate principles of political legitimacy.

Posted by fteson on December 2, 2005 at 10:19 AM in Fernando Teson | Permalink | Comments (11) | TrackBack

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Against Immigration Controls

Apparently both parties, with Republicans in the lead, have embarked on an anti-immigrant frenzy. The hysteria has been fueled for some time now by daily broadcasts in all major networks and gravely sounding members of Congress discussing the “crisis on our borders”, “our bankrupt immigration system”, etc. The virulence of this sentiment makes Le Pen in France seem like a cosmopolitan liberal.

Yet liberal principles require a drastic reduction of immigration controls. Foreigners flock to our shores because there is demand for their labor. The same principle that supports free trade of goods and services -- the law of comparative advantages -- applies with equal force to freedom of movement. Freer immigration would alleviate world poverty and allow people in our country to redirect resources toward more efficient activities. Every single argument for strict immigration controls is flawed:

1) Sometimes we hear that if we don’t control immigration we will be invaded, that is, foreigners will keep coming to this country indefinitely and we would be unable to support them. But that argument ignores the simple economics of immigration flows. Foreigners come because they find jobs. Once there are no more jobs for them, once the market becomes saturated, they will stop coming. For who wants to move from the comfort and warmth of their culture, say in Hermosillo, Sonora, to a hostile, impersonal place like Phoenix, Arizona, where they don’t understand the language and feel unprotected and lonely, unless they have economic opportunity?

2) Another argument is that immigrants, if they don’t find jobs, will free-ride on the welfare laws. Well, that’s easily solved: open immigration for people seeking economic opportunity, on the condition that they will not be allowed to draw welfare benefits (or, better yet, abolish welfare, but I don’t wish to argue that point.)

3) “Immigrants will take American jobs, since they charge less.” Well, so will someone moving to Arizona from Florida who charges less. Why is it all right to be out-competed by a fellow citizen but not by a foreigner?  "Being a foreigner" is a morally non-invokable trait for this purpose (allowing the person to work.)

4) I omit discussion of the communitarian arguments (“we need to protect our culture,” etc.) who sound to me really bordering on xenophobia.

Perhaps we should have immigration controls to screen out terrorists and the like. But the so-called economic refugees, who cross the border at the Rio Grande at great peril to their lives just to seek a better future for themselves and their families in our country, are, to my mind, true heroes.

Posted by fteson on November 29, 2005 at 12:37 AM in Fernando Teson | Permalink | Comments (17) | TrackBack

Thursday, November 24, 2005

Why the Left Ought to Support (An Aspect of) Bush's Foreign Policy

I know some readers of this blog tend to be from the Left. Let me get my worry off my chest.  One of the pathetic sights of the last few years has been the reluctance of the Left, here and in Europe, to denounce and reject Islamofascism. Yes, because, in spite of all the PC talk about Islam as a religion of peace, the enemy we are facing is Islamofascism (I hasten to say that not all Muslims are fascists). One of the great traditions of the Left has been its struggle against all forms of totalitarianism, especially of the fascist kind. Yet the Left has, to my knowledge, refused to endorse the message of the President's second inaugural address, when he promised to fight tyranny in the world. Why?  Because the Left is partisan and hypocritical. The current ethos of the Left is to support any regime, even fascist ones, as long as they are targeted by a U.S. Republican administration. For the Left to take to the streets to support Saddam Hussein , a genocidal monster, is the ultimate shame for a political movement that, while slow to criticize Communism in the past, at least bravely fought fascist forms of oppression.  The movement that took to the streets in 2003 was not to protest the horrendous dictatorship in Iraq, but to protest the intervention to overthrow the horrendous dictatorship. Shame on the Left. I think the Left has to reconstitute itself and recover the great imagination about equality and freedom, and stop obsessing about G.W.B. and conservatives. As far as I'm concerned, the Left today is a reactionary political movement. It not only supports Islamofascism. It also distrusts free markets, the one hope of reducing world poverty. Once you peel off all the layers of the onion, there's nothing left.

Posted by fteson on November 24, 2005 at 10:56 AM in Fernando Teson | Permalink | Comments (45) | TrackBack

Monday, November 21, 2005

Two Iraq Puzzles

I have written elsewhere about the war, but here I would like to present two puzzles.

Puzzle # 1: Where ARE Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction? Our government has admitted that it was wrong, that the weapons were not there. But where did they go? They could not have been made up by CIA’s flawed intelligence. Russian, French, German, and  Chinese intelligence would have been equally flawed, since they all believed that the WMDs were there (they opposed the war EVEN if the WMD would have been there).  It is unlikely that all of them would have made the same mistake. Moreover, Saddam Hussein himself behaved as if he had the WMD. If the WMDs weren’t there, why not tell the Americans and others “be my guests, come to Iraq, inspect everything, and you’ll see that I don’t have any WMDs”. In that way, he would have averted the war that ended up throwing him out of power forever (and we cannot say either that he thought he would win this war, or that he’s simply crazy, because, crazy or not, he was a master at clinging to political power). This is not a rhetorical question, nor a defense of the Bush administration (who I think is strictly liable for erring or deceiving the public, if that’s what it did). I am genuinely puzzled by this mystery. I have been  unable to elicit an answer from anyone, whether friend or foe of this administration. Perhaps a kind reader of this webpage can help.

Puzzle #2: If the war in Iraq is unlawful, as many think, then the following things follow. The Iraqi resistance is not a criminal or terrorist enterprise, but a legitimate defensive war. International law does not have grey tones here: the default rule is the prohibition of war, so if a war is justified neither on self-defense grounds nor on humanitarian intervention grounds (assuming that you accept the validity of the humanitarian intervention doctrine) nor as enforcement of prior U.N. Security Council resolutions, then it is aggression. And if the effort in Iraq is a war of aggression, international law says that the international community must wipe out all the consequences of the aggression, and that means restoring Saddam to power. Yet I don’t hear critics of this war follow up with the courage of their convictions and say that the Iraqi resistance (that is, the current alliance of Saddam’s henchmen with Al-Qaeda) is fighting a legitimate defensive war and as such should be supported by the international community and all right-minded persons, or (even less) that Saddam ought to be restored to power.

Posted by fteson on November 21, 2005 at 12:20 AM in Fernando Teson | Permalink | Comments (18) | TrackBack

Friday, November 18, 2005

In Defense of "Isolationism"

Greetings. I am pleased and honored to have been invited to blog here. I start with some  reflections about the U.S. and the international "community." 

No good liberal likes to be an isolationist. Isolationism is "bad," a hangover of primitive pre-globalization times.  So we have assumed (yours truly included) that the United States had to be in harmony with the international community, not against it.  Thus, many have criticized the United States' rejection of the Kyoto Protocol and the International Criminal Court Treaty, as well as the decision to invade Iraq without Security Council authorization. These are, after all, actions that alienate us from the rest of the world. Perhaps these criticisms have some merit.

Sometimes, however, hard as this may be to believe, the United States is right and the international “community” is wrong and thus being "isolated" is correct.  Two recent examples. The first is the signing (in Paris, of all places,) of an embarrassing treaty on “cultural protection.” This is, at best, an attempt (led by France and Canada) to protect their inefficient artists (yes, there are inefficient artists), and at worst the latest ejaculation of Anti-American phobia.  Dictators of the world, always ready to decide for their hapless citizens what movies they should watch, were delighted to join.

The second is more alarming: the attempt to regulate the Internet (see Lou Dobbs on CNN, Nov. 15, available on Lexis). These good dictators (again, with the support of the Europeans, albeit less enthusiastic) are pushing to take the Internet off the hands of the United States and giving it to the UN – an institution eminently corrupt and hostile to freedom. The international "community" follows the example of Fidel Castro, who tightly controls access to the Internet (unless, of course, you are a member of the government). Kudos to the  United States government, which is vocally opposing these (goofy) assaults on freedom. Sometimes "isolationism" is, simply put, the ethical thing to do. As we say in Argentina: mejor solos que mal acompañados.

Posted by fteson on November 18, 2005 at 08:54 AM in Current Affairs, Fernando Teson | Permalink | Comments (7) | TrackBack