Expertise and punditry (updated)

I concluded my post “Against Epistocracy” with the question “Who gets to decide who is well-informed? And who gets to decide who gets to decide?”. This is, I think, a fatal flaw in any system proposing to replacing democracy with rule by a well-informed elite, or any kind of putative aristocracy. But even in a democratic system, we have to make decisions about who should decide things. In many cases, we would like to call on expert advice, and that brings us back to the question “who, if anybody, is an expert on a given topic”. I don’t have a complete answer, but I think it’s helpful to distinguish between experts and pundits or, better, between expertise and punditry.

Update: I just saw this review of The Death of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why it Matters by Tom Nichols which is obviously relevant. A crucial requirement for a successful defence of expertise is that we avoid defending authority based on mere punditry.
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Against epistocracy

I’ve finally been got around writing something about US philosopher Jason Brennan’s arguments for “epistocracy”, that is, restricting voting to people who are well-informed about the issues. For a long time, I assumed that such an idea would be ignored, and fade into oblivion, as most academic ideas do. But it’s popped up here in Australia. And, with democracy under challenge all around the world, it’s obviously not enough to say that it’s self-evidently a Good Thing that everyone should have the right to vote, and exercise it. So, I’ll try to offer some more specific objections.

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Heckling a criminal offence in the US? (crosspost from Crooked Timber)

In response to discussions about freedom of speech, particularly at university campuses, I started thinking about the question of heckling a speaker, and to what extent this is, or ought to be, protected by advocates of freedom of speech. I assumed that the correct formulation (both legally in the US context and in terms of what is appropriate) is the one attributed to Nat Hentoff

“First Amendment law is clear that everyone has the right to picket a speaker, and to go inside a hall and heckle him or her—but not to drown out the speaker, let alone rush the stage and stop the speech before it starts

It turns out, however, that Hentoff was wrong, as shown by the case of the Irvine 11.
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Arguing against racism

A while back, I made the case that the political crisis evident in most developed countries could be explained in terms of a “three-party system” in which the political forces were divided between tribalism, neoliberalism and a somewhat inchoate left. This replaced a neoliberal consensus in which power alternated between hard/right neoliberals (in the US context, the Republican party), relying on the political support of tribalists, and soft neoliberals (in the US context, centrist Democrats) relying on the left to support them as a lesser evil. The first stage of this breakdown has been the capitulation of hard neoliberals to the tribalist right. The most obvious instance is Donald Trump, but the same thing is happening in Australia with Pauline Hanson, in England with UKIP/Brexit and in many European countries as well.

That this is happening is now obvious. What should the left do about it? It’s obviously insufficient to make the point that Trump, or Hanson, or Farage is a racist (or uses racism for political benefit) and expect that to settle the question. That doesn’t mean that we should maintain the long-standing taboo on using the word “racist” to describe such people. Rather, we should start developing a proper analysis of political racism and strategies to oppose racism and tribalism.

The problem we face today is new in important respects. The civil rights and anti-apartheid movements were was a struggle against overtly racist racist state structures. The success of those movements did not end racism, but drove it underground, allowing neoliberals to exploit racist and tribalist political support while pursuing the interests of wealth and capital, at the expense of the (disproportionately non-white) poor.

That coalition has now been replaced by one in which the tribalists and racists are dominant. For the moment at least, ahrdneoliberals continue to support the parties they formerly controlled, with the result that the balance of political forces between the right and the opposing coalition of soft neoliberals and the left has not changed significantly. However, unlike the Civil Rights era, where racists had a clear agenda of defending the status quo, the new politics of the right is driven more by a general expression of resentment (or, if you want to be fancy, ressentiment) than by coherent policy objectives.

I have some ideas about what kinds of strategies and arguments are needed here, but I thought I’d post this first, and wait to see what others have to say.


In my final post on Locke’s theory of appropriation/expropriation, a while back, I mentioned that his latter-day successors, Nozick and Rothbard didn’t offer any improvement. I said at the time I would spell this out a bit more. I’ll start with Rothbard who is more politically relevant, and also, in my opinion, more interesting. As an example, at least during his 1960s flirtation with the radical left, and at the time he developed the theory of ‘homesteading’, he favored reparations for slavery.

The core of Rothbard’s position is that appropriation of property justifies ownership even without the Lockean proviso that ‘enough and as good’ is left over for others. Rothbard doesn’t, as far as I can see, go far beyond presenting this as a self-evident truth, and in any case, I don’t propose to argue about in detail. Rather, I want to look at Rothbard’s choice of the term ‘homesteading’ to describe this process. This choice of term is self-refuting in two ways, one that applies to any historical process of appropriation/expropriation and the other specific to the US.

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Against Locke, Part 3

The third and final instalment of my critique of Locke’s theory of appropriation/expropriation is up at Jacobin. I turn my attention from Locke to Jefferson, Locke’s most important follower, in practice as well as theory. By opening the Louisiana purchase for agricultural settlement, Jefferson put to the test Locke’s theory of appropriation to a practical test. In particular, the vastness of the land, compared with the modest requirements of the ideal Jeffersonian farm family seemed to support Jefferson’s prediction that the new land would be enough to last a thousand generations. But of course the opposite was true: in less than one generation, the United States had overspilled the boundaries of Jefferson’s purchase and was embroiled in a civil war that started with battles over the newly opened land. To restate the conclusion of the previous instalments, Locke’s theory was designed to justify expropriation and enslavement. Neither Locke nor epigones such as Nozick and Rothbard can provide a coherent theory of just appropriation of property.

Reaping the whirlwind

I’ve been trying to make sense of the Brexit (or rather E-exit) vote in terms of the analysis I put forward a while back. The result, over the fold, is a piece in Inside Story, an Australian magazine.

The key point is, that, in the absence of a coherent left alternative, neoliberalism (hard and soft) is being overwhelmed by a tribalist backlash. Writing this, I realise it might be construed as criticism of Corbyn for failing to develop and propose such an alternative in the referendum campaign. That would be a bad misreading. The context of the referendum meant that it was always going to be a choice of evils: between the racism and bigotry that animated so much of the Leave campaign, and the neoliberalism of both the Cameron government and the EU. The option of a social democratic, or even soft neoliberal, EU was not on the ballot.

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