Free speech, unfair dismissal and unions (crosspost from Crooked Timber)

(Reposted from Crooked Timber, hence written for a mainly US audience, but referring to the Australian debate.)

I’m seeing a lot of comments from the political right and centre-right worrying about the possibility that workers may be fired for expressing conservative views. For example, here’s David Brooks (paywalled, I think) linking to Andrew Sullivan.

It strikes me that this would be a really good time for people like Brooks and Sullivan to campaign for an end to employment at will, and the introduction of the kind of unfair dismissal laws that protect workers in most democratic countries, but not, for the most part, in the US. Among other things, these laws prohibit firing employees on the basis of their political opinions. Better still, though, would be a resurgence of unionism. Union contracts generally require dismissal for cause, and unionised workers have some actual backup when it comes to a dispute with employers.

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Sense and senselessness in transport policy

I’ve been doing various pieces of work on transport. Here’s a quick update:

* I’ll be speaking at a one-day seminar organised by the Institute for Sensible Transport in Sydney on 8 August. It should be a good event for those with a professional interest in road pricing and related topics.

* For those with a general interest, I have a section over the fold from my book-in-progress, Economics in Two Lessons. Comments and criticism much appreciated.

* While I was a Member of the Climate Change Authority, I put a lot of work into a report the Authority did on vehicle fuel efficiency standards. With the rejection of just about every other policy measure to reduce CO2 emissions in Australia, this was the government’s last chance to do something useful. Naturally, Turnbull and Frydenberg went to water the moment the denialists who dominate the LNP raised an objection. Perhaps, now that the laws of mathematics have been subordinated to Australian law, Turnbull can solve our problems by simply decreeing a change of sign, so that an increase in emissions becomes a decrease.

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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.