Academic Philosophy

Hooligans at Play: Trump the Worst President?

Trump is the worst president ever?

So say an important subset of political scientists:

That was the finding of the 2018 Presidents & Executive Politics Presidential Greatness Survey, released Monday by professors Brandon Rottinghaus of the University of Houston and Justin S. Vaughn of Boise State University. The survey results, ranking American presidents from best to worst, were based on responses from 170 current and recent members of the Presidents and Executive Politics section of the American Political Science Association.

I would have hoped political scientists could put aside their current partisan resentment and answer this question somewhat objectively.

Sure, I despise Trump too. But the worst president ever?

Worse than McKinley and Teddy Roosevelt, who oversaw the straightforwardly evil US-Phillipine war, which left 200,000 civilians dead? Worse than Hoover, who greatly exacerbated the Great Depression with stupid interventions? Worse than Wilson, who put Americans needlessly into the unjustifiable Great War and then so screwed up post-war negotiations that World War II became close to inevitable? Worse than the long string of presidents who oversaw the extermination, forced relocation, and genocide of Native Americans? Worse than FDR, who put Japanese Americans in concentration camps? Worse than Nixon, who had to resign because of his corruption? Worse than Bill Clinton, whose sanctions of Iraq may have killed around 500,000 Iraqi children? (Note, that this number is controversial. HT: Dan Bier) Worse than Ulysses Grant, whose administration had a cartoonish degree of corruption? Worse than Polk, who unjustly seized massive amounts of land from Mexico?

Now, we don’t know what their criteria are for “greatness”. Great men are often, perhaps usually, bad men. Genghis Khan, Hitler, Mao, and Mehmed V were great men, but also bad men. However, it’s pretty clear the rankings are not simply or primarily about “impact” or “bigness”. If they were, Trump would be middle of the road, not dead last, and many of the other presidents would be ranked differently.

This kind of nonsense makes political science look bad. The message a casual reader might get is that political scientists are just partisan players who apparently believe brown, red, and yellow lives don’t matter.



Book/Article Reviews

Toleration and Freedom From Harm

My new book, Toleration and Freedom From Harm: Liberalism Reconceived, is now available from Routledge and on Amazon.

Regular readers of this blog will recognize some of the views I defend in it, including my defense of parental licensing.  I also offer a refinement of my previous conceptual analysis of toleration and a detailed explanation of my (Feinbergian) account of harm as well as explanation as to how I think we ought to understand the harm principle.  That provides a basis for my view regarding the moral limits of toleration of cultural differences and toleration internationally as well as (of course) the limits of toleration of individual behavior.  Those limits, I think, are generally limits any libertarian should be happy with.

Here’s the advertisement:

Toleration matters to us all. It contributes both to individuals leading good lives and to societies that are simultaneously efficient and just. There are personal and social matters that would be improved by taking toleration to be a fundamental value. This book develops and defends a full account of toleration—what it is, why and when it matters, and how it should be manifested in a just society. Cohen defends a normative principle of toleration grounded in a new conception of freedom as freedom from harm. He goes on to argue that the moral limits of toleration have been reached only when freedom from harm is impinged. These arguments provide support for extensive toleration of a wide range of individual, familial, religious, cultural, and market activities. Toleration Matters will be of interest to political philosophers and theorists, legal scholars, and those interested in matters of social justice.  [I had toyed with calling the book Toleration Matters.]



National Sovereignty and Immigration

Jay: “I advocate open borders.”
Lots of people Left and Right: “What, you don’t believe in national sovereignty?”
Jay: “Well, no, but even if I did, invoking national sovereignty doesn’t resolve the issue.”

Many people think something like the following argument is sound:
1. States have a right to national sovereignty.
2. National sovereignty includes a right to determine who may pass borders.
3. Therefore, national sovereignty precludes open borders.

In this argument, premise 2 does all the work. Most laypeople will just present premise 1 and immediately jump to the conclusion, 3: “Nations have a right to national sovereignty; therefore, they have a right to close or restrict their borders to immigrants.”

However, the problem with this argument, which proponents rarely notice, is that it doesn’t specify why national sovereignty includes this right to restrict freedom but not others. The restrictionist’s argument can be parodied as follows:

Jay: “I advocate free speech, freedom of lifestyle, sexual freedom, free trade, pharmaceutical freedom, and freedom of conscience.”
Illiberal respondent: “What, you don’t believe in national sovereignty?”
Jay: “Well, again, no, I don’t, but even if I did, invoking national sovereignty doesn’t resolve the issue.”

As this dialogue illustrates, it would seem to be a non-starter, or at least not very illuminating, to argue against other liberal freedoms on the grounds that nations or states enjoy national sovereignty. After all, the liberal could just say, “I believe in national sovereignty, but nations have sovereignty over only a limited range of issues. They do not have legitimacy or authority to eliminate free speech, sexual freedom, and so on. The dispute between you (the illiberal) and me isn’t over whether nations have sovereignty, but over what they have sovereignty. So let’s hear your real argument. Please stop pounding the table.”

The defender of open borders can say the same thing. “Sure, nations have sovereignty, within certain limits set by justice. I presume you agree. So, now let’s move on to the actual dispute, which is over whether people have a right to emigrate/immigrate and to what degree nations may restrict that. Please stop invoking sovereignty as if you were making an independent argument rather than just begging the question.”


“The weight of the words,” and some talks

I have a new essay up at Niskanen: “The weight of the words.

A few talks and workshops on the west coast:

Today, Stanford, Political Theory Workshop: “Justice in Babylon”
Monday 2/12, UCSD, “Irregular Liberty”
Tuesday University of San Diego (through the good graces of BHL team captain Matt Zwolinski), “Justice in Babylon”
Wednesday 2/28, Mont Hamilton/ Bastiat Society of San Jose, 11:30 am, TBA (the announcement has borrowed the same title as my evening lecture but as I understand it that’s not the actual plan).
Wednesday 2/28 5:15 pm, San Jose State University, Black Liberty Matters


Two Genetic Arguments

Some people think this is a good argument against school vouchers:

Vouchers Are Racist
1. Many the people who originally defended school vouchers decades ago did so because they wanted to reinforce racial segregation/prevent racial integration. [Corrupt semi-historian Nancy MacLean continually lies to the public that James Buchanan had this motive, but presumably some people actually did, even if historical documents show that Buchanan in fact supported integration.]

2. If some of the original supporters of school vouchers did so because they believed vouchers would reinforce racial segregation, then supporting vouchers is racist.

3. Therefore, supporting vouchers is racist.

On its face, this is a silly argument–after all, it could turn out that the original supporters were wrong. Perhaps vouchers turn out to actually reduce segregation. If we care about segregation, we’d want to check; we wouldn’t just assume the original supporters got the facts right.

But no matter. What I find odd is that certain people on the Left find the Vouchers Are Racist argument sound, but then at the same time do not accept this parallel argument:

Minimum Wage Laws Are Classist, Racist, and Eugenicist

1. The economists who first proposed minimum wage laws did so because they believed these laws would cause mass unemployment among whom they regarded as the dregs of society. They wanted to starve them out and thus improve the gene pool. [Unlike MacLean’s fictions about Buchanan, this is actually true. See  here and here.]

2. If the economists who first proposed minimum wage laws did so because they believed these laws would starve the poor, then supporting minimum wage laws is classist, racist, and eugenicist.

3. Therefore, supporting minimum wage laws is classist, racist, and eugenicist.

This second argument has the same structure as the first. The main difference is that premise 1 is clearly true in the second argument but not in the first. Still, many on the Left find the first compelling but the second argument not compelling. They can’t have it both ways. “Genetic arguments for me but not for thee!”

In fact, neither argument is any good, even if we suppose that premise 1 of the first argument is true. I wouldn’t use the second argument against current supporters of the minimum wage. Obviously, most current supporters of the minimum wage aren’t eugenicists who want to starve the poor and prevent them from reproducing; they just believe the early economists were mistaken about what minimum wage laws will do. Similarly, economists and philosophers who today support vouchers dispute whether vouchers increase racial segregation.