I’m writing a book tentatively entitled Must Politics Be War? where I argue that publicly justified moral and political institutions allow people who deeply disagree about fundamental matters to live together well in moral peace with one another. I deny that our political battles must be naked power-grabs to bludgeon others with our sectarian views. Instead, politics can be rooted in the intrinsic good of moral peace between persons, where our social relations with others are not based on a stable balance of power, a modus vivendi, but on moral and legal conventions that are justified for all persons based on their own diverse commitments, projects, and values.

Today I found a really fine illustration of the mindset I’m out to combat. It comes from Paul Krugman, and it is brief:

Frank Bruni marvels at polls indicating that Donald Trump, with his multiple marriages and casinos, is the preferred candidate among Republican evangelicals. Others are shocked to see a crude mercantilist make so much headway in the alleged party of free markets. What happened to conservative principles?

Actually, nothing — because those alleged principles were never real. Conservative religiosity, conservative faith in markets, were never about living a godly life or letting the invisible hand promote entrepreneurship. Instead, it was all as Corey Robin describes it: Conservatism is

a reactionary movement, a defense of power and privilege against democratic challenges from below, particularly in the private spheres of the family and the workplace.

It’s really about who’s boss, and making sure that the man in charge stays boss. Trump is admired for putting women and workers in their place, and it doesn’t matter if he covets his neighbor’s wife or demands trade wars.

The point is that Trump isn’t a diversion, he’s a revelation, bringing the real motivations of the movement out into the open.

Krugman’s opponents aren’t just wrong: they oppose fundamental moral and political values (equality) that any reasonable, decent person should accept. How are Very Serious Progressives like Krugman to share a country such individuals? Krugman’s answer is clear: support state power to crush conservative policies and criticize their intelligence and character.

It is easy to see the moral vice and animus in the post. Krugman dehumanizes his opponents by refusing to regard even some of them as fundamentally well-motivated and informed. Conservatives are foes and nothing more.

The post reminded me of the philosopher Burton Dreben, who made the following remark about defending public reason views:

To be perfectly blunt, sometimes I am asked, when I go around speaking for Rawls, What do you say to an Adolf Hitler? The answer is nothing. You shoot him. You do not try to reason with him.

For Krugman, we can paraphrase:

To be perfectly blunt, sometimes I am asked, when I go around speaking for Keynes, What do you say to conservatives and libertarians? The answer is nothing. You impose progressive policies on them. You do not try to reason with them.

After all, why bother reasoning with people who have fundamentally wicked motives, save to preach to the choir and rally the troops?

For Krugman, politics is war. But it doesn’t have to be that way, not if we’re willing to humble ourselves enough to recognize that other people can sincerely and intelligently affirm different worldviews, not just with respect to religion, but with respect to political and economic ideology. This means admitting that there are reasonable progressives, reasonable conservatives, and reasonable libertarians. Yes, some people are beyond the pale, but they’re the exception, not the rule.

I am convinced moral peace is possible between these groups. Citizens of liberal democratic societies have settled on a moral peace regarding religion; we can do so for politics too. The problem is that too few people want peace, and Krugman is foremost among them.

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The second view in my new series with Learn Liberty is out (see here for the first). In it, I begin to talk about different ways of addressing the problem of poverty, starting with what is almost certainly the most successful anti-poverty program in the history of the world.


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Of potential interest to BHL readers: I have a review of Jacob Levy’s book Rationalism, Pluralism, and Freedom in the newest (October 2015) issue of Reason. (It’s also available online, but only behind a paywall for now.) Spoiler alert: I liked it.


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