Friday, December 29, 2006

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When divas go to Liberty Fund conferences

I'm back from vacation, I'm rested, and I'm ready to wade into a two-week-old blogosphere debate about whether libertarians are cultists.

Earlier this month grand conservative blogress diva Ann Althouse posted her thoughts about attending a Liberty Fund conference devoted to Frank S. Meyer's fusionism. I think it's safe to say that the conference scared the crap out of her:

I am struck -- you may think it is absurd for me to be suddenly struck by this -- but I am struck by how deeply and seriously libertarians and conservatives believe in their ideas. I'm used to the way lefties and liberals take themselves seriously and how deeply they believe. Me, I find true believers strange and -- if they have power -- frightening. And my first reaction is to doubt that they really do truly believe.

One of the reasons 9/11 had such a big impact on me is that it was such a profound demonstration of the fact that these people are serious. They really believe.

I need to be more vigilant.

Jonah Goldberg, who attended the same conference, dissents from Althouse's point of view:
I will say here I find this to put it in as civil terms as I can odd. I would note that Ann really believes some things too. Moreover, so do those people in Madison, Wisconsin which is, I might add without fear of contradiction, far from an oasis of empiricism, realism and philosophical skepticism. But more importantly, the notion that stong conviction AKA belief is scary in and of itself can be the source of as much pain and illiberalism as certitude itself. Indeed, it is itself a kind of certitude I find particularly unredeeming.
They have a fascinating exchange with each other on this topic over at bloggingheads.tv -- in which, bizarrely, Goldberg (the non-academic) seems to better comprehend how conferences about ideas work than Althouse (the academic). This has been followed by post-bloggingheads posts by both Goldberg and Althouse.

Over at Hit & Run, Ron Bailey provides a great amount of detail about Althouse's behavior at the conference itself (hat tip: Virginia Postrel). It sounds very.... diva-like. Bailey's conclusion: "I sure hope that Ann Althouse's behavior at the Liberty Fund colloquium is not example how 'intellectual discourse' is conducted in her law school classes in Madison, Wisconsin." Althouse has a lengthy fisking of Bailey's post here. [UPDATE: Goldberg posts his reaction here. Back at Hit & Run, Radley Balko weighs in as well. And for the liberal take on the whole shebang, check out the bloggingheads diavlog between Marc Schmitt and Jonathan Chait.]

Also weighing in are Stephen Bainbridge (who shares Althouse's leeriness of libertarian ideologues) and Elephants & Donkeys (who does not share Althouse's concerns)

Go read everything. Having attended a few Liberty Fund conferences myself, I'd offer the following thoughts:

1) Liberty Fund conferences attract idea geeks -- people who will stay up until 2:00 AM debating the merits and demerits of different ideas. That's kind of the point of these things.

2) I've never encountered any racist attitudes, ideas, or even the benign neglect of these attitudes at these conferences.

3) At these conferences I have, on occasion, encountered a personality type that I suspect gave Althouse the willies -- people so besotted with the positive appeal of an abstract idea that they will argue in its defense against any and all comers. Indeed, they consider this a pleasurable activity. The worst of these lot will pooh-pooh valid counterarguments or appeals to pragmatism as besides the Big Point they are trying to make. Let's call these people True Believers.

4) Give that these are Liberty Fund conferences, I would wager that libertarians comprise a high percentage of True Believers at these functions compared to other ideologies.

5) Despite point (4), True Believers make up a very small minority of overall Liberty Fund attendees. Indeed, with the acknowledgment that modern liberals are probably the least represented group at these functions, the intellectual and professional diversity of these conferences is pretty broad.

6) I'm enough of an idea geek that I'm usually glad that one or two True Believers are in attendance, because it forces me to keep my arguments sharp in a Millian sense of debate.

7) The overwhelmingly predominant personality type in attendance at these functions are Contrarians. Which, of course, makes consensus pretty much a logical impossibility.

UPDATE: Althouse responds here:
Idea geeks. Okay. Well, my experience in legal academia is that people who try to get into the idea geek zone need to get their pretensions punctured right away. The sharp lawprof types I admire always see a veneer on top of something more important, and our instinct is to peel it off. What is your love of this idea really about? That's our method.

We are here to harsh your geek zone mellow.

I confess I'm not entirely sure what "geek zone mellow" means. I think Ann is warning the blogosphere that people in love with ideas qua ideas need someone to take a pragmatist hammer and whack them upside the head every once in a while.

All well and good. But my experience in political science -- particularly international relations -- is that a distressingly high percentage of legal academics write from such an atheoretical, normative perspective that they don't realize that underlying their legal and policy pragmatics are implicit theories that need to be exposed, prodded, probed, and (often) pierced. I might add that it is my fervent hope that legal academics keep on doing this, because it means that they will continue to provide empirical grist for my theoretical mill.

That said, the book on my nightstand right now is Adrian Vermeule and Eric Posner's Terror in the Balance: Security, Liberty, and the Courts -- and they have their own issues with civil libertarians. So I'll humbly exit this debate and go do some more idea geeking reading.

FINAL UPDATE: Jacob Levy gets the last, definitive word on the subject.

ANOTHER FINAL UPDATE... I'M NOT KIDDING THIS TIME... THIS IS LIKE THE DOUBLE-SECRET, TRIPLE-DOG-DARE FINAL UPDATE: And I am telling you Ann Althouse is not going anywhere until she has the final word.

So that's it. I'm just going to back away slowly from the keyboard now... no sudden moves... no metaphors... no prose stylings that Althouse could interpret as sexual imagery in any way whatsoever.... and, yes, I did it!! [Heh. You said "did it."--ed. D'Oh!!]

posted by Dan on 12.29.06 at 01:19 PM




Comments:

Having been to a few of those myself, I generally agree with your points. My (charitable) read is that the thing that gave AA the willies was not so much the presence of True Believers as the fact that (as you note in point 4) there were no such TBs from the progressive left (or, likely, even the middle).

Then again, I continually wonder why anyone cares about what any of these folks (AA, Goldberg, Bailey, etc.) think of each other, or anything else for that matter...

(BTW, Dan: Attempting to comment on your blog using Safari consistently returns an error. Just FYI.)

posted by: C. Zorn on 12.29.06 at 01:19 PM [permalink]



The overwhelmingly predominant personality type in attendance at these functions are Contrarians.

No, it isn't.

posted by: Mike Schilling on 12.29.06 at 01:19 PM [permalink]



Wasn't it the doctrine of state action that the Court employed to gut the first Civil Rights Act? And weren't Althouse's dinner companions embracing the same doctrine?

If that doesn't make them racists,mightn't it still create a presumption that they are? Or at least, as Althouse insists, put on their shoulders a burden to show that they are sensitive to the moral wrong inherent in the supposedly private actions they would protect from legal sanction?

posted by: Sensitivityguy on 12.29.06 at 01:19 PM [permalink]



AA raises valid questions about the connection between Meyer's theory and his concrete policy proposals. Unfortunately, AA raised the point simply as a cheap rhetorical trick. She implies modern conservatives are forever tainted because previous generations made a huge blunder. It's a good rhetorical trick because it baits conservatives into pointless historical debate because you can never make the past go away. It's too bad that Goldberg didn't point out that liberals, and any other movement, have made equally huge blunders.

It's also too bad that AA ignored the more important point - the relation between prior mistakes and principles. If prior policy was the enactment of principle, then Meyer's horrid policy prescriptions are evidence against federalist principles.

You could also say that Meyer was hypocritical, or just plain wrong, and that opposing desegregation was truly consistent with Meyer's political principles. For example, the idea of political liberty is not nullified because Thomas Jefferson was a slave owner. It only means that Jefferson was a revolting human being. From this view, Frank Meyer's atrocious political judgment is probably a historical issue, and not one of basic political theory.

AA's and Goldberg's failure to address this point - that good principles can have weak links to practice - says more about intellectual laziness than the merits of any political theory or policy prescription.

posted by: Fabio Rojas on 12.29.06 at 01:19 PM [permalink]



AA raises valid questions about the connection between Meyer's theory and his concrete policy proposals. Unfortunately, AA raised the point simply as a cheap rhetorical trick. She implies modern conservatives are forever tainted because previous generations made a huge blunder. It's a good rhetorical trick because it baits conservatives into pointless historical debate because you can never make the past go away. It's too bad that Goldberg didn't point out that liberals, and any other movement, have made equally huge blunders.

It's also too bad that AA ignored the more important point - the relation between prior mistakes and principles. If prior policy was the enactment of principle, then Meyer's horrid policy prescriptions are evidence against federalist principles.

You could also say that Meyer was hypocritical, or just plain wrong, and that opposing desegregation was truly consistent with Meyer's political principles. For example, the idea of political liberty is not nullified because Thomas Jefferson was a slave owner. It only means that Jefferson was a revolting human being. From this view, Frank Meyer's atrocious political judgment is probably a historical issue, and not one of basic political theory.

AA's and Goldberg's failure to address this point - that good principles can have weak links to practice - says more about intellectual laziness than the merits of any political theory or policy prescription.

posted by: Fabio Rojas on 12.29.06 at 01:19 PM [permalink]



AA raises valid questions about the connection between Meyer's theory and his concrete policy proposals. Unfortunately, AA raised the point simply as a cheap rhetorical trick. She implies modern conservatives are forever tainted because previous generations made a huge blunder. It's a good rhetorical trick because it baits conservatives into pointless historical debate because you can never make the past go away. It's too bad that Goldberg didn't point out that liberals, and any other movement, have made equally huge blunders.

It's also too bad that AA ignored the more important point - the relation between prior mistakes and principles. If prior policy was the enactment of principle, then Meyer's horrid policy prescriptions are evidence against federalist principles.

You could also say that Meyer was hypocritical, or just plain wrong, and that opposing desegregation was truly consistent with Meyer's political principles. For example, the idea of political liberty is not nullified because Thomas Jefferson was a slave owner. It only means that Jefferson was a revolting human being. From this view, Frank Meyer's atrocious political judgment is probably a historical issue, and not one of basic political theory.

AA's and Goldberg's failure to address this point - that good principles can have weak links to practice - says more about intellectual laziness than the merits of any political theory or policy prescription.

posted by: Fabio Rojas on 12.29.06 at 01:19 PM [permalink]



It's too bad that Goldberg didn't point out that liberals, and any other movement, have made equally huge blunders.

Jonah did raise this point, just not on the Bloggingheads video, but here (which Dan linked above). I think he was just surprised on Bloggingheads by how much like a nut Althouse was acting.

posted by: Hei Lun Chan on 12.29.06 at 01:19 PM [permalink]



Liberty Fund conferences are excellent, and they have enriched my intellectual and scholarly life considerably. Obviously some are better than others, but overall they are a true oasis of learning.

posted by: Tyler Cowen on 12.29.06 at 01:19 PM [permalink]



Your observation about implicit theories really cuts to the heart of the issue. I usually find it difficult to argue constructively with self-described pragmatists (full stop-- as opposed to pragmatic liberals, pragmatic conservatives, and so on) because these tend to be people who are so completely invested in their own ideology that they're no longer capable of recognizing it as such. If we both realize that we're viewing the same data through the lenses of rival theories, we can talk; if one of us thinks she enjoys unmediated access to a self-interpreting Reality-- not so much.

Anyway, it was obliging of Prof. Althouse to spare the other attendees the trouble of peeling off her veneer... by coming unglued on her own.

posted by: Paul Zrimsek on 12.29.06 at 01:19 PM [permalink]



Ron Bailey, a science reporter, and William Ruger, an international relations specialist, are the specific individuals who gave Ann Althouse the willies. They are not the kinds of doctrinaire libertarians we all know and tolerate, at Liberty Fund conferences and elsewhere. While interested in ideas, they are quite grounded in reality and empiricism. (I don't know Katherine Mangu-Ward, but her primary offense seems to be that she "smirked.") Also, there are many, many rational ways to criticize Meyer's views on federalism and civil rights without getting hysterical or calling people names. It might be useful to ask, for instance, whether Meyer properly interpreted the implications of federalism. If so, perhaps federalism is deeply flawed. If not, perhaps we could develop a better understanding of the principle. That would be the way an intellectual--say, a tenured professor--might be reasonably expected to address the issue. Apparently at Madison, they have other expectations. Also, I have to wonder why Althouse kept writing about this subject until she forced an embarrassing (to her) response from people who witnessed her bizarre emotional meltdown. I guess it's good for blog traffic (including mine). People always prefer gossip to intellectual discussion.

posted by: Virginia Postrel on 12.29.06 at 01:19 PM [permalink]



I'd like to add that Althouse's imposition of a "Theory vs. Reality" theme would be a bit more excusable if we were talking about a phenomenon (such as Communism) that historically was driven by high theory. But segregation was imposed and kept in place not by an ivory-tower libertarian cabal but by ordinary, pragmatic people! It's not hard to picture a Southern conservative of half a century ago telling one of the proto-libertarians of the day how abstract theories about businesses being allowed to deal with whomever they please are all very well, but if you'd only get your true-believer head out of the clouds you'd see how dangerous the mingling of races is here in Reality. Althouse would probably not recognize anything of herself in this person. But she should.

posted by: Paul Zrimsek on 12.29.06 at 01:19 PM [permalink]



I think the point that Ann missed was that there are people who just love to talk about theories and where they lead, what follows from what, if you believe X then what about Y, etc., etc., sometimes until 2:00 in the morning, all for the sheer pleasure of thinking.

Applying these thoughts to the "real world" is a frequent, but by no means necessary, feature of these conversations. There is irony in that Ann thinks of herself as an artist, and as some one who can take aesthetic pleasure in things, but she cannot see the aesthetic pleasure that many people take in naked ideas.

posted by: John on 12.29.06 at 01:19 PM [permalink]



OK, I'll admit I have no clue. What is the Liberty Fund, and how do they benefit by buying our DD and Ann Althouse drinks? If I'm inspired, I can write quite well, and I'm not committed to one side or the other on any issue of importance. I plan to continue to thrust this ambivalence into the academic world until someone gives me free drinks. (Libertarians: this is your chance to get in on the ground floor)
Absent such drinks, I will publish stinging satires: you have been warned.

posted by: foolishmortal on 12.29.06 at 01:19 PM [permalink]



Aaaaaargh! I wish people would stop using "true believer," as Althouse does, to describe people who strongly believe something. Poor Eric Hoffer, who is dead and cannot defend his idea! You can see my comments on this by clicking on my name, below.

posted by: Lester Hunt on 12.29.06 at 01:19 PM [permalink]






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