Streetwise Professor

April 11, 2012

Fail Columbia

Filed under: Economics,History,Politics — The Professor @ 10:57 am

Yesterday’s New York Times carried an essay by a Columbia University philosophy professor, Philip Kitcher, that waved the pom-poms for Obama’s claim that Republicans are Social Darwinists (h/t R).  And what a low, dishonest essay it is.

Kitcher’s identification of Social Darwinism with Republicans is the epitome of weaseling insinuation:

It is not entirely implausible to think that doctrines like these stand behind a vast swath of Republican proposals, including the recent budget, with its emphasis on providing greater economic benefits to the rich, transferring the burden to the middle-classes and poor, and especially in its proposals for reducing public services.

“It is not entirely implausible.”  Is that the standard of evidence for Columbia full professors and the New York Times? “Not entirely implausible”?  Really?  Is Philip Kitcher, PhD, incapable of finding a single direct quotation from a major Republican figure (e.g., Paul Ryan, the primary author of the budget that Kitcher savages) that demonstrates belief in Social Darwinism?  Or is it that he just cannot be bothered? Or maybe he just Knows It, like some sort of Revealed Truth.  Or believes that it is self-evident.

Presumably he has research assistants.  Maybe they can help him out.  If Republicans and those in favor of smaller government (which are definitely not the same groups, but which Kitcher lumps together in typical leftist fashion) are so wedded to the idea of Social Darwinism, the evidence should be quite easy to collect. Even for a philosopher.  Hell, there should be entire books in which evil non-lefties expound on the subject.

From this dishonest beginning, Kitcher commences bashing around straw men.  In his telling, those who disagree with an expansive role for government like that advocated by Obama believe that individuals should be social atoms, without any social support or public goods:

If the vast majority of citizens (or, globally, of people) are to enjoy any opportunities to develop the talents they have, they need the social structures social Darwinism perceives as pampering and counter-productive. Human well-being is profoundly affected by public goods, a concept that is entirely antithetical to social Darwinism or to contemporary Republican ideology, with their mythical citizens who can fulfill their potential without rich systems of social support. It is a callous fiction to suppose that what is needed is less investment in education, health care, public transportation and affordable public housing.

Again.  Not one piece of evidence to support this sweeping assertion about “Republican ideology.”  One effing piece.

Does Philip Kitcher, PhD, stir himself to examine the writings of any scholar of note who is widely recognized as an advocate of smaller government, and who provides the intellectual foundations for such a position? Adam Smith? Friedman? Hayek? Or, to throw in a more recent name, Deirdre McCloskey?

Of course not.  He just knows. Or doesn’t care, because the “not entirely implausible” standard is good enough for Columbia professors of philosophy (and the New York Times).  Kitcher’s description fits anarchists, perhaps-and anarchists actually despise Friedman and Hayek, it should be noted.  And I don’t think the Anarchist Caucus is all that influential in the Republican Party.

If he did so bestir himself to read anything by any of those authors, he would realize his claim is complete bunk.  Complete and utter bunk.  Each supports the provision of public goods.  Each supports public funding of education.  Each supports some form of welfare for the indigent and disabled.  The questions they wrestle with are how much of each should be provided, and what are the best mechanisms for making those choices. That’s what Kitcher should really be debating, but he evades engaging in any such honest exchange by caricaturing his political and intellectual opponents.

And none of the authors I cited could remotely be considered a Social Darwinist.  Not even close.  That Philip Kitcher, PhD, thinks so only reveals his stunning ignorance and smug sense of superiority.  Smith, Friedman, Hayek, McCloskey and myriad others who favor a greater reliance on individual liberty and a reduced reliance on the state do not believe that this will result in ruthless, cutthroat competition.  They view it as the most efficacious way of creating “rich systems of social support.”  They view it as a way of facilitating cooperation among disparate individuals, through the mechanism of voluntary trade.  Any market system is a mix of cooperation and competition: individuals engage in various cooperative activities (e.g., the formation of firms) that compete to provide greater value to potential trading partners.

The basic belief underlying this vision is that voluntary mechanisms are far more efficacious in building “social support networks” than government-based mechanisms that operate on the principle of coercion.  This greater efficacy derives from a variety of sources, most notably the superior ability of decentralized and voluntary systems to create and utilize information, and meet the diverse needs of diverse individuals in a flexible and adaptive way.

But it also derives from the fact that competition to provide value to willing trading partners channels self-interest into beneficial activities that help others,  whereas statist mechanisms reliant on coercion channel self-interest into wasteful, destructive, and often violent actions that benefit some but make others worse off.  Government provision does not eliminate competitive drives: it usually results in these drives finding their outlet in rent seeking, corruption, expropriation, and worse.

That is the essence of the small government, small-l libertarian, classical liberal critique of statism and progressivism of the sort that Obama (and Philip Kitcher, PhD) advocate. It is virtually antithetical to Kitcher’s grotesque caricature.  Presumably Kitcher objects to the Smithian view, on either philosophical or empirical grounds.  Fine.  Let’s have that debate.  But to have it, it is necessary to characterize the views of the opposing party in a fair and honest way.  And that Kitcher does not do. In fact, he does the exact opposite.  Meaning he is either completely clueless or mendacious. Or both. (That’s where I’m putting my money.)

I wish I could say that it is truly remarkable that a professor at a highly reputable university stoops to such low and dishonest rhetoric to advance his political positions.  And it is low and dishonest.   And arrogant in its smug refusal to provide actual evidence to support his slanderous claims about his political foes.

But it is all too common in academia, alas, especially in the humanities and some social sciences-like philosophy.

Finally, note that Professor Kitcher’s Columbia University is the academic milieu which Obama inhabited for several years.  The oft-remarked upon absence of any Obama paper trail at Columbia (or anywhere, for that matter) is really irrelevant. Kitcher’s piece, and Obama’s dishonest rhetoric and statist policies make it clear that he learned his lessons well. Quite well, in fact.

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  1. And I can’t wait for your take on today’s NYT!

    Comment by Matt P. — April 11, 2012 @ 1:10 pm

  2. I saw that, Matt. Will try to get to it. Though it is written by a Kennedy, so probably like shooting fish in a barrel.

    Thanks for the heads up.

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — April 11, 2012 @ 2:29 pm

  3. The biggest irony is that Social Darwinism is a product of the Progressive Left, along with eugenics, forced sterilization, Margaret Sanger, and all that — a movement that the writer presumably idolizes.

    Comment by Peter Klein — April 11, 2012 @ 2:57 pm

  4. Right. If Kitcher would at least scan the evidence-based writings of left-leaning University of Virginia social psychologist Jon Haidt he would realize that the conservatives he (Kitcher) reviles are far from promoting the ‘social atoms’ approach to social thinking. Conservatives care about authority and loyalty, things liberals value much less, and authority and loyalty are all about maintaining strong social structures. (At least it is the case that authority and loyalty are all about conservatives own beliefs in what best maintains a strong social structure.)

    By the way, Haidt also reports on research in his latest book that finds conservatives typically understand liberal moral arguments better than liberals understand conservative moral arguments. Kitcher’s article is anecdote, not data, but surely can be offered as illustration of the point.

    Comment by Mike Giberson — April 11, 2012 @ 3:27 pm

  5. All true, Peter. I was going to mention that, but the post was already running long. I very much appreciate your pointing that out.

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — April 11, 2012 @ 3:27 pm

  6. Kitcher seems to be whom George Orwell had in mind when he wrote this:

    Note in particular Orwell’s arch comment on the fatuous “not un-” construction.

    “One can cure oneself of the not un- formation by memorizing this sentence: A not unblack dog was chasing a not unsmall rabbit across a not ungreen field.”

    In other news: Joe Kennedy II reveals himself as oil expert, total prick

    Comment by Green as Grass — April 12, 2012 @ 5:14 am

  7. “It is not entirely implausible.” Yeah, always a good way to put out smears and dialect BS that you don’t even believe in, definite weasel words not suitable for academia or the Times- good call.

    Comment by andrewi31 — April 12, 2012 @ 9:08 am

  8. I don’t know what it is in certain corners of academe that drives some perfessors into becoming lefties. The word “dishonest” is implied and understood.

    All one has to do is cater to the lowest common demoninator.

    Here is a real jewel – a one-hour credit, no grade, no exam, no paper piece of fluff – all included in the yearly tuition at Harvard Law School – almost $49,000 per year.

    I think any Joe Sixpack, so despised by lefties, understands that this is fluff. Very expensive fluff.

    “I went to Harvard Law School, and I didn’t learn constitutional law or contract law – but I did take a course on Obama.”

    According to the Harvard Law School course catalog, professor Charles Ogletree will be teaching a reading group called “Understanding Obama” for one classroom credit during the 2013 spring term.

    “This reading group will focus on the way in which race, religion, and politics have impacted the development of President Obama as a leader,” the Harvard Law School Course Catalog explains. “We will explore his views as a biracial child, his time as a student at Harvard Law School, the successes and failures of his political campaigns, and the way religion and his views on faith nearly derailed his campaign. Finally, time will be spent analyzing the challenges he faces as president of the United States in establishing both his domestic and global policies.”

    Read more:

    Comment by elmer — April 12, 2012 @ 9:22 am

  9. “But it also derives from the fact that competition to provide value to willing trading partners channels self-interest into beneficial activities that help others, whereas statist mechanisms reliant on coercion channel self-interest into wasteful, destructive, and often violent actions that benefit some but make others worse off. Government provision does not eliminate competitive drives: it usually results in these drives finding their outlet in rent seeking, corruption, expropriation, and worse.”

    Amen, amen, amen.

    Exactamundo. Bingo.

    You, SWP, are already familiar with Rasha as proof positive.

    Additional proof – some of the other former sovok republics, including Ukraine, and Georgia, up until recently. Poland, until about 10 years ago, when it decided to undergo systemic changes. The “Stans”.

    Other examples abound.

    “We pretend to work and they pretend to pay us” was not fashioned out of thin air – that was hard, brutal life experience.

    Result? In the sovok union, as everyone knows, people channeled their efforts into a huge underground economy – it was a matter of survival.

    Even today, in Russia and Ukraine, for example, the underground economies are huge, and corruption is horrifically MASSIVE.

    Some Columbia and Harvard perfessors ought to get out more often.

    Comment by elmer — April 12, 2012 @ 10:46 am

  10. Thanks, Elmer. Part of the reason I started to write about Russia was to use it as an illustration of that very phenomenon.

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — April 12, 2012 @ 12:20 pm

  11. I thought the term “social darwinism” died out by WWII and the disclosure of Hitler’s eugenics… it is (was) a malediction. SWP, you might give Obama and cohorts credit for arming themselves with such a dirty expression for taking down opponents- and getting away with it. Academics are not held to a higher standard, and have the same scruples as politicians. Paul Ryan should blast these enemies with with the hyperbole of Hitler and eugenics, and hit hard.

    Comment by scott — April 12, 2012 @ 12:30 pm

  12. @Elmer – dead on the money. @Scott, the current so called left is reusing these terms because in many ways they are the direct descendants of the Nationalist Socialists as far as economic policy – State corporatism and denial of the rule of law as to property rights. Even on the racialist front they are close – not in advancing Aryan -ism but demonizing it, along with the Jews. For international capitalism, read “globalization”, for “degenerate democracy” read the Large corporations controlling elections” – the parallels go on and on.

    Your comments as regarding the historical amnesia of academics as to eugenics, birth control, etc. seems to come from three sources:

    The natural Stalinist/Nazi tendency to edit history to suit the current party line.
    Living in a terrarium, which, when they step outside, shows them to be intellectually deformed by the environment they have lived in.

    Above all there seems to be a kind of crude phenomenological aspect to much “analysis” as given by my idiotic Alma Mater’s Professor. This also fits in with the Nazi or fascist type of intellectuality in the new left (after all Derrida and Heidegger were both fascists). There is no past, no history (except as a tool). Any criticism can be deconstructed, there is no absolute values (except, of course the ones they hold themselves). Adopting this kind of mutated gestalt lets anyone say anything: and being bloviated at by the professor comes from perhaps the worst scourge on American thinking today: the substitution of ability with rampant credential-ism. Example – our Prez the constitutional scholar!

    We are living on other side of The Looking Glass.

    Comment by sotos — April 12, 2012 @ 1:59 pm

  13. @scott-Well put. I will try to call that out when I have a little more time. One quick comment. Note the disgusting way Kitcher dealt with that. He brought up the eugenics issue, then disclaimed that he was saying the Republicans believed that.

    The oldest lawyer’s dirty trick in the book. Makes the association in the mind of the reader/listener, but disclaims any intention of doing so. More dishonesty.

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — April 12, 2012 @ 3:57 pm

  14. Well, Cicero used the trick, too.

    “I will not talk about how bad so-and-so is. Nor will I talk about the fact that he beats little children. Nor will I talk about the fact that he doesn’t love his mother.” And so forth. (Obviously not direct quotes, just illustrations of the trick.)

    Cicero was, after all, among other things, a lawyer, wasn’t he.

    Comment by elmer — April 12, 2012 @ 8:00 pm

  15. I have always been interested in the way that libs so successfully co-opt language and agendas incrementally – the drip drip drip of building the grand canyon of deficits. They never were ‘liberals’ but but secular humanist marxist / leninist bolsheviks who hide behind women and children to build bloody dictatorships. Why women and children? All the men have either been archipelagoed or murdered or have been intimidated into becoming semi-surviving drunks. Libs have never been progressive but always REgressive. And they co-opted the term Social Darwinism before it could be used against them as the Social Justice Darwinists they glowingly espouse to be when talking to SFO cocktail partyers about
    ‘those neanderthals’ who graspfully worship their bibles and guns. By building and then centralizing all power into a Monpolistic Monarch THEY fulfill Darwinism and so very justifiably hold and extend power their Darwinist gift of godness, thus making all their rightful and meaningful decisions (in your best interests) while take away independent power from individual proletarians via control of their ability to communicate and call to act.

    Comment by SamuelCyrus — April 12, 2012 @ 10:52 pm

  16. Another favorite of Cicero, in his some of his orations was to praise the man in question excessively, but use the neuter tense: thus implying he was a eunuch. (Orations against Hypolitos or Catiline, maybe?)

    Comment by sotos — April 13, 2012 @ 7:47 am

  17. If he doesn’t like Ryan’s budget proposal which takes 25 years to “balance the budget.” I’m sure that he’ll detest Dr. Ron Paul’s plan to do it in 3 years. Dr. Paul starts off by cutting a $ TRILLION DOLLARS the first year and eliminates 5 CABINET LEVEL DEPARTMENTS. Dr. Paul puts on paper what republicans pay lip service to but never actually do when they’re in power!

    Comment by Bob — April 13, 2012 @ 7:49 am

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