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January 31, 2006

on culture and poverty

"The central conservative truth," Senator Moynihan famously wrote, "is that it is culture, not politics, that determines the success of a society. The central liberal truth is that politics can change a culture and save it from itself."

This is the great issue of the present, or so it seems to me. But there are more positions than Mohnihanís liberalism and conservatism. In fact, we can classify responses along three axes. First, materialists believe that to succeed and to be happy, you need money--or things that money can buy. Their opponents are cultural determinists who believe that what matters is the "fit" between a person's norms, habits, and beliefs (on one hand) and the dominant culture of modern capitalism (on the other). A second axis runs from love for this dominant corporate culture to hatred of it. The third axis runs from those who think that government is helpful to those who consider it incompetent or corrupt.

When there are three axes, there are eight pure positions available, along with various moderate views. I think the following combinations are particularly serious and influential today:

Materialist left-liberalism: This is the view that poor people mainly need money (or its equivalent) to get ahead. They should get financial help from the state. However, no one should try to manipulate their values or beliefs.

Materialist libertarianism:: Everyone would prosper (to the maximum extent possible) if it werenít for state institutions and regulations that distort choices, block exchanges, and forcibly educate people in bad habits and beliefs.

Left cultural criticism: What determines success is the fit between a personís culture and the dominant, white collar, market system, with its demands for discipline and rationality. However, that system is wickedly imperialistic and dehumanizing. Capitalism, not working class and traditional cultures, must be changed.

Moynihan-style neoliberalism: What keeps some poor people poor is a set of habits and values that don't prepare them well for a competitive market economy. However, the state can and should make them more competitive. For instance, if some parents don't read to their preschoolers, then four year-olds should be in Head Start. If some households and neighborhoods impart anti-intellectual lessons, then we should lengthen the school day and year and toughen academic curricula.

Cultural conservatism: What keeps some people poor are their habits and values, but the state is bad at changing cultures. In fact, it tends to reinforce the worst cultural traits among the poor. It would be better to reduce state influence on values. For example, more students should attend religious schools.

I have no answers, but I suspect that: (1) Some degree of materialism is still important. For instance, people would be better off if they had affordable or free health insurance. (2) Nevertheless, there is a conflict between many subcultures and the dominant, corporate-capitalist world. That conflict means that no amount of redistribution will end poverty. While the redistributive programs of the twentieth century (Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid) are valuable, they leave cultural problems unresolved. (3) The record of the state in changing values and habits is neither excellent nor awful, but mixed. There have been successful initiatives, e.g., Quontum Opportunities Program, which cut dropout rates in half. There have also been numerous failures.

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January 30, 2006

love where you are

In Fort Worth last Friday, I spoke about the importance of civic engagement. I was followed by a series of local officials (the superintendent of schools, the public safety commissioner, a county commissioner, a former mayor, and others), who analyzed the main issues on their cityís agenda.

In my speech, I claimed that public engagement has declined for various reasons, including the rise of professional management and the lack of incentives to prepare young people to be capable citizens. A large proportion of the audience was young, so I ended with some arguments in favor of participating. For instance, I mentioned the intrinsic satisfaction of work on public problems. I ended by saying that you should always love where you are.

I explained that I couldnít give any specific reasons to love Fort Worth or North Texas, because Iíd only been there for 12 hours; but every place where human beings live can be loved. Every place has assets, history, and interesting complexity. To miss the place where you live is a great waste. Further, to love it means to explore it, to study it, and to work to improve it. This turned out to be a good way to conclude, because three or four of the subsequent speakers picked up my challenge and explained why one should love their city. (Incidentally, Dallas/Fort Worth--love it or not--is expected to double in size and become the megalopolis of the southern great plains.)

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January 27, 2006

cliches of civic engagement

I'm on my way to Texas Christian University in Fort Worth, where I'll be speaking about--what else?--youth civic engagement. I'm happy to support the launch of TCU's Center for Civic Literacy.

I hope that my speech does not sound like this article by Douglas Brinkley from 1994, entitled "Educating the Generation Called 'X.'" The links are to Cosma Shazili's commentary:

But all in all, to paraphrase Gertrude Stein, a "young person is a young person is a young person." They are essentially no different from their predecessors; they simply want to be regarded as individuals. By 1988, those born between 1961 and 1981 will comprise the largest voting bloc ever in American history, numbering 80 million strong. They will soon step up to the plate to try to clean up the mess. Their teacher should strive to do what education has traditionally done for the young: Bring out their best, encourage hope and nourish their imaginations.

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January 26, 2006

talking about "social justice" in education

In conversations about civic education, service-learning, and youth civic engagement, people often ask whether the purpose of what we're doing is "social justice." Lately I've been responding as follows:

1. The phrase social justice (which has roots in Catholic thought) has been claimed by the Left. In politics, phrases are often seized by one side or the other--occasionally, they even switch their valence over time. At the moment, "social justice" has a lefty ring. Therefore, there will be a predictable consequence if you say that your service-learning program or civics class "promotes social justice." You will attract leftish students, and perhaps alienate conservatives. If you speak on behalf of a public school or state university, I think you should avoid that outcome. Individual adults who work with young people are free to promote ideologies; but state institutions should be leery of doing so.

2. Although the left has claimed the phrase "social justice," true conservatives seek social justice. They just define it somewhat differently, they endorse alternative strategies for obtaining it, and they tend to call it by other names. It's important that the students who sign up for service-learning be exposed to serious conservative arguments about justice. One of the risks of using the phrase "social justice" is to narrow the range of debate about justice by keeping conservatives out from the beginning.

I often hear a (probably apocryphal) story about a student who so enjoys volunteering in a soup kitchen that he blurts out, "I hope this place still exists when my kids come along, so that they can serve, too." The standard rejoinder is that the student should investigate the "root causes" of hunger and advocate solutions.

True, but the root causes may not necessarily be capitalism or discrimination, and the best solutions may not include Food Stamps or a higher minimum wage. I'd like to see students grapple with root causes but be challenged to consider whether government intervention is the basic problem and freer markets could help. That's not usually my own view, but it's educational to consider it.

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January 25, 2006

the sincerest form of flattery

So, I'm ego-surfing as usual, and what do I come across? A term paper about an article (pdf) that I wrote--for sale at $31.95. The summary and excerpt of the term paper are poorly written and highly inaccurate. Can I sue? Should I write a better paper about myself and sell it? If a wildly inaccurate summary of my article is worth $31.95 on the open market, can I start selling the actual article for, say, $40? (Right now, it's free.) Should I be offended that people are willing to pay $31.95 not to have to read and write about my article? Does a plagiarized term paper count as a citation of my work? Why does my own article rank lower on Google than a site that sells a lousy term paper about it?

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January 24, 2006

overcoming polarization?

Dan Yankelovich (chairman and co-founder of Public Agenda) has published a new book on polarization, which is excerpted online. The excerpt argues that Americans aren't all that deeply divided between liberals and conservatives. According to Yankelovich's polls, we Americans share eleven "core values that blend traditional and progressive attitudes into a new social morality." This social morality is "centrist"; "both liberals and conservatives have something positive to contribute."

However, look at the list:

  • Patriotism
  • Self-confidence
  • Individualism
  • Belief in hard work and productivity
  • Religious beliefs
  • Child-centeredness
  • Community and charity
  • Pragmatism and compromise
  • Acceptance of diversity
  • Cooperation with other countries
  • Hunger for common ground
  • To me, the first seven items look basically conservative. I don't see "equity," "peace," "freedom from want," "saving nature," "civil liberties," or "fairness" on the list. The American majority prefers patriotism, individualism, faith, and family. However, as the last four items show, they'd rather not fight about such matters. They dislike sharp disagreement (that's well documented in other studies), preferring compromise, acceptance, and cooperation. Thus, while their own views are conservative, they're hoping that everyone will agree to some practical, "common-sense" ideas.

    I wish the list of core values were somewhat different, although I suspect it's an accurate picture of public opinion. "Acceptance of diversity" and "child-centeredness" are the most promising items for progressives. As we know, Americans support spending for education and some diversity in corporate employment and the media. However, those beliefs are perfectly consistent with mainstream modern conservatism.

    Despite the majority's hope for "common ground," the conservative 25-30% of the population actually disagrees pretty sharply with the liberal 17-20%. The middle holds the balance. They are the ones who most consistently endorse Yankelovich's eleven "core values." While they may identify themselves as moderates, I would call them conservatives without an angry edge.


    [Note: This is my graph, not Yankelovich's.]

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    January 23, 2006

    opportunity for youth work in New Orleans

    "Common Cents is offering grants up to $20,000 for projects that will contribute to an inclusive and just recovery from Hurricane Katrina. Preference will be given to service or advocacy projects that either involve young people meaningfully in the recovery, or that address the specific needs of children and youth. ... All winners will ...

  • Receive up to $20,000 in cash awards
  • Showcase their project at a student conference in New York City in May 2006
  • "Preference will be given for projects that ...

  • Increase youth decision-making in the recovery and rebuilding
  • Build relationships between people within and outside the region
  • Strengthen infrastructure for sustainable services for young people
  • Contribute to our understanding of youth as a resource for recovery

  • ... DEADLINE: FEBRUARY 1"

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    January 20, 2006

    journalists still matter

    I've come from Ohio to New York City for a meeting on "Media and Communications at the Crossroads: The Role of Scholarship for Media Justice and Reform." At the meeting, my friend Lew Friedland just argued that daily news journalism is still essential to the "media ecology." I'd put the argument as follows:

    It's true that people get news, ideas, and values from their family and friends and from multiple electronic sources, including the web portals of Yahoo and other Internet-service providers (which are regular news sources for 15% of young people); comedy TV (a regular source for 21% of youth); and talk radio (16%). (See this Pew Research Center poll.) However, Yahoo's headlines simply come from wire services--hence, from reporters. Comedy writers get most of their material from daily newspapers. Friedland estimates that 90% of the news stories on local TV come from a local newspaper. Debates in the blogosphere are very often triggered by reported news. Fictional programs like "Law and Order" are inspired by print journalism. Therefore, influential conversations in the kitchen, the office water-cooler, and church often derive ultimately from a newspaper.

    If this is right, then we cannot consider citizen media and other new means of communication and discussion in isolation. They are dependent on the state of conventional, professional journalism--which isn't good. Newspapers are highly profitable but are cutting their staff and budgets for reporting. Two thirds of national journalists believe that bottom-line pressure is hurting news coverage--causing the press to avoid complex issues, to be sloppy, and to be timid. (Source.) Bloggers can complain about newspaper journalists from various angles; they can't replace them.

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    January 19, 2006

    so which is it?

    1. From Matthew A. Crenson and Benjamin Ginsberg, Downsizing Democracy: How America Sidelined its Citizens and Privatized its Public (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003), p. 236:

    Contemporary elites have found that they need not engage in the arduous task of building a popular constituency. Public interest groups and environmental groups have large mailing lists but few active members; civil rights groups field more attorneys than protestors; and national political parties activitate a familiar few rather than risk mobilizing anonynmous millions.

    2. From Thomas L. Friedman, "It's a Flat World, After All," The New York Times, April 3, 2005:

    No, not everyone has access yet to this platform,* but it is open now to more people in more places on more days than anything like it in history. Wherever you look today--whether it is the world of journalism, with bloggers bringing down Dan Rather; the world of software, with the Linux code writers working in online forums for free to challenge Microsoft; or the world of business, where Indian and Chinese innovators are competing against and working with some of of the most advanced Western multinationals--hierarchies are being flattened and value is being created less and less within vertical silos and more and more through horizontal collaboration within companies, between companies and among individuals.

    *The referent here is not precisely clear, but "this platform" roughly means: the Internet and the global information marketplace.

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    January 18, 2006

    another week, another Miami

    Today I'll travel to Miami University in Oxford, OH, having been in that other Miami not more than 10 days ago. While I was in the Big Miami, during a break, I managed to ride a city bus over to South Beach. Uncomfortably warm in my dark suit and business shoes, I walked on the sand with the art deco pastel buildings on one side and the hazy Atlantic on the other. I drank a cappuccino in a beachfront restaurant where all of the staff spoke Italian and the young guy at the next table quickly downed three bloody marys. It was 10 am.

    In contrast, the last time I visited Miami of Ohio, the weather was freezing--close to or below zero fahrenheit and with a high, dry wind. However, Miami of Ohio is a picture-perfect Midwestern community with white picket fences, Christmas lights, and kids in varsity jackets. If I had to choose, I'd pick the Miami of the Midwest (the original one, as the residents will eagerly tell you).

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    January 17, 2006

    David Friedman on education

    David Friedman has contributed some thoughtful comments on my post about political socialization and libertarianism. I had written that libertarians need most people to prize freedom; otherwise, liberty itself will weaken. However, parents want their children to gain marketable skills above all else. They therefore do not demand that schools impart public goods, of which the love of liberty is an important example. If parents do not put pressure on schools to teach freedom, then libertarians must consider other ways to educate all children for liberty. The vehicle that comes first to my mind is universal, taxpayer funded k-12 schooling with a "civics" mandate; but there may be alternatives. In arguing for civic education that emphasizes liberty, libertarians should invoke their own philosophical ideals, but they should be willing to swallow the restriction on individual freedom that will come from universal education.

    Friedman replies:

    I think parents are mostly interested in educating their children to have successful lives. One way of doing that is by learning what the world is like. If libertarians are correct in believing that more freedom results in a more attractive society, a more accurate picture of the world will tend to result in more support for liberty. So shifting control over schooling in the direction of parents rather than school officials and politicians is likely to result in some shift in favor of liberty.

    I'm struck by the idealism of this paragraph--or, to put it another way, by the avoidance of a rational-choice framework. If individual parents want their own children to "lead successful lives" in our society, then they should hope that their kids are not too eccentric or unruly. They should try to give their children skills that are valued in the economy, along with a healthy respect for authority. That's what pays. One representative "New Jersey mother" in a focus group told Public Agenda: "There are key points--hard work, discipline, respect. If those are taught in the home, that's more than 50 percent of what you need to succeed. Even a below average kid will do well if his parents teach him that."

    Libertarians believe that a better society would be more free than ours is. Even granting that libertarians are right, parents who want their own kids to be successful in today's society will hope that other parents' children fight for liberty. That fight is likely to be lonely, under-paid, frustrating, and only enjoyable if one truly prizes intellectual debate.

    In an essay that's online, Friedman summarizes the position that I have adopted:

    In a private system [of education], children will be taught what their parents want them to know. In a government system, children will be taught what the state wants them to know. So the government system provides an opportunity for the state to indoctrinate children in beliefs that it is not in their interest, or their parents' interest, for them to hold. Insofar as some virtues require one to act against one's own interest--for instance, by not stealing something even when nobody is watching--that is an opportunity to indoctrinate children in virtue.

    I would also say that schools can "indoctrinate" children in the love for liberty. However, Friedman continues ...

    One good reply to this argument was made by William Godwin, who, in 1796, expressed his hope "that mankind will never have to learn so important a lesson through so corrupt a channel." To put the argument in more modern language, government schooling does indeed provide the state with an opportunity to indoctrinate children--but there is no good reason to believe that it will be in the interest of the state to indoctrinate them in beliefs that it is in the interest of the rest of us for them to hold. Many modern societies have strong legal rules designed to keep the state from controlling what people believe--the first amendment to the U.S. constitution being a notable example. It seems odd to combine them with a set of institutions justified as doing the precise opposite.

    In an interesting recent article, John Lott explores the question of why schooling is controlled by the state in modern societies. His conclusion is that government schooling is a mechanism by which the state lowers the cost of controlling the population.

    Obviously, there is a danger that state schools will indoctrinate in favor of the state, as Friedman fears. However, it is a simplistic theory of "the state" that understands it as a unitary, disciplined, and self-interested agent. On the contrary, public schools in the United States are highly subject to local political pressure, especially from taxpaying parents. I don't know how to prove this, but I strongly suspect that American schools teach a mix of libertarian, authoritarian, and majoritarian principles because those are the values that most parents demand. Libertarians are entitled to argue for a different list of values, one headed by individual liberty. If they can't win that argument, then I don't see how they can prevail at all.

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    January 16, 2006

    an exercise for Martin Luther King Day

    I find it useful to teach WALKER v. CITY OF BIRMINGHAM, 388 U.S. 307 (1967) as an example of legal and moral reasoning. This is the case that originated with the arrest of Martin Luther King and 52 others in Birmingham, AL, at Easter, 1962. It is a rich example for exploring the rule of law, civil disobedience, religion versus secular law, procedures versus justice, and even the way that our moral conclusions follow from how we choose to tell stories.

    By way of background:

    In 1962, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) hoped to generate massive protests in Birmingham before the end of the term of Eugene 'Bull' Connor, the violently racist Commissioner of Public Safety. As the protests began, Connor obtained a state-court injunction against the marchers. When the SCLC leaders received the injunction on April 11, they stated, "we cannot in good conscience obey" it. King called it a "pseudo" law which promotes "raw tyranny under the guise of maintaining law and order."

    At this point, the Direct Action campaign is in crisis: there have been only 150 arrests so far, and no more bail credit is available. On April 12 (Good Friday), Norman Amaker, an NAACP lawyer, says that the injunction is unconstitutional, but breaking it will result in jail time. King disappears from a tense conference, reappears in jeans. "I don't know what will happen ... But I have to make a faith act. ... If we obey this injunction, we are out of business." Leads 1,000 marchers; he and 52 are arrested. He is sent to solitary confinement. In NYC, Harry Belafonte raises $50,000 for bail. The New York Times and President Kennedy condemn marches as ill-timed.

    April 15 (Easter Sunday): MLK is released from solitary confinement, still in jail. Writes "Letter from a Birmingham Jail."

    April 26: King is sentenced to five days with a warning not to protest. Sentence is held in abeyance.

    May 2: Children's march. King: “We subpoena the conscience of the nation to the judgment seat of morality."

    May 20: Supreme Court strikes down Birmingham's segregation ordinances. A deal is worked out.

    September: bomb kills four little girls at Birmingham's Sixteenth Street Baptist Church.

    SCLC appeals King's conviction for two reasons: to overturn the Birmingham parade ordinance, and to prevent future uses of injunctions against civil rights marchers. The case is [Wyatt Tee] Walker v. City of Birmingham. It is not decided until 1967 by the Supreme Court, which upholds King's arrest and imprisonment on basically procedural grounds:

    The text of the Supreme Court decision, written by Potter Stewart My commentary and questions
    On Wednesday, April 10, 1963, officials of Birmingham, Alabama, filed a bill of complaint in a state circuit court asking for injunctive relief against 139 individuals and two organizations. With whom does the opinion begin? How are those people described? What do we usually think of when we hear "city officials"? How else could these particular men be described? (Hint: the Klan was powerfully influential in city government). How would the narrative read if it started with King and the other civil rights leaders?
    The bill and accompanying affidavits stated that during the preceding seven days:
      "[R]espondents [had] sponsored and/or participated in and/or conspired to commit and/or to encourage and/or to participate in certain movements, plans or projects commonly called `sit-in' demonstrations, `kneel-in' demonstrations, mass street parades, trespasses on private property after being warned to leave the premises by the owners of said property, congregating in mobs upon the public streets and other public places, unlawfully picketing private places of business in the City of Birmingham, Alabama; violation of numerous ordinances and statutes of the City of Birmingham and State of Alabama . . . ."
    It was alleged that this conduct was "calculated to provoke breaches of the peace," "threaten[ed] the safety, peace and tranquility of the City," and placed "an undue burden and strain upon the manpower of the Police Department."
    How are the petitioners described? Were the petitioners a "mob" -- or a group of citizens assembled to petition for the redress of their grievances? Is there a corect answer to this question?
    What is not said about them? What context is missing? What are their alleged actions? How else could the SCLC's actions be described?
    The bill stated that these infractions of the law were expected to continue and would "lead to further imminent danger to the lives, safety, peace, tranquility and general welfare of the people of the City of Birmingham," and that the "remedy by law [was] inadequate." Apart from unrest, what else might the city officials fear?
    The circuit judge granted a temporary injunction as prayed in the bill, enjoining the petitioners from, among other things, participating in or encouraging mass street parades or mass processions without a permit as required by a Birmingham ordinance Is the ordinance constitutional? If not, why not? Why did Connor get an injunction instead of arresting people under the ordinance? Does the opinion explain his motivations? Would it read differently if it did?
    Five of the eight petitioners were served with copies of the writ early the next morning. Several hours later four of them held a press conference. There a statement was distributed, declaring their intention to disobey the injunction because it was "raw tyranny under the guise of maintaining law and order." At this press conference one of the petitioners stated: "That they had respect for the Federal Courts, or Federal Injunctions, but in the past the State Courts had favored local law enforcement, and if the police couldn't handle it, the mob would." That night a meeting took place at which one of the petitioners announced that "[i]njunction or no injunction we are going to march tomorrow." The next afternoon, Good Friday, a large crowd gathered in the vicinity of Sixteenth Street and Sixth Avenue North in Birmingham. A group of about 50 or 60 proceeded to parade along the sidewalk while a crowd of 1,000 to 1,500 onlookers stood by, "clapping, and hollering, and [w]hooping." Does the SCLC "respect" the state courts? Should it? Why are the SCLC's disrespectful words quoted here? (See footnote #3: petitioners "contend that the circuit court improperly relied on this incident in finding them guilty of contempt, claiming that they were engaged in constitutionally protected free speech. We find no indication that the court considered the incident for any purpose other than the legitimate one of establishing that the participating petitioners' subsequent violation of the injunction by parading without a permit was willful and deliberate." Why then quote them verbatim?)

    The crowd is described as "hollering and [w]hooping." How else could they be described? Who's being quoted here?
    Some of the crowd followed the marchers and spilled out into the street. At least three of the petitioners participated in this march. Meetings sponsored by some of the petitioners were held that night and the following night, where calls for volunteers to "walk" and go to jail were made. On Easter Sunday, April 14, a crowd of between 1,500 and 2,000 people congregated in the midafternoon in the vicinity of Seventh Avenue and Eleventh Street North in Birmingham. One of the petitioners was seen organizing members of the crowd in formation. A group of about 50, headed by three other petitioners, started down the sidewalk two abreast. At least one other petitioner was among the marchers. Some 300 or 400 people from among the onlookers followed in a crowd that occupied the entire width of the street and overflowed onto the sidewalks. Violence occurred. Members of the crowd threw rocks that injured a newspaperman and damaged a police motorcycle. What of factual significance is described here? Why say "Violence occurred"? (NB: Garrow mentions no violence; Branch says MLK was "suddenly seized without warning by police.") Were the city officials justified in their initial fears? (They feared violence; violence occurred.) Does this make the injunction valid?
    The next day the city officials who had requested the injunction applied to the state circuit court for an order to show cause why the petitioners should not be held in contempt for violating it. At the ensuing hearing the petitioners sought to attack the constitutionality of the injunction on the ground that it was vague and overbroad, and restrained free speech. They also sought to attack the Birmingham parade ordinance upon similar grounds, and upon the further ground that the ordinance had previously been administered in an arbitrary and discriminatory manner. The circuit judge refused to consider any of these contentions, pointing out that there had been neither a motion to dissolve the injunction, nor an effort to comply with it by applying for a permit from the city commission before engaging in the Good Friday and Easter Sunday parades. Why didn't the SCLC go back to Connor for a permit? How does the Court want the SCLC to treat Connor? Does Connor merit this?
    Consequently, the court held that the only issues before it were whether it had jurisdiction to issue the temporary injunction, and whether thereafter the petitioners had knowingly violated it. Upon these issues the court found against the petitioners, and imposed upon each of them a sentence of five days in jail and a $50 fine, in accord with an Alabama statute.
    ... The generality of the language contained in the Birmingham parade ordinance upon which the injunction was based would unquestionably raise substantial constitutional issues concerning some of its provisions. ... The petitioners, however, did not even attempt to apply to the Alabama courts for an authoritative construction of the ordinance. What is the Supreme Court's attitude toward the Alabama courts? Were those courts legitimate?
    ...The breadth and vagueness of the injunction itself would also unquestionably be subject to substantial constitutional question. But the way to raise that question was to apply to the Alabama courts to have the injunction modified or dissolved.

    ... The petitioners also claim that they were free to disobey the injunction because the parade ordinance on which it was based had been administered in the past in an arbitrary and discriminatory fashion. In support of this claim they sought to introduce evidence that, a few days before the injunction issued, requests for permits to picket had been made to a member of the city commission. One request had been rudely rebuffed, and this same official had later made clear that he was without power to grant the permit alone, since the issuance of such permits was the responsibility of the entire city commission. Petitioners raise the issue of past discrimination. What kind of discrimination would this have been? (racial) Has race been mentioned at all in the opinion? Why does Justice Stewart say "a member of the city commission" instead of "Connor"? (According to testimony by Lola Hendricks, this is what happened: "I asked Commissioner Connor for the permit, and asked if he could issue the permit, or other persons who would refer me to, persons who would issue a permit. He said, 'No, you will not get a permit in Birmingham, Alabama to picket. I will picket you over to the City Jail,' and he repeated that twice." Why does Steward say that Connor "made clear" his lack of authority to issue permits? (Connor actually did issue permits to other groups.) Why not use the words "asserted" or "claimed"?
    This case would arise in quite a different constitutional posture if the petitioners, before disobeying the injunction, had challenged it in the Alabama courts, and had been met with delay or frustration of their constitutional claims. But there is no showing that such would have been the fate of a timely motion to modify or dissolve the injunction. There was an interim of two days between the issuance of the injunction and the Good Friday march. The petitioners give absolutely no explanation of why they did not make some application to the state court during that period. What was the significance to the Civil Rights Leaders of Easter? Why was it important for them to have innocent people jailed on Good Friday and released on Easter Sunday? How does this reasoning and motivation collide with that of the legal system ?
    ... The rule of law that Alabama followed in this case reflects a belief that in the fair administration of justice no man can be judge in his own case, however exalted his station, however righteous his motives, and irrespective of his race, color, politics, or religion. This Court cannot hold that the petitioners were constitutionally free to ignore all the procedures of the law and carry their battle to the streets. One may sympathize with the petitioners' impatient commitment to their cause. But respect for judicial process is a small price to pay for the civilizing hand of law, which alone can give abiding meaning to constitutional freedom. The "civilizing hand of law." Does this value count against the marchers? Or against Connor? "... which alone can give abiding meaning to constitutional freedom." Alone? Contrast MLK, in Atlanta (1962): "legislation and court orders can only declare rights. They can never thoroughly deliver them. Only when people themselves begin to act are rights on paper given life blood."

     

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    January 13, 2006

    concluding thoughts about public media

    Today is the last day of a great meeting on public media, a rich discussion enlivened by presentations of excellent projects (for instance, the National Black Programming Consortium, OneWorld, Global Voices Online, Location One, Public Radio Exchange, and PRI's Open Source.)

    "Public media" comprises all forms of communication that help a democratic public to do its work. The public's work includes deliberating and debating issues of common concern, mobilizing people to participate in formal politics, and creating cultural products that represent and preserve a people's heterogeneous values.

    Three sectors can serve these roles; each has advantages and disavantages:

    1. Corporations (broadcast networks, cable-TV providers, big software companies, newspapers, and publishers) can help the public to do its work. They sometimes meet public demand for news, debate, and information. They apply expertise, talent, and discipline; and they have access to mass markets. However, they generally make more money by providing and advertising commercial goods, rather than encouraging civic and political participation. They can attract the largest audiences by presenting politics in ways that amuse or arouse viewers but make them less likely to participate themselves. Corporate consolidation and market fragmentation make these problems worse.

    2. "Citizen media" means material created and disseminated by individuals or small, voluntary groups: blogs, personal websites, photo galleries on Flickr, podcasts. These "many-to-many" media are far more diverse, open, and innovative than corporate programming. However, there are questions about the citizen media: Can unfunded individuals and networks create products that are more ambitious than short snippets of text, snapshots, and video--for instance, lengthy narrative movies and original news reporting? Even if a few very talented people can create these ambitious products, how can we help those with average skills to participate and find audiences for their work, which will not look professional? And how can we prevent all these individual producers from forming small, insular groups--how can we create a public dialogue?

    3. The traditional "public media" are broadcast stations and producers funded (at least in part) by tax dollars. They have a strong tradition of commitment to the public's interests, although they can certainly be criticized for attracting and serving a narrow slice of the population. In the United States, the organizations in the orbit of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting have some strengths: reputation and public trust, a national network of local institutions, archives of excellent programming, talented employees, and some broadcast spectrum. They have the power to put individuals "on the air," which attracts participation. However, their advantages are diminishing as more competitors arise (including citizen media producers), and as viewers shift from radio and TV to the Internet, where they have far more choice. People are increasingly alienated by the traditional model of station membership, in which you pay dues, receive some goodies, but have no direct impact on programming--and the fundraising drive just drones on. Public broadcasting stations must learn to use their spectrum and other assets to enhance public discussions and cultural collaborations. Their job is to help form publics that demand genuinely public media from all three sectors.

    [Rebecca MacKinnon's summary is on her blog.]

    Posted by peterlevine at 9:34 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

    January 12, 2006

    Alito and strict constructionism

    GRAHAM: Are you a strict constructionist?

    ALITO: I think it depends on what you mean by that phrase. And if you...

    GRAHAM: Well, let's forget that. We'll never get to the end of that.(LAUGHTER) Have you heard the term used?

    ALITO: I have heard the term used.

    GRAHAM: Is it fair to say that, when it's used by politicians, people like me, that we're trying to tell the public we want a judge who looks at things very narrowly, that doesn't make a bunch of stuff up?

    Is that a fair understanding of what a strict constructionist may be in the political world?

    ALITO: Well, if a strict constructionist is a judge who doesn't make things up, than I'm a strict constructionist. (LAUGHTER) ...

    ALITO: I think that a strict constructionist as you understand it would engage in a certain process in evaluating that question. And a strict constructionist, a person who interprets the law -- that's how I would put it -- a person who interprets the law would look at the language of the authorization for the use of military force and legislative history that was informative, maybe past practices. Were there prior enactments that are analogous to that? What was the understanding of those? And a host of other considerations that might go into the interpretive process.

    If a "strict constructionist" looks at precedent, legislative intent, "past practices," and a "host of other considerations," then strict constructionism means nothing at all. Judge Alito clearly doesn't like the phrase--perhaps because it's too controversial, or perhaps because it's vacuous. But could it be a meaningful theory? I suppose it could mean:

    1. A judge should deliberately refuse to consider all the matters that Alito listed above, except the text of the relevant statute or constitutional provision. It is improbable that anyone can understand a text without some recourse to context, but trying to do so would be the judge's intent.

    2. A judge should apply the law regardless of its consequences. In moral philosophy, "consequentialists" are those who would assess actions or policies by their results. "Deontologists" instead apply principles or rules, without directly considering consequences. It was a consequentialist Supreme Court that ruled that public schools could not be segregated by race because segregation had bad effects on minority children. A deontological court might have said that barring any child from any public school on the basis of color, even if it has benign effects, always violates the Fourteenth Amendment. Strict constructionism would be a form of deontology in which existing laws (not morality) provide the principles to guide a court's decisions.

    Judge Alito sounds like something of a legal deontologist some of the time. For instance, in defending his decisions regarding searches, he says that these police actions were harmful but allowed by the law. Note, however, that a legal-deontological approach would not always push in conservative directions. A strict constructionist (in this sense) could not argue that courts ought to enhance economic efficiency, nor could he defer to the president in order to promote national security. That would be paying attention to predicted consequences. The motto of the strict constructionist would rather be "Fiat justitia et pereat mundus": let justice be done even if the world should perish. (This is not a smart thing to say in confirmation hearings, however.)

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    January 11, 2006

    promise of public media

    At a meeting tomorrow, I'm supposed to reflect briefly on this question:

    Citizen Media: Enthusiasts claim that new media, with their anti-top-down structure, tend to more democratic. Critics claim that they just make for finer niches of communication and more opportunities for marketing and consumerism. Not enough attention has been paid to how these new ventures can create more public space and invigorate public media. In what ways can these media be used to create a more robust public?

    Since four others are also slated to speak and will probably cover the main points, I think I will focus on kids. I'll say:

    Developmental psychology tells us that civic experiences in adolescence have profound, lifelong effects on civic participation, whereas experiences in adulthood tend not to affect people much. Therefore, if you want to build a public, you must give teenagers positive civic opportunities.

    Creating public media can be an excellent civic experience. Such creativity takes many forms, from community mapping research to positive hip-hop. There is insufficient research on the impact of this work, but my personal experience with kids and some survey data indicate that it can be very powerful pedagogy.

    However, contrary to popular opinion, youth do not take to computers naturally and with ease. Many of the teenagers I have worked with--including many with computers and Internet access at home--are very ignorant about, and intimidated by, computers. At school, they merely learn "keyboarding." Their voluntary use of digital media is completely passive. Besides, the Internet is still largely a written medium, and youth with poor literacy skills cannot participate effectively.

    Therefore, if we're thinking about government support for "public media," I would argue that media courses and extracurricular programs should be funded. The new media may cost less than the old, but they require more human capital. That's where investment is most needed.

    The state is not the only source of support for youth media. Voluntary associations can also teach media skills and motivate young people to participate. I have elsewhere advanced a rather elaborate argument that associations are essential to the development of a robust online commons; the commons cannot be built by individuals alone.

    It's important not to romanticize youth media, since most of what kids produce is not "hot," award-winning material: it's amateurish and even dorky. In general, people (especially kids) want cultural products produced by celebrities. They don't want to hear amateur music if they can easily listen to the world's most famous singer on a digital recording that costs 99 cents.

    However, what people demand depends on whether they are engaged in their own local communities. For instance, in a large, anonymous, internally segregated American high school, most students do not see the student body as a community or themselves as active members. If a few students produce a music video, only their friends will be motivated to watch it. For most other students, the video will be simply an inferior alternative to slickly produced Hollywood shows. However, if a high school supports a genuine community in which students deliberate about common concerns, know one another, and feel they can make a difference, then everyone may be quite interested in a music video that is made by their peers and that investigates local concerns. Thus the small-schools movement (and kindred educational reforms) are actually central to the question of public media.

    This example illustrates a more general theory that Scott Dinsmore made in a comment yesterday: strong civil society, rooted in local communities, may increase demand for locally produced cultural products.

    Posted by peterlevine at 11:02 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

    January 10, 2006

    entropy and dialectic

    The world grows more alike. Global culture is more uniform today than at any time in the past. Ecosystems are more similar, thanks to human interventions and the mixing of species. Although there are countervailing trends toward diversity, the pressure for similarity is palpable and powerful.

    two explanations

    I think two theories help to explain this pressure. The first is entropy. In nature, when unlike things come into contact, they become more alike. Likewise, when cultures interact through trade or conquest, they come to share features.

    A natural system loses dynamism as entropy grows, to the point that a perfectly entropic universe would be a smooth and inert field of matter. If there were no differences, then time itself would end. Some of the anxiety about globalization derives from fear that cultural differences will disappear, and with them, human dynamism. Some of the impetus for environmentalism arises from fear that all ecosystems will become alike. (This is why biodiversity seems so precious and "invasive species" are such a concern.)

    Entropy is fundamentally mindless. It is "noise," the opposite of a meaningful "signal." In nature, only intelligence can reduce entropy. For example, by sorting objects into separate piles, a person can make a heap less entropic. In the domain of culture, human beings can use their intelligence to wall themselves off from contact with outsiders, but such barriers always ultimately weaken. The Second Law of Thermodynamics applies: the entropy of a closed system tends to increase. However, intelligent beings can also deliberately create new cultural forms in opposition to global averages. Even by the simple act of remembering the diversity of the past, we can make our own minds more complex.

    The second explanation is Hegelian. Contrary to popular belief, Hegel never said anything about a thesis meeting its opposite (the antithesis) and generating a synthesis. His model is much more plausible. It starts with consciousness: naive thinking and doing. In a world of diverse people and cultures, a conscious person or group will sooner or later encounter and recognize alternative values and ways of being. At that point self-consciousness arises. This is an uncomfortable feeling, full of tension and doubt; but it is also generative and dynamic, and it can lead to what Hegel calls reason. Hegelian reason is the deliberate and informed creation of values and beliefs, based on the available alternatives. Reason will again become self-consciousness whenever, having built a satisfactory solution, a person or a group realizes that there are other available solutions. That new stage of self-consciousness can again become reason. The whole cycle is "dialectic."

    Like the Second Law of Thermodynamics, Hegelian dialectic leads ultimately to universal sameness, but it is a sameness deliberately constructed by human beings through the application of intelligence and will. Barring a catastrophe, world culture should become more uniform but also more sophisticated, because it will encompass more history and more awareness of alternatives. It will not be a static state of sameness, but a dramatic narrative leading toward consensus, recorded in the minds of the human actors.

    Perhaps the most profound issue of our era is whether we will grow more alike through dialectic or through entropy. Since I am unable to think of any other way to explore this tension, I have made it the theme of a long narrative poem (only part of which is online so far).

    consumerism and creativity

    I suspect that entropy is connected to the problem of consumerism. Raw materials have been globally traded for a long time. However, the salient feature of "globalization" is the exchange of finished, consumer products. The volume of such trade has surely increased with deregulation and with new communications technology. As a result, people can choose from rapidly growing menus of cultural products. This choice increases as a result of market exchanges, but it is also something that we fight for--for instance, when people who favor "diversity" in education demand more choices in the curriculum, or when civil libertarians assert a right to purchase information from abroad.

    Everyone who can choose from a global list of finished cultural products becomes more like everyone else: a phenomenon that Russell Arben Fox insightfully describes. This is a passive, detached, inert sameness. The only way to prevent it is to block people from exercising consumer choice, which restricts their freedom--and never works for long.

    In contrast, when we make things, we put our own stamp on them. We thereby exercise Hegelian "reason." Unlike restrictions on trade and communication, policies that support the local creation of cultural products expand freedom. And even if everyone's creations turn out to be increasingly similar as history proceeds, at least the resulting sameness will be something that we human beings have made. Likewise, an environmentalism devoted to creativity (rather than preservation) would make the world less entropic even as we put a human stamp on nature.

    [This post is being discussed on the Philosophy New Service "community" page]

    Posted by peterlevine at 7:14 AM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

    January 9, 2006

    this blog turns three

    I first posted on January 8, 2003. The congressional office that I described that day belonged to Bob Ney--"Representative no. 1" in the Abramoff court papers.

    I've since posted 766 times more: once every work day, except when we're on family vacations. I enjoy the rhythm of a daily activity; it's my hobby now. For better or worse, it has replaced playing the clavichord.

    I've discovered that if you stick with blogging for long enough, your archive of posts becomes more popular than your daily contribution. People reach an archive by searching the whole web, which means that they don't read my old posts about extremely common terms, like "George Bush" or "philosophy." But quite a few people find themselves on this site because of a search for Miles Horton, the great American political educator and civil rights leader, about whom I once made an offhand remark. (There is a great need for a good Miles Horton website.) Some come to find out about Lia Lee, the tragic victim of cultural miscommunication in Anne Fadiman's great book The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down. (Sometimes people email me to find out whether Lia is still alive. It's possible, but I don't have any way of knowing.) And some arive from Google's image search page to see a photo of a Persian lion that I took one summer in Burgundy. These most common search terms are pretty miscellaneous and random--but then so have been my experiences over the past three years.

    Posted by peterlevine at 7:41 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

    January 6, 2006

    the earmarking/lobbying connection

    Byron York in today's New York Times:

    if Congress passes, as it does hundreds of times each year, a spending measure that affects a specific business, it attracts the intense interest of that business, which has a strong incentive to do whatever it takes to achieve a favorable result. A number of reformers believe there's no way to clean up lobbying without cutting down on those so-called earmarks, and that's a far bigger problem than lobbying reform.

    Earmarking is very pervasive and a very bad thing. Take a small federal program that I happen to know about, the Fund for Improvement of Post-Secondary Education (FIPSE, pronounced "fipsee"). Congress appropriated $157.2 million for FIPSE in fiscal year 2005, of which $135 million was then earmarked for specific projects at colleges and universities favored by Members of Congress. For instance, Alaska Christian College, with 37 total students, receives around $400,000 a year in earmarked FIPSE funds. As a result, there is no merit-based competition, and there is no accountability. The people who run the program in the Department of Education simply mail checks to fund projects, whatever their merits. They have no leverage to demand rigorous evaluation or results.

    I know something about FIPSE, but I suspect that the earmarking problem is infinitely worse in big-ticket programs like Defense procurement. Byron York is right to link lobbying scandals to earmarking: it pays to influence a Congress that doles out pork. However, three questions:

    1. Which causes which? Does Congress earmark because of lobbying pressure and money from special interests, or do special interests employ lobbyists because Congress earmarks?

    2. Which problem is easier to fix? York thinks that it is impossible to restrain lobbyists, so we should make them less important by reducing earmarks. I could make precisely the opposite case--that campaign finance reform and ethics rules are easier goals than budget reform.

    3. To what extent are earmarking and high-priced lobbying linked? After all, FIPSE grants go to colleges and universities. These institutions employ lobbyists (exercising their right to petition the government). I would be surprised, however, if they make big campaign contributions or buy political access at a high price. Presumably, Members of Congress earmark funds for their hometown colleges, not to obtain campaign funds, but to gain local goodwill, to feel important, and to support institutions that they genuinely like. Taking the money out of politics woulndn't change those incentives.

    Posted by peterlevine at 12:38 PM | Comments (4) | TrackBack

    January 5, 2006

    the limits of formal experimentation

    (Miami, FL) In a genuine experiment, you somehow interact with a randomly selected group of people but leave everyone else in your sample alone. You assess everyone at the end of the experiment, assigning them scores based on a survey, test, or other instrument that measures what you care about. If the average score of the people whom you attempted to influence is higher than those in the control group, then what you did worked. There are some complications, but this is the essence of formal experimentation.

    It has some big advantages ...

  • It actually measures causality.
  • It creates accountability by forcing people who run social programs to demonstrate results.
  • It shows what is cost-effective. This is crucial because resources are limited, and some well-meaning programs are actually counter-productive.
  • It is a relatively simple process, much easier to master than statistical modeling. It is well within the capacity of high school students and community groups, if they can overcome bureaucratic obstacles. (Professionals often use multivariate models to approximate the results of experiments when no actual experiments have been conducted. This approach requires more technical expertise than experimentation, but it is less reliable.)
  • Therefore, I am drawn to arguments that we ought to become a much more experimental society. The funding of true field experiments should become a major role of government, as we try to design programs that can actually address the challenges of the current era.

    However, there are limits. Experimentation sometimes raises ethical issues regarding the treatment of research subjects. Experiments can only test a few interventions at a time, yet often we want to explore the possible impact of many factors, not knowing which are most important. Some important factors are hard to measure; they require qualitative research (which I strongly support).

    Finally, experiments test the impact of general, repeatable strategies and approaches. But many of the most important decisions we make are highly contextual and uncategorizable. For example, consider this espisode from a recent conference on psychotherapy, as reported by Benedict Carey in the New York Times on Dec. 27:

    Many therapists at the conference said that if the field did not incorporate more scientifically testable principles, its future was bleak.

    Using vague, unstandardized methods to assist troubled clients ''should be prosecutable'' in some cases, said Dr. Marsha Linehan of the University of Washington, who has developed a well-studied method of treating suicidal patients.

    Yet it was also apparent in several demonstrations of the spellbinding thing itself -- artful psychotherapy -- that some things will be difficult, if not impossible, to standardize.

    Dr. Donald Meichenbaum, research director of the Melissa Institute for Violence Prevention and Treatment in Miami, showed a film of the first session he conducted with a woman who was suicidal months after witnessing her boyfriend die in a traffic accident. After gently prompting her to talk about the accident, Dr. Meichenbaum then zeroed in on something he had noticed when the woman entered his office: she was clutching a cassette tape.

    He asked about the tape and learned that it was a recording of her late boyfriend's voice, expressing love for her. ''I play it over and over, and it makes me so depressed,'' said the woman, in a tiny voice.

    And here Dr. Meichenbaum stopped the film and addressed the audience.

    ''The tape!'' he said. ''When during the session do you go for the cassette tape? What do you do with the tape?''

    For several long moments not a creature stirred, not even a laptop mouse. This community of therapists was now trying to save a soul, a person who was alone and did not want to live. What to do with the tape?

    I don't see any way to use experiments to answer this crucial question. Similar issues, of course, arise in teaching and in the management of public institutions.

    Posted by peterlevine at 7:21 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

    January 4, 2006

    to Miami

    Today is a travel day. I'm in College Park, but I'm about to fly to Fort Lauderdale and then travel to Miami for a meeting on high school journalism. I'll be carrying some of of the 97 letters-of-inquiry that CIRCLE has received in our current grants cycle. I don't expect to be able to post until tomorrow.

    Posted by peterlevine at 11:00 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

    January 3, 2006

    Ed Meese, John Yoo, and free speech

    One of the worst things about modern American politics is the use of inflammatory mailings to raise money. I used to worry about such tactics when I worked at Common Cause: our mailings, while not partisan, weren't exactly fair and balanced. It pays to send a core constituency of like-minded people a message that will make some of them angry enough to write you a check. As a result, there are large, passionate, but completely separate political conversations going on in America.

    It would help if we put communications from various ideological groups into the public domain so that what they said to their own constituencies could become part of a diverse public deliberation. Consider, then, the following "Dear Mr. Levine" letter that I recently received from good old Edwin Meese III, on behalf of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni. He writes:

    So much of what's wrong in our country has its roots in the 60s revolt at our colleges and universities. I remember--I was there.

    Let me tell you about my experience with the 60s radicals.

    At my old law school, the University of California at Berkeley, an alliance of radical students, hippies, and street thugs got together with a view to destroying so much of what you and I value. They plunged a great institution into a crisis unprecedented in American higher education.

    These people, calling themselves the Free Speech Movement, were actually interested in creating a mob scene. ...

    I told Governor Brown that if the radicals were allowed to stay there would be another mob scene, even bigger, the next day. I believed restoring order was important and necessary. The building was cleared and a potentially dangerous situation was defused.

    And then I participated in prosecuting them.

    There would be many ways to respond to this, but let me counter an anecdote with an anecdote. It is to Ed Meese's "old law school" that John Yoo has returned after a stint in the Bush Administration. As David Cole writes, "Yoo's most famous piece of advice was in an August 2002 memorandum stating that the president cannot constitutionally be barred from ordering torture in wartime--even though the United States has signed and ratified a treaty absolutely forbidding torture under all circumstances, and even though Congress has passed a law pursuant to that treaty, which without any exceptions prohibits torture."

    One can argue that Yoo's memo provided any American torturers with a legal defense. Their behavior cannot be "patently illegal" (which is the standard for conviction under US military law) if a Berkeley law professor said that it was legal. Thus Yoo's writing changed the actual legal situation regarding torture. Nevertheless, Yoo's colleagues (some of those "60s radicals" whom Meese believes "are now entrenched in college faculties and administrations") uphold his right to teach at their institution. Could it be that the Free Speech Movement was actually about--free speech?

    Posted by peterlevine at 7:43 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

    January 2, 2006

    why libertarians need a theory of political socialization

    The interesting libertarian David Friedman argues that the First Amendment bans public schools. This is a portion of his argument, which deserves to be read in full:

    The judge who recently held it unconstitutional for public schools to be required to teach the theory of intelligent design correctly argued that doing so would be to support a particular set of religious beliefsóthose that reject evolution as an explanation for the apparent design of living creatures. His mistake was not carrying the argument far enough. A school that teaches that evolution is false is taking sides in a religious disputeóbut so does a school that teaches that evolution is true.

    The problem is broader than evolution. In the process of educating children, one must take positions on what is true or false. Over a wide range of issues, such a claim is either the affirmation of a religious position or the denial of a religious position. Any decent scientific account of geology, paleontology, what we know about the distant past, is also a denial of the beliefs of (among others) fundamentalist Christians. To compel children to go to schools, paid for by taxes, in which they are taught that their religious beliefs are false, is not neutrality.

    [...]

    My conclusion is that the existence of public schools is inconsistent with the First Amendment. Their purpose is, or ought to be, to educateóand one cannot, in practice, educate without either supporting or denying a wide variety of religious claims.

    Friedman's logic applies even more generally: almost all actions by a government (e.g., speeches by elected leaders, the design of public buildings, interventions in the Middle East) may make statements--implied or explicit--in favor or against religious beliefs. For instance, maintaining an army violates Quaker and other pacifist beliefs, yet citizens are required to pay for the military. Jefferson once wrote, "to compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves and abhors, is sinful and tyrannical." Taken very literally, this is an argument not only against public schools, but against government itself.

    To me, that's a reductio ad absurdum. As a deliberative democrat, I believe that the public ought to be able to build and control public institutions without many limitations. That means that it should be constitutional for a community to teach "intelligent design." The First Amendment's ban on the "establishment of religion" should mean what it says: No established religion. In public debates about our schools, I will argue against Intelligent Design, which strikes me as intellectually embarrassing as well as possibly blasphemous. But if my side loses, I don't want the courts to bail us out by declaring ID unconstitutional. The public debate should simply continue.

    Having staked out this contrary position, let me try to say something quasi-constructive about libertarianism. Libertarians are leery of political power, because it can be used to restrict freedom. However, political power exists wherever there are millions of people with opinions. Constitutional limitations on the public's will are just pieces of paper unless the public wants to be limited.

    Therefore, libertarians must change majority opinion so that individual liberty becomes a higher moral priority than it is today. I can think of three strategies to attain that end:

    1. Libertarians can make arguments in favor of maximum liberty. Such arguments have been available for two centuries and may have enhanced popular support for civil liberties, yet most people have not been convinced that the economic role of the state should be minimized. Programs like Social Security and public education remain highly popular. A libertarian who believes (as I do not) that these programs violate liberty might consider the general limits of reasons and arguments. They must always butt up against interests, cultural norms, inherited values, experiences, and traditions--not to mention contrary arguments. Even in the long run, there is no guarantee that libertarian arguments will prevail (even if they are right).

    2. Libertarians might assume that people are being influenced against liberty by the state itself, especially through the institution of public education. Then their strategy would be to dismantle state schools (perhaps using vouchers) and rely on families and independent schools to raise children who value liberty above all else.

    I doubt that this approach would work. First of all, I'm not convinced that today's public schools socialize young people to favor the state. True, schools are authoritarian institutions, but that just makes many teenagers rebel. Schools also try to teach civil liberties and tolerance, which may be one reason that each generation comes of age more civil libertarian that its predecessors.

    Besides, I doubt that parents, left to their own devices, would pay to educate their own children to treasure liberty for all. First, developing such principles is not in kids' individual self-interest. Second, most parents want to limit, not expand, their kids' sense of individual freedom.

    We know that when adults organize neighborhood associations (largely unregulated corporations that meet market demand), they choose to impose all kinds of rules against the display of signs, against congregating on the streets, even against the private possession of pornography. Through their free choices, they socialize their kids to believe that freedom is dangerous and bad for property values. There is no reason to believe that private, voucher-supported schools would be different.

    3. The third option is to recognize that public schools are instruments for attaining public goods such as love of freedom. Today's schools probably increase students' support for civil liberties. They do not teach students to distrust the state and prefer the market. Therefore, libertarians would have to argue for some changes in curriculum and pedagogy. In doing so, they would address their fellow citizens with arguments about the public value of teaching respect for liberty. It's my sense that Americans might be responsive to such arguments.

    In making decisions about where and how to educate their own kids, most people seek to maximize their earning potential; however, in considering educational policies that will apply to everyone, they often favor more idealistic outcomes. For instance, in a 2004 poll, 71% of adults said that it was important to "prepare students to be competent and responsible citizens who participate in our democratic society" (pdf). Thus it's possible that Americans would support better education for liberty.

    To be sure, most people (including me) do not think that "competent and responsible" citizens are those who value liberty above all else. I, for one, want to see young citizens develop a concern for equality as well as freedom. Nevertheless, it seems possible that libertarians could prevail in arguments about the curriculum. If they can't persuade their fellow citizens that liberty should be taught in schools, then they certainly can't convince the majority to cut Social Security--which is against their immediate economic self-interest.

    Posted by peterlevine at 8:02 AM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

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