Friday, May 25, 2012

Two Final Notes

1. This blog has been inactive for some months now as I have engaged in a cheshbon hanefesh, evaluating my options for the future in the light of various changes in my lifestance. I am currently considering gainful employment opportunities. I have a lot of experience with writing and researching (particularly on contemporary Jewish life, American Jewish history, and contemporary politics). I am adept at using New Media as well. I am currently living in Waltham, but come August, I will be able to move. So if you have need for a writer or know somebody who does, please contact me at . My CV is available upon request.

2. I just checked the stats for this blog; to date, it has been viewed 24,203 times. As for the blog I started for the purposes of debating a close disciple of Rabbi Moshe Meiselman's, it has been read 1,717 times.The most read individual post (by far!) of both blogs is my critique of the Kuzari Principle and other defenses of Orthodox Judaism, at 1,187 views. I greatly appreciate your readership and wanted to thank all of you for taking the time to consider my arguments on various issues. I have hopes for starting another website in the not-so-distant future which will go beyond the parochial Jewish focus I have had in the past. This website will analyze political and cultural issues which affect all of society (while still having a distinctly culturally Jewish and politically Zionist flavor). If you want to keep up with the things I'm reading and be updated on my future Internet activities, I am very active on Facebook so feel free to friend me.

Kol tuv.

Friday, January 27, 2012

This Blog

Dear Readers,
I apologize that I have been AWOL the past two weeks. I recently decided that I'm going to be taking a break from graduate school at Brandeis University. The papers are almost all in order and I will officially be on leave soon. I have therefore been busy making the necessary preparations. I am currently job-hunting and I am mobile (i.e. I can move most anywhere), so if you have any ideas please email me at . I would prefer to provide my information (e.g. curriculum vitae) via email as opposed to here.

As for this blog, I have long noted that I have felt unsure as to what direction to take it in. If anything, this feeling has been exacerbated. I feel I've written what I've wanted to about haredi apologetics. I have no desire to write responses to, say, Leib Kelemen or Gerald Schroeder...I feel most of the works of the most popular kiruv gurus have been properly addressed by respondents. I have not often been "evangelized" by Modern Orthodox apologetics so they do not much interest me either. As a 23 year old who was mostly steeped in Jewish books for the past 5 years, I don't feel that I have many insights on the difficult ethical and philosophical questions that we as people-- and therefore political actors -- have to answer. I could try to mekarve people to atheism, but I'd think almost anybody who has chanced to stumble across this blog who might have a shot of adopting what I consider to be the correct lifestance (i.e. atheism) would be able to find and read better attacks on general theistic hypotheses than I could muster; moreover, there are so many atheist bloggers promoting atheism, I don't feel there's much of a need for one more. There was an excellent recommendation that I should focus the blog on hosting informal interviews with people about their experiences with religion, but as I am in a "transition period" right now, I'm not in a position to do that. Perhaps at a later date that is what this blog will be about. I'm not shutting it down. I like to write and while I have felt "blocked" as a writer for a bit now, I hope that I shall be inspired -- hopefully soon -- to have a general direction I want to take the blog in.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Hard Libertarianism (Part 2)

"Only the extremes are logical, but they are absurd."

--Samuel Butler

In my previous post, I described the hard libertarianism propounded by Benzion Chinn. I proceeded to note that despite Benzion's assertion that anybody who doesn't think the way he does about government has a "problem" that is "psychological," it is not the derech of the founding fathers. Finally, I proposed that Benzion is a libertarian because he believes in liberty as an ideal, but his optimistic hope that making education a free-for-all would in the long term improve educational standards is anything but guaranteed and, I would argue, based largely on wishful thinking.

Despite these objections to libertarianism, it may be asserted that people deserve the almost unrestrained amount of liberty Benzion would give them and anybody who would take away those rights would be engaging in tyrannically imposing his own agenda. In his newest post, Benzion essentially makes this argument about me. It is my tyrannical agenda which inspires my differentiation between academics who engage in activism and haredi historical revisionists; the only major differential between the premises of these two groups is that I like the premises of the former. Hence, I -- and, to be sure, all academics who engage in activism -- remind Benzion of haredi historical revisionists. It is also my tyrannical agenda and my own inability to realize that my worldview may be wrong which inspires my desire to force my own beliefs on the masses which I view as below me. If we would only see the errors of our ways, we would realize that the best government is the government which only sees force as muttar when "protecting people from direct physical harm."

I will here attempt to respond to the above argument, both attacking Benzion's hard libertarianism and defending my own worldview. B'emes, this will be my last post in this series, although I might criticize different versions of libertarianism in the future. Benzion will surely take the last word, so I might comment at his forthcoming post on the matter as well. For those who want further reading on this topic, I myself plan to further peruse skeptic Mike Huban's massive "Critiques of Libertarianism" web index.

Benzion Chinn is an Authoritarian
In the conservative worldview people are not assumed to be very intelligent. Because of this there is little hope in simply allowing people to negotiate through their differences and so solutions must be forcefully imposed from above by some "higher intelligence." Then there is the liberal worldview which holds that people are capable of negotiating through their differences if left to their own devices without some solution being forcefully imposed from above. I believe that human beings are mentally flawed, but that the free market has a way of compensating for this allowing human beings to interact with each other in a way that approximates reason. I am fundamentally a liberal in how I conceive the world. Haredim clearly operate out of a conservative world view. Mencken, despite his supposed liberalism, was also really cut from the same cloth. I would say the same about any activist academic, using a government funded post to push his values on the masses below him.
--Benzion Chinn
I'm not sure how many Americans share Benzion's views of government, but it's safe to say it's a relatively small group. Most people do not believe that the only thing the government should have its hand in is prohibiting direct physical harm; they believe in funding -- for example -- public education. Unlike Benzion, they do not have emunah that things would work out if society just operated on bitachon the free market system. Benzion, however, feels that he knows better than they do. The masses, in his estimate, fail to appreciate that they are being tyrannized over and fail to realize that education and the economy would work well if government stopped being involved; it is up to forces like him to enlighten people as to how the free market system would work according to economists on his side (e.g. Frederich Hayek).

But what if it didn't work? Let's imagine that America went through a paradigmatic shift of some kind and adopted Benzion's system, barring the government from involvement in anything except stopping direct physical force. And it doesn't work. Our international ratings in education become worse, we fail to train people for the positions needed for a society to operate, and we are on the verge of an economic depression. Now what?

If Benzion would change his mind and allow for government intervention, it means that he recognizes that government can in principle be utilized in order to keep society running. If he chooses this option, he is an authoritarian in the sense that he believes that government can be utilized in order to keep America operating.

I suspect, however, that Benzion feels he would be intellectually consistent and not change his mind. Here, we differ on how we understand "liberty." In Benzion's view, the powerful (e.g. corporations and businesses) have the right to crush anybody they want and people only have "liberty" to not be physically harmed. If education and opportunities have been driven into the ground, well, sucks to be you Americans. My own view of such a societal system is that its government fails to fulfill its end of the social contract by protecting the people from oppression by unrestrained corporate power. The American proletariat in this system has no real ability to rise above the circumstances Benzion will have thrust it into.
Intellectual Ease vs. Practicality
Like many outside-the-box thinkers, they’re good at applying their principles more consistently than your average partisan, but lousy at knowing when to stop. (Hence the tendency to see civil rights legislation as just another unjustified expansion of federal power.)
--Ross Douthat on paleoconservative libertarians
Benzion has written some odd things during our discussion, but mostly he's been par for the course of one who believes that everyone who doesn't share his minimalist view of government is an authoritarian. He has written one line which struck me as odd even for a hard libertarian:

Being a true liberal, one who respects all beliefs and refuses to use any physically coercive measures, even against those he disagrees with, to force people to go against those beliefs, requires years of disciplined critical thinking.

According to Benzion, not wanting to use government coercion for anything requires an extraordinary amount of discipline. I don't know why he thinks this. It seems to me that being a believing hard libertarian requires as much discipline as being a believing anarchist or a believing Marxist. All three of these belief systems require their adherents to accept on faith their economic theories, views of human potential, and philosophical constructs. What could be easier than accepting such simple theologies?

The most important aspect of Benzion's particular theology of hard libertarianism is the understanding of "liberty." When it comes to hard libertarianism, whether or not people actually want the sort of "liberty" Benzion wants enforced isn't important. He and his economists and his philosophers will tell you how the government must operate and if his system results in a less perfect union, nebuch for America. Of course, Benzion doesn't (and as he's clarified in differentiating between his own "liberal" view of human potential and the nebuch "conservative" view of all others who differ, can't) believe his system would result in a less perfect union, but even if it did, he'd still keep the system up. This is intellectually consistent with his view of "liberty," but it does not provide a government which is for the people, a government which has a proper social contract with its citizens. In other words, Benzion's system doesn't properly provide for the possibility that it won't work and that people won't like it; instead, Benzion demands that "liberty" be kept above the interests of society as a whole. I disagree that this is actually "liberty."
To be clear, I have run into Haredim who openly admitted to me that they did not believe in any independent concept of truth and that truth therefore was simply their personal Jewish beliefs. I do not see academics, even activist academics, as being that blatantly hostile to truth.
--Benzion Chinn we know how we justify beliefs, we know that the adjective "true" is the word we apply to the beliefs that we've justified. We know that a belief can be true without being justified. That's about all we know about "truth"...
--Richard Rorty
There is another problem with Benzion's hard libertarianism. Imagine a school that teaches the children of Muslim extremists how to be terrorists. Now, as far as the government knows, the school isn't teaching the kids to be terrorists. It's just teaching them how to do it.

I view such a school as problematic, while (since it doesn't promote direct physical violence), Benzion is forced to support its existence. Jonah Goldberg is worth quoting on this point:

It’s hip and cool to say, “Be whatever you want.”’s all fun and games until somebody loses an eye. If you tell kids they can believe in anything (and that anybody who disagrees is a bigot), you will eventually breed a bunch of kids who despise the very openness you champion.
Western civilization in general and American culture in particular are remarkably, almost uniquely, open to and tolerant of competing views and faiths. That’s wonderful. But pluralism is not, to borrow a phrase, a suicide pact. Chesterton pointed out that when a man stops believing in God, he won’t believe in nothing, he’ll believe in anything. God isn’t necessarily the issue here. But the principle is the same. Humans, especially children, very much want to believe in things. If we don’t bother to teach — or impose — certain Western values on our own people, they will embrace values that are neither open nor tolerant. Belief in “something” just isn’t good enough.
The tolerance promoted by hard libertarianism is impossible for a functioning democracy to allow. I am reminded of how Sayyid Qutb reportedly felt that the philosophy of pragmatism (not to be confused with the way that word is usually used) would "undermine America's ability to defend itself." The allowance for everybody with their own separate definitions of truth to do what they want is difficult to accept philosophically and isn't a functional model politically.

Am I Different From Christian Conservatives?
Now there's an obvious possible rejoinder to my above arguments and one which Benzion made in a private correspondence. What happens if Christian conservatives were to take over? Imagine that they somehow managed to evangelize the majority of the population. Now can the government teach that atheism is evil, just as I maintain that the public schools cannot teach Holocaust Denial? After all, once you maintain that the schools cannot teach ideas which are harmful to America, many Christians maintain that morality comes from Jesus.

The answer to this question is that I here have no choice but to rely on the courts. If some are run by fundamentalist bigots (note for example the infamous Scopes Trial), I am afraid the social contract forces me as an American to still rely on them. Federalist 78:

The interpretation of the laws is the proper and peculiar province of the courts. A constitution is, in fact, and must be regarded by the judges, as a fundamental law. It therefore belongs to them to ascertain its meaning, as well as the meaning of any particular act proceeding from the legislative body.

Were the courts ever to go beyond the scope of what I consider fair interpretation of the law, I would -- and I have no doubt about this -- move. I could no longer consider myself an American in good faith. In fact, with all of what Benzion considers tyrannical action by the government, I cannot help but wonder why he has not moved to a more libertarian state as a matter of conscience.