Saturday, January 5, 2019

"The populist pundit couldn’t be more wrong"

That's what Timothy Sandefur thinks he is saying in a post at Reason that purports to debunk a recent monologue of Tucker Carlson's.

Sandefur's argument is interesting, and not in a good way. He starts with a lot of gesturing: "If there were any doubt of the direction the Trump-dominated GOP is taking," and "... the speech wasn't original, but it reveals the degree to which Republicans have embraced the populist authoritarianism they once condemned." and "Carlson began with several swipes against "bankers" who exploit the working class to line the pockets of spooky elites." Gesturing, as opposed to making actual arguments, is not necessarily bad. It plays a role a little like small talk; it eases us into the topic. But what Sandefur does isn't neutral. There is a lot of sneering: "Trump-dominated," "populist authoritarianism," and "swipes against 'bankers'." No actual argument has been made in any of this. A reasonable person could ask also sorts of questions that are being ruled out of court by this sneering; for example, is populism necessarily authoritarian?

And note this quote from Carlson and Sandefur's response:
"Does anyone still believe that cheaper iPhones or more Amazon deliveries of plastic garbage from China are going to make us happy? They haven't so far." This is a time-worn rhetorical technique of freedom's enemies, who sneer at material standards of living in order to elevate abstract social goals over the needs of actual people.
Does Sanderfur even notice that saying, "This is a time-worn rhetorical technique of freedom's enemies," is nasty little ad hominem wrapped in a time-worn rhetorical technique? It seems to me that asking if cheaper iPhones are making us happier is a perfectly reasonable question to ask and it does not make anyone an enemy of freedom to be asking it.

And it gets worse.
Consider "cheap iPhones": nobody can calculate the hours saved thanks to driving-directions features, the lives saved through quick access to 911, or the millions of simple, happy conversations that screentime or text messaging makes possible for families separated by long distances. To deride this as materialism is to scoff at simple, even beautiful human joys. Imagine the consequences of eliminating smartphones (you can't) and you get a sense of the inhumane sentiments that anti-materialistic slogans conceal.
Just a minute Mr. Sandefur, where did Carlson say he wanted to eliminate smartphones?  The answer is easy: he didn't. And accusing Carlson of deriding something in a post that is simply dripping with derision is a bit rich.

Sandefur never actually engages the argument that Carlson makes. He argues against a straw man and, as if that wasn't pathetic enough, he argues poorly against that straw man. If you can't even beat the bogus arguments you put into the mouth of your opponents, it's time to start worrying.

If it were up to me (it isn't), I'd suggest that we start worrying about the assumptions behind the following claims from Sandefur: "Freedom—economic or personal—is not 'created by human beings.' It's the rightful, natural state of all persons. It can unjustly be destroyed, but never transcended." There are a whole rash of questions I'd want to ask.  If freedom is really the rightful, natural state of all persons, then why have so few people had it? Why did the notion and culture of freedom spring up in a certain place at a certain time in history? Why does freedom adapt to certain cultures better than others? Why do so many people lose their freedom not by having it taken away from them by others but as a consequence of their own free choices?

I think those questions all point towards one big question: What exactly is a "liberal education"? Originally, the expression meant the sort of education fitting for a free person. Over time, though, it acquired a different sense, the sense that perhaps certain kinds of education prepare us for liberty, which is a thing to be taken and not simply the natural state of things. That, it seems to me, is the deep meaning of "the freedom to pursue happiness".

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