What’s Wrong with the World

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What’s Wrong with the World is dedicated to the defense of what remains of Christendom, the civilization made by the men of the Cross of Christ. Athwart two hostile Powers we stand: the Jihad and Liberalism...read more

The strange decline of privacy.

It is not obvious that true privacy in our day will endure the ministrations of its narrow partisans. There is a bizarre sort of double pressure on the idea of privacy right now: a simultaneous exaggeration and diminution. Its deterioration as a firm principle of life proceeds at once with the most horse and desperate cries in its defense; almost as if a howling mob of revolutionists, their hands bloodied from the work of expropriating and uprooting, now turn around and with all the sincerity of madmen, demand that their appointed despots reinstate Tradition, so that they may live by the simple customs and prejudices by which simple men lived before the Revolution. It is like the most ferocious Jacobin turning monarchist just as the guillotine’s blade falls on the King; and stridently claiming he was monarchist all along. It has an air about it, undoubtedly inspiring a certain human sympathy, of furtive penitence; perhaps it is the confession of faithless men. In any event, it is an intriguing phenomenon.

Say something shocking like “I favor censorship” to the average American, and you will not likely hear in reply a statement taking cognizance of privacy. But in truth part of the motivation for censorship has always been a robust notion of a bright demarcation between public and private spheres. Censorship is a way to insure that what is of necessity public does not encroach upon what is properly private. And the republican principle empowers a community to legislate to enforce this demarcation. More: the republican principle positively demands it, because the republican principle contains within it an ineradicable element of what is suggested by the old word virtue. It is unlawful, declare the good people of Anytown, USA, for commercial enterprises to depict graphically in public what is appropriately recognized as uniquely private — especially when what is depicted is a uniquely private sin. As a signal of the poverty of our politics, and more unmistakably the poverty of our idea of privacy, many Americans have come to imagine that such legislation is unconstitutional because it infringes on the principle of free speech. This despite the fact that laws against obscenity, pornography, etc., were already on the state law books at the time of the Bill of Rights, and that many more were passed later, with hardly a word ever spoken against them as infringements on free speech. It wasn’t until the enlightened twentieth century that such laws began to be overturned. There is a simple and even plain reason for this: Free speech for our forefathers always meant public speech, in the sense of debate and argument on matters of public controversy. A film of nameless choreographed encounters of the flesh is not an argument. And our error inheres precisely in the fact that, having obliterated the natural demarcations between public and private, we have thrown ourselves into a bleak confusion about what the free speech clause protects. In our confusion, we consent to vitiate the republican principle that is our inheritance; and endure a quiet cheeping despotism of unaccountable judges.

I find it fascinating that the people who castigate any natural or republican move toward censorship, like when Mr. Rudy Giuliani came to the defense (as he defiantly did on occasion) of New York Catholics who felt an understandable annoyance at the deliberate blasphemes of their icons at public galleries, are the same people who shout “privacy!” whenever an equally natural or republican act of legislation conflicts with their sexual “liberation.” The State should stay out of the bedroom; instead it should fund and endorse bringing the crudest and ugliest representations of the bedroom to public spaces. The public square, in Fr. Richard J. Neuhaus’ apt phrase, should remain “naked” — pristinely free of any religious argument or sentiment — yet in its nakedness should be teeming with base allure and temptation to lust. Our confusion about public and private has made a mockery of our politics. There is an unnerving sense that the American privatists really cannot imagine that the legal protections afforded to pornographers might possibly be quite ludicrous. They really think Larry Flynt is a free speech hero; their own bombastic rhetoric, which has its roots in the farcical drama that so often characterizes our legal system, beguiles them. They believe their own wild formulaic hyperbole. One is tempted to speculate that future generations, looking back from a saner age, may regard us with that kind of befuddlement, or almost bemusement, reserved today for Prohibitionists and Puritans. We are puritanical about our vice: no touch of virtue or hint of public restraint will tarnish it. Pornography, at its barren core, is the annihilation of privacy. That an enterprise dedicated to the crude exhibition of private things as grotesqueries or perversions is defended on the grounds that restricting it is a offense against liberty, is just the sort of insanity the modern world is capable of producing.

The intensely vulgar public square we are confronted with today is simply not the work of democracy — if by democracy we mean the prevailing of popular will. It is more nearly the work of oligarchy or aristocracy. An example I often turn to is the example of the film American Beauty — a film celebrated by Hollywood beyond all reason. Well acted and cleverly written, the movie nevertheless did nothing so effectively as projecting onto a fictionalized Middle America all the pathologies and obsessions of Hollywood. In that its creators were almost comically manipulative, fancying (sincerely, perhaps) that the rest of the country shared the particular disorders of their class. Now Hollywood is probably as near as America comes to a truly aristocratic society, as Adam Bellow demonstrated in his recent study of nepotism. What emerges from it, whatever the pressures of the market may be, is still largely the product of a segregated and complacent elite. The despair and frightful decadence of American Beauty is the despair and decadence of an elite. Which is not to say that what issues from the elite does not infect the people — it is only to say that its origins are not democratic.

There is also what we might call the supply-side insight: that supply generates its own demand. Economists of a certain stripe are happy to argue that high tax rates are counterproductive even from the taxman’s point of view; that, in other words, reducing taxes will stimulate the “supply-side” of the economy — the producers of wealth, who are in turn the primary sources of government revenue. Emancipate the economic activities of the productive class from the fetters of taxation, and you will enrich the federal treasury. But these economists, also often being of a libertarian cast of mind, are less eager to acknowledge that the supply-side of vulgar oligarchs and complacent aristocrats in the entertainment business benefits from this mechanism as well. Their alluring filth generates its own demand.

One might argue that the rise of the modern mass entertainment industry presaged the defeat real privacy. The rapacity of exposure of the former crushed the flourishing of the latter. The entertainment industry feasts on temptation and the exploitation of the feeble and vulnerable. I once argued my charges against American Beauty with some colleagues, and was told by one that the “moral” of the film was not, as I contended, that bourgeois life is soulless, but that “things that appear fine on the outside are probably a mess underneath.” In other words, there is value in annihilating privacy, so that we may discover once again that man is a strange and sinful creature. The idea might be more palatable, or least more fruitfully provocative, if it did not stand alongside this incessant chirping about privacy. The filmmakers and their ilk seem to say that bourgeois respectability is contemptible because it is a dreary façade for human frailty and ugliness. But is not the façade also, whatever lies behind it (and I certainly reject the hypothesis of the film that behind it, always and everywhere lies perversion and alienation), a kind of organic fortress of privacy? Do families not present a front of respectability in order to deflect prying eyes? to maintain their sanity and integrity in an honorless world of exploitation? And if the façade or the front is contemptible, what does that imply about the principle of privacy?

Now I admit that I rest quite a lot of polemical weight, as it were, on inferences drawn from a single film. But note the reception in Hollywood that American Beauty received. Note the magnification of its effect on subsequent Academy Award aspirants, and on subsequent Hollywood fare in general. We hardly go a month without a new film attacking bourgeois America. I recall hearing it reported that this particular film made considerably more money after it was awarded the Academy Award for Best Picture in 1999. Perhaps this is more common than I realize. In any case it suggests to me that hardly anyone cared about this sorry specimen until Hollywood lent its weight to promoting it. And let us not underestimate the potential of the most profitable industry in the most prosperous nation in history to promote what it likes.

What remains an open question at the moment is whether privacy will survive the privatists.

Comments (59)

Great piece, Paul. (I think it appeared on the old EM as well, and it was good there, too. Now it can be archived more long-term.)

I recall a sort of joke that says that in America, fornication in private is protected by the right to privacy, and sex in public is protected by the right to free speech. In other words, what this is really about is a worship of sex, and the rest of the legal kerfuffle is just ad hoc rationalization for the proposition that sex anytime, anywhere, with anyone, must be permitted. In line with this, I read a news story a few years ago that homosexual activists in Britain were arguing that the term "private" must be construed to include public parks after dark, so that trysts carried on there could not be stopped or broken up by police. The interests of people who might want to jog or walk their dogs in the park after nightfall without being confronted as they rouded a bush with couples in flagrante were apparently considered to have no weight at all.

Your colleagues' statements about the movie are obviously also rationalizations. I'm not saying they don't believe them. In this case, the rationalization is for the combination of a worship of sex and an almost pathological hatred for decent folk, which results in the unhealthy desire to convince us that no one is decent and that all the bourgeois people one hates are really perverts underneath and hypocrites without. In a sense, it is a form of what perhaps should be called "hate speech," sick fantasies about people one hates as a form of insult. The idea that this sort of thing must have artistic merit because we can come up with a truism and associate it with the unpleasantness ("Things are not all as they seem; skim milk masquerades as cream") is nothing but childish silliness.

I am fairly certain it is the case that Academy Award winners (esp. Best Picture) make considerably more money after the award. There are a few exceptions, but even in those cases it is sometimes re-released to theater chains before being moved to DVD.

I went to see American Beauty before it got its award, and although it had two plot points I thought were designed to go over the top, the acting and dialogue were amazingly good. One of my favorite movie quotes of all time came from it; "Never underestimate the power of denial."

As for the moral lesson of the film, it seemed to me that it was supposed to be a warning about the consequences of being totally repressed and passive. By the time Lester awoke out of the prison he had created for himself, there was this wild abandon to him. His wild personality was just as false as the caged personality, the tragedy was his contempt for what he had allowed himself to become.

As for the moral lesson of the film, Step2, it serves a greater purpose. It's only there to justify the escapade--what Lydia calls ad hoc rationalizations.

The moral lessons serve to wrap a secondary argument, but the secondary argument is what the important fuss is all about. I doubt that One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest was deemed "culturally significant" because Nurse Ratched portrayed a perfectly wicked boss. Secondary arguments make a beautiful film lethal.

Hi KW,

Should we censor all movies that involve war, since that is a secondary argument all pacifists object to? The secondary argument has to be counterbalanced with its justification, in order to get an accurate picture. With rare exceptions, every significant movie is going to deal with controversial subjects in a way that will offend some group or another. Entertainment that avoids all controversy or social commentary is so bland nobody would care to watch it.

After granting that parts of the plot were designed to offend, there is no reason for me to continue to fixate on that and ignore everything else. A movie that shows two deeply troubled families that have the appearance of normalcy, involving taboo desires that lead to a murder, is no more exploitive than any weekly episode of CSI or other crime drama. The only difference is that it tells the story from the murder victim's viewpoint, how his own bad choices inadvertently contributed to his death.

To the extent the movie looks past middle class virtues, it was obviously intended to expose middle class dysfunction and frustration. Nobody doubts that dysfunction exists, just like nobody doubts that virtue exists. Since it presents those dysfunctions as the bitter vindictiveness of shallow people, it cannot fairly be described as a "fantasy of hate speech against decent folks," whatever that means.

Some people do indeed doubt that virtue exists. Others believe it only exists once middle-class respectability has been overthrown and sexual vice emancipated.

...that all the bourgeois people one hates are really perverts underneath and hypocrites without.

Kinsey?

I'm coming at this post a couple of days late, but I hope my comments are still worthy of your attention.

First, I couldn't agree more with you about "American Beauty"...the moral poverty of that film is perfectly represented by the short film the troubled neighbor kid shoots of the floating plastic bag, which we are supposed to believe is somehow beautiful. Ridiculous.

Second, I do have to register a few intellectual objections to your analysis. To wit you say the following:

"It is unlawful, declare the good people of Anytown, USA, for commercial enterprises to depict graphically in public what is appropriately recognized as uniquely private — especially when what is depicted is a uniquely private sin. As a signal of the poverty of our politics, and more unmistakably the poverty of our idea of privacy, many Americans have come to imagine that such legislation is unconstitutional because it infringes on the principle of free speech."

My first objection centers around the notion that it is in fact currently legal to "depict graphically in public what is appropriately recognized as uniquely private." Much depends in this statement on the meaning of "depict graphically in public". I suspect that there is no legal right to go into a truly public space (e.g. City Hall, a public park, or even a billboard on the road) and graphically depict sex acts. Instead, the battle has always been whether or not such depictions can be legally produced in private (i.e. someplace the general public can't watch) and then be sold in private (i.e. a store that sells pornography or a club with nude dancers). I suppose the very existence of such a store could be considered to be "public", but it does not follow that the products on display in that store are really public in any meaningful sense of the word. Many moral and righteous Americans never set foot in such a store.

My second objection to your analysis is to your comment that the "intensely vulgar public square we are confronted with today is simply not the work of democracy — if by democracy we mean the prevailing of popular will." This seems like a common complaint of paleos who find current American life too vulgar. However, I just don't understand how you come to your conclusion given the democratic nature of the market. In other words, if people really didn't like movies like "American Beauty", they don't have to watch them (and in fact, compared to other popular movies released in 1999, "American Beauty" did well, but was not in the top ten...and lots of Americans don't go to the movies or rent that many movies to begin with). I suppose you might have a stronger case if you confine the meaning of "democratic" to the political process, but I'm not sure here you can even say the "popular will" would ban the production and sale of pornography. I do think you are right that our current notion of what constitutes free speech and our legal framework for privacy are NOT products of democracy, but neither is our current notion of the meaning of the Second Amendment or our current notions of what constitutes personal property really "the work of democracy." Instead, they are the work of the complex intersection of democratic laws and our judicial system and while I may agree with you that the Supreme Court gets it wrong from time to time (i.e. "Griswold"), I wonder if some of these decisions were overturned tomorrow, folks would then start passing laws banning the sale of contraceptives or prohibiting the sale of pornography through the internet. I suspect we are past the point of return, at least with respect to "popular will".

Jeff, up until a few years ago, at a mall in the medium-sized city to the north of me, Abercrombie & Fitch had pictures of entirely nude models, very _large_ pictures, on the inside walls of their store. As you know from going to malls, all you have to do is glance from side to side as you walk down the main drag to see into the mall stores and see the pictures on the walls inside. It is truly a public place. I believe that eventually the pictures were taken down (though I'm not sure of this). Yes, it wasn't as far as I know the models engaging in sex acts, but it was certainly something that should have been confined to a private space. And the fact that the store and the mall were privately owned did not make it a private space.

Now, about the results of democracy: I can tell you for sure that there are towns that would toss out the adult bookstores and nude dancing clubs if they were not threatened with so-called First Amendment lawsuits. My own town is one. The city commission has been worrying about what to do about Deja Vu, our local "adult club," for some time. They finally convinced them, in a solution that was highly unsatisfactory, to move to a less otherwise depressed neighborhood. The idea was that the club was doing more harm in pulling down the neighborhood when it was already a poor, minority section of town and that a different part of town could absorb the impact better! For a little while I was worried that it would be yet closer to me. When the commission was pondering all of this, Deja Vu's lawyers were making loud noises about first amendment lawsuits should they not be accommodated by being allowed to operate somewhere in town. So, no, it isn't "past the point of no return."

Another example: The Supreme Court has ruled that depictions of sex with children cannot be illegal unless the government can show that a specific, nameable, real child was abused in the making of the child pornography. In other words, depictions of sex acts with children _must_ be able to be sold if they are, say, paintings or drawings, or if people just over the legal age of consent play children in the movies, or even if the makers are clever enough to photoshop the images or blur them so lawmakers cannot identify the children being thus abused. I might add that the elected representatives of the people had already outlawed child pornography without these ridiculous restrictions, and there is no doubt that they would do so again were it not for this raw act of judicial power.

I suspect we are past the point of return, at least with respect to "popular will".

That may well be an element of the problem, without question. But it is imperative to remember that in the cases of obscenity, contraceptives, and merely decadent film making, the initial market conditions which brought us our present circumstances were politically established, as market conditions always have been, in the broadest sense of that phrase.

Excellent examples, Lydia. I have little doubt that were it not for the aggressive protection the Supreme Court has thrown around pornography on its horrible misreading of the First Amendment, there would be communities across this country that would have no hesitation to crack down rather severely on smut.

My colleagues here who have TV channels can give specific examples if they wish or back up the claim more generally, but it is my strong impression that there is much sexualized content that is coming into their homes that is unwanted. Moreover, if it comes in the form of commercials during sports events, it's very hard to avoid if you want to engage in the otherwise innocent activity of watching sports. Whether it's technically pornography or not--and I'd bet some of it would have been regarded so even forty years ago--it would be ridiculous to say that the piping of such things into people's homes constitutes "doing them in private." And whether or not the companies are making money by doing this, indicating that some large enough group of people either "wants" the material or is influenced by it to purchase (which aren't necessarily the same thing), it would be ridiculous to claim on a case by case basis that "if people don't want to have these images, they don't have to buy them." A guy who is just trying to watch a football game with his son is only in the most tenuous sense "buying" whatever junk is thrown at them during the commercials or half-time show.

Jeff, up until a few years ago, at a mall in the medium-sized city to the north of me, Abercrombie & Fitch had pictures of entirely nude models, very _large_ pictures, on the inside walls of their store. As you know from going to malls, all you have to do is glance from side to side as you walk down the main drag to see into the mall stores and see the pictures on the walls inside. It is truly a public place. I believe that eventually the pictures were taken down (though I'm not sure of this). Yes, it wasn't as far as I know the models engaging in sex acts, but it was certainly something that should have been confined to a private space.


And what should we do about Works from Degas, Michelangelo and the like?

Yeah, photographs of nude models are _just like_ nudes in paintings by the masters. In fact, Abercrombie was just _dying_ to put up a large reproduction of a nude painting by Michelangelo but decided to put up Flossie (or whatever her name was) instead.

And Lolita fantasy web sites are also just like _Romeo and Juliet_, as one of the justices argued in the case to which I alluded above.

:~}

Isn't Abercrombie and Fitch a clothing store? What's the point of nude models?

Lydia and Paul,

I originally objected to the notion that it is currently legal to "depict graphically in public" sex acts. You both go on to discuss less than graphic examples (with the exception of Lydia's example of virtual child pornography, which I will discuss below) including nude models in public ads, strip clubs and adult book stores, and "sexualized" TV ads. While I agree that the Supreme Court has protected pornography under free speech laws, this does not mean that communities cannot "crack down rather severely on smut". Look at what Rudy was able to accomplish in Times Square. In addition, the public still has the power to shame folks into doing the right thing. Here in Chicagoland, I can think of two recent examples of offensive billboards that were taken down after community pressure. In theory, the owners of the ads/billboards could have fought this pressure, but they wisely decided that the content was in fact morally bankrupt and did the right thing. As for TV ads, the solution is still to turn off the TV (you can always go outside and play football instead). So perhaps on second thought, I'm wrong about the point of return, although for prudential reasons I just don't think we'll ever be able to outlaw the manufacture and sale of pornography for use in people's homes without becoming some sort of police state.

Maximos,

An excellent point. I wonder if the U.S. government were to outlaw the manufacture and sale of pornography tomorrow such a law could be enforced effectively (especially given the internet) or would be wise (Prohibition taught us that while drinking went down, so in one sense it was effective, there were enormous costs to this achievement). Likewise with contraceptives.

Marx has been passed by, sex is now the opium of the people, along with gadgetry and visual sedatives known as DVD's

Huxley turns out to be a little closer to the truth than Orwell, at least as far as America and Britain are concerned.

De Tocqueville's reference to "a little rope, so as to console them for their servile state" comes to mind, let the citizenry romp in the playpen, those that deal in power will handle, or mishandle, the important stuff.

Jeff (Singer), You forgot to discuss virtual or pseudo-virtual child pornography. Should this be legal? Is it protected by the first amendment?

I myself don't have TV channels, but I've read enough descriptions of what's on TV these days to know that there is plenty of material _I_ would regard as "graphic," including simulated sexual intercourse. CNS News had for reasons known to itself an editorial on some show about plastic surgeons that apparently included contrastive simulated intercourse between each of the surgeons and his partner/wife. I guess these were supposed to show their different personalities? I've seen on Dawn Eden's blogspot a Planned Parenthood Golden Gate ad telling young people to use condoms that I certainly would call "graphic," though the ostensibly naked body of the young woman's boyfriend remained half-covered by a sheet. Big deal! Do you regard the content of the shows at adult clubs as non-graphic? Or is it just that that is supposed to be private?

I would even say it's getting too near to graphic for there to be screaming headlines in my store checkout lanes saying, "Six sex tricks to drive him wild." I'm always waiting for the day when the child I'm currently teaching to read sounds one of these out while waiting in the lane. And note that I can't "turn that off" if I want to buy food, nor am I at all interested in buying the magazines, nor am I in any way consenting that this be put, quite literally, in my face.

I doubt that Maximos would agree with you that all of this should be legal.

Bill, people have made this point about Abercrombie before. Even weirder is the fact that they evidently have a pornographic catalogue featuring models pretending to be college students cavorting naked in dorms with persons of various sexes. I guess the cast-off clothes thrown over nearby furniture or in the process of being stripped off in the pictures (which I'm grateful not to have seen) are made by Abercrombie?

With regard to the Abercrombie advertisements, the profusion of nude and semi-nude models cavorting in various poses of depravity is explained by the fact that in contemporary consumer capitalism, the regnant dogma of the advertising industry is that corporations essentially sell us ourselves. That is, we come to realize ourselves through our consumption of, and conformity to, the images and lifestyles offered for our delectation; capitalism and liberalism being two sides of the same coin, it is not to be marveled at that liberalism's doctrine of self-creation is now expressed as a selection from a consumerist menu. This realization causes some chagrin among the harder leftists and progressives, who always whine about the ability of the system to co-opt and tame rebellion and revolution; but liberalism was originally the ideological justification for existing capitalist practice, so those lefties really need to read more deeply in history. They could even grasp this through a closer reading of Marx, if anyone is still reading him.

The point is that in a consumerist society, even our personalities and lifestyles have been commodified; Abercrombie is selling a lifestyle image, albeit one that isn't much more than the hookup culture of the university. The Abercrombie shop at the King of Prussia Mall, in my area, displayed for the longest time a poster which looked like gay beefcake - hey! the hookup culture is inclusive!

There may be prudential reasons to eschew an immediate proscription of the production and distribution of smut. My point was that we only have a pornified culture because of acts of judicial usurpation - acts whereby courts inserted themselves into the political process, proving the axiom that all market parameters are/were originally set by politics. Markets as we know them are not natural and pre-political; being social, they are always creatures of positive law. In principle, therefore, there is no reason why positive law cannot be altered, given sufficient will. In fact, China seems to be quite efficient at the suppression of what its ruling class considers illicit websites; I'd not have an objection if this were applied to smut in the US. And anyone producing or simulating child porn should receive a life sentence, even if the imagery is wholly generated by computers. The distinctions drawn by the SCOTUS give casuistry a bad name.

Lydia,

I got distracted by my family before I could address the question of virtual child porn (how's that for a strange juxtiposition!) I certainly disagree that the "distinction drawn by the SCOTUS" are simple casuistry. I think there really is a meaningful distinction between actually abusing children and pretending to abuse children, although I guess I would use the law to punish both differently. I'm reminded of the novel "Lolita" and Norman Podoretz's famous essay arguing for the return of censorship (""Lolita," My Mother-in-Law, the Marquis de Sade, and Larry Flynt").

As for magazines at the check-out counter, I've often thought the same thing (as I flip through to find out what those "six sex tricks" are) and I suspect that as the magazines continue to push ever more lurid stories decent folks will push back and we'll get the magazines put behind the counter (like they do at 7-11 with the nudie mags).

Finally, I agree with Maximos that in some cases companies try to sell a brand and associate their product with a lifestyle. But if people didn't need/want the product in the first place (in the case of Abercrombie we are talking about clothes) these companies wouldn't sell any goods. And using China as a good example of how we can turn the U.S. into a police state seems like a strange argument to make for the defenders of western civilization at WWWTW.

The bare fact that people want clothes, even clothes that happen to look like those proffered by Abercrombie, does not entail that they will be marketed through the medium of pornography. There was no clamour for clothes marketed in this manner; the nature of madern advertising is to create buzz, edge, a sense of transgression or novelty. In this sense, Abercrombie's ad agency, or perhaps even a department internal to the company (or should I say, middleman's office, since they only distribute articles produced in third world countries?), stitched together a cultural, iconic pastiche, and went with it. They created the demand for their imagery. That's what the supply-side revolution was all about.

Moreover, I doubt that anyone here wishes to equate the desired suppression of smut with the erection of a police state. This sounds altogether too much like left-wing agitprop, particularly since the only alternative to suppressing porn electronically is permitting it to proliferate. The argument, then, is that one either accepts the "tides of history", or resists them by creating fascist states. Sorry, not buying that one.

So, how would you use the law to punish explicit images of adults having sex with children, where it could not be shown that actual children were sexually abused in the process, Jeff? (For this thread, let "Jeff" mean "Jeff Singer" and "Maximos" mean "Jeff Martin." If I start saying "Mr. Singer" or something, it's going to sound like I'm trying to be unpleasant, which I'm actually not!)

There are several things to consider here. First and perhaps foremost, the reason Maximos said what he did is that those who passed the law obviously believed that video images and drawings of sex between adults and children are _per se_ evil and deserving of criminal punishment. SCOTUS pretended that this position was indefensible and that the _only_ legitimate objection one could have to such things, leading one to invoke criminal sanctions would be the actual sexual abuse of children. That position is not only a hideous perversion of the first amendment but also morally indefensible, in my opinion.

Second, understand that under the present state of law, actual children _can_ be raped in the making of such videos, so long as the images are doctored so that law enforcement agents cannot identify the children used! SCOTUS required that the accused be allowed an "affirmative defense" that no real children were raped in the making of the images, putting the burden of proof on law enforcement to identify named children being abused in such videos. This makes it easy, given today's computer technology, for the makers of real rape videos with real children to avoid prosecution.

To such absurdities are we led when we care more for the obscene "free speech rights" of pedophiles than for the decency of society or the safety of children.

But suppose we waive that and imagine a graphically painted set of images of adults abusing children, where everyone acknowledges that it is painted. Are you saying this should be legal? Is it protected by the first amendment?

For the record, I would not mind at all if _Lolita_ had continued to be censored. (It was for a while, yes?) I'm sorry I ever read the thing. But it's worth mentioning that a) there were no pictures, and pictures are more powerful than words, and b) the descriptions of sexual intercourse in the book were less graphic than they might have been and much less than those in many a woman's romance novel. They were more in the way of allusions to the intercourse as taking place or having taken place. The murder scene at the end was more graphically described than the sex scenes. If I'm misremembering, you can just tell me that without going into detail! But again, I'm not arguing against censorship of it. Why should it be such a big deal to censor verbal pornography? I can't imagine the founding fathers getting up in arms about it!

Lydia and Maximos,

Perhaps I didn't make myself clear. First, I have no problem with censorship of pornography, including novels with explicit sex, although I do think there are prudential considerations concerning how such laws would be enforced given the internet and technology in general. Lydia asks how I would use the law to punish criminals who created pretend child pornography. My answer is that I would pass a law making the production and distribution of such material illegal. The punishment for violating the law would be serious, but unlike Maximos, I would not make it equivalent to the actual rape of children because the crimes are different in nature and degree. I agree with Lydia that SCOTUS has errored in its interpretation of the First Amendment, although I don't think she is right about their reasoning in the particular case involving virtual child porn (I'm going to look up the decision and check this out).

Second, Maximos says "I doubt that anyone here wishes to equate the desired suppression of smut with the erection of a police state." Fine. But Maximos was the one who thought we could learn from China on how to suppress illicit websites. I would argue that to emulate the Chinese in their "suppression" techniques, again given the constraints imposed by technology, would entail massive police powers and responsibilities for the state that prudential considerations (not to mention worries about abusive state power) should rule out.

Finally, I don't want to start another long argument with Maximos about economics, but his understanding of the moral agency of consumers is strange to say the least. In my world, companies do not create demand for their products in any real sense except for the common capitalist notion that they try and figure out what people want and provide it to these same people. Maximos says that modern advertising is all about "buzz, edge, a sense of transgression or novelty." This may be true for a certain subset of consumer goods and services, but it is by no means true of all advertising and anyway, why do advertisers use "buzz, edge, etc." in the first place? Because certain people, when considering certain goods and services, respond to this advertising favorably. When people stop responding, the ads will stop. The supply-side revolution is about taxes on capital formation and monetary policy, not about companies creating "demand for their imagery". The phrase is so absurd on its face that I can only think of a nefarious villain in some large robot factory wringing his hands as he programs all the robots to go out and buy his "images" (paintings? photographs?) produced at the factory next door. Now that would be creating demand!

P.S. Thanks as always for your thoughtful responses to my comments. I really enjoy the conversation.

In my world, companies do not create demand for their products in any real sense except for the common capitalist notion that they try and figure out what people want and provide it to these same people.

This would be all well and good if no new products, or innovations in the production and marketing of existing products, were ever conceived. In my world, no one desired a Buick before Buicks were created; the development, introduction, and marketing of Buicks created the demand for them. Something analogous holds true with respect to the marketing of existing, ubiquitous, and essential goods, such as articles of clothing: no consumers had a pre-existing desire for cheaply made, overpriced clothes, associated with a sort of beachgoing, college-age hookup culture, marketed via pornography; rather, people wanted clothes, and may have had any number of reasons for wanting clothes of a particular type, and had any number of cultural associations for them. Abercrombie's advertising execs created the brand image by adding to the clothing a series of images, ideas, and memes, thereby creating demand (assuming that they would be successful, which they were to a certain extent) for a branded product with

certain cultural connotations that had not existed previously.

The supply-side revolution is about taxes on capital formation and monetary policy, not about companies creating "demand for their imagery".

In the first instance, no socio-political trend or movement ever bears so neat and univocal a meaning as this; meanings are always clusters of associated concepts, impulses, interests, and analogies which resonate - and that not always with respect to some one aspect. The supply-side revolution was not merely a policy-wonk shift to a belief in the imperative of loosened restraints upon capital formation and accumulation; it was a broader philosophical shift concerning the relationship of deliberative politics and representative institutions to the Market (some pompous business and marketing books have capitalized the noun, lending it a sort of divine status), coupled with an appreciation of the role of the entrepreneur in fostering innovation, creativity (even, especially, the destructive type), and growth. His role is the creation of new markets, new wants, new desires, to supplant markets which have matured or declined, thus keeping the perpetual motion machine of consumptive prosperity running; his role, that is, is to supply new products, services, lifestyles, etc. to the consuming masses. This is as much a part of supply-side orthodoxy as the Laffer curve.

The phrase is so absurd on its face that I can only think of a nefarious villain in some large robot factory wringing his hands as he programs all the robots to go out and buy his "images" (paintings? photographs?) produced at the factory next door.

That reaction is part of the problem of communication. The claim is not that consumers are programmed, but rather that agency obtains on both ends of the spectrum of supply and demand; there is an interplay between them, from which it follows that it is somewhat foolish to argue as though businesses were merely responding passively to pre-existing, already-formed wants on the part of consumers. Another implication is that liberalism, right and left, errs when it suggests that the only moral restraints in the system ought to be applied at the level of the individual consumer. Where there is agency, there is responsibility, and thus, liability to judgment, but leave that to the side for the present. In sum, you ought to read what advertising executives and professors actually write; or, better yet, since the crude instrumentalism and utilitarianism of advertising gurus is soul-deadening, just read something like Benjamin Barber's Consumed, which quotes them, and places their twaddle in an analytical context.

Finally, with regard to the China question: the Chinese filtering of websites and material is reasonably effective; certainly, those miffed (rightly, in this instance) at the acquiescence of American corporations in this regime have reasons for concern. As for the matter of the attendant police powers and the potential for their abuse, it is inarguable that an identical set of risks obtains in the case of the proscription of the dissemination of printed obscenity. The now-defunct prohibitions on that sort of thing never led to a police state, and there is no logical reason to believe that filtering and blocking electronic obscenity will, of necessity, issue in that result. In the end, the argument that it will, or must, is merely a derivation of the standard argument that morals legislation cannot be enforced absent injustice (and therefore, that its enaction is an injustice), and that "the horse has already bolted the barn on X". I don't find this persuasive, for the same reasons I fail to find liberal political doctrine persuasive.

Jeff, I appreciate the clarification. I actually thought perhaps you were saying all this stuff had to be legal. Now we just have to get you to agree that even some of the less really graphic stuff that doesn't involve children could legitimately be made illegal, too. :-)

Oh, and I don't know what Rudy did w.r.t. Times Square, strictly legally speaking, but I sure wish somebody would explain to my city commission how to get rid of Deja Vu without being subject to a lawsuit more expensive than we can sustain, because evidently they think they can't just kick them out. So local areas' abilities to control smut do seem to be much curtailed by previous litigation in this area.

As for creating demand, here's just part of my extremely crude take on it: I don't really care tuppence if some bread company puts out pictures that make my mouth water for their bread. Same for any totally innocent product, especially if it isn't just a stupid waste of money but is some "normal" thing like good food. But I'm willing to admit, of course, that advertising _does_ try to make people's mouths water for things they weren't watering for before. In a general sense, everybody needs food. But I don't always need this specific type of food at this specific time. The advertising tries to get me to want it. I don't resent this, because it's a totally legitimate type of thing to sell, unless, of course, the nature of the advertising is disgusting or obscene, or even encourages bad behavior. As the Abercrombie example shows, there are morally bad ways to market legitimate types of merchandise.

Here's a strange example: I was sort of shocked at the ad for Red Bull energy drink I saw lately. It said something like "Turn ZZZ's into A's" and "For a clear mind on a clear, open road." So this was encouraging kids to forgo their natural sleep and depend on a chemical substance to get good grades and encouraging sleep-deprived people to continue to drive, thus endangering themselves and others, while depending on mental stimulants to get them through! Not good.

So, in sum, I'm not going to deny that companies do create demand. It's just that I don't resent that globally, as I sometimes think Maximos does. It depends entirely to my mind on _what_ the product is and _how_ the demand is created.

Maximos,

Regarding morals legislation, I certainly don't think it is wrong or impossible to enforce such legislation (we do it all the time with regarding to prostitution and illegal drugs, using just two examples); I simply disagree with the premise that the U.S. government could easily and at little cost to our freedoms shut down pornography on the internet. In China it was much easier for the government to do so given their population's limited access to computers and technology and given their much more rigorous constraints on all sorts of creative activity over the past 40 plus years. Back in the day before the SCOTUS made their silly pornography rulings, we didn't have the home electronic revolution (digital video and computers) and we didn't have the internet, so it was easier to crack down on the manufacture and distribution of pornography.

As for your understanding of supply-side economics and how a capitalist economy works, I guess I will be charitable and just say that we will agree to disagree on the meaning of both concepts. I was thinking of getting Barber's book, and then I read Will Wilkison's comments at this forum (they start on page 22) and I was convinced it would be a waste of my time: http://www3.brookings.edu/comm/events/20070517.pdf

All I'll say is that of course entrepreneurs create new products that subsequently create new markets (the car is a good example). But this is different from "creating demand". In the case of cars, the demand is the timeless need of human beings to get from point A to point B; Ford and the gang figured out a better way to do this than the horse and buggy and I'm happy he put all those buggy whip makers out of business because I like using my car. That is how the market works and how/why entrepreneurs take risks to develop a new product that meets what they hope will be a consumer need. This was true before supply-side economics and it will be true after supply-side economics.

I simply disagree with the premise that the U.S. government could easily and at little cost to our freedoms shut down pornography on the internet.

The Internet didn't even exist a few decades ago. Completely eliminating it would result in absolutely zero cost to our freedoms, where "our freedoms" are understood as whatever legal rights we happened to possess in, say, 1970. Saying this is like saying that introducing traffic laws in 1920 would result in great cost to our freedoms: it is just obvious nonsense.

I have no problem whatsoever taking a hard line on porn: publish it, go to jail. Possess it, go to jail. Convince me that you've reformed and I'll let you out. Otherwise, stay there and rot. Few things are more destructive of Western civilization than porn.

Most people, though, are pretty happy I am not king.

It depends entirely to my mind on _what_ the product is and _how_ the demand is created.

This is probably the relevant distinction with regard to public policy, excepting obviously egregious cases; I'm not so certain that this is the pertinent distinction morally. Just as it is possible for me to injure the good of a friend by either occasioning or encouraging his use of licit things to excess, beyond their right measure, so also can the advertising of licit things, if unduly suggestive and subrational, stimulate an excess of desire and the subordination of our rational nature to the lower nature in us.

As for your understanding of supply-side economics and how a capitalist economy works, I guess I will be charitable and just say that we will agree to disagree on the meaning of both concepts.

We're talking past one another, as we've done so often in the past. The "timeless need of people to get from point A to point B" does not entail any specific social construction of "transportation". In other words, the natural fact of human existence that people will need to move about does not entail either any specific mode of transportation, or that such needs will be met through the medium of the capitalist system. This is so obvious as a matter of history that one ought not have to argue for it. Therefore, the introduction of a new mode of fulfilling that timeless need just is the creation of a demand for itself, because the need itself does not entail the function of the entrepreneur.

All I'll say is that of course entrepreneurs create new products that subsequently create new markets (the car is a good example). But this is different from "creating demand".

Actually, it is precisely the same thing; there cannot be demand, arising from a general and universal human need or desire, for something historically and culturally specific, where the former entails the latter. This is analogous to the natural law, which is general, and requires cultural instantiation to have form and substance.
My need is to get to work, not to drive a 2006 Volkswagen; my need is to wear clothing, not to wear jeans and a polo shirt. The invention of the latter items may fulfill the former requirements, but the invention of those specific, hitherto non-existent things creates demand for those specific things. This is tautologous.

then I read Will Wilkison's comments at this forum

With all due charity, though not for Mr. Wilkinson, his remarks are jejeune, in my judgment. His critique presupposes the absence of any knowable human telos, any human essentiality which is at once a fact and an obligation, and invokes such things as Say's Law, which, like all of the laws of classical political economy, presupposes ideal conditions which are nowhere realized, and nowhere capable of realization. His reduction of human well being to empirical, utilitarian quantities is, frankly, embarrassing, and his myth of the liberation of the individual from any "thick" identity so obvious an historical novelty (it is really only the story of the modern West, though not even this in totality) that one can only stand stupefied before its invocation. Do tell - something which human beings have longed for - communal identity - at least from the dawn of history, and have normally instantiated, and which they still desire, such that the Wilkinsons of the world continue to denounce them for their tribal atavisms (in other words, "false consciousness"), is just a "story" that we ought to discard. Most importantly, it elides the differences between the trivial liberty of consumer choice and the greater liberty of rational deliberation and self-governance, and ignores altogether the greatest liberty, that of freedom from the disorders of the lower nature. And why wouldn't it? The modern order is predicated upon these latter disorders, as liberals and political economists have been telling us from the beginning, with their myths of the transmutation of private vices into the "public virtues" of prosperity. (The very fact that the conception of virtue presupposed by "private vices" is the classical, Christian one, while the "virtues" generated are those of modern liberals and utilitarians, for whom the classical virtues are epistemologically and metaphysically ungrounded, is the clue that we are dealing with myth, and not philosophy. The equivocation, which arises from the rhetoric of this literature, means, essentially, that the "private vices" are not vices at all, but goods, because they lead to good ends. Greed is good; the allusion to classical virtue is merely the exoteric gloss on the teaching that vice is not vice because it makes us rich.)

Libertarianism is applied autism, one of those childish things that I believe men should put away upon attaining maturity. That Wilkinson has not done this detracts from the authority of his critique, in my judgment.

Zippy,

You say "completely eliminating porn" would result in absolutely zero cost to our freedoms. Have you given a single thought to how the government would go about "completely eliminating porn"? Assume for a moment you become king and take a hard line on porn. How will you enforce your hard line? Will you authorize the government to search every home computer in America? Will you hunt down (via cyberspace) every website that might have porn and close them down? Will you search every home for a video camera and make sure the owners have never filmed themselves having sex? What about pornographic novels? Should we confiscate everyone's copy of "Lolita"? What happens when your citizens decide they don't like your "hard line" and decide to violate your edict through massive civil disobedience? And will the laws apply equally to all, so for example, a hard working married couple with five kids (just for fun let's assume the Mom home schools the kids) that like to watch the occassional porn to spice up their sex life, you'll throw them into jail? And how does one prove they have "reformed"?

I also wonder what you would include in your list of the "few things" that are more destructive of Western civilization than porn? Indeed, if the punishment for possessing porn is jail, I wonder what you think the punishment for possessing a mild illegal drug like pot should be?

Jeff, you've already said that it's okay with you to make pornography, including sexually explicit novels, illegal:

"First, I have no problem with censorship of pornography, including novels with explicit sex, although I do think there are prudential considerations concerning how such laws would be enforced given the internet and technology in general. Lydia asks how I would use the law to punish criminals who created pretend child pornography. My answer is that I would pass a law making the production and distribution of such material illegal."

And child porn _is_ distributed on the internet, so you can't avoid questions of enforcement on the internet if you're willing to go this far.

What's so bad about the idea of hunting down web sites via cyberspace that have porn and shutting them down? Assuming that they have some sort of physical nexus in your legal jurisdiction, this doesn't sound impossible at all. Doesn't sound all that invasive, either, except of course to people who are running porn web sites. In fact, a very good place to start.

Lydia,

I agree with you 100%, but your proposal is very different than making the posession of porn illegal (although it would require a lot of resources...narrowing down your search for just child pornography makes a big difference). In the one case you are hunting down commercial websites that sell pornography, in the other you would potentially have to check every home computer (for stored files), every home (for printed materials and books), and every website that might have pornographic pictures (e.g. file sharing websites). The Lydia enforcement strategy I think would be doable and would contribute to the decline of a significant amount of pornography, something we all can agree is a good thing.

Maximos,

You are right, when it comes to the economy we continue to talk past one another and I'm afraid we seem destined to never convince each other of our respective viewpoints. I concede your tautology regarding demand for specific products. But I thought Barber and you were using the phrase "creating demand" in the sense that producers of goods/services were creating goods/services people don't need (in the sense that you define "need") and wouldn't dream of needing if it weren't for these crazy/depraved/evil producers of goods and services. Therefore, we need to stop them from producing these goods so people would stop buying stuff they don't need. It is this notion that I object to and maintain that the function of the entrepreneur is simply to fulfill people's needs and this was as true in Adam Smith's day as it is in ours.

I suppose your answer is that Adam Smith and gang screwed everything up and we need to let the state provide for all our needs (e.g. they could build rail systems to get us from point A to B) or we need to...well, I guess like Will I'm left scratching my head wondering how you do plan to set up society? I suppose you would prefer some sort of socialist state that might provide certain goods and services directly and let the private sector traffic in the other stuff, with specific instructions on what this other stuff can and cannot include?

You say "completely eliminating porn" would result in absolutely zero cost to our freedoms.

Re-read my comment. I said that completely eliminating the Internet would result in zero cost to our freedoms; and I defined what I meant by our freedoms. The notion that cracking down on Internet porn (including using technological enforcement mechanisms like the Chinese do) would represent any cost whatsoever to our freedoms represents a redefinition of what our freedoms entail. The Internet didn't even exist a few decades ago, and the claim is akin to asserting after the invention of the automobile that traffic enforcement is simply out of the question because it represents a major cost to our freedoms. Anyone who thinks that way about the regulation of brand spanking new technologies which, when left unregulated, represent a threat to civilization itself; people who think that way can, in Zippy's kingdom, go straight to Hell.

What happens when your citizens decide they don't like your "hard line" and decide to violate your edict through massive civil disobedience?

They probably send me to the guillotine. I expect that most scenarios where I become king end up with me losing my head, which is merely one of the lesser reasons why I would never take the job.

And will the laws apply equally to all, so for example, a hard working married couple with five kids (just for fun let's assume the Mom home schools the kids) that like to watch the occassional porn to spice up their sex life, you'll throw them into jail?

Sure.

And how does one prove they have "reformed"?

Coming up with a way to convince me of that is their problem, not mine.

I also wonder what you would include in your list of the "few things" that are more destructive of Western civilization than porn? Indeed, if the punishment for possessing porn is jail, I wonder what you think the punishment for possessing a mild illegal drug like pot should be?

In my understanding of things pot smoking is probably far less of a problem for Western civilization than porn. Though that doesn't mean that I would legalize pot. But you might well find the heads of pornographers resting on pikes about my castle, their headless corpses floating in the moat; whereas you would be unlikely to find the remains of pot-growers so arranged.

Zippy,

This may be one of the most amusing sentences I have ever read on a blog, EVER:

"But you might well find the heads of pornographers resting on pikes about my castle, their headless corpses floating in the moat; whereas you would be unlikely to find the remains of pot-growers so arranged."

Well done.

Jeff, I asked, because you listed "hunt down, via cyberspace, every web site that might have pornography..." and it was in a list that you seemed to be disapproving of.

I wouldn't confine it to child pornography. A guy I knew in college, nice guy (then), became addicted to torture pornography on the internet, and his wife has now left him with their children. (Naturally, I found this out from her.) The people who distribute that stuff should have stiff penalties, even if they are not portraying children.

I'm not sure that I see where laws against possession of X necessitate searching every home in case X is there. Even where we have laws that, in my view, are unconstitutional because contrary to the 2nd Amendment, police have to have probable cause and get a warrant to search for an unlicensed gun in somebody's house. They aren't legally permitted to do house to house searches. Meth is illegal, but that doesn't make it legal to search every house "just in case" there's a meth lab there. In fact, they usually find out when the house starts burning down because the meth lab caught fire.

So the "we must search every house" scenarios are just false, anyway. Prudentially, I would tend to favor laws against distribution of pornography rather than laws against possession, though even there the distribution might be done out of a private home. But you could come to have reason to believe that this was going on. In the case of drugs, frequent traffic at odd hours can be a tip-off. I don't know how much evidence is required for a warrant, but there is certainly due process, and not everyone has police descending upon them, nor could they without violation of the 4th amendment.

So I would probably go farther than you on this one anyway and have fewer worries about a police state.

But I thought Barber and you were using the phrase "creating demand" in the sense that producers of goods/services were creating goods/services people don't need (in the sense that you define "need") and wouldn't dream of needing if it weren't for these crazy/depraved/evil producers of goods and services.

I was concerned with establishing, formally, that demand is created; this is the precondition for any arguments about Barber's more focused thesis, which is that we purchase, by our own volition and at the behest of crude advertising, many things which we do not need. It is incontrovertible that any teleological conception of human nature must include a conception of how we are diverted from the realization of our highest ends; in the case of the Christian and classical conception of our nature - the conception at the heart of our civilization - this diversion of human nature is understood to occur, in part, through the fragmentation of the personality which is caused by the inordinate attachment to finite things. The only means by which some version of Barber's argument can be evaded is the assertion of some nonteleological conception of human nature, coupled with a robust conception of man as a utility-maximizer, which would entail the non-superfluity of all consumption decisions: this is just the way we are, so whatever we purchase is simply necessary as the fulfillment of a preference. That, as a Christian and a conservative, I should do this instead of admitting that we can do things to excess, buy things we don't need, or have our passions stoked by the manipulation of images, is frankly baffling.

I suppose your answer is that Adam Smith and gang screwed everything up and we need to let the state provide for all our needs...

This is still more baffling, as there is a begged question or excluded middle in here somewhere. Who said anything about socialism, and why is it that when anyone criticizes some aspect of capitalism, the response is to invoke the specter of socialism? This is not even Pavlovian any longer; it is almost mechanical and insentient. To the contrary, the idea here is that market processes cannot be equated with rational deliberation, either as to the good of the individual or family, or the community as a whole, that there is no rational reason why, given the very nature of markets as cultural expressions of a 'natural law' of trucking and bartering, why their scope and limits cannot be debated. That isn't socialism or any other form of public ownership; that's self-government! In other words, if the people of a community - whether local, state, national - wish to prohibit advertising directed at children, it is licit for them to do so, even though they may trample upon market imperatives in so doing. And so on.

I suppose you would prefer some sort of socialist state that might provide certain goods and services directly and let the private sector traffic in the other stuff, with specific instructions on what this other stuff can and cannot include?

What this has to do with socialism is still mystifying. All governments do this latter thing, setting limits on what can be produced and distributed and how, except for the mythical ones in the fevered minds of libertarians. Eg., we proscribe certain narcotics, we here debate proscribing porn, and so on. Self-government is more consequential, and of greater value, than consumer choice: because the latter is more passive, and less rational. (And this is really saying something, given the state of democratic deliberation these days.)

Maximos,

Since you've stuck with me this long, I want to thank you again for your thoughtful arguments and re-reading them, I think I have a better appreciation for your position. I am in basic agreement with the classical and Christian (I prefer the term Biblical, so we can include the smart Jews in our story) notion of a "teleological conception of human nature" and the idea that "we are diverted from the realization of our highest ends". In fact, I'd go further and argue that Genesis maybe the best guide to human nature and how to lead a good life that has ever been written.

What I don't understand is how we get from the idea that we must strive to lead a good life to the idea that capitalism fails to help us lead this good life. Yes, I'm in total agreement that it is both proper, legal, and good to allow "the people of a community" who "wish to prohibit advertising directed at children" to do so, "even though they may trample upon market imperatives in so doing." My issue with this idea (and Barber's book) is that I simply don't think it is a good idea because I don't think there is anything wrong with advertising directed at children, and in fact, think that in most cases it is positively a good thing. In my mind, the less state/community paternalism the better and there is something distasteful about letting the state/community taking more and more responsibility away from me as an individual and parent to make the choices I think are appropriate for my family. It seems to me part and parcel with the need of the left to tell us what is and is not acceptable speech, related to the terrible sin of offending someone, somewhere (BTW...the Derb's piece for "American Conservative" on the subject of poltical correctness was great if you haven't had a chance yet to read it). In the end, I agree there will always be limits...I guess you and I just disagree with what those limits should be.

If you could put all the restraints you can think of on capitalism it just seems to me self-evident that people will continue to be greedy, they will continue to "buy junk they don't need" (using the human telos as our guide to need), they will continue to mismanage their household finances, they will continue to eat too much, etc. They did all these things before capitalism, just as they did these things in the Soviet Union and Red China. All of these things are part of our fallen nature.

Finally, I'm sorry to raise the spectre of socialism...it was your earlier comment about capitalism and liberalism being two sides of the same coin and this comment that suggested to me you were hostile to Adam Smith/capitalism:

"liberals and political economists have been telling us from the beginning, with their myths of the transmutation of private vices into the "public virtues" of prosperity."

So when I read 'hostile to capitalism', I think 'socialism'...but it is now clear that you simply want to tame the wild beast of capitalism, not get rid of it. Oh, and just to defend one of my heroes, Adam Smith, he never once said that "greed was good" or that "private vices" could be turned into economic prosperity. His contention was that self-interest, left (mostly) to its own devices and assuming the existence of private property, would lead to economic prosperity. Self-interest is not necessarily greed, although given our fallen nature, we must always be on guard.

It's late, so I'll attempt to achieve brevity.

My issue with this idea (and Barber's book) is that I simply don't think it is a good idea because I don't think there is anything wrong with advertising directed at children, and in fact, think that in most cases it is positively a good thing.

Why

would advertising directed at children - people who, almost by definition, are not yet fully formed in their rationality, capacity to practice and cultivate virtue, or even the ability to apprehend the import of such things as virtue, reason, discipline, and self-denial, be "positively a good thing"? This is quite possibly the most baffling thing I have ever read. It is precisely to state that it is good to circumvent the development of the higher faculties of the child, faculties which will develop only by exercise in the mastery of the lower faculties, by appealing directly to the appetitive nature of the child. This is not the same as to argue that there is some danger involved in allowing the community to proscribe advertising targeted at tots (Barber does discuss exactly this sort of thing, by the way.), such that, for prudential reasons, we ought not enact such bans. I don't consider such prudential considerations weighty, inasmuch as the inherent threat to liberty is substantially beneath any that might be alleged to be inherent in the prohibition of pornography, and I find no real threat in that.

Neither do I perceive any analogy with the political correctness (or cultural-Marxist-speak) of the left: the left imposes its norms of speech towards the end of securing the emancipation of certain individuals and groups from the norms of traditional Western society, while any hypothetical ban on the commercial targeting of children would actually defend tradition, if only in a small way. The two notions work at cross purposes.

If you could put all the restraints you can think of on capitalism it just seems to me self-evident that people will continue to be greedy, they will continue to "buy junk they don't need"...

Well, of course. This is the fundamental difficulty confronting all religious doctrines and all acts of legislation, all moral codes and systems of ethics: people, in their perversity, will disobey them. But it does not follow that the attempt is illegitimate; the attempt is both necessary and revelatory of our nature, as much a part of that nature as transgression; more so, in reality, since fallenness is privative. What we are debating, as you state, is the nature and location of the limits.

Part of the problem may be that in practice there really is no such thing as rarified capitalism, rarified socialism, ... or rarified anything at all in matters economic. It is always a matter of what particular rules, metaphysical objects, and other authoritative concepts are going to obtain when it comes to property, labor, and commerce in both. These are always tied to and dependent upon substantive systems of moral values - those which deny that they are, are simply asserting the moral value of denying authority to moral values: itself a moral assertion with particular substantive moral consequences.

There is no such thing as value-neutrality or freedom in the abstract when it comes to economics, because economics is always about what one person acting in his own capacity can make another person do or not do; authority resting on both formal and non-formal sociopolitical and moral foundations. Both capitalism and socialism seem to be modern utopian idealizations resting on a kind of denial of reality: on the notion that some kind of abstract economic freedom independent of a value-laden metaphysic and rule-set is not only a coherent concept but represents a desirable actual state of affairs. I don't know how anyone can operate within the trenches of actual intense economic activity while simultaneously maintaining this denial of reality; but while I am sure that many merely pretend to out of cynical self-interest, I am just as sure than many others are actual true believers.

There is no such thing as capitalism or socialism. There are only different ways of writing, arranging and enforcing the rules, some metaphysically incompatible with others. And most - possibly all - of the modern ways of thinking about these things are internally incoherent.

On one specific point I share Maximos' bafflement at the notion that advertising consumer products to children is some sort of positive good.

Typical dialogue in the Singer household (I have two little girls, ages 4 and 7) after my kids see a commercial:

Kids: "Dad, can we get that Barbie?"

Dad: "Well, you already have 25 Barbies, why do you need another?"

Kids: "This fairy princess Barbie sings a song and it is really, really pretty."

Dad: "Well, maybe you can put it on your Christmas list or ask for it for your birthday...we'll see then if you still want it."

With this simple exchange with my girls I'm teaching them "reason, discipline, and self-denial". It is almost as if you (and presumably Barber) assume that kids, who I agree are not "are not yet fully formed in their rationality, capacity to practice and cultivate virtue" live independently of their parents. Parents and peers (and to a much lesser extent teachers) teach their children how to reason and cultivate virtue, discipline, and self-denial. I like living in a world with kids commercials as they afford me both the opportunity to quickly teach my kids these good habits of the mind and at the same time, if I choose to do so, I can buy singing fairy princess Barbies! The capitalist world is filled with all sorts of delights that enrich our lives in all sorts of ways.

As for this comment: "the left imposes its norms of speech towards the end of securing the emancipation of certain individuals and groups from the norms of traditional Western society", as the Derb's article discussed, this is far from the whole story. Instead, the West began to develop norms of speech because we believe in concepts like equality before the law, fair play, good manners, etc. Asking white employees not to call their black co-workers names like "nig***" or "boy" suggests that these black co-workers have dignity, deserve to work alongside white folk at a company, and have good reason to get offended when called names that recall their servile past. The problem between right and left when it comes to speech codes is that we on the right believe it is O.K. to "give offense" when rationally discussing morals or standards of behavior. So if I say I think homosexual behavior is disorder or wrong, that is not hate speech. However, since we also want to treat homosexuals as human beings with dignity and deserving of equality before the law, preaching against homosexual sex at work should be done within prudential limits.

With this simple exchange with my girls I'm teaching them "reason, discipline, and self-denial".

Well, yes. And our pornographic culture presents plenty of similar opportunities for fathers and sons. And military invasions present the opportunity to develop the virtues of bravery and valor, etc etc.

The presence of evil always represents an opportunity to develop virtue. It is viewing it - the evil itself - as a positive good that I find puzzling.

As for this comment: "the left imposes its norms of speech towards the end of securing the emancipation of certain individuals and groups from the norms of traditional Western society", as the Derb's article discussed, this is far from the whole story.

No, it is not the whole story; neither is Derb's account. The full story would be something like the following: The cultural-Marxist left utilized a moment of changing cultural mores, which resulted in changes in manners and speech, as the thin edge of a wedge used to delegitimate an entire culture and civilization. Were this merely a matter of the reformation of manners, we would never hear such nonsense as that only whites can be guilty of racism, since the very concept of racism presupposes relations of power, and only whites possess power. Neither would we have affirmative action, quotas, and the whole lot of diversity measures inflicted upon our society.

It is my considered opinion that the best means of inculcating reason, self-discipline, and self-denial is the tradition of the Church, with its rhythms of feasting and fasting, the almsgiving and ascetical practices, and the sacramental life. To attempt to inculcate the virtues by means of the very things that must be controlled for the virtues to flourish seems to me to concede too much of the game at the outset; it would be akin to me taking the recovering alcoholic from the office to a bar, telling him to have just one.

I'm ambivalent on "advertising targeted at children." For one thing, the definition has got to be pretty vague. It's obviously "targeting" children to make big balls in a bin in the store brightly colored and pretty, but this doesn't bother me at all. I don't have television channels, but I remember plenty of innocent commercials for cereal (sorry to be always harping on food) way back in the 70's that I think probably were "targeted at children" but not therefore bad in the least. On the other hand, I find it highly distasteful to think of my kids being deliberately influenced to whine and nag at me for toys. They generally never do this (really!), and I'm glad not to have anything that moves them to do so.

But here I would definitely say that prudentially we shouldn't have laws against advertising targeted at children simply as such. Pornography, sure, because that's a more serious matter. But trying to outlaw Barbie commercials seems to me going over the top. It isn't worth it. I'd rather not have TV stations. You notice that I don't say this about sexualized content on TV. There I feel that more censorship is in order. I guess it's just a matter of what one thinks sufficiently important.

So does that put me "in between" the two sides on this one? Maybe. I think Jeff is overly easy-going about his girls' having zillions of Barbies and bugging him for more. Barbie herself is sort of...distasteful, to my mind, and twenty-five of them are an awful lot. And, again, it doesn't seem to me such a good thing for kids, influenced by commercials, to be bugging parents for kitschy toys. But I wouldn't outlaw the commercials.

There is no such thing as capitalism or socialism. There are only different ways of writing, arranging and enforcing the rules, some metaphysically incompatible with others. And most - possibly all - of the modern ways of thinking about these things are internally incoherent.

This states the fact of the matter succinctly: all of these allegedly value-neutral, "scientific" (!!!) economic doctrines not only presuppose, but are always situated in as a matter of practice, substantive moral and cultural traditions. The (to my mind) infuriating aspect of these debates is that when someone raises a question about the moral foundation of the society, say, one concerning wages, defenders of the illusory, value-neutral economic system will attempt to answer the question by abstracting from the preconditions of the system they defend: they will attempt to answer a moral question from within a system that claims to obtain independently of all morality.

There is also the fact that much of classical political economy presupposes, in its theoretical formulations, social conditions that it actually negates. The classical ideas of equilibrium presuppose "perfect competition", which can only obtain if there is perfect information, dispersed almost universally, widely held property, and legions of small firms competing in any given market. Except that there will never be anything even approximating perfect information, classical political economy facilitated the concentration of income-producing property, and thus, the concentration of existing businesses. In other words, to make this more poignant, political economy presupposes the distributive order that it actually undermined and finally abolished.

Incoherent? Yes, I'd certainly say so.

Eh, I'd outlaw them. Pitching kitschy toys to children is like pitching Jack Daniels to a vagrant. The explicitness with which advertising gurus speak of separating parents from children via their craft (in the sense of "dark art"), rendering them autonomous units of consumption, is so wicked that I'd not hesitate before banning the practice. The world would be a better place absent ads for crappy sugar cereals, toys, video games, and so on. Keep knowledge of these things as much in the exclusive possession of parents as possible, and let them decide whether children will hear of them.

I don't mind keeping knowledge of these things with the parents. That's why I'm always on what Bill calls my "anti-TV jihad." But I'd rather at that level it were done voluntarily.

Personally, I wouldn't be grossly offended by banning most commercial advertising. Depending on the day, I might allow the PBS model. It isn't like these arguments haven't been made before. I think it was William Buckley in National Review who was highly complementary of a Vermont or New Hampshire law that banned highway advertising. His reasoning was that no one was entitled to use a public good for private benefit. Numerous communities are now altering their commercial codes so that places like McDonald's can't use their building as an advertisement. For example, they will only allow a sign as an identifying mark, and they will limit the size and placement of that sign.

I generally don't care for slippery slope arguments. Regulating, even to the point of elimination, different forms of solicitation can be and has been done without harming free speech rights. I don't understand the need to feign confusion between the two areas. In particular real free speech rights are specifically regulated (PACS, etc.) without any harm to the rights of solicitation, and they are supposed to be sacred.

I'm not inclined to make a slippery slope argument. I just think that the building advertisement laws you describe are draconian, pushy, and not justified by any benefits.

This makes no sense to me:

"There is also the fact that much of classical political economy presupposes, in its theoretical formulations, social conditions that it actually negates. The classical ideas of equilibrium presuppose "perfect competition", which can only obtain if there is perfect information, dispersed almost universally, widely held property, and legions of small firms competing in any given market. Except that there will never be anything even approximating perfect information, classical political economy facilitated the concentration of income-producing property, and thus, the concentration of existing businesses. In other words, to make this more poignant, political economy presupposes the distributive order that it actually undermined and finally abolished."

It is my understanding of classical economic theory that presupposing perfect competition (which does not entail "widely held property" or "legions of small firms"; although it does entail the notion of private property and enforcable contracts) enables us to develop a model of the economy that may or may not have predictive powers (similar to the way scientists make a hypothesis about how the world works). We then look at how people actually behave (the data) and lo and behold, the model works extremely well. However, there are examples of the model breaking down (market failures) and/or examples of goods and services the model predicts the market won't be able to provide (public goods).

So the model is useful and has in fact been put to use to help increase economic prosperity. As to whether or not the model necessarily "facilitated the concentration of income-producing property, and thus, the concentration of existing businesses", this is a more complicated question. In the later case, it is obviously wrong (all sorts of existing businesses go bankrupt all the time), in the former case of the concentration of property, it depends on your baseline. Comparing modern capitalist societies with the vast sweep of societies throughout history suggests that capitalism has distributed property more widely than just about anything that came before it (assuming we are talking about private property). Comparing different time periods in the modern capitalist West will probably give you different answers. But I don't think of the concentration of property as necessarily a bad thing (it is similar to the old debate about income inequality...does it matter if there are a couple of really rich people if everyone else is doing well?)

Anyway, all of this is not to say you can't criticize the moral basis of capitalism. If you don't think it is moral to pay someone solely based on supply and demand, so be it. Most modern capitalist societies agree with this notion and that is why they permit labor unions, minimum wage laws, etc. I don't have a problem with any of these concepts when folks use moral arguements for them. However, as is almost always the case, classical political economy can help us understand the trade-offs associated with a particular policy and these trade-offs also have moral implications. So, to stick with the union wage example, there is no question that union pressure on wages will increase unemployment. So we then have a debate about the moral implications of lower wages/more employment versus higher wages/less employment and make a decision within the context of our Constitution and system of government.

But it is not true that classical political economy "presupposes the distributive order that it actually undermined and finally abolished." If you can find me a quote from my boys Adam Smith or David Ricardo that suggests they really thought the world actually consisted of "perfect information, dispersed almost universally, widely held property, and legions of small firms competing in any given market" I'll throw away all 25 of my Barbies and demand my girls only play with antique Victorian dolls!

Classical political economy, particularly as the so-called Age of Classical Political Economy segued into the era of utilitarianism - which was an ideological emphasis upon a subset of the ideas of earlier political economy, as well as liberalism itself - was obsesses with the resolution of a variety of theoretical problems. There was a desire to identify a common principle according to which all of the factors of production, and the shares due them, could be explained; and there was a desire to formulate a coherent theory of prices. There was also a desire to "discover" a theory of equilibrium, a sort of quasi-natural "law" which would at once explain the automatic operation of markets, the distributive consequences of their operation, and the "folly" of interfering in their operation. Sometimes this latter, more propagandistic object extended to fulminations against charity, inasmuch as this might be thought to undermine the motivation to work as hard, and for as little, as industrialists were willing to pay.

Equilibrium, generally defined as the full utilization of all resources, from labour to capital, and the absorption of supply by demand, would require perfect competition. Perfect competition, in turn, entailed a large number of small firms, since a smaller number of large firms creates actual inefficiencies, such as barriers to market entry, market entry that might well be necessary to lower some prices, or raise others, in order to eliminate imbalances; the prohibitive barrier to market entry constituted by a small number of large firms would, in turn, give them too much influence over the setting of prices, and so on. Theoretically, then, efficiency in production, market clearing, and the dispersal and utilization of information requires a large number of small businesses competing in any given market; and this is how economists in the nineteenth century began to formulate their models.

The contradiction arises from the fact that what these theories presuppose, or prove, theoretically, is actually undermined by actual practice; actual capitalist practice, by virtue of the new dynamics of competition, the new forms of property law, and economies of scale, promoted the concentration of income-generating property, and thus the disappearance of those 'large numbers of small firms'. Hence, the promised equilibrium remained elusive. This is no mere theoretical failing, but the explanation for the imbalances, cycles, and instabilities that have long bedeviled the economic system, and for which various thinkers have sought solutions. In brief, the three solutions have been proposed over the years: Keynesianism coupled with the welfare state, consumer credit, and, essentially, doing nothing, because the model has been confused with the reality. The dominant approach of the contemporary political parties is basically a combination of laudatory gesticulation towards the consumer economy, which is predicated upon debt, debt, and more debt, and a celebration of markets as the best of all worlds. The left rump of the Democratic party is willing to explore other alternatives, but they are treated by the hierarchy in much the same way as social conservatives are by the GOP establishment, conservative mythology notwithstanding.

So, the fact that the model is useful at some level is all well and good, but somewhat beside the point: the fact is that it is ideological in the precise sense that it is an abstraction that does not conform to reality, cannot reconstruct reality in accordance with its predictions, and thus results in, shall we say, problems.

One of those, pace your protest that it does not matter whether a couple of rich people own everything if everyone is (materially) better off, is that this does, in fact matter: it matters because money is power, and concentrated wealth equates to concentrated power. Sir James Steuart, and early Scottish political economist, was quite frank in his admissions of this reality; one pursued either money or power as a means of getting the other. In other words, this is not merely a question of quantity, as though everyone being wealthier by being dependent upon the consumption habits of the superrich would have no deleterious consequences; the quality of our society, to the extent of the de facto disappearance of the institutions of meaningful self-government, would be degraded, the practical basis of the independence of life and judgment presupposed by republican forms having been abolished. In point of fact, judged relative to the late medieval freeholders, guilds, and peasantry, capitalism does not distribute income generating property as widely. Real estate ownership is more widespread than it was fifty years ago, but this is primarily the result of the availability of new financial instruments - longer mortgages, ie, more of that debt I mentioned earlier. But real estate is not income-generating in a productive sense, only speculatively, if at all.

Finally, in objection to the standard line about minimum wages and union pay scales, I must protest that the notion of subjecting wages to a strict market discipline of supply and demand would solve absolutely nothing. It might - might, because this is still arguable, just as there are studies which show no ill effect on employment rates of minimum wage hikes and the like (though this is something of a minority report at present) - result in true full employment, but this would still mean nothing. There is no question that wages would fall under such a market regime. But this merely raises the complex question of how people would support themselves and their families under increasing income pressure; how we support ourselves - the whole panoply of factors which contribute to a way of life - is determined not merely by individual choice, but by cultural norms, traditions, and laws, ranging from zoning laws and laws governing the types of housing that can exist, the requirements of health care and nutrition, and so on. The market exists within a cultural environment, an environment which is either formed by substantive moral concepts, presupposes them, or may be analyzed by means of them. Therefore, unless one is willing to embrace the libertarian "solution" of the abolition of all of these other laws, customs, and traditions governing the manner of our existence, subjecting absolutely everything to the contracts agreed upon by consenting parties, there will inevitably arise externalities. When someone is payed a wage inadequate to a dignified mode of life in our society, a wage that does not enable him to purchase health case, support a family, or, perhaps, even to buy enough food, those costs will be borne by someone. We're not about to embrace the full social Darwinism of the libertarians. Analogous to the economics of illegal immigration, in which the profits are privatized, going to the employers and purchasers of services provided by illegals, while costs are socialized, foisted upon the public, inadequate wages privatize the profits those subpar wages make possible, while socializing the costs for the goods and services that would otherwise be denied to the unfortunate, and without which, well, there would be more destitution, and more revolutionary ferment.

In other words, conservatives need to grasp that the welfare state exists not merely because of the perversity of socialists, progressives, do-gooders, nanny-staters, Democrats, bureaucrats, pusillanimous politicians, cynical politicians, and ethnic lobbies; the welfare state exists because it is a band-aid on a structural imbalance, an imbalance that exists because we continue to confuse an abstract model of economic reality for the reality itself. Or, the capitalists are as ideological as any socialist, and the welfare state is one of the unintended consequences of their own experiment against reality.

Maximos,

While our back and forth has helped me understand your thinking on the subject of capitalism, there are two distinctions I think it would be useful to make:

1) Questions of morals

2) Questions of facts and how to understand the facts.

We are in basic agreement on at least some moral questions: I do not think the libertarians have all our answers and I agree with you when you say that the "market exists within a cultural environment, an environment which is either formed by substantive moral concepts, presupposes them, or may be analyzed by means of them."

As for the facts, you and I simply continue to disagree about what the classical model of supply and demand meant both in the past and what it continues to mean in light of all the theoretical research on this model that has gone on over the past 231 years or so. Just like the model of the atom that we use in chemistry class, with the electrons circling the nucleus in some sort of orbit, is not an exact representation of reality but nevertheless useful to help us undertstand how atoms are structured and bond with one another; so are supply and demand graphs useful (which is ultimately the only reason they were created) to help us understand how the economy works.

Whether "perfect competition" (which is a theoretical construction) means two firms or 100 firms, the model of supply and demand is agnostic. It is true that smaller numbers of firms COULD lead to a break-down in competition if they were to collude on pricing (think OPEC) or erect artificial barriers to market entry. But you could also have a couple of firms producing goods and services in cut-throat competition with one another and worried about new firms entering the market (particularly through technology) which would lead to a consumer welfare maximizing price for their goods and services. The entire Microsoft anti-trust trial was about these issues and no less an esteemed conservative hero than Judge Robert Bork has said he thinks it is tough to easily come down one way or another with respect to whether or not Microsoft should be considered a monopoly deserving of government action (I saw him talking at some conference about this case).

As for whether or not the late medieval "freeholders, guilds, and peasantry" had more income generating property than the average American in 2007 or some other period you want to use for comparison, I'll just say I doubt it (most peasants didn't own their land and were at the mercy of the nobility..."When Adam delved and Eve span, who was then the gentleman?") Of course, they also faced short life-spans due to crazy disease like the Black Death and such, which we have done a much better job with under modern capitalist society, so even if they did have more "income-generating property" back then; I'll stick with the division of labor, the industrial and scientific revolutions, and all 25 Barbies (big tea party planned for tonight...as usual, I only get to be Ken!)

...two distinctions...

This is a distinction that I do not grant in the case of political thought, whether formal philosophy, political economy, or policy wonkery. The interpretation of facts, and the perception of them, is always contingent upon the constructs by means of which we apprehend them and synthesize them. In the case of much of political economy, it is the pretense that this is not the case, the dissembling of substantive assumptions, that prompts my negative evaluation. Classical models of supply and demand, where labour is concerned, while indubitably useful to some degree, are predicated upon the tacit, substantive assumption that - to be succinct - justice is an output of the market process (everyone supposedly receives what he deserves), and not a structural input. This is almost never true as a matter of policy; some social conception of justice almost always limits the operation of supply and demand, though there are plenty of exceptions in British history. It is the theorizing and practical application of the concept as though it were true that becomes problematic.

Note that I do not deny the analytical utility of the concept; many of the concepts of political economy have proven useful, though I think that this is often overstated. There are reasons Keynesianism caught on, reasons that go beyond the whole "facilitating statism" meme of some on the right. The inadequacy, once more, is the conflation of the model with reality, the pretense that the substantive moral and cultural frameworks of the economy can be dispensed with in analysis and policy formulation. This implicit conflation - sometimes openly announced in the form of statements that there is no such thing as society, applications of marginal utility to everything (including the family - ugh!), and the privileging of consumption over production - not only generates intellectual confusion, but has real-world consequences. My minimum wage example is, frankly, an excellent illustration of this fact. But even the case of hypothetical competition between two market giants illustrates the contention: that sort of cutthroat competition is not the norm of such market configurations, as evidenced by the very existence of antitrust regulation; even when such competition does occur, it is not necessarily enduring, and does not obviate the fact that positions of market dominance essentially bid us to trust in the managers of the dominant corporations. Such corporations don't have to collude at all; their market position needs only to be based upon imperfect information in the sense that some upstart could "do it better", etc., but finds it difficult to succeed given the market inertia of the established firm. That's why the theoretical model is the way it is. Conservatives will have to make up their minds: either global corporations engaged in price wars are wonderful, and market dominance does not lead to sclerosis and inefficiency, or the entrepreneurial function is indispensable. The rhetorical twists and turns of conservatives on this score over the past two decades have been vertiginous.

You may dismiss the idea that the concentration of wealth and productive property is problematic, either morally or in terms of societal stability, but millenia of political philosophy and history militate against such a sanguine perspective. Contemporary conservatives are particularly prone to this error because they have internalized a bowdlerized version of Richard Weaver's "Ideas Have Consequences" thesis, and now seem to believe that societal structures other than the family are of no moral consequence - only how we think of them is of any importance. This is a function of conservatism's paucity of historical consciousness, and its consequent embrace of a sort of "timeless stasis" view of economic institutions: if we only possess the right ideas, the right theoretical models, and endeavour to bend reality to conform to them, all will be well - the rightness of the idea entails that negative consequences can only be the wrongthought of the perverse.

In this vein, the emphasis upon consumer-friendly pricing provided by the Wal-Marts of the world appears as just one more of those procrustean theoretical constructs, on the one hand, and as an externality-generating practical model, on the other: outsourcing of production, wages and benefits that leave many employees dependent upon the public weal, the sprawl model of development, and so on. The externalities reflect the degradation of the quality of life in our society, regardless of the supposed quantitative benefits. What we are learning, though few seem willing to take the lesson, is that a certain quality of life, arising from knowable structural, material factors, is a prerequisite of a self-governing republican society. Jefferson knew it, though.

most peasants didn't own their land

Technically, no one really owned the land under the feudal order, so this is beside the point; for all practical purposes, the peasants did have stable claims to their land, and to the commons, governed by customary law.

and were at the mercy of the nobility

This is simply untrue. Their customary rights of use and possession were enforceable at court. It was only with the dispossession of the Church, and then the peasants, along with the enclosures, that they were thrown upon the mercy of the nobility - who, being of an "improving" mind, had no mercy.

Of course, they also faced short life-spans...

The development of technology is a question distinct from that of the distribution of property, just as the question of industrial development is distinct from that of the concentration of industry.

Confusion about facts versus values will continue to result in bad arguments:

http://www.acton.org/ppolicy/comment/article.php?article=394

And one could argue that the development of technology and industry wouldn't have occurred the way they did without capitalism creating wide-spread wealth and large-scale industries...I'm not saying the case is a slam dunk, but your argument that they are distinct questions once again ignores the facts (in this case, your favorite kind of facts: historical).

The fact/value distinction, Mr. Singer, is precisely the sort of unstated premise (now stated of course) that one commonly encounters: and precisely the sort of theoretic construction that Maximos rejects. It will not do to simply reassert it without confronting his objections.

If I may take a step back a moment, I would ask you, Mr. Singer, to consider the plain fact that some of the work of Conservative philosophy over the 20th century was an attempt to demonstrate the falsity and folly of Weberian fact/value distinction: to locate it in the constellation of Liberal machination and intrigue, so to speak.

And let it not be argued that this project was exclusively the domain of fringe figures or paleocons or whatever. Here, for instance, is the essay in the journal First Things -- a forum generally regarded as neoconservative and very much open to, even dominated by such apologists for Capitalism as Michael Novak -- which first introduced me to this debate. Some excerpts:

[T]he social sciences have many more practitioners than they do ideas and principles. I would even argue that they rest upon one sole principle, the separation of facts and values, which sets them apart from philosophy and testifies to their scientific character. The demise of political philosophy is of a piece with the triumph of this principle. I admit that generally such sweeping statements are better avoided. Nevertheless it is a fact that the fact/value distinction has become not only the presupposition of present-day social science but also the prevalent opinion in society at large.

If we take seriously [Max Weber and the fact/value distinction], we will say that there is a gaping hole, a void, a meaninglessness at the heart of modern life since science, the highest and sole truly public activity, is meaningless.

It is impossible to put Max Weber behind us. Because he looms so large, it is difficult for us to see how the human phenomenon appeared before he separated science and life. But let us be alert enough to realize how strange and lopsided our intellectual and moral life currently is.

Weber well understood that the separation between life and science was in some sense unbearable for ordinary mankind, and he rightly noticed that the attendant discomfort gave rise to fake monumentalism, spurious prophesying, and pedantic fanaticism. Certainly Europe would soon experience all those ugly phenomena on a scale that the desperate Weber had not anticipated even in his most desperate mood.

I recommend that you read this essay -- very carefully, for it is a demanding one. But reading it myself first opened my young eyes (I was still in college) to the spectacular possibility that all of modern political philosophy, of which one of the great theoretically props is the fact/value distinction, was but ash in the mouth. Few things have been so thrilling to me as the discovery of this possibility, grave and shocking though it is.

Technological development continued in nations such as France and Germany, despite the fact that the former, in particular, retained a more late-medieval distribution of property, and nurtured modifications of the older, customary laws longer than most other European nations. The primary differences between these nations and Britain was that the concentration of productive forces in the economy of the latter enabled her to underwrite an empire. However, this is a question of quantity, and not of quality; in fact, it illustrates nicely that the obsession with quantities and capacities, economies of scale and absolute efficiencies, has qualitative consequences: concentrated power, in the form of empire. No thanks. I'll take French farmer and craftsman over the imperial functionary any day of the week. Or, to place this in an American context, I'll take Caleb Stegall and Bill Kaufmann over Max Boot and Paul Wolfowitz.

But Europe has gone distinctly socialist in the latter part of the 20th century (cradle-to-grave programs of various sorts, and tremendously liberal social policies and attitudes), and has depended more and more on its more capitalist cousins for military defense.

Look, it seems to me that we've gone pretty far afield. It's perfectly possible to take a positively Zippian approach to the evils of pornography while rejecting Maximos's large-scale critique of capitalism.

My real quarrel, if I can put it this way, with Jeff (Singer) throughout the earlier part of the discussion has been what seems to me too little outrage about the evil of pornography and even of less-than-fully-graphic coarse displays in public, too much sanguinity (is that a word?) about the power of disapproval to curb this stuff for those of us who don't want it in our faces, and too much worry about the statist tendencies of censoring it. To my mind, if a nice young policeman walked into Barnes & Noble and told them it was against city ordinance to have that picture of the totally naked woman (with only words across her hips) displayed at the checkout, and that they would have to stop selling the prominently displayed huge book collection of Playboy cartoons (the cover entirely made up of said cartoons), I would not consider this a bad thing, nor would I think we were on the way to a draconian state. And when it comes to being worried about legal penalties for married couples (with or without five children) who "watch pornography to spice up their sex life," I feel I've entered the twilight zone. These are supposed to be my kind of people?

But I forget who it was who said that the free market is the best way to distribute whatever ought to be distributed, but that this leaves wide open the question of what ought to be distributed. It seems to me, whoever it was, that there was a lot of truth in the statement.

Mr. Cella,

Thanks for the link...I will print and carefully read the article over the weekend.

Maximos,

Talk about straw men!

"I'll take French farmer and craftsman over the imperial functionary any day of the week. Or, to place this in an American context, I'll take Caleb Stegall and Bill Kaufmann over Max Boot and Paul Wolfowitz."

Indeed!

In America we can have French food and crafts AND personal computers, the internet, clean drinking water, cars and planes, hospital and clinics full of medical wonders the French farmer or craftsman would have loved, etc., etc. Or to defend Britain for a second, the "qualitative consequence" of "quantities and capacities, economies of scale and absolute efficiencies" is not just "concentrated power" but ALSO qualitatively different outcomes with respect to the goods and services produced, which have qualititatively different impacts on human populations (most noticeably, longer and healthier lives).

And despite my willingness to read with an open mind the essay cited by Mr. Cella, I just don't understand how one can dispute the facts of an economy or the facts of industrial development, etc., etc. I agree you can easily interpret the data using different frameworks, but you can't dispute the fact that the average American lives to 70+, or infant mortality is X, etc.

In other words, if your argument is that we'd all be better off as French farmers and craftsmen, you need to explain not just why (your values) but how we'd get there and what we'd need to give up in order to get there (the facts). Maybe it would be worth it to give up our computers and cars our pills and plastic...but to pretend there aren't trade-offs or that economics or social science in general can't be used to analyze these trade offs is just silly.

Lydia,

I agree 100% with this statement:

"To my mind, if a nice young policeman walked into Barnes & Noble and told them it was against city ordinance to have that picture of the totally naked woman (with only words across her hips) displayed at the checkout, and that they would have to stop selling the prominently displayed huge book collection of Playboy cartoons (the cover entirely made up of said cartoons), I would not consider this a bad thing, nor would I think we were on the way to a draconian state."

As for this statement:

"And when it comes to being worried about legal penalties for married couples (with or without five children) who "watch pornography to spice up their sex life," I feel I've entered the twilight zone. These are supposed to be my kind of people?"

let me state at the outset that the Singers are NOT such a married couple. But I know real life married couples committed to their children and the stability of their families that do watch pornography. The interesting question about these people is how do they do it? If pornography is such an abolute evil (I'm inclined to agree that it is), the fact of the matter is that for every case of some guy ruining his marriage with a pornography addiction, there are real life couples with children (and single adults) who watch pornography without ruining their marriage. I previously mentioned Prohibition because it seems to me that as a practical matter the similarities of alcohol and pornography are more than superficial.

Regardless, I'm in total agreement with all at WWWTW that these decisions should be made by the people through their elected representatives and NOT by the Supreme Court.

Finally, I don't know if I can take credit for this statement, but I have tried to express a similar sentiment as I couldn't agree more:

"But I forget who it was who said that the free market is the best way to distribute whatever ought to be distributed, but that this leaves wide open the question of what ought to be distributed."

Mr. Singer, with all due respect - and I have considerable respect for you as an interlocutor - your confusion is elementary: the fact that various benefits of modernity were delivered to us through the medium of intensive industrialization does not entail that this was the only means whereby we could have received them. The crucial reality of history is its contingency, not its necessity. You assume that a certain configuration of quantities is necessary if certain qualities are to be obtained; this is what must be proven. I submit that it cannot, because history is not a syllogism.

This said, given the difference between quantity and quality, and the contingency of history, I will still take Stegall and Kaufmann over Boot and Wolfie. Think about what you are saying, man: all of those innovations that have made our lives so much more pleasant could not have originated in small companies? Gigantic industrial concerns are the prerequisite of development and progress? Were this so, how would we explain entrepreneurs with radical new ideas, starting from scratch?

Mr. Singer:

I don't know that pornography must necessarily, in all cases, "ruin" a marriage, but I do know that it is an indulgence of grave sin, which must be confessed and repented of, and which will have ramifying consequences. A successful man may drink in great excess three or four times a week and not technically "ruin" his marriage; but no one would dispute that there are consequences of this sin.

Maximos,

I appreciate the clarification...I think you raise an interesting question (were/are "gigantic industrial concerns" the "prerequisite of development and progress" which I will need to give more thought. But using your own analysis regarding history ("its contingency, not its necessity") I'm not sure that "gigantic industrial concerns" necessarily must lead to "Boot and Wolfie", not that there is anything wrong with Max and Paul ;)

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