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Amor Mundi: February 26th, 2017

For Ted Lowi

Theodore J. Lowi died this week. I never met him. He is memorialized here in the Cornell Chronicle and here in the New York Times.* Lowi’s book The End of Liberalism thinks the fact and meaning of the transformation of the United States from a federated republican democracy to a liberal democratic administrative state. If you want to understand how our liberal government has yielded a “cynicism [that] unavoidably curdles into distrust,” Lowi is an essential guide.

Lowi’s thesis is that liberalism has led to “impotent government, no less impotent because it was getting bigger.” While Lowi does not cite Hannah Arendt, his focus on the way liberalism renders democratic government impotent reflects Arendt’s own worries that the greatest threat to freedom in American was the growing bureaucracy of government. Arendt distinguished two kinds of bureaucracy. First, the bureaucracy of a deformed civil service that leads to inefficiency and vexations that serve not the public interest, but the interest of the bureaucrats themselves.

A second, and more dangerous form of bureaucracy, is “government by decree.” It is a government that sees the law as a hindrance, an obstacle to be overcome in the bureaucratic effort to govern the people directly. Decrees are anonymous. They give the impression of constant action. It is government that eschews principles for the quick and personalized response to ever-changing circumstances. Arendt writes, “People ruled by decree never know what rules them because of the impossibility of understanding decrees in themselves and the carefully organized ignorance of specific circumstances and their practical significance in which all administrators keep their subjects.”

Reflecting Arendt, Lowi argues that liberalism has led in the United States to a government of “policy without law,” something like a government by decree. An essential part of this government by decree is the abandonment by the Congress of its governing responsibility, which it has increasingly delegated to the administrative state. The effort of liberal government, Lowi argues, is to “avoid enunciating a rule” and to replace clear rules and standards with “the principle of bargaining on each decision.” This is in fact Lowi’s overarching thesis: That liberalism replaces power with bargaining. “Liberal governments cannot plan. Planning requires the authoritative use of authority. Planning requires law, choice, priorities, moralities. Liberalism replaces planning with bargaining. Yet at bottom, power is unacceptable without planning.”

In the second edition of The End of Liberalism, Lowi added a subtitle, “The Second Republic of the United States.” The book tells a story of the transformation from the First to the Second Republic. In the First Republic, which goes from 1787 until about 1960, the states did most of the governing. The national government was both small and, more importantly, did very little governing. To the extent the federal government did govern, government was “Congress-centered.” The Congress was the main legislative arm of government. It was where the power of the Federal government was located.

The emergence of what Lowi calls the Second Republic has its roots in the Woodrow Wilson regime, but “began in earnest during the 1930s.” The first shift is in size. Federal domestic expenditures increased from .8% in 1929 to 4.9% in 1939. Today the Federal government spends about 20% of the country’s GDP. Importantly, Lowi does not oppose big government. He accepts the Roosevelt revolution as a necessary part of modern government.

Lowi is not as accepting of the second shift from the First to the Second American Republic, however, what he calls the shift in function. In the First American Republic, 99% of government expenditures took the form of subsidies. The United States made land grants to settlers and to railroads, it offered tariffs to new industries, and subsidies to the merchant marines. It left the act of governing to the states. But from the 1930s onwards, the federal government adopted two “entirely new kinds of functions, … new at least for the federal government in the United States. These functions were regulation and redistribution.

Lowi’s problem with regulation and redistribution was not their content, but that as the federal government began to exercise direct power over citizens, it moved the locus of that power from the Congress to the administrative agencies. “[I]t was during the New Deal that we began the probably irreversible change from a Congress-centered government to an executive-centered government.” This meant that Congress increasingly refused to pass clear and detailed laws that governed regulation and redistribution, but, instead, delegated broad powers to newly created and widely expanding administrative agencies to exercise the lawmaking authority of the country.

The “turning point” in the emergence of the Second Republic was John F. Kennedy’s presidency. In 1962, Kennedy requested that Congress delegate to him and his administration “vast discretionary power over all public works and over the entire income-tax structure of the federal government.” That same year in a commencement address at Yale University, Kennedy announced that “old sweeping issues have largely disappeared. The central domestic problems of our times are more subtle and less simple. They relate not to basic clashes of philosophy or ideology, but to ways and means of reaching common goals — to research for sophisticated solutions to complex and obstinate issues.” And Lowi adds:

“thus on the very eve of one of the most ideological periods in American history, President Kennedy had accepted the ‘end of ideology’ thesis. He had replaced it with a general theory that the solution to our problems rested with the presidency and a professionalized bureaucracy.”

The core of Lowi’s argument about the dangerous victory of liberalism is this shift from Congress to a professionalized bureaucracy as the source of legitimate lawmaking. In what Lowi calls the Second Republic, Congress almost never issues specific legislation. Instead, Congress governs by abstraction and invocation.

Consider, for example, Lowi’s discussion of the creation of OHSA (The Occupational Safety and Health Administration). OHSA “was the first national effort to deal with all industry” and the first attempt by the federal government to take this vital function from the states. It is a vast conveyance of power to a large agency. But in the statute authorizing OHSA, “Congress did not attempt by law to identify a single specific evil that the regulatory agency was to seek to minimize or eliminate.” Nor, Lowi continues, did the statute “attempt to identify a single cause of action against which aggrieved employees or consumers would have an easier day in court.” Instead, the law offers “an expression of sentiments for the desired result. The OHSA legislation took as its purpose “to assure so far as is possible every working man and woman in the nation safe and healthful working conditions and to preserve human resources.” The law instructs the Secretary of Labor to employ any practice to provide safe employment. This has led, in practice, to OHSA to work closely with industry groups to develop standards. But what Lowi focuses on is that the standards are now not set by Congress or by democratic groups, but within a bargaining relationship between professional bureaucrats and industry representatives.

The result of such a government by administration is what Lowi calls “socialism for the organized, capitalism for the unorganized.” It is a system that favors bigger and more organized businesses, unions, and interest groups. “It is biased not so much in favor of the rich as in favor of the established and the organized…. Above all it respects the established jurisdictions of government agencies and the established territories of private corporations and groups.” In short, the Second Republic offers a kind of politics that is “supportive of the clientele it seeks to deal with,” the organized interest groups that make claims upon it.

Lowi looks at legislation from the 20th century and argues that the law itself is increasingly so abstract as to be meaningless; it offers broad grants of delegated authority to administrative agencies to carry out abstract policies (improve health) based on abstract standards (fairness). As he writes:

“The language of laws under the Second Republic is virtually the language of the Bible, expressing broad and noble sentiments, giving almost no direction at all but imploring executive power, administrative expertise, and interest-group wisdom to set the world to rights. Whether the field is wage and price control, environmental pollution, unemployment, or inflation, congressional actions now amount to little more than an invocation, even though it is still called lawmaking and legislative drafting.”

Re-reading Lowi this week reminded me, as well, just how relevant Lowi is to understanding our current political situation. His argument that “Government that is formless in action and amoral in intention (i.e. ad hoc) is government that can neither plan nor achieve justice,” is a brilliant description of the government we have created. This is the government that satisfies neither the supporters of President Trump nor of Bernie Sanders. It is a government that frustrates everyone except those who finance and run the large organizations that are supported and protected by the administrative state.

*An earlier version of this essay mistakenly said that there were no major obituaries of Ted Lowi. After this essay was written but before it was published, The New York Times published an obituary.

—Roger Berkowitz

The Not Yet Authoritarian

David French argues that when we look at what the President does, not what he says in the heat of the moment, we may be surprised.

“A president is “authoritarian” not when he’s angry or impulsive or incompetent or tweets too much. He’s authoritarian when he seeks to expand his own power beyond constitutional limits. In this regard, the Obama administration — though far more polite and restrained in most of its public comments — was truly one of our more authoritarian.

Obama exercised his so-called prosecutorial discretion not just to waive compliance with laws passed by Congress (think of his numerous unilateral delays and waivers of Obamacare deadlines) but also to create entirely new immigration programs such as DACA and DAPA. He sought to roll back First Amendment protections for political speech (through his relentless attacks on Citizens United), tried to force nuns to facilitate access to birth control, and he even tried to inject federal agencies like the Equality Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) into the pastor-selection process, a move blocked by a unanimous Supreme Court. In foreign policy, he waged war without congressional approval and circumvented the Constitution’s treaty provisions to strike a dreadful and consequential deal with Iran.

There’s no doubt that Trump has expressed on occasion authoritarian desires or instincts. In the campaign, he expressed his own hostility for the First Amendment, his own love of expansive government eminent-domain takings (even to benefit private corporations), endorsed and encouraged violent responses against protesters, and declared that he alone would fix our nation’s most pressing problems. But so far, not only has an authoritarian presidency not materialized, it’s nowhere on the horizon. Instead, he’s facing a free press that has suddenly (and somewhat cynically) rediscovered its desire to “speak truth to power,” an invigorated, activist judiciary, and a protest movement that’s jamming congressional town halls from coast to coast. This tweet, from Sonny Bunch, is perfect:


Status Envy

“Washington DC” by Teo Ruiz is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Glenn Reynolds has a novel theory about why the bi-partisan elite is so angry about the election of Donald Trump.

“Donald Trump has been president for a month now, and it’s been months more since he was elected. But the division over him, and his presidency, hasn’t settled down. If anything, it’s gotten worse. But why?

I don’t think it’s Trump’s policies, which seem to be more popularthan he is. And though many of his pronouncements are portrayed as extreme, his statements on, say, immigration seem eerily like what former presidents Barack Obamaand Bill Clinton were saying not all that long ago. So why all the anger over Trump?

As I’ve pondered this, I’ve gone back to Tyler Cowen’s statement: “Occasionally the real force behind a political ideology is the subconsciously held desire that a certain group of people should not be allowed to rise in relative status.”

I think that a lot of the elite hatred for Trump, and for his supporters, stems from just such a sentiment. For decades now, the educated meritocrats who ran America — the “Best and the Brightest,” in David Halberstam’s not-actually-complimentary term — have enjoyed tremendous status, regardless of election results.

An election’s turn might see some moving to the private sector — say as K street lobbyists or high-priced lawyers or consultants — while a different batch of meritocrats take their positions in government. But even so, their status remained unchallenged: They were always the insiders, the elite, the winners, regardless of which team came out ahead in the elections.

But as Nicholas Ebserstadt notes, that changed in November.”

What We Have Wrought

Stills from Adam Curtis’ Hypernormalisation (Source: Guardian)

Craig French asks in this age of fake news and alternate facts, can a liberal arts education actually advance the cause of truth?

“In telling my students that we are trying to recover “wisdom” from the texts we read, I’m therefore being a little disingenuous. In fact our efforts at excavation are a pretext for a different activity: encouraging thoughtfulness. To what end? To encourage my students to become stronger and more resilient people. So that they might be less liable to be taken in by bullshit, and less inclined to utter it. So that they might develop the mental fortitude that the modern world requires of them — a world of happiness, love, justice and beauty, but also of fear, madness, violence and oppression.

However, sometimes I wonder whether this is all an exercise in futility. My students will leave my classroom and, I hope, go on to have satisfying careers and fulfilling lives. Some of them may even enter politics. And when they do, they might become liars too. What shall we say then? What responsibility do I bear?

I’m not the only one to wonder. A short profile of Julia Hahn recently appeared in the New Yorker. Hahn is a graduate in philosophy of the University of Chicago, a former Brietbart reporter and now a counselor to the President. The article ends with a quote from one of her seemingly dismayed classmates at Chicago: “Not to wax too poetic about academia, but part of the idea of learning the canon is that it will, ultimately, make you a better person,” she says. There is little editorializing in the piece, but the subtext is clear: how could someone with such a venerable education ally herself with the dark forces now occupying Trump’s White House?…

We allow ourselves to indulge in the peculiarly modern faith that knowledge and progress necessarily go hand in hand. That the more enlightened our students become, the better people, and more responsible political actors, they will be.

But we have no warrant for expecting this to be the case. In fact, as Raymond Geuss worries, many of them will simply use their cleverness, their dexterity in the “glib manipulation of words, theories and arguments,” to prop up the status quo and protect it from change. Or, even worse, to defend the indefensible in the language of the absurd, which is precisely what Trump surrogates do when they appear on cable news.

Indeed, from the perspective of the political theorist, there is something genuinely terrifying about the ideological hack (“political commentator”) dispatched to the television studio, a commonplace fixture of the American political landscape. This is a person who must bend the world to her words in order for it to make sense. In other words, it is a person who has stopped thinking.”


Hannah Arendt distinguished the religious hatred of Jews (anti-Semitism) from the ideological drive to deport and kill Jews (antisemitism). She also argued that ideological antisemitism was distinct from theories of eternal anti-Semitism. President Donald Trump is not engaged in such a thoughtful debate amidst the rise of increasingly virulent anti-Semitic acts around the country. It is true that the President himself seems immune from both anti-Semitism and antisemitism; but he has repeatedly shown a willingness to allow these ugly and dangerous sentiments to thrive on the margins of his movement, alongside racism and Islamophobia. The President finally condemned a string of anti-Semitic acts this week. But over and again he has refused to proactively and directly call out hate, prejudice, and ideological extremism. Just this week two Indian immigrants were shot in a bar by someone thinking they were from the Middle East. James Carrol takes on President Trump’s continued ambivalence about rising anti-Semitism in the US, a stance which has led to a bizarre, and very public, feud between press secretary Sean Spicer and the Anne Frank Center for Mutual Respect.—Roger Berkowitz

“Anti-Semitism is not a run-of-the-mill example of “hate and prejudice and evil,” which is why contempt for Jews keeps showing up as a symptom of social stress—even now, and even in the United States. One needn’t posit an “eternal anti-Semitism,” in Hannah Arendt’s warning phrase, to know that the imagination of the West has always defined itself positively against the negative other of Jewishness. That was blatantly the case in Germany in the sixteenth century, when Martin Luther characterized Jews as “vermin” within the German body politic, “a pest in the midst of our lands.” That belief ultimately came to flower, of course, in the exterminating anti-Semitism of Hitler, who saw the very existence of Jews as a mortal threat to the Thousand-Year Reich. But, as the Holocaust revealed, this fear infected both Nazi ideology and the broader Western consciousness. The crime of genocide may have been enacted by the Nazis, but Jews died as they did because the rest of Europe—and America, too—excluded them from moral concern.

Religious anti-Judaism, which became racial anti-Semitism, began long before Luther, stretching all the way back to the Gospels themselves. It is not just that Jews are labelled as Christ’s killers in the Passion narratives, but that Jesus is fully portrayed throughout the texts as fiercely opposed to his own Jewish people. (“He came unto His own and His own received him not,” John 1:11 says.) If Jesus was merciful, Jews were condemning; if Jesus was egalitarian, Jews were hierarchical; if Jesus was generous, Jews were greedy. Soon enough, Christians imagined that Jesus had never really been Jewish to begin with. Never mind that this was a terrible mistake of memory, that he was a faithful, law-observing, Shema-proclaiming Jew to the end, and that, John’s words notwithstanding, the only ones to receive Jesus in his lifetime were Jews. The imagined conflict persisted, and it informed the structure of Christian theology—church against synagogue, New Testament against Old, Christian god of mercy against Jewish god of judgment. Down through the centuries, this positive-negative bipolarity formed the twin pillars of European consciousness, and, whenever the social equilibrium shook, Jews were targeted. When the targeting reached its genocidal peak, in the twentieth century, the old hatred was exposed once and for all…

If it is too much for Trump to grasp anti-Semitism as the bug in the software of the West, it is not likely that he will see how his own Islamophobia comes from the same malicious code. When Christendom launched the Crusades, the holy wars that shaped Europe, in the eleventh century, Jews were the paradigmatic enemy inside (the infidel near at hand), and Muslims became the defining enemy outside (the infidel far away). Little wonder, then, that the First Crusade coincided with some of the earliest German pogroms, known as the Rhineland massacres. Within a few hundred years, the Spanish Inquisition had instituted its blood-purity laws, which lumped Muslims and Jews together in a new category of biological inferiority. In 1492 and 1502, first Jews and then Muslims were declared personae non gratae in Spain, facing forced conversion, expulsion, or death. The invention of racism in Europe, in other words, aligned neatly with the discovery of the New World and the advent of colonialism. Genocide and slavery followed.”

Men in Dark Times

Kathleen B. Jones interviews Maria Schrader about her new documentary “Stefan Zweig: Farewell to Europe.”

“I’m sure you know about Hannah Arendt’s review of Zweig’s The World of Yesterday. She took him to task for not taking a political stand.

It’s the same accusation of cowardice: that Zweig, whose voice has impact and weight, holds it back to protect the purity of the artist and the independence of art. It’s the same accusation.

But the difference is that he feels the burden of his times — the crisis — on a personal level. He tries to do something, individually, to save his friends or the people who write to him. As you say in the film, he spends all his money trying to save people …

Absolutely. He says, “I cannot be in New York because I am not Thomas Mann. I cannot say no to people.” And Friderike says, “That’s why people love coming to you.” And that’s probably one of the many reasons why he seeks solitude; he always flees these metropolitan regions. He always said that he couldn’t write a single word in civilization. And Thomas Mann could. So, yes, Zweig was really overwhelmed by helping others … but … about Arendt’s point, why wouldn’t he just say, “I hate the Nazis, I just want to annoy them”? You know, this is not only the bildung bourgeois not taking a stand. It is a very clear position. He says, “I would never say, ‘I hate.’” He didn’t hate; he was a pacifist. And if his silence was to be misinterpreted as cowardice, then he would live with that stigma.

And that’s her point. She says, when the chips are down, you are asked to make a judgment and bear the burden of your decision. You show it so well in the film — the judgment he makes to stay out of the fight, and the consequences he bears.

People are very different. Who knows how we would deal with it. Some people are more sensitive and others less sensitive to these things.”

Life and Politics

Following the death last week of Norma McCorvey, the real woman who became the anonymous plaintiff in Roe V. Wade, Moira Donegan explores the uneasy relationship McCorvey had with the feminist movement she helped to launch.

“In the 1980s, spurred by violent attacks on abortion providers, McCorvey revealed herself as Jane Roe. She received death threats, and was spat at on the street. By this time McCorvey identified as a lesbian, and was living in Dallas with Connie Gonzales, the woman who would remain her partner for 35 years. She attended marches, gave interviews on abortion rights for network TV, and worked for a time as a counselor at a women’s clinic.

But she felt that the leadership of the pro-choice movement kept her at arm’s length. The women’s movement was by then an established, PR-conscious network of mainstream organizations that aimed for mass appeal, and they were aware that McCorvey was not an ideal representative. She began to feel at odds with mainstream feminism, rejected for her lesbianism, her class status, her initial lie about being raped, and her past flirtations with drug dealing and occult religions. In photographs from that era, she looks uncomfortable at pro-choice rallies. She slouches and frowns; she is dour-faced and plain in a housedress next to civil rights attorney Gloria Allred, who wears a full face of garish ’80s makeup and dramatic shoulder pads.

“Women used to come up to me all the time and say, ‘Oh Norma, I want to thank you, if it wasn’t for you I wouldn’t have finished college,’ or, ‘If it hadn’t been for you, I wouldn’t have done this,’” she said in a 1995 interview with ABC News. “And I used to look at them and I envied them, because they got to choose, they had the right to choose. And I never had the right to choose.” She never managed to climb out of poverty, either, although the attention brought by the decision garnered her two book deals and many interviews and speaking engagements. She began to feel increasingly embittered towards a feminist movement whose leaders were dramatically wealthier, better educated, and divorced from the cultural milieu of the working-class South. She found herself with less and less in common with those who most loudly claimed her cause.”

Thinking What We Are Doing

The National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Medicine have released a report on “Human Genome Editing: Science, Ethics, and Governance.”

“Progress in genome editing—technologies for making precise additions, deletions, and alterations to DNA—has generated interest around the globe because of the promise it holds to improve human health. For example, genome editing is being tested in clinical trials to engineer immune cells to target cancerous tumor cells and to make cells more resistant to HIV. Genome editing could also be used to develop new treatments for devastating genetic dis- eases like Huntington’s disease, sickle cell anemia, immune deficiencies, muscular dystrophy, and cystic fibrosis. As with other medical advances, each new potential use of genome editing carries a unique set of benefits, risks, regulatory issues, and societal implications. Important ques- tions that have been raised about human genome editing include: how to balance potential benefits with the risk of unintended harms; how to govern the use of genome editing; how to incorporate societal values into clinical applications and policy decisions, and how to respect the inevitable differences across nations and cultures that will shape diverse perspectives about whether and how to use these technologies. Now is the time to consider those questions.”

Posted on 26 February 2017 | 9:00 am

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