Saturday, July 31, 2010

A belated mea culpa

This is roundabout; bear with me.

Matt Yglesias highlights a story about the closure of Walter Reed hospital, and notes the existence of regulations on how the land may be used. In short, the land may be conveyed directly to government agencies or various kinds of non-profit entities that submit proposals for it. It cannot be auctioned or otherwise sold to the private market.

Matt notes-- rightly-- that this is weird.
What on earth is the purpose of rules of this sort? Why not sell the land and earmark the money for these worthy purposes? That would seem to make everyone better off. You don’t see that many examples of truly pareto optimal policy changes out there, but this is one. No nefarious interest I can think of benefits from this arrangement, it’s just wasteful for no reason. And it comes up in DC all the time because a similar rule applies to a bunch of long-vacant school buildings we have.

I didn't know about these rules, and probably would have thought no more about it if not for the fact that he quoted David Alpert's reference to the regulations as "federal base closure rules." (Walter Reed is, after all, a military installation.)

Uh-oh, thinks I.

A little reading later, I believe I owe the following apology:

In 1988, the Pease Air Force Base on the edge of my hometown had been slated for closure, and it was shuttered in 1991, at important savings to the federal government and important anti-stimulus for the local area during the early 90s recession. The land was transferred to a QUANGO, the Pease Development Authority, which spent its first few years trying and failing to attract high profile firms to come use large amounts of the land all at once. In the meantime, a huge chunk of real estate and infrastructure sat basically vacant.

In 1992 (at the ripe old age of 21) I ran for the New Hampshire House of Representatives, as a Libertarian. And my distinctive policy proposal was: break up the PDA, stop trying to land the One Big Firm that would come replace the Air Force as a dominant employer, and allow the base to be parceled and auctioned. Market-led base redevelopment rather than local-politico-led posturing.

It's now pretty clear to me that this would have been impossible under federal law, and that the PDA/ tradeport model was as close as any local authorities could come to letting commerce take hold there. (At least they didn't turn the base into a megaprison complex.) Doesn't mean it was a good model, and almost twenty years later I still think there's underutilized capital there. But it would have been wholly outside the New Hampshire legislature's authority to fix this.

Of course: 1) No one else seemed to know this, either; certainly, my opponents never slapped me down as an ignorant kid who didn't know the rules. 2) I was a 21-year old third-party candidate running against two Democratic incumbents in a solid Democratic (two-seat) district. I wasn't ever going to win. 3) Had I won, I would hardly have been the most ignorant member of New Hampshire's 400-person part-time lower legislative house, or the first to find that the thing they'd talked about on the campaign trail couldn't be done.

Nonetheless: I apologize to the voters of my then-district, and to my opponents in that race. I spent several months arguing something on the basis of insufficient information, and making claims that it turns out were false or impossible.
A point that should be obvious

Opposing someone else's expression or activity on the grounds that it's "provocative"-- that it will provoke various observers and third parties to some negative reaction-- is usually a dishonest way of dodging agency. It means: "I've made the decision that my dislike for your expression is more important than your freedom, and I intend to aggress against you to shut you up, but I want to make it seem like you're the one who's made a decision to be aggressive." It's a decision posing as a passive reaction. It's then, perversely, often followed by the idea that the expression's primary purpose was to provoke, and so denying that the first person has any non-aggressive interest at all in the expression.

Some of this was worked out and widely endorsed during the controversy over the Danish cartoons.

But it applies just as forcefully to the way that defenders of laicite talk about the various forms of Islamic women's covering (from headscarves to the burka/ niqab).

And, boy oh boy, does it apply to the despicable demagoguery around building a mosque in lower Manhattan.
Sarah Palin, the 2008 Republican vice-presidential nominee, has urged “peace-seeking Muslims” to reject the center, branding it an “unnecessary provocation.” A Republican political action committee has produced a television commercial assailing the proposal. And former House Speaker Newt Gingrich has decried it in speeches.[...]

He added: “The average American just thinks this is a political statement. It’s not about religion, and is clearly an aggressive act that is offensive.”

Update: Isaac Chotiner had the same thought.
What I've been reading: Steven Pincus,1688: The First Modern Revolution

I have enough to say about this book that I keep putting off the blog post, but eventually that makes the post an overdue assignment, and I don't need to add any of those to my life. So let's see what I can rush through:


This is an important book with a powerful, distinct argument pressed forward in lots of ways. It isn't, and shouldn't be mistaken for, a freestanding popular history of the Glorious Revolution, though given the conventions of history book publishing it physically looks like it could be. Instead, it's an argument in support of the following propositions:

Contrary to the traditional Whig understanding, the Glorious Revolution was not a consensual, peaceful restoration of a stable and traditional English political order.

Contrary to the modern revisionist understanding, the Glorious Revolution was not a conservative elite Anglican coup against a moderate James II as punishment for his support of religious toleration.

James II was an innovating modernizer, rapidly building up and centralizing an absolutist modern state on the close model of Louis XIV's state in France. This included an aggressive plan for Catholicizing England and English institutions (not merely allowing Catholics religious freedom), but the Catholicism James promoted was the Gallican Catholicism of France and the Jesuits, putting him on the other side of a profound split from the papacy and Catholic Spain and the Holy Roman Empire-- all of which ultimately aligned with William of Orange and the Netherlands against Louis and James. Gallicanism was as much a political project as a religious one, and the Glorious Revolution cannot be well understood as the last shot of the Wars of Religion. Instead, it was part of a long-term and Europe-wide fight against Louis' absolutist modernization and imperial ambition.

This means that the Revolution cannot be (as it often has been) read in a narrowly English or even British context; and it also means that it cannot be read in a narrow timeframe that ends in 1689. But neither was England just a field on which to fight out the European conflict; Pincus forcefully denies another revisionist thesis that sees the Revolution as essentially a Dutch invasion.

James had domestic modernizing opponents, those who sought to pursue a different modernizing and state-building project on non-absolutist, commercial rather than aristocratic, tolerant rather than Gallican grounds. They (along with more traditionalist Anglican Tories) rose against James in a genuine domestic violent insurrection-- one that would have failed without the invasion by William at the head of an armed force that included Dutch as well as Anglo-exile forces, but one without which William would not have made the crossing.

Pincus maintains that this fits a general pattern. Revolutions, he thinks, are made against modernizers. An initial state modernization project either reveals that traditional institutions are fragile, or makes them so, or both. And so at the moment that state capacity is being built up, the popular allegiance to it is shaken-- change no longer seems unthinkable, as change is already being pursued, indeed already seems inevitable. And revolutions are also made by modernizers. That is, they are the violent and (at least semi-)popular overthrow of a modernizing state by rival modernizers-- not, despite frequent rhetoric, by restorationists. He maintains that revolutions are events in early state modernization and consolidation-- and that the English Revolution was the first of them.

The book is sweeping and general-- which is to say that it pursues depth of evidence of a number of different kinds, aimed at making its interpretive claim irresistible. It offers quantitative and archival history; economic, theological, ideological, and diplomatic history; domestic and international history, all arranged to clear argumentative purpose. Again, this doesn't amount to a narration of events-- much is explained but much is not. (I know a lot about the era for a non-historian, but I read the book with wikipedia open next to me, and made a lot of use of it.)

The cumulative effect is sometimes devastating for the rival views, and I doubt that they can survive in unmodified form. That said, Pincus' own evidence sometimes points to openings that might be exploited by adherents of the rival views trying to rebuild and recover. The first major case of this I noticed was the frequency of anti-Catholic rhetoric in Whig claims he quotes in places besides where he's maintaining that the Revolution was not essentially anti-Catholic. The distinctions he draws between Gallicanism and Catholicism as such are well-taken (and for me were probably the most important revelations of the book), and they do provide a way to understand anti-Catholic language that's not narrowly confessional. But it's not always clear that the revolutionaries observed the distinction as cleanly as Pincus suggests, and he doesn't tell us how to evaluate or weigh the cases in which the distinction was not observed. I think he ultimately makes his case-- I was persuaded, anyway-- but I predict that there will be pushback here.

In the second case I'm less sure what to think. His narrative of rival imperial and economic visions, and of Whig-revolutionary triumph in the second half of the 1690s over a Tory restorationist mindset, seems to demand the destruction of the East India Company. But the Whig attempt to do so failed. Pincus leads us through the sequence of events, and then shows that Whigs triumphed on the related but distinct ground of banking (in the creation of the Bank of England and the destruction of the Tory Land Bank). But I was left dissatisfied; it seems as though the survival of the Company is more important disconfirmatory evidence of Pincus' thesis than he allows. I predict pushback here, and am eager to see how it turns out.

But it is to the book's (Pincus') credit that I end the book understanding that these are moments of possible weakness in his claim, on the basis of evidence he has supplied. More importantly, it is to the book's (Pincus') credit that it has such a clear and controversial thesis that we can talk about what would be disconfirmatory evidence; and that, despite its novelty, the thesis is supported so powerfully across so many areas that one can identify the discrete patches of ground left to defend by those whose views Pincus is critiquing.

I think the book is a major event in historical scholarship, but I also think it repays reading for political theorists. Some thoughts on why:

I learned a lot about a semi-minor figure I'm writing on (Robert Molesworth); and learned enough to seriously change how I'll teach Locke's Letter Concerning Toleration in the future. His exclusion of religions that demand allegiance to a foreign prince, I now think, was certainly not a euphemism for Catholicism as such. Instead, it emphasizes the political-not-confessional divides in the way that Pincus shows was common among (at least) Whig and revolutionary intellectuals and leaders. The upshot is that Locke was acknowledging that the Catholicism of Elizabethan times, the Catholicism that taught that heretical monarchs could be deposed and killed on order of the Pope, was intolerable in a regime of toleration-- but insisting that by-then-contemporary Catholicism was tolerable. This is largely my interpolation-- Locke qua philosopher rarely appears in 1688, and even Locke the important Whig exile intellectual often appears only passively-- I think much more is quoted from letters to Locke or accounts of things told to him than is quoted from Locke, and he begins to seem like a curiously blank center of Whig and exile networks. But it's a treat to be able to read a book in another field that supplements and contextualizes things I already know in a way that changes what they seem to mean.

Moreover, the reader of Pincus' book is left understanding what was radical and revolutionary in the Second Treatise, and what the chapter on property was about in a way that transcends the justification of expropriation in America. The idea that labor was the source of property was at the core of the Whig non-zero-sum political economy, opposed to the Tory account that treated the finite sum of land in the world as the core resource, and commerce as just a matter of moving things around. I look forward to my next re-reading of the Second Treatise; I think that having read this book will make it exciting again.

The Whig account of the Revolution as limited in aim, consensual, and mainly intended to undo the absolutist innovations of James receives one of its canonical statements in Burke. While everyone understands that Burke is no neutral narrator, I think his account still has a substantial influence on those of us who read more political theory than history. Here, again, theorists have something important to learn from the book. Pincus' Whig revolutionaries were tamed and staved off eventually; the Revolution was, in the French idiom, brought to an end by the 1720s, giving rise to the relative stability of the Hanoverian era. But the Revolutionary era itself here seems more like the Americans' long-distance memory of it in the 1770s than like Burke's account of it a little bit later.

Similarly, I think that political theorists, political scientists, and sociologists who worry about revolutions as a category really need to read this book-- the introductory treatment of their literatures and development of a rival claim about what revolutions are and why they happen, and then then enough of the rest of the book to understand why 1688 qualifies. Revolutions aren't a key idea for me-- but state-building and state-consolidation are, and here too I learned a lot and had my ideas sharpened considerably. The sharper ideas aren't always in agreement with Pincus', but they're indebted to his book.

Very, very highly recommended.