Thursday, December 29, 2005


A persistent and increasingly popular critique of the Blair government has been its centralisation of power, both in London and in the hands of a deeply unrepresentative elite. Ross McKibbin makes the charge in his recent, and charmingly disgusted, LRB article, and it is a theme that runs through Anthony Sampson's 'Who Runs This Place?'. Both decry the destruction, not just by this government one should add, of a variety of quasi-representative institutions which served to mediate, disperse and oppose the power of the central state: local government, the trade unions and, in Sampson's case, although with some surprise at himself, much of what used to be described threateningly as The Establishment. The tone of their complaint can be judged from McKibbin's comment on the new education proposals by the government:

The proposal effectively to neuter the LEAs and to encourage the supposed independence of secondary schools, whatever form their independence takes, turns citizens into supplicants... As citizens, we approach the state not as supplicants but as people who claim a right because we are citizens. We do not, however, approach schools run by faiths, or businessmen, or universities, or crackpots, as citizens. We approach them as people seeking favours. And that gives the ‘providers’ social authority incompatible with a democratic state.

Perhaps McKibbin is unnecessarily worried about the power that the non-governmental service providers will exercise over those who they are allegedly serving: I'm not enough of a sociologist to say with much confidence, although I can well see why he is skeptical. The point that he and Sampson make though, that isolated individuals, unable to compete in terms of economic, social or political resources with those raised above them, will become supplicants before those powers in the absence of institutions which enable them to collaborate or somehow represent them. The understanding of France's history since the expulsion of the English as one of centralisation and attendant atomisation that motivated De Tocqueville's 'Democracy In America' is effectively identical, and Robert Putnam's work on social capital, which allegedly found some correlation between quality of governance and civil society activity, shares many of the same concerns.

De Tocqueville in particular stresses the role of local government - the famous view of the New England township as a school of civic virtue, quite apart from being a bulwark against over-reaching central authorities. Local government, other than the creation of a Mayor of London, admittedly one without adequate control over its transport system, has been progressively emasculated over at least the past twenty years: David Blunkett is, so far as I know, the only significant national political figure who came up through local government. Re-empowering local government, as perhaps the rather vague ideas hinted at here might do if the economic powers for cities are of much consequence, would surely then be a good idea because it has the capacity to create those kinds of schools of civic virtue, and - although presumably Blair is less likely to look at this as a benefit - oppose central government. Furthermore, it would eliminate much of the injustice associated with what get's lazily called the postcode lottery. This is since, if the health authorities are independent of central government and accountable to their taxpayers, presumably it would be less problematic if they did not offer the same services. Obviously, there are problems with the differential services insofar as they reflect a failure to provide that which citizens are entitled to, but at least the unaccountability of the failure is eliminated.


The former British Ambassador to Uzbekistan, Craig Murray, has been having some difficulty getting his memoirs published because the Foreign Office is unwilling to allow him to publish various pieces of correspondence from his time as an Ambassador. He has published them on his website, and with the cooperation of Robin Grant of, is trying to disseminate them as widely as possible. Whatever else one thinks about British policy towards torturing, megalomaniac tinpot dictators in Central Asia and any information that might be passed by their security services, surely that policy ought to be, in a democracy, public. If a policy is not public, then those who execute it cannot be held accountable, and so they gain what is effectively arbitrary power. Since Murray's claims have already been much discussed, there hardly seems to be a compelling public interest in keeping evidence which supports them secret, to say nothing of the relatively simple thought that if we are to use information obtained by and support a regime that has few qualms about boiling people to death, then at least let us admit it. So, here is Craig Murray's post, here is the post at Perfect, and here are the letters themselves:

First document - summary of legal opinion from Michael Wood arguing that it is legal to use information extracted under torture (scan of original):
From: Michael Wood, Legal Advisor
Date: 13 March 2003
CC: PS/PUS; Matthew Kidd, WLD
Linda Duffield
1. Your record of our meeting with HMA Tashkent recorded that Craig had said that his understanding was that it was also an offence under the UN Convention on Torture to receive or possess information under torture. I said that I did not believe that this was the case, but undertook to re-read the Convention.
2. I have done so. There is nothing in the Convention to this effect. The nearest thing is article 15 which provides:
“Each State Party shall ensure that any statement which is established to have been made as a result of torture shall not be invoked as evidence in any proceedings, except against a person accused of torture as evidence that the statement was made.”
3. This does not create any offence. I would expect that under UK law any statement established to have been made as a result of torture would not be admissible as evidence.
M C WoodLegal Adviser
Second document: Confidential letters from Uzbekistan:
Letter #1ConfidentialFM TashkentTO FCO, Cabinet Office, DFID, MODUK, OSCE Posts, Security Council Posts
16 September 02
SUBJECT: US/Uzbekistan: Promoting TerrorismSUMMARY
US plays down human rights situation in Uzbekistan. A dangerous policy: increasing repression combined with poverty will promote Islamic terrorism. Support to Karimov regime a bankrupt and cynical policy.
The Economist of 7 September states: “Uzbekistan, in particular, has jailed many thousands of moderate Islamists, an excellent way of converting their families and friends to extremism.” The Economist also spoke of “the growing despotism of Mr Karimov” and judged that “the past year has seen a further deterioration of an already grim human rights record”. I agree.
Between 7,000 and 10,000 political and religious prisoners are currently detained, many after trials before kangaroo courts with no representation. Terrible torture is commonplace: the EU is currently considering a demarche over the terrible case of two Muslims tortured to death in jail apparently with boiling water. Two leading dissidents, Elena Urlaeva and Larissa Vdovna, were two weeks ago committed to a lunatic asylum, where they are being drugged, for demonstrating on human rights. Opposition political parties remain banned. There is no doubt that September 11 gave the pretext to crack down still harder on dissent under the guise of counter-terrorism. Yet on 8 September the US State Department certified that Uzbekistan was improving in both human rights and democracy, thus fulfilling a constitutional requirement and allowing the continuing disbursement of $140 million of US aid to Uzbekistan this year. Human Rights Watch immediately published a commendably sober and balanced rebuttal of the State Department claim.
Again we are back in the area of the US accepting sham reform [a reference to my previous telegram on the economy]. In August media censorship was abolished, and theoretically there are independent media outlets, but in practice there is absolutely no criticism of President Karimov or the central government in any Uzbek media. State Department call this self-censorship: I am not sure that is a fair way to describe an unwillingness to experience the brutal methods of the security services.
Similarly, following US pressure when Karimov visited Washington, a human rights NGO has been permitted to register. This is an advance, but they have little impact given that no media are prepared to cover any of their activities or carry any of their statements. The final improvement State quote is that in one case of murder of a prisoner the police involved have been prosecuted. That is an improvement, but again related to the Karimov visit and does not appear to presage a general change of policy. On the latest cases of torture deaths the Uzbeks have given the OSCE an incredible explanation, given the nature of the injuries, that the victims died in a fight between prisoners.
But allowing a single NGO, a token prosecution of police officers and a fake press freedom cannot possibly outweigh the huge scale of detentions, the torture and the secret executions. President Karimov has admitted to 100 executions a year but human rights groups believe there are more. Added to this, all opposition parties remain banned (the President got a 98% vote) and the Internet is strictly controlled. All Internet providers must go through a single government server and access is barred to many sites including all dissident and opposition sites and much international media (including, ironically, This is in essence still a totalitarian state: there is far less freedom than still prevails, for example, in Mugabe’s Zimbabwe. A Movement for Democratic Change or any judicial independence would be impossible here.
Karimov is a dictator who is committed to neither political nor economic reform. The purpose of his regime is not the development of his country but the diversion of economic rent to his oligarchic supporters through government controls. As a senior Uzbek academic told me privately, there is more repression here now than in Brezhnev’s time. The US are trying to prop up Karimov economically and to justify this support they need to claim that a process of economic and political reform is underway. That they do so claim is either cynicism or self-delusion.
This policy is doomed to failure. Karimov is driving this resource-rich country towards economic ruin like an Abacha. And the policy of increasing repression aimed indiscriminately at pious Muslims, combined with a deepening poverty, is the most certain way to ensure continuing support for the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan. They have certainly been decimated and disorganised in Afghanistan, and Karimov’s repression may keep the lid on for years – but pressure is building and could ultimately explode.
I quite understand the interest of the US in strategic airbases and why they back Karimov, but I believe US policy is misconceived. In the short term it may help fight terrorism but in the medium term it will promote it, as the Economist points out. And it can never be right to lower our standards on human rights. There is a complex situation in Central Asia and it is wrong to look at it only through a prism picked up on September 12. Worst of all is what appears to be the philosophy underlying the current US view of Uzbekistan: that September 11 divided the World into two camps in the “War against Terrorism” and that Karimov is on “our” side.
If Karimov is on “our” side, then this war cannot be simply between the forces of good and evil. It must be about more complex things, like securing the long-term US military presence in Uzbekistan. I silently wept at the 11 September commemoration here. The right words on New York have all been said. But last week was also another anniversary – the US-led overthrow of Salvador Allende in Chile. The subsequent dictatorship killed, dare I say it, rather more people than died on September 11. Should we not remember then also, and learn from that too? I fear that we are heading down the same path of US-sponsored dictatorship here. It is ironic that the beneficiary is perhaps the most unreformed of the World’s old communist leaders. We need to think much more deeply about Central Asia. It is easy to place Uzbekistan in the “too difficult” tray and let the US run with it, but I think they are running in the wrong direction. We should tell them of the dangers we see. Our policy is theoretically one of engagement, but in practice this has not meant much. Engagement makes sense, but it must mean grappling with the problems, not mute collaboration. We need to start actively to state a distinctive position on democracy and human rights, and press for a realistic view to be taken in the IMF. We should continue to resist pressures to start a bilateral DFID programme, unless channelled non-governmentally, and not restore ECGD cover despite the constant lobbying. We should not invite Karimov to the UK. We should step up our public diplomacy effort, stressing democratic values, including more resources from the British Council. We should increase support to human rights activists, and strive for contact with non-official Islamic groups.
Above all we need to care about the 22 million Uzbek people, suffering from poverty and lack of freedom. They are not just pawns in the new Great Game.
————————————————————————————————————————Letter #2 ConfidentialFm TashkentTo FCO
18 March 2003
1. As seen from Tashkent, US policy is not much focussed on democracy or freedom. It is about oil, gas and hegemony. In Uzbekistan the US pursues those ends through supporting a ruthless dictatorship. We must not close our eyes to uncomfortable truth.
2. Last year the US gave half a billion dollars in aid to Uzbekistan, about a quarter of it military aid. Bush and Powell repeatedly hail Karimov as a friend and ally. Yet this regime has at least seven thousand prisoners of conscience; it is a one party state without freedom of speech, without freedom of media, without freedom of movement, without freedom of assembly, without freedom of religion. It practices, systematically, the most hideous tortures on thousands. Most of the population live in conditions precisely analogous with medieval serfdom.
3. Uzbekistan’s geo-strategic position is crucial. It has half the population of the whole of Central Asia. It alone borders all the other states in a region which is important to future Western oil and gas supplies. It is the regional military power. That is why the US is here, and here to stay. Contractors at the US military bases are extending the design life of the buildings from ten to twenty five years.
4. Democracy and human rights are, despite their protestations to the contrary, in practice a long way down the US agenda here. Aid this year will be slightly less, but there is no intention to introduce any meaningful conditionality. Nobody can believe this level of aid – more than US aid to all of West Africa – is related to comparative developmental need as opposed to political support for Karimov. While the US makes token and low-level references to human rights to appease domestic opinion, they view Karimov’s vicious regime as a bastion against fundamentalism. He – and they – are in fact creating fundamentalism. When the US gives this much support to a regime that tortures people to death for having a beard or praying five times a day, is it any surprise that Muslims come to hate the West?
5. I was stunned to hear that the US had pressured the EU to withdraw a motion on Human Rights in Uzbekistan which the EU was tabling at the UN Commission for Human Rights in Geneva. I was most unhappy to find that we are helping the US in what I can only call this cover-up. I am saddened when the US constantly quote fake improvements in human rights in Uzbekistan, such as the abolition of censorship and Internet freedom, which quite simply have not happened (I see these are quoted in the draft EBRD strategy for Uzbekistan, again I understand at American urging).
6. From Tashkent it is difficult to agree that we and the US are activated by shared values. Here we have a brutal US sponsored dictatorship reminiscent of Central and South American policy under previous US Republican administrations. I watched George Bush talk today of Iraq and “dismantling the apparatus of terror… removing the torture chambers and the rape rooms”. Yet when it comes to the Karimov regime, systematic torture and rape appear to be treated as peccadilloes, not to affect the relationship and to be downplayed in international fora. Double standards? Yes.
7. I hope that once the present crisis is over we will make plain to the US, at senior level, our serious concern over their policy in Uzbekistan. MURRAY
————————————————————————————————————————Letter #3
TELNO 63OF 220939 JULY 04
1. We receive intelligence obtained under torture from the Uzbek intelligence services, via the US. We should stop. It is bad information anyway. Tortured dupes are forced to sign up to confessions showing what the Uzbek government wants the US and UK to believe, that they and we are fighting the same war against terror.
2. I gather a recent London interdepartmental meeting considered the question and decided to continue to receive the material. This is morally, legally and practically wrong. It exposes as hypocritical our post Abu Ghraib pronouncements and fatally undermines our moral standing. It obviates my efforts to get the Uzbek government to stop torture they are fully aware our intelligence community laps up the results.
3. We should cease all co-operation with the Uzbek Security Services they are beyond the pale. We indeed need to establish an SIS presence here, but not as in a friendly state.
4. In the period December 2002 to March 2003 I raised several times the issue of intelligence material from the Uzbek security services which was obtained under torture and passed to us via the CIA. I queried the legality, efficacy and morality of the practice.
5. I was summoned to the UK for a meeting on 8 March 2003. Michael Wood gave his legal opinion that it was not illegal to obtain and to use intelligence acquired by torture. He said the only legal limitation on its use was that it could not be used in legal proceedings, under Article 15 of the UN Convention on Torture.
6. On behalf of the intelligence services, Matthew Kydd said that they found some of the material very useful indeed with a direct bearing on the war on terror. Linda Duffield said that she had been asked to assure me that my qualms of conscience were respected and understood.
7. Sir Michael Jay’s circular of 26 May stated that there was a reporting obligation on us to report torture by allies (and I have been instructed to refer to Uzbekistan as such in the context of the war on terror). You, Sir, have made a number of striking, and I believe heartfelt, condemnations of torture in the last few weeks. I had in the light of this decided to return to this question and to highlight an apparent contradiction in our policy. I had intimated as much to the Head of Eastern Department.
8. I was therefore somewhat surprised to hear that without informing me of the meeting, or since informing me of the result of the meeting, a meeting was convened in the FCO at the level of Heads of Department and above, precisely to consider the question of the receipt of Uzbek intelligence material obtained under torture. As the office knew, I was in London at the time and perfectly able to attend the meeting. I still have only gleaned that it happened.
9. I understand that the meeting decided to continue to obtain the Uzbek torture material. I understand that the principal argument deployed was that the intelligence material disguises the precise source, ie it does not ordinarily reveal the name of the individual who is tortured. Indeed this is true – the material is marked with a euphemism such as “From detainee debriefing.” The argument runs that if the individual is not named, we cannot prove that he was tortured.
10. I will not attempt to hide my utter contempt for such casuistry, nor my shame that I work in and organisation where colleagues would resort to it to justify torture. I have dealt with hundreds of individual cases of political or religious prisoners in Uzbekistan, and I have met with very few where torture, as defined in the UN convention, was not employed. When my then DHM raised the question with the CIA head of station 15 months ago, he readily acknowledged torture was deployed in obtaining intelligence. I do not think there is any doubt as to the fact
11. The torture record of the Uzbek security services could hardly be more widely known. Plainly there are, at the very least, reasonable grounds for believing the material is obtained under torture. There is helpful guidance at Article 3 of the UN Convention; “The competent authorities shall take into account all relevant considerations including, where applicable, the existence in the state concerned of a consistent pattern of gross, flagrant or mass violations of human rights.” While this article forbids extradition or deportation to Uzbekistan, it is the right test for the present question also.
12. On the usefulness of the material obtained, this is irrelevant. Article 2 of the Convention, to which we are a party, could not be plainer:
“No exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat of war, internal political instability or any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification of torture.”
13. Nonetheless, I repeat that this material is useless – we are selling our souls for dross. It is in fact positively harmful. It is designed to give the message the Uzbeks want the West to hear. It exaggerates the role, size, organisation and activity of the IMU and its links with Al Qaida. The aim is to convince the West that the Uzbeks are a vital cog against a common foe, that they should keep the assistance, especially military assistance, coming, and that they should mute the international criticism on human rights and economic reform.
14. I was taken aback when Matthew Kydd said this stuff was valuable. Sixteen months ago it was difficult to argue with SIS in the area of intelligence assessment. But post Butler we know, not only that they can get it wrong on even the most vital and high profile issues, but that they have a particular yen for highly coloured material which exaggerates the threat. That is precisely what the Uzbeks give them. Furthermore MI6 have no operative within a thousand miles of me and certainly no expertise that can come close to my own in making this assessment.
15. At the Khuderbegainov trial I met an old man from Andizhan. Two of his children had been tortured in front of him until he signed a confession on the family’s links with Bin Laden. Tears were streaming down his face. I have no doubt they had as much connection with Bin Laden as I do. This is the standard of the Uzbek intelligence services.
16. I have been considering Michael Wood’s legal view, which he kindly gave in writing. I cannot understand why Michael concentrated only on Article 15 of the Convention. This certainly bans the use of material obtained under torture as evidence in proceedings, but it does not state that this is the sole exclusion of the use of such material.
17. The relevant article seems to me Article 4, which talks of complicity in torture. Knowingly to receive its results appears to be at least arguable as complicity. It does not appear that being in a different country to the actual torture would preclude complicity. I talked this over in a hypothetical sense with my old friend Prof Francois Hampson, I believe an acknowledged World authority on the Convention, who said that the complicity argument and the spirit of the Convention would be likely to be winning points. I should be grateful to hear Michael’s views on this.
18. It seems to me that there are degrees of complicity and guilt, but being at one or two removes does not make us blameless. There are other factors. Plainly it was a breach of Article 3 of the Convention for the coalition to deport detainees back here from Baghram, but it has been done. That seems plainly complicit.
19. This is a difficult and dangerous part of the World. Dire and increasing poverty and harsh repression are undoubtedly turning young people here towards radical Islam. The Uzbek government are thus creating this threat, and perceived US support for Karimov strengthens anti-Western feeling. SIS ought to establish a presence here, but not as partners of the Uzbek Security Services, whose sheer brutality puts them beyond the pale.

On Virtuousity And Genre

One of the few pieces of televisual entertainment I've managed to watch over the last couple of days was 'The Untouchables', in the early hours of Boxing Day morning, which was better than I remembered it being: totally ridiculously implausible, with serious moral defects, but quite entertaining none the less. It adheres, quite unashamedly, to a number of genre conventions - the older, worldly-wise if not downright cynical figure, who has been waiting all their life to be dragged out of their torpor by a idealistic young turk; said idealistic young turk realising that, actually, the problem of dirty hands isn't a problem at all, and committing acts of horrific brutality and violence in the name of a greater good is perfectly acceptable - but manages to extract enough drama from those conventions to turn what could have perhaps been a tired rehash of over-familiar material into a piece of quite enjoyable cinematic candy. Although 'The Untouchables' does have moments of baroque - the homage to Eisenstein in the train station, for example - De Palma actually directs it fairly tautly, driving the plot forward and restricting the flights of highly stylised fancy to a couple of well-placed set pieces.

This is unlike 'Sin City', which I saw when it came out. As some kind of strange mixture of tribute to and subversion of the already heavily stylised subgenre of noirish comic books, which probably bear that relation to a number of parent genres themselves, it is all about surface. 'Sin City' is more or less totally unconcerned to flesh out its characters, to proivde motivation, to locate them in a world which even basically resembles our own, something which 'The Untouchables' - fairly unconvincingly at face value individually, but perhaps in terms of the structure of the film as a whole, crucially convincingly - does bother with. There is almost nothing to piece together the admittedly incredibly slickly realised and styled violence at all, very little indeed use of the genre conventions which 'The Untouchables', for whatever reasons, chose not to eschew. This is of course wholly unproblematic if incredibly slickly realised and styled violence is all that is wanted from a film. But that's generally not all that is wanted from a film, if indeed a film could, without making any comment on it, just present an hour and a half or maybe slightly more of aesthetically stunning but morally blank violence. I found 'Sin City' empty, although perhaps deserving of awards for its art direction, unable to properly engage me even as a piece of entertainment, in comparison with 'The Untouchables', even though 'The Untouchables' is undoubtedly a extremely foolish film.

The difficulty lies in the abandonment of the genre conventions, other than fetishistic mining of them for the look and feel of the film, which structure the story of 'The Untouchables'. 'Sin City' is too clever, too unwilling to do the hard slog of actually crafting a story, to be a wholly satisfactory piece of entertainment. It is virtuoso, and suffers for it. Another way to think of this might be Jimi Hendrix. Everyone knows Hendrix was a great musician. Think about the songs he's remembered for though: 'All Along The Watch Tower', 'Hey Joe', 'Star-Spangled Banner'. Alright, there's 'Voodoo Chile' and 'Foxy Lady', but Hendrix is not, despite being an amazing guitarist, remembered, and reasonably justly I think, as a songwriter. I think this might be because he was an amazing guitarist, someone who didn't feel the constraints of genre and practice, who didn't quite have the patience to deal with the tastes of those without his talent and the ear that went with it when composing. When someone else placed the limits of a melody though, he could apply his skills wonderfully: 'All Along The Watch Tower' is one of the greatest pieces of music ever made, and precisely because of the frills that he and his band edged a basic song with. For all their apparent foolishness then, the conventions of genre have a purpose - to create a structure within which virtuousity can work.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Something To Be Thankful For

I'm going home, and away from broadband internet access, for the season of goodwill tomorrow, which may well mean a reduction and possibly even a total cessation of blogging until next week, when I am likely to return.

Democracy And The Public Sphere

One of the major concerns in the past couple of years in Britain, and particularly since the attacks of July, has been the terms on which a balance, if indeed that is the most helpful analogy, between liberty and security should be struck. Whatever the prime minister may think, one incident does not, by itself, change the rules of the game, and so, understandably, the terms in which the debate has been articulated and the problems which it has raised are familiar to political theorists at least since the late middle ages. In particular, the perenially divisive and problematic question of the distinction between the public and the private sphere has been raised, having vital bearing as it does on the issue of whether adherence to some set of particularistic - or indeed universal - values is required for full membership of a polity, for example, or whether and to what extent the state can legitimately imprison and impose penalties on the basis of evidence unavailable to the public or without normal due process, and so on. The thinking is here that there is a public realm, to which full citizens ought to be accorded entry, beyond which collective power cannot legitimately be exercised as to do so would unjustifiably impinge on the private lives of those citizens, often seen as a sphere of freedom. The distinction bears on the policy issues mentioned above because, for example, it articulates the extent to which the values we live by are a matter for public regulation and places the limits on the use of state power, especially in the absence of public justification.

One of the most vexed issues in the complex surrounding the public-private distinction, indeed one which could in certain contexts, without excessive distortion, be substituted for the problem of the public-private distinction, is that of the distinction between the right and the good. I want to suggest that whilst there clearly is something to the distinction, it is, at least as understood as relevant to the public-private distinction, essentially unstable, and that anything more than a minimal political programme is going to involve fairly substantive commitments in the sphere of the good. This issue, along with the public-private distinction more generally, has traditionally been of especial difficulty for liberals, attached as they are to the idea, because of the centrality of the idea of consent to their political theory, that the public sphere and so the right needs to be based on commitment to values, if based on commitment to values at all, that all can endorse. This is because unless all can endorse the values on which the public sphere is based, can consent to the set of ends that structure their polity, they have been unjustifiably coerced by that polity when it applies the laws based on that set of ends to them. Liberalism is thus faced with a dilemma where they must attempt to balance the concern for inclusivity - that all can endorse the values in question - with the concern for the strength or thickness of those values.

One way to think about this is to contrast the liberalism of Mill's 'On Liberty' with the 'Liberalism of Fear' championed by Judith Shklar. Mill makes no attempt to moderate his ethical, or private, liberalism in putting forward his political programme, making claims which rather than being inclusive are distinctively confrontational: most notoriously that offence is no harm, for example, but also that the pursuit of individuality is the end of human life. Shklar, on the other hand, advocates a liberalism which presents itself as a programme for the avoidance of fear: the fear of arbitrary arrest, imprisonment or punishment, of religious persecution, and of poverty, starvation or ill-health. Unlike Mill, she aims to justify liberalism in terms of values which are as widely accepted as possible: unlike the cultivation of a life as a work of art, the ideal Mill seemed to be aspiring to in his political programme, Shklar invokes the near-universal values of not being physical harmed, having shelter, food and clean water and so on. Shklar's programme, which she persuasively argues represents a significant strand in liberal thought through time, aiming at the removal of fear by the prevention of certain outcomes, gets us quite a long way. Minimal levels of healthcare free at the point of demand, shelter for the homeless, unemployment insurance, old age pensions and the like can I think fairly clearly be extracted from it.

However, it is hardly an comprehensive guide. It has little to say about the structure or burdens of the programmes which would ensure safety from fear, which could hardly be thought to exhaust the possibilities of politics anyway. It is a minimal programme, which places clear limits on outcomes which can be regarded as acceptable, but has little to say beyond that, and would have little problem, one would have thought, with traditional liberal concerns like the separation of church and state so long as no one had excessive burdens placed on their freedom of conscience. Mill's political thought, on the other hand, goes far beyond that, with, at least in principle, a definitive answer to any question one could choose to ask of it. Yet that is precisely the problem with Mill's political thought, that by leaving nothing untouched, it fails to respect the ideas of consent and of the public sphere as it demands so much of all whom it claims to apply to. If a citizen living under a Millian regime does not accept that they ought to cultivate their individuality, a liberal must surely regard them as being coerced by a society which structures itself around that principle. The very strength of Mill's liberalism compromises it, just as the weakness of Shklar's prevents it from being fully liberal.

This suggests that a principled distinction between the right and the good will be difficult to draw, any attempt will have to avoid the twin difficulties of not providing enough to structure and give a guide to public debate and the public sphere and that of over-specifying so as to harden the public sphere and exclude some of those who ought properly to be able to access it. Even Shklar, after all, has to draw on values which some could and do reject in their private lives, blurring the distinction between the right and the good. The problem seems to be connected to the idea of the public sphere itself, for the difficulty that Mill-style liberalisms encounter is that they, in their insistence on a strongly liberal ethic, ignore the liberties essential to the shape of the public sphere - those associated with the thought that living under a set of social institutions, including but not exclusively those of the law, you did not or would not consent to is a serious loss of freedom. That surely entails that one ought to be able to reject liberal principles under certain circumstances, or else the concept of consent begins to dwindle into nothingness.

The suggestion, however, that the public sphere is structured by the concept of consent, of course must imply some self-examination, for surely just as it must be a matter of consent, idealised or otherwise, what state and social institutions are legitimate, it must also be a matter of consent what consent itself is. That reflexivity is what makes it impossible to satisfactorily articulate a sharp version of the distinctions between the right and the good and the public and the private: the public requires the power to set its own limits, which prevents those limits being specified precisely. This means that, in the sense of mapping onto the public-private distinction, the distinction between the right and the good cannot be fixed, although we can still look to minimal theories like Shklar's to provide a hard boundary beyond which state power cannot go, since the absence of a precise line does not destroy separation.

The implications of this understanding of the structure of the public sphere and politics more generally where it is seen as to do with the regulation of that area of life are significant. It not only undermines the possibility of an attempt at outright demarcation of the public sphere, like Mill's Harm Principle, but has the potential to fairly radically alter the way that political philosophy is done. For one thing, it suggests that any political theory purporting to have settled all the issues in that subject is likely to be wrong, and, relatedly, will tend to change the criteria by which such theories are judged away from one of truth and towards ones of legitimacy and reasonableness, towards standards generated by understandings of the processes by which informed consent is arrived at. That, however, as rather large topic, is probably best left for another day. More specifically, the implications for the debates on the balance between security and liberty are, for liberals, double-edged : on one hand, it legitimates, as a part of democratic discourse, the expression of highly partisan ethical views, but it makes vague the boundary beyond which the state cannot step. Because of that shifting ground, and the public dsicourses which will temporarily fix it, liberals must be prepared to engage in perhaps emotive ethical arguments, justifying the right to do wrong and to live outside of the gaze of the state and indeed society at large, and not only engage, but perhaps sometimes lose.

Sunday, December 18, 2005

Cognitive Dissonance, Pt. II

When David Cameron calls for the creation of "a modern, progressive, liberal, mainstream opposition to Labour", I assume, as the leader of a political party, that he's not handing out helpful advice to other political parties, looking for a niche in the British political system. That can only mean that he thinks that the Conservative party can be "modern, progressive, liberal, mainstream opposition to Labour". I had been operating under the impression that conservatives and progressives were diametrically opposed, since conservatism is about, as the name suggests, conserving things, while progressives believe in progress and so changing things, but obviously I must have been mistaken. Although it's a little late given the battering he's been getting, Charles Kennedy's retort to all this, that if he believes this, it is David Cameron who ought to be switching parties, seems to me eminently sensible.

Vaguely Undignified Bitching, Or, Providing Useful Information To Fellow Travellers

You have been warned: this is petty and basically gratuitous. However, somewhere, under all that fundamentally unjustified sense of entitlement, there may be something other than me venting spleen. The Friday before last, the ninth, I came back from my holidays in The Hague via Brussels on the Eurostar. The train was delayed because of SNCF industrial action which prevented the member of staff who was supposed to join the train at Lille, and thus provide the requisite number of staff for travelling through the tunnel, from doing so. It left Brussels about forty minutes late, at about five past nine, and eventually got into London at around ten past eleven, roughly an hour and ten minutes late. Understandably, I wasn't best pleased about the train being late: I'd been looking forward to getting back to my mum's, where I was staying, and perhaps having a little glass of something before going to bed, which it was really too late to contemplate doing by the time I got there, and hanging about in train stations is hardly my favourite occupation. It was annoying: I'd purchased the tickets on the understanding that I'd be taken from A to B by this method in this time, and that hadn't happened, something which was both irritating in the sense that it disrupted my plans, and in the sense that it was actually a rather exasperating experience to live through.

I asked about compensation both at Brussels and London, and was told that because the cause of the delay was industrial action with which Eurostar was not connected, no compensation would be given. I emailed the company when I got back, and although I was again denied any compensation, I was given a different reason: that the train wasn't over an hour late, which either depends on a perverse understanding of what it is for trains to be late, where trains are late by the amount they are delayed when they leave, not when they arrive, or is simply false. I emailed them again, and politely got told to bugger off again. Eurostar aren't going to give me compensation, basically, and having read their conditions of carriage, under their conditions of carriage, which I presumably must have accepted when I bought the tickets, I'm probably not entitled to it. It doesn't make me feel any better about it though, that they came up with two different reasons for doing so, one of which was more or less a blatant lie. Likewise, it's hardly a sweeping endorsement of their customer care policy that it seems to amount to a blank refusal to compensate at all unless the Chief Executive, giggling maniacally and stroking his big fluffy white cat in a disturbingly suggestive manner as he does so, orders that trains be delayed so that he can experience the visceral thrill of his limitless power. I say seems because all that I can work out from the conditions of carriage is when they won't compensate, and I can't find the compensation policy referred to in them on the website, which, being suspicious and somewhat vindictive, I feel justifies me in conjuring up James Bond villians for my own and hopefully public amusement.

So, a warning. Although I really like Eurostar's service when it runs smoothly, and have in the past chosen it over flying - don't get me started on flying, and particular, f*cking airports, places whch make supermarkets on Saturday mornings look like palatial, genteel institutions of unruffled mutual beneficience - on more than one occasion, I won't do so again, and would urge others to do likewise, because Eurostar doesn't care about you. As long as they didn't deliberately bugger you about themselves, they're going to deny that they have any responsibility to compensate you for their failure to deliver the service you paid for, and even if they did, it's only if you're actually over an hour late that they'll do anything. I think that's fairly crap, especially when compared with what BA did when they were crippled by secondary picketing, by people who weren't their staff, in support of strikers involved in a dispute which, again, had little to do with them, which was to give everyone their money back. It's not earth-shattering, it's not particularly serious, and it probably won't make any difference to Eurostar at all, but it strikes me that the main reason that BA did give compensation was because of the poor publicity they would have got in the event that they didn't, so it seems sensible to think that Eurostar might respond in much the same way. On, and pre-emptively, I warned them that I'd publicize my displeasure were they to fail to assuage it.

Friday, December 16, 2005

Blood Breeds Blood

Lenin makes the entirely reasonable point that, given the absolute disgusting state of the US prison service and indeed criminal justice system in general, and in particular the way in which inmates are systematically abused, it's hardly surprising that American soldiers have been torturing detainees in Iraq and elsewhere, and he has videos to prove it. This brings to mind Andrew O'Hagan's article in the LRB from a couple of months ago, which I meant for precisely this feature to mention at the time, but couldn't find any more general hook to hang it on. O'Hagan basically hitch-hiked with two somewhat dissheveled and disorientated, but not spectacularly so, men who decided to go to the Gulf Coast in the aftermath of Katrina to try and help, but what struck me about the article was not the devastation that a hurricane could create in an unprepared and horrifically unequal society so much as the systematic violence, much of it sexual, of the discourse of the two men. Topics of idle conversation between the two seem to have included whether one would hold a woman down whilst the other raped her or not. That's f*cked up: that's just not an acceptable topic of idle conversation. Where violent rape has become something that gets talked about in the same way as what snack food to buy for the next day's car journey, I'd say that attitudes both towards violence and women aren't as enlightened as they might be. Countries where that is an acceptable topic of idle conversation between apparently broadly social functional people will, I predict, and I feel I'm really going out on a limb here, tend to not be so great when it comes to their citizens resisting the temptation to abuse those in their power. Like I say, going out on a limb.

Glorifying Terrorism, Holocaust Denial, And Democracy

A while ago, at Shuggy's Blog, I tried to argue that having criminal penalties attached to public Holocaust denial might not necessarily be a particularly terrible thing, and, where the penalties are not disproportionate, it might actually be, if perhaps not mandated, desirable. Although perhaps I didn't explain myself very well, my reasoning for thinking this is something like this:

Holocaust denial is, more or less uniformly, the politically motivated distortion of exceptionally well established historical fact, which aims at legitimating one of the most disgusting regimes in recorded history, that of Nazi Germany, and its project of wiping out the Jews as an ethnic group;
Nazism, because of its extremely violent racism, its aim of purifying the German race by the extermination of those without roots in some hazily imagined bloody and tribal past, is profoundly anti-democratic, in the sense that it cannot countenance living in mutual distrust with, merely tolerating, anyone who fails to meet its bizarrely racialized standards of moral fitness;
this is anti-democratic because it refuses admittance to the public sphere to anyone who is not a Nazi, essentially - it absolutely denies their right to have any say in the way in which they are governed, and because democracy is about the consent of governed to their government, that is anti-democratic;
the public expression of a belief in the legitimacy of Nazism poisons the public sphere, the arena in which the debate which is essential to a properly functioning democracy occurs, by seeking to alter its shape by altering those who can participate in and enter it;
preventing this from happening is a reasonable preoccupation of democratic states and their citizens, since failing to prevent it could well damage whatever legitimacy their government possesses;
public affirmations, such as attaching relatively mild criminal penalties to Holocaust denial, of the illegitimacy of such acts, are a reasonable means to this reasonable end, since whilst it would be impractical to prosecute all those suspected of having denied the Holocaust, a demonstration of the public unacceptability of such denials reinforces that same public unacceptability.

Shuggy's objection to this argument was that it hands a disproportionate power to the agents of the state. I had compared it to the law in Britain banning smacking which, I have no doubt, is being used not to prosecute every parent who dares to raise their hand to a child, but to eliminate one defence against child abuse and to attempt to affect a cultural shift in attitudes towards what constitutes reasonable chastisement, specifically, that what constitutes reasonable chastisement is a smaller set than was once thought. In response, Shuggy pointed instead to the proposed offence of glorifying terrorism, saying this

the example you use is like 'glorifying' terrorism laws. I think it's a dangerous step to make quite illiberal laws that would cover a large number of people and then say in effect "It's ok, they'll only be used against very bad people".

Presumably, the problem that the ‘it’s ok, the law’ll only be used against very bad people’ retort is that the law in question would be illegitimate were it to be used against anyway other than very bad people. That requires that the law is generally illegitimate, which must require, at least for Shuggy’s claim, that the analogy with the glorification of terrorism works. Unfortunately, it doesn’t, and I think this is important in understanding what is objectionable about such a ban, because glorifying terrorism is not anti-democratic in the foundational way that seeking to legitimize Nazism is.

Terrorism is notoriously difficult to define satisfactorily, and although I think there are better definitions, let's just for the time being say that it is political violence by those who are not agents of the state. Glorification, again, is hardly the most opaque of concepts, but putting that aside, allow it to encompass more or less any statement expressing the view that such acts have, to some non-negligible degree, morally praiseworthy characteristics. Banning the glorification of terrorism would thus mean banning expressing the belief that any anti-state struggle which used violence was legitimate. I'm fairly pacifistic, but I can think of circumstances in which the use of violence by non-state actors would be acceptable and perhaps even desirable. Furthermore, there is nothing profoundly anti-democratic about the general thought that there are occasions on which political violence is acceptable and perhaps even desirable, which is not to say that there are not specific beliefs about the legitimacy of political violence - for example, those expressed by Nazis - which are not profoundly anti-democratic. Indeed, you might well think, particularly on the expanded definition of terrorism I favour - violence designed to expand the social space of battle - that preventing discussion of the moral properties of such action - in particular, say, the bombing of civilians during military conflicts - would be profoundly anti-democratic.

Shuggy says, in defence of his view that we ought not to restrict speech that

[t]o be able to recognise the rights of those who represent the very negation of freedom is the glory and wisdom of liberal democracy. That this is so should be a vigorously defended tenet of our beliefs. This requires more self-confidence than perhaps has been on display in recent years; we should understand that we can afford to do this because we have the strength to do it.

I don’t think that’s true: there is a genuine question about to what degree we are obliged to tolerate the intolerant, a question which is raised, quite obviously, by considering whether or not it is legitimate to ban particular types of speech acts. There are acts, I would contend, that stretch the reasonable bounds of tolerance because they threaten the foundations of tolerance itself, because they deny that there is any duty to tolerate at all, at least towards some people. Clearly, we do not have an obligation to tolerate in all cases, and it seems at least to me that it is reasonable to think that the boundaries of the obligation to tolerate do not extend to Neo-Nazis, whilst it is not obviously reasonable to think that they do not extend to those who refuse to condemn violence by non-state actors. Indeed, whilst Shuggy ascribes some kind of strength to the refusal to condemn, and there is a strength to that refusal, it is not universal: both democracy and liberalism involve some substantive commitments, and those who persistently violate those commitments ought to be, at least by liberals and democrats, condemned, condemnations which, it seems to me, may sometimes take the form of criminal penalties.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

In Other News...

this is seriously f*cked up. Three million people is a not insubstantial number. It's more than the population of Wales. If everyone in Wales was malnourished, we'd be hearing about it. This is supposed to be a wealthy, first world country, and five percent of the population is suffering from serious physical symptoms as a result of not eating enough. F*cked up. Press release and report here.

I'd forgotten quite how well expressed the righteous, unflinching rage of this poem was. Vipers that the vipers would abominate indeed. Unfortunately, it rather shows up the rest of the speech in which I found it quoted. (via)

While we're waiting for the blood to drown the generals in a wave of pride and knives, there's always Get Your War On to keep our heads held high. New one here.

Finally, Stumbling and Mumbling has an interesting take on the death penalty. It seems to me, as Chris points out, that there's a very good prudential case against it - that no process is infallible, and it would be unwise to make some pay what must be the ultimate price on the basis of a fallible process - but that's not an abstract moral prohibition. Given that we do regard it as legitmate for the state to take some lives, lives of those who, in general, are considerably less morally blameworthy than, say, the Moors murderer, during the course of a just war, there should in principle be a case to answer. It seems to me that that answer must rest on that taking another human being's life is only ever acceptable in genuine self-defence, a principle which is not one dependent on falling under the remit of a social contract but extends to those outside it: you don't massacre prisoners of war, even though they can be a drain on resources and are, under certain circumstances, a threat.

Two Anti-Utilitarian Thoughts...

which connect pleasingly. Although it may not necessarily be a reductio of utilitarianism that it can be used to justify torture - I think the ticking bomb scenario should be difficult, and it may even be the case, as in Bernard Williams' Jim and the Indians example, that we ought to do something terrible, even if we are not obliged to do it - it should be a reductio of utilitarianism that it can be used to justify torture in cases where the torturer gains enough enjoyment from it. There are no circumstances under which we count happiness gained from morally despicable activities, and that is because, as Rochenko points out, happiness, insofar as we are morally interested in it at all, has qualitative not quantitative value: it's irrelevant whether torturing makes someone happy or not, because it shouldn't.

Cameron And The Tories

I think I find the election of Cameron as the new Tory leader considerably less exciting than the majority of British commentators, probably both because his actual coronation had been so long trailed that it was hardly particularly newsworthy when it did happen and because I was abroad, avoiding most of the attempt to whip up some half-arsed simulcra of interest when his ascension finally took place. There's also the consideration that the next general election is probably at least four years away, and if, as is tediously repeated at every opportunity, a week is a long time in politics, then what seems important now could well have all the relevance of the day to day concerns of the Triassic by then. On the other hand, for all the truth of MacMillan's observations about events, the basic patterns of British politics of the post-Thatcherite era are fairly unlikely to be totally obliterated, so these thoughts may be worth having a little look at.

I particularly like 'nothing gets old like newness': as both Shuggy and Jamie observe, Cameron is Blair lite, the iron fist inside the warm, mushy, emoting velvet glove, in touch with the ordinary people precisely so he can grab at them by the balls, and the interesting question is how, in the long term, both the media and Blair react to this attempt to out-brand the dominant political brand of the day. If I was a Tory though, I would be cautious. What was once the natural party of government has now been out of power for eight years, and by the time the next general election, barring accidents, comes around, twelve, which will then be the longest period since the middle of the nineteenth century. That Tory collapse was precipitated by the rightwing's opposition to Peel's removal of the Corn Laws, which had controlled the inflow of foreign corn into the country, raising the market price and so profits for the native squirearchy, who just happened to be the foundation of the party's national support. One wonders whether the ridiculous mess which the Tories got themselves into over Europe could have had the same impact.

Monday, December 12, 2005

Decidely Immoderate

This post at Balkinization, and the series of which it is a part, is interesting, because amongst other things it illustrates what people who don't really know anything about political philosophy at all know about political philosophy, which is something I think political philosophers might do well to be more aware of. For example, Rawls.

The moderate left position staked out by Rawls has become passe, rejected almost as much by left critics as by conservatives.

Now, the difference principle alone (see passim), despite having been subjected to fairly extensive criticism on the grounds that it is insufficiently radical, still stands as a damning critique of more or less every society in the world. There can be very few states which can say with any confidence whatsoever that any departures from equality in the distribution of income, wealth, and the social bases of self respect are designed to be to the long term advantage of the least well off. Maybe some of the Scandinavian ones, but I'm skeptical.

But the difference principle is far from the most radical of Rawls' principles in terms of policy implications. Ensuring the fair value of the political liberties is likely to mean ensuring that everyone, for example, has roughly equal access to means of influencing the political opinions of their fellow citizens, which would either mean preventing money from becoming speech, or truly radical measures of economic equality. Equally, the requirement of equality of opportunity should mean the removal of any systematic inter-generational class advantage. This is not moderate. By any Rawlsian assessment, Britain, and certainly the United States, is spectacularly unjust. It is not a matter of tinkering. This is not a machine which is essentially sound, aimed at the right ends, and simply needs to be repaired or recalibrated, but rather a system which repeatedly produces injustice on a grand scale, which, were it the product of a mind, rather than of evolution, would be a damning indictment against that mind. Rawls was not a moderate.

Neither are his ideas passe, precisely because he was not a moderate. Ignoring their centrality to the discipline of political theory as it stands, to the extent that inequality, without any substantial improvement in the lot of the worst off, has increased since the seventies, they have obvious contemporary moment. Maybe if you think of the difference between strands of political thought as coming down to money and sex, they're a bit passe, since, after all, the idea that we should be able to justify political arrangements to people who are subject to them, the key Rawlsian insight, isn't really about money or sex: it's about political theory.

Like, That's Cool...

So, I'm back from holiday. Bar being pissed off by Eurostar so far refusing to give me a refund when my train was over an hour and a half late, it was good. The Hague's quite nice - the Gemeentee Museum, which has lots of early and quite moody Mondrian, as well as an interactive, hands-on thing in the basement which looked excellent, if requiring more extensive knowledge of Dutch, is particularly good, and there was lots of good, although rather unfortunately pricey, eating. Scheveningen is kind of like Blackpool, but if people had decided to visibly spend lots of money on it without altering in the slightest what it does: all cheap and cheerful, that not only avoids being grotty, but looks positively clean. Delft is pretty, and not a total tourist trap. Also, I saw several herons whilst in a Western European capital city, which has to qualify me for something. Anyway, normally obtuse and philosophical posting will be resumed after I have managed to sort out all the stuff I went away to put off, and all the other stuff that has, as is the way, accumulated in the interim. Movie thing via

Saturday, December 03, 2005

Little Note

Due to my going on holiday next week, and going to London for the weekend, there is unlikely to be any blogging over the next week and a half or so.

Friday, December 02, 2005

You Know The One About The Soldier And The Camel...

This. I still treasure 'Not Saluting But Drowning' and 'Electile Dysfunction' was a thing of absolute genius, but this is surely up there.

The Difference Principle, Wealthy Swedes And A Question

In 1971, John Rawls' 'Theory of Justice' made a substantial contribution towards the revival of political philosophy in the Anglo-American tradition. Or at least, that's what they told me when I did undergraduate political theory, and had me read a literature and ask questions which were all well within a post-Rawlsian understanding of the subject. Anyway, for the purposes of this post, that's substantially the same thing, because I now have a largely, although not exclusively, post-Rawlsian understanding of the subject, and if I'm going to write about it, that's what you're going to get. So. Famously, Rawls advocated two principles of justice, which should be used to structure the major social, economic and political institutions of any given society:

that each person is to have an equal right to the most extensive basic liberty compatible with a similar liberty for others;

that social and economic inequalities are to be arranged so that they are both a) to the greatest benefit of the least advantaged, and b) attached to offices and positions open to all under conditions of fair equality of opportunity

Part a) of the second principle, often called the difference principle, has been much criticized, both on the grounds that it calls for an unjustified level of interference by the state in the economic activity of private citizens and on the grounds that it fails to achieve as much as it should, in particular, that it does not regard equality as a necessary condition for calling a state just. Having spent quite enough time on those who regard simple access to the market as a both necessary and sufficient condition of justice, I want to have a look at what in a way constitutes the other side of the coin: those who regard a single end-state, in this case equality, as an over-riding requirement of a state of affairs being just.

Gerald Cohen has been prominent amongst those who have criticized Rawlsian theories of justice for being insufficiently egalitarian. His critique of the difference principle regards it as egalitarianism with concessions to the avarice and superior bargaining power of those with talents in high demand, concessions which he argues may be prudent, and even perhaps morally necessary, but concessions nonetheless, concessions which ideally should not have to be made. To illustrate this point, he has used a series of quasi-historical claims about Sweden.

Apparently - and nothing in particular turns on the empirical truth of these claims - in the 1980s, high-earning Swedes began to articulate an electorally powerful critique of their welfare state which was crucially self-referential: they argued that the rates of income tax on high incomes were punitive, constituting a disincentive to work amongst the most productive of Swedish workers, ignoring both that they were the ones for whom this disincentive existed and that they, or at least some of them, had not always seen them as a disincentive. Effectively, they successfully held the Swedish welfare state to ransom by threatening to withdraw their labour unless they were given higher effective marginal rates of pay. Cohen believes that Sweden was a more just state before this change in the attitudes amongst wealthy Swedes occurred, because it was more egalitarian, and further, that because the difference principle cannot explain that judgement, at least as a judgement about justice, that the difference principle is faulty.

The reason the difference principle cannot explain that judgement is that when assessing whether or not the difference principle is fulfilled, we are not supposed to take into account the difference that different attitudes amongst the population, or indeed subsets of the population, would make to the lot of the least advantaged. The two principles of justice range over the major social, political and economic institutions of a society, and attitudes towards what counts as an acceptable level of remuneration do not, for Rawls, count as major social, political or economic institutions. So, despite the fact that the changes in the attitudes of the wealthy in Sweden undoubtedly made the least advantaged less advantaged, they do not violate the difference principle, because the level of incentive that those with talents in high demand insist upon in order to work is not something the difference principle considers.

This creates a problem for Rawlsians though, because if the thought that Sweden became a less just state after the demands of the wealthy were conceded to is appealing, any provision of incentives in order to create a larger pie that can then be divided so as to improve the position of the least advantaged looks similarly like a concession to injustice. If the wealthy Swedes were being unreasonable in insisting on higher remuneration, then, mutatis mutandis, so is anyone else, and the whole rationale of the difference principle - the avoidance of levelling-down type complaints by allowing inequality insofar as it improves the lot of the least advantaged - collapses, because inequality usually improves the lot of the least advantaged by encouraging those with productive talents to work more, and the Swedish example seems to show that that demanding that encouragement is illegitimately reducing the take of the least advantaged. The difference principle simply becomes the Swedish case writ large, and equality seems mandated.

Cohen's attack here is really two-fold: he is both putting pressure on the difference principle, and on what Rawls claims is the scope of principles of justice, since he is claiming first that the difference principle is illegitimate, and second that it is illegitimate because it ignores some ways in which injustices can be committed. In particular, he is claiming that a state whose citizens feel that they have a duty to not take advantage of their bargaining power to demand excessive remuneration when engaging in productive labour so as to grant the largest possible take to the least advantaged is a more just state than one whose citizens lack that sense of obligation.

Such an obligation, were people to act with it in mind, would presumably restrict the jobs people thought they could take. Rather than writing bad poetry, which they love doing but is not very socially useful, it would enjoin those with a particular talent for surgery to be surgeons, and not to demand that they are recompensed at a rate which would, in the absence of the sense of duty, compensate them for not being a bad poet, but at a rate which was to the greatest advantage of the least advantaged, which of course includes the possibility that they could, through job dissatisfaction, become a member of the least advantaged.

I think it is plausible we have such a duty: the way the wealthy Swedes behaved seems to me a paradigm case of 'to each according to his threat advantage', something Rawls himself explicitly rules out as a basis of justice. The question I am interested in is whether or not that duty, if met, constitutes a loss of freedom. The hard case here is not the one where direct coercion is required to enforce the duty, but the one where the person who acts as the duty requires does so because they believe it is their duty, even though they regret that it is their duty. In short, the question is, can felt moral requirements be a loss of freedom? Do I, even though I do it willingly, in the sense that I do not try to avoid doing it and am not coerced by others into doing it, lose freedom when I act to fulfill a moral requirement?

The immediate relevance of the question is whether or not Rawlsians can retort to Cohen that he is asking for people to give up freedom, which then establishes an at least pro tanto reason against his series of claims, but I think it has further moment. In particular, it seems to undermine the view that law, and so politics more generally, is coercive, by refusing to see structures directed at securing compliance, directly and indirectly, with a moral law as limits on freedom. That would seem to have not just radically generally anti-Rawlsian but also radically anti-democratic implications, because it would cut the link between a legitimate government and some form of consent to it by refusing to acknowledge there was anything that needed to be consented to. Anyway, the difference principle, wealthy Swedes, and a question. Any thoughts, however abusive, appreciated.