Wednesday, April 27, 2016

I Wanna Make Up My Mind but I Don't Know Myself

Stephen Heiner, like countless other people, read Nicholas Carr's book The Shallows and came away with a renewed determination to reclaim his neuro-territory from the pernicious imperialism of personal technology. His guerrilla tactics are likewise predictable: write things by hand, avoid multitasking, etc. There's nothing inherently good or bad about doing things the long, slow way, but again, as with nearly everything else that has been written in praise of Carr's message, the problem is that it substitutes a technical solution for what is more a question of value. In other words, this, to me, is a job for Sartre's conception of bad faith.

Carr starts from a conception that others have called the "contemplative literate subject" and assumes it as the default. He seems to think that what demands explanation is the fact that fewer people today (however one would quantify such things) seem inclined to live a life of literary introspection. I, on the other hand, start from the premise that we are always divided against ourselves, wanting to have mutually exclusive things, lacking the discipline and motivation to resolve the conflict. I suggest to you that most people don't know what they want out of life, and that this is, and has always been, the norm. I suggest that their oft-stated desire to live more profoundly is aspirational — that is, they realize that it looks good to profess such a goal, even if they're not particularly motivated to achieve it. And I suggest that the reason so many people have happily taken to Carr's message is because they recognize how useful it is in allowing them a bad-faith excuse, a way to avoid the sort of uncomfortable soul-searching that might call upon them to change their lives. They are content to forfeit their agency and act like the helpless prisoners of dimly-understood forces beyond their control.

I don't mean "change" in the sense of substituting a pen and paper for a netbook or smartphone — that's the sort of trivial self-improvement scheme or productivity hack you can find in any self-help book. I'm saying, what happens if you start thinking about why you spend so much time allowing your energy to be dissipated by idly thumbing your phone instead of reading a good book, or why it is that you spend so much of your day in a high-tech work environment that leaves you feeling exhausted and empty? What if it turns out that you don't really want to read books because you're not actually a profound person? What if a life of watching sitcoms and sports honestly sounds good enough to you, but you're afraid that admitting it would be devastating to your social status and self-image? What if you start to suspect that you're spending all your time working at a job you hate because it pays the sort of money you need to live the lifestyle you've somehow happened into, and besides, all of your expensive education went into preparing you for it, and sunk-cost fallacy notwithstanding, you can't even begin to consider changing course now, and besides, your family depends on you playing your role, and oh, God, how did you ever end up with a spouse and three kids to begin with, and where oh where could you even consider admitting that some days, you feel ambivalent enough to contemplate just driving off into the sunset and never thinking about any of them again?

Most people, I suspect, are practiced enough at burying such speculation before it asserts itself, and have been since they were adolescents. Thus, when a public intellectual comes along to tell them how their dissatisfaction is due to the fact that technology has rewired their brains, they have a ready-made headstone to put on top of it.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

What Is This That Stands Before Me?

When I first set about trying to make sense of the ongoing Great Awakening of social justice fanaticism, I found that the most helpful sources of information were books written in the mid-to-late-'90s, shortly after the last wave of political correctness had attracted mainstream attention. I'd been wondering how long it would be until we started to see book-length analyses of today's SJWs, and now Kim Holmes has produced one of the first examples:

Progressive liberalism in America today is not at all like what has come before. It is not merely a logical extension of the old progressivism popular at the turn of the 20th century, or the New Deal liberalism of Franklin Roosevelt and its outgrowth, the "Great Society" liberalism of Lyndon Johnson. It is not even the same as the 1960s New Left. It is something entirely new. It has roots in these old movements, but it has acquired a new ideology all its own.

The historical roots are twofold: 1) the tradition of radical egalitarianism that first surfaced over two centuries ago in the radical Enlightenment; and 2) various intellectual movements that arose as a negative reaction to the Enlightenment's rationalism, often lumped together in a movement called the Counter-Enlightenment. The first tradition is normally associated with the left, while the second is a phenomenon normally of the right, at least in Europe. The fusion of these two opposing intellectual traditions is a major reason why the postmodern left is so philosophically elusive. It is also a factor in why it has been so politically successful.

The historical inspirations for the New Left were typically leftist. But the postmodern left was also fed by another set of ideas associated with the right-leaning Counter-Enlightenment. Partly a romantic rebellion against the rationalism of the Enlightenment, but also a continuation of some of its more radical egalitarian ideas, the Counter-Enlightenment was characterized by distrust of rational discourse, a disdain for empiricism, contempt for Western liberalism, a hatred of modernity, and a tendency to glorify human passion as the mark of authentic individualism.

Hegel's dialectic in action! The old windbag is probably smiling in his grave. Holmes goes on to distinguish postmodern leftism from traditional liberalism (the postmodern left favors epistemic relativism over liberalism's affinity for natural law, it has no qualms about using state power to coerce opposition to accept its radical egalitarian claims, and it is strongly opposed to open inquiry and debate) and from early-20th-century progressivism (progressives, he stresses, were interested above all in building a new collective society, not in creating a balkanized zone of warring identity tribes, and they approved of the basic cultural and moral frameworks of Western civilization).

Taxonomy aside, he notes one especially interesting thing about their style of argument:

The deconstructionist method used by the postmodernists, albeit ostensibly theoretical in intent, is a powerful political weapon. It is a way to critique society without exposing oneself to easy counterattacks. By promising, for example, to tear away the veil of myth that supposedly props up capitalism and Western culture, it offers an all-purpose method of criticism that is political without appearing to be political. Postmodernists present themselves as relativists, not dogmatists, and thus they can sling arrows at the system from every possible angle. Since they are not held responsible for defending anything that actually exists, they wear their theoretical slipperiness as a badge of honor, as proof of a profound authenticity that is exceedingly difficult to disprove. They are intellectual guerrilla fighters in an asymmetrical war against Western culture, only they often pretend not to be fighters at all, but simply disinterested academics. They attack from the cultural flanks and then slip back into the cloistered protection of the academy, professing an interest only in literary theory or the nature of perception, language, and knowledge.

This actually made me laugh. Those of you who used to read the blog Who Is IOZ? (it's now private, as the author, Jacob Bacharach, has gone on to become a novelist) back in the day should recognize this description. He espoused an intensely moralistic, non-denominational radicalism while sarcastically, ironically deflecting all challenges to him to defend a practical stance (and, perhaps true to his generation's stereotype, he still likes to style himself as too special to fit within anyone else's categorizations). IOZ managed to keep the shtick alive for several years due to his exceptional and entertaining writing ability, but in the hands of an ordinary practitioner, its sanctimony is merely tiresome.

At any rate, the salient point is that, unlike the fellow-traveling left of the early 20th century and the Third-World-liberationist sympathies of the New Left, today's radicals are too jaded/afraid to be caught committing to a positive vision; theirs is entirely negative, relentlessly critical. Everything that actually exists is to be condemned for its imperfection (or, as a wiseacre likes to say, everything's a problem). But how long can you occupy a morally pure "view from nowhere" while still expecting the targets of your attacks to continue taking you seriously? Hopefully, if the appearance of books like this is any indication, not much longer.

Saturday, April 23, 2016

Verily, Verily, I Say Unto Thee

Working hard. Traveling far. Very tired. Here's links. Nothing to add. Good articles. You read. I rest now.

• Lionel Shriver, "Gender — Good for Nothing"

• Arnold Kling, "Cultural Intelligence"

• Russell Jacoby, "Academe is Overrun by Liberals. So What?"

• Yohan John, "Persons All the Way Down"

• John McWhorter, "When Slogans Replace Arguments"

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

We Care a Lot About You People 'Cause We're Out to Save the World

From Condorcet and Comte down to their latter-day disciples like Sam Harris and Michael Shermer, rationalists have dreamed of turning ethics into a science. If only ethics could be turned into a quantifiable, data-driven exercise, then knowing the right thing to do in any given circumstance would be a simple matter of plugging objective numerical values into a mathematical formula, a technique that could be mastered and used by anyone, with none of this primitive, inefficient, peasant superstition about "wisdom" which can only be gradually acquired over time, through trial and error, and by listening to boring old elders and their interminable stories.

As it happens, though, ethics is more like an exclusive nightclub named Dunbar's Number, guarded by glowering, musclebound bouncers. "The right thing to do" involves flesh-and-blood people in specific relationships based in particular contexts, not abstract people in an abstract world. There is no a priori answer to every moral dilemma, unless you're a believer in predestination or absolute determinism.

Let's stare in amazement as Adam Waytz attempts to square this circle:

In fact, there is a terrible irony in the assumption that we can ever transcend our parochial tendencies entirely. Social scientists have found that in-group love and out-group hate originate from the same neurobiological basis, are mutually reinforcing, and co-evolved—because loyalty to the in-group provided a survival advantage by helping our ancestors to combat a threatening out-group. That means that, in principle, if we eliminate out-group hate completely, we may also undermine in-group love. Empathy is a zero-sum game.

Absolute universalism, in which we feel compassion for every individual on Earth, is psychologically impossible. Ignoring this fact carries a heavy cost: We become paralyzed by the unachievable demands we place on ourselves. We can see this in our public discourse today. Discussions of empathy fluctuate between worrying that people don’t empathize enough and fretting that they empathize too much with the wrong people. These criticisms both come from the sense that we have an infinite capacity to empathize, and that it is our fault if we fail to use it.

People do care, newspaper editorialists and social-media commenters granted. But they care inconsistently: grieving for victims of Brussels’ recent attacks and ignoring Yemen’s recent bombing victims; expressing outrage over ISIS rather than the much deadlier Boko Haram; mourning the death of Cecil the Lion in Zimbabwe while overlooking countless human murder victims. There are far worthier tragedies, they wrote, than the ones that attract the most public empathy. Almost any attempt to draw attention to some terrible event in the world elicits these complaints, as though misallocated empathy was more consequential than the terrible event itself. If we recognized that we have a limited quantity of empathy to begin with, it would help to cure some of the acrimony and self-flagellation of these discussions. The truth is that, just as even the most determined athlete cannot overcome the limits of the human body, so too we cannot escape the limits of our moral capabilities.

We must begin with a realistic assessment of what those limits are, and then construct a scientific way of choosing which values matter most to us.

That means we need to abandon an idealized cultural sensitivity that gives all moral values equal importance. We must instead focus our limited moral resources on a few values, and make tough choices about which ones are more important than others. Collectively, we must decide that these actions affect human happiness more than those actions, and therefore the first set must be deemed more moral than the second set.

Once we abandon the idea of universal empathy, it becomes clear that we need to build a quantitative moral calculus to help us choose when to extend our empathy. Empathy, by its very nature, seems unquantifiable, but behavioral scientists have developed techniques to turn people’s vague instincts into hard numbers.

Basing our moral criteria on maximizing happiness is not simply a philosophical choice, but rather a scientifically motivated one: Empirical data confirm that happiness improves physical health, enhancing immune function and reducing stress, both of which contribute to longevity. Shouldn’t our moral choice be the one that maximizes our collective well-being? These data sets can give us moral “prostheses,” letting us evaluate different values side-by-side—and helping us to discard those lesser values that obstruct more meaningful ones. These approaches can help us create a universal moral code—something that can serve as a moral guide in all cases, even if we are not able to actually apply it to all people all the time.

As Arthur said via email:

My take-away is that the solution to our moral problems is to be happy. The only way to solve moral problems in a realistic way is to apply a data-driven hedonistic calculus — which is what a lot of amoral people do, anyway. There is something of an antinomy between morality as an absolute — "It's the right thing to do, come hell or high water" — and morality as relativistic, based on trade-offs between consequences of this or that course of action. The antinomy between these two concepts of morality is itself a moral one. But it is also a philosophical question, and the problem with so many social scientists is their technocratic hubris. They assume science has solved or soon will solve the problems that philosophy could only speculate about, given that Kant and Plato, e.g., were cluelessly embedded in a primitive stage in history, bereft of the only means of testing philosophical hypotheses: lab testing and data-gathering. But philosophical questions keep coming back to bite them in the ass.

Utilitarian ethics are ruthlessly fixated on practical results — whatever is best for the greatest number of people. The problem with this position that it is not in itself necessarily moral: it is based on an unexamined assumption that everyone is a reasonable modern Liberal. and that what will make the greatest number of people happy could never be, for example, exterminating the Jews. Utilitarian and Marxist thinking converge here in consensus group-think, collectivist notions of happiness, and disregard or contempt for individual deviations from "the general good." Both make claims to being scientific. Both are programmatically devoted to humane values such as social justice. And while it is Marxist "dialectical science" (along with Nazi "racial science") that has produced totalitarian nightmares, there's potential for a more laid-back dystopia in utilitarian thinking. Or perhaps we are going to end up with a dystopia that combines the best of 1984 with the best of Brave New World.

But who's to say you can't engineer efficient empathy-extension? And I'll be interested to hear how that FBI-vs.-Apple dilemma is solved by neuroscientists and social psychologists. First, of course, they'll need to poll the People using improved self-reporting techniques; image their brains to measure their anxiety-vs.-emotional security ratios; and use a software algorithm to produce a rigorous break-even analysis. The result will be a democratic (or at least demographic) moral decision, overseen by guess who? An elite cadre of scientists and social engineers. It's not as if these disinterested people are motivated by any WILL TO POWER.

Where is Nietzsche when we need him?

Monday, April 18, 2016

No True Marxman

Way back in the day, I knew this singer of a slightly-famous goth band and his younger girlfriend. At some point, I heard through the rumor mill that she only allowed him to have anal sex with her so that she could technically still claim to be a virgin for whatever reason. (Hey, I don't know; it wasn't like I was asking to be kept apprised of this stuff.)

I wonder what made me think of that after all these years...

Zimmer begins by insisting that self-described Marxist regimes such as the Soviet Union, Maoist China, Cuba, North Korea, etc., all of whose leaders were immersed in Marxist thought, were not real Marxists at all. (Zimmer: “[T]hese authoritarian monstrosities had virtually nothing to do with [what] Marx himself said or did.”)

Ohhh, yeah. It's amazing the rationalizations people come up with to claim that Marx's moral virginity remains pure. Entire nations may have gotten brutally reamed, but true Marxism was never officially consummated.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

We Are the Same, Whatever We Do

Mark Fabian:

It is very important to emphasise that liberalism sees failure and inequality of outcomes as inevitable and important. Inequality encourages people to work hard. When more competitive firms buy less competitive ones using their profits it ensures that resources go to where they are the most productive. Innovation and progress come from the drive to ‘get ahead’. Equality of opportunity is critical in this paradigm for ensuring competition. But close equality of outcomes is counterproductive. This is the most fundamental point of divergence between liberalism and progressivism.

To be fair, you will likely never hear anyone, no matter how left-wing, actually claim to be in favor of equality of outcome. Their argument will instead be that there isn't any true equality of opportunity because of...anyone?...anyone?...privilege. As Thomas Sowell put it in his excellent A Conflict of Visions:

So long as the process itself treats everyone the same — judges them by the same criteria, whether in employment or in a courtroom — then there is equality of opportunity or equality before the law, as far as the constrained vision is concerned. But to those with the unconstrained vision, to apply the same criteria to those with radically different wealth, education, or past opportunities and cultural orientations is to negate the meaning of equality — as they conceive it. To them, equality of opportunity means equalized probabilities of achieving given results, whether in education, employment or the courtroom.

This formulation, I think, gets more to the heart of the matter. What makes the progressive vision so incoherent is this idea that there could ever be a world without "unfair" advantage, whether naturally or by means of the most precise social engineering. We can all feel sympathetic to complaints about a world in which some people just can't seem to catch a break, while others have access to every resource they could ask for. For some people, though, that understandable sense of sympathy stops them from taking a clearer look at the logical fallacies that follow. Advantages can accrue to individuals through something as simple as growing up in a stable, loving family who instill a love of reading books. It's simply impossible to quantify, let alone fairly allocate, all the countless variables that go into making one individual more talented or successful than another. Anyone who had the time and ability to set about eliminating all of life's inequalities and contingencies would find themselves needing to play God and redesign the world from scratch. Lacking that option, the next best thing would be to monitor and control this one like Big Brother. (Lacking that option, they're forced to settle for incessantly complaining and crusading.)

Of course, it's highly doubtful that any progressives actually take the logic behind the rhetoric that seriously in the first place. They'll happily accept a permanently unfair world as long as they can hold political power in it. Perhaps the rest of us could merely stop granting them the assumption of their moral respectability.

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Sacred Fevers

All of them!

But I found the answers
Yeah, to the problems, they're in my head, man
Destroy the system
Find the answers, yeah, to your problems
I've laid down, Lord
Visualizing a cool breeze demolition and sacred fevers

Warrior Soul

Thursday, April 14, 2016


Liverpool complete epic comeback to dump Dortmund from Europa League


That was one of the most incredible games I've ever watched. I don't know if I'll be able to sleep tonight. Mother of Gawd, what a stunner. Just...just...goddamn.

Why's Everybody Always Pickin' On Me?

Brendan O'Neill:

All this week, the Guardian has been publishing research and op-eds about the ‘dark side’ of its own comments sections, which it has discovered are packed with ‘vile abuse’ aimed at its writers, and about the increasingly ugly nature of the internet more broadly, especially social media, which are apparently seething pits of mad trolls and misogynistic blowhards.

The web used to be ‘playful, creative and open’, says a wet-eyed Guardian editorial, but now it’s full of ‘bullying, shaming and intimidation’.

One of the web's premier hubs of social justice fanaticism complaining about bullying, shaming, and intimidation: funny. In and of itself, not really funny enough to rate genuine laughter, or even a good smirk, but when you read another article less than five minutes later spelling out just how far the JV Jacobins would like to go to, uh, "prevent" bullying and harassment, well...

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

I Had the Style, I Had the Ambition

Patrick West:

The language of gender politics openly employs that of consumer ‘choice’. In a nod to Heinz, Facebook now has 56 different varieties of gender category to choose from. Yet declaring oneself to be ‘genderfluid’, ‘androsexual’, ‘demisexual’, ‘third gender’ and so on is about as rebellious and countercultural as getting a tattoo; it is a substitute for genuine thinking and merely an ephemeral form of boasting one’s uniqueness. Assigning oneself a personalised gender has become as meaningful as deciding between café noisette and mocha breve.

This is true as far as it goes, which isn't very, by which I mean, of all the criticisms one could make of gendertrendiness, the fact that it's not "really" going to overthrow the system is hardly a flaw. Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter wrote an excellent book based on the idea that people like West, by mocking others' radicalism for not being authentic or threatening enough, are merely perpetuating the sort of status competition that markets are perfectly designed to serve. (A brief-yet-profound summary of their argument can be read here.) There is no "system" that will be brought down through genuine acts of radical nonconformity. Any such attempts will inevitably devolve into fashion. Instead of responding to these failures by redoubling your efforts to find a mythical, pure radicalism that will prove impervious to co-optation, perhaps you could simply grow up.

Tuesday, April 05, 2016

And Who's to Care If I Grow My Hair to the Sky

You may have seen mention this past week of the SanFran State incident where an angry black woman accosted and lectured a campus hippie for wearing dreadlocks, which constitutes cultural appropriation, a capital crime under the regime of the new left-wing racial separatists. Ho-hum, old hat, to be expected, you say. I agree. And yet, even I managed to feel a bit stunned by the chutzpah of the resulting commentary, in which the perp's insistence that "his" hair is subject to the tyranny of "his" aesthetic choices reveals the grasping, selfish, petit-bourgeois nature of his ideological worldview, in which something as reactionary as aesthetics can be said to trump politics, or, worse yet, offended feelings. Has this privileged colonialist piglet seriously not heard of Sartre's "eyes of the least favored" theory? Break out the intersectionality abacus. If someone more oppressed than you tells you that your hairstyle is problematic, you'd better double-time march to the barber's and get the standard-issue white-man buzzcut, buddy.

(As a side note, it's fascinating to note how quickly a market for virtue-signaling opens up, allowing savvy entrepreneurs like this guy to step in and make a killing.)

Anyway, I almost fell for this story. But this guy's name? Goldstein. I mean, come on, what's his middle name? Snowball? Whatever AI is writing this script is starting to become a bit heavy-handed in its symbolism. Yes, yes, we get it, it's creeping totalitarianism, all right already. It makes it hard to suspend our disbelief long enough to get absorbed in the story. If I'm going to be hooked up to the Matrix, I demand a more immersive plot to entertain me.

Saturday, April 02, 2016


Arthur wrote to me to critique a recent post:

I wonder if "fundamentalist meritocrat" quite captures it. Merit has nothing to do with what they have in mind, unless "merit" means the achievement of being born. I would call it fundamentalist leveling, in the old-fashioned sense of the 17th-century "Levelers," that extreme Puritan sect that, interestingly, anticipated today's snow-flake fascist-egalitarians in calling for the abolishing of all social distinctions--except the invidious distinction between themselves and those who weren't Puritan Levelers. "Merit" is precisely what the BLM and their supporters can't stand. The standards of merit used to be things like academic achievement. The fact that these standards have been systematically lowered to meet those unprepared for college or university isn't enough. They have to be lowered further, and students should be the dictators of what is taught: interestingly, what they want to be taught is the specialness of themselves and the oppressive micro-aggressions of anyone who disagrees with them. Merit is conferred on you in the form of moral superiority because you are a victim--or a distant ancestor was perhaps a victim of slavery.

All this is a grotesque perversion of the idea of merit. Lowering intellectual standards and turning universities into day-care centers for the emotionally arrested is not what Emerson had in mind when he used the word "democracy." To him it meant opportunities for people to raise themselves up to the highest level. What we have now, in the name of democracy or social equality or social justice, is a "race" to the bottom and proto-fascist mob rule in the name of political correctness.

I responded:

Well, that's the distinction I'm trying to make, between theory and practice. In theory, they're meritocrats because they're absolutely obsessed with trying to abolish any "unearned" advantages. If they were fixated on economic power like old-school Marxists, they'd be demanding that anyone they deemed rich relinquish their assets to be distributed among the needy. Instead, they're fixated on social capital. Soft power rather than hard cash. But "privilege" can't be quantified and redistributed like cash can, so there's little they can do but shriek incoherently and lay guilt-trips on people who are deemed to have too many advantages they didn't "work" for or "earn" on their own merit. They act as if they truly believe that people could be raised in a perfectly sterile, objective, neutral environment so that, once entering the adult world, anything they do or achieve can be accurately said to be due to their abilities and efforts, rather than the unfair result of funding through some type of inherited social capital. This seems to imply a strange belief in some inner essence, almost like a soul, that belongs to you as an individual and no one else, and that is responsible for what you make of your life.

(It's interesting to note how strange it is that they seem so inclined to view human relations in these market-oriented terms; you'd think that would be anathema to their social-democratic hearts. I have yet to see anyone else tease out those interesting implications. Must I do everything myself?!)

Trotsky infamously said in Literature and Revolution:

"It is difficult to predict the extent of self-government which the man of the future may reach or the heights to which he may carry his technique. Social construction and psycho-physical self-education will become two aspects of one and the same process. All the arts – literature, drama, painting, music and architecture will lend this process beautiful form. More correctly, the shell in which the cultural construction and self-education of Communist man will be enclosed, will develop all the vital elements of contemporary art to the highest point. Man will become immeasurably stronger, wiser and subtler; his body will become more harmonized, his movements more rhythmic, his voice more musical. The forms of life will become dynamically dramatic. The average human type will rise to the heights of an Aristotle, a Goethe, or a Marx. And above this ridge new peaks will rise."(my bolding)

This, of course, is one of those ideas so profoundly, staggeringly stupid that only a brilliant intellectual could possibly take it seriously. I don't have the lung capacity to greet it with the uproarious laughter it deserves. Our junior-varsity Jacobins today would love to think that everybody could be equal in excellence, whatever the fuck that would even mean. (Seriously, what are we saying, construction workers are going to go home and write better novels than Goethe when they're not doing amateur scientific research or coming up with new theories of color? Janitors on their lunch breaks are going to invent new categories of logic like Aristotle? What kind of gibbering moron thinks that the creative, artistic side of human life is cumulative in the same way that the sciences are? What the fuck would it mean to be ten times the composer Beethoven was? How would you exponentially "improve" on Mozart or Shakespeare?) But in practice, this is impossible. Individuals can raise themselves up to the highest level, but there's no way for everyone to attain the highest level at the same time, which is what the JV Jacobins condemn as inherently unfair. You can't possibly elevate millions of schlubs to the level of Goethe and Aristotle. What you can do is make everyone equal by dragging Goethe and Aristotle down off their pedestals, smashing their spectacles, and forcing them to labor in the fields like everyone else. Much more timely and efficient that way, as the Khmer Rouge could tell you.

In that way, then, in practice, yes, they could never be anything other than levelers. In the meantime, though, given that they are highly unlikely to ever have the rubber of their lunatic ideals meet the road of political power, they can afford to pretend that they would merely elevate everyone to the same level of excellence that the elite currently monopolize.

On a related, interesting note, I just read the book The Almost Nearly Perfect People: Behind the Myth of the Scandinavian Utopia, by Michael Booth, a British expat married to a Danish woman and living in Denmark. This section concerning Sweden seems apropos of our topic here:

Everything I read about the Swedish Social Democratic government of the last century suggested an organization that was driven by one single, overarching goal: to sever the traditional, some would say natural, ties between its citizens, be they those that bound children to their parents, workers to their employers, wives to their husbands, or the elderly to their families. Instead, individuals were encouraged — mostly by financial incentive or disincentive, but also through legislation, propaganda, and social pressure — to "take their place in the collective", as one commentator rather ominously put it, and become dependent on the government.

Berggren has a slightly different spin on the Swedish state and its role in its citizens' lives: rather than meddling and controlling, in his provocatively titled book Is the Swede a Human? he and his co-author Lars Trägårdh argue that the real aim of the Swedish government was to liberate citizens from one another, to set them free and allow them to become fully autonomous, independent entities in charge of their own destinies. Far from being the collectivist sheep their neighbors perceive them to be, Berggren and Trägårdh argue that the Swedes are "hyper individualists" — more so even than the Americans — and that they are "devoted to the pursuit of personal autonomy".

"The point we are making is not to be confused with being unconventional, or to do with independent thinking," explained Berggren. "We are talking about autonomy in terms of not being dependent on other people."

"The Swedish system is best understood not in terms of socialism, but in terms of Rousseau," he continued. "Rousseau was an extreme egalitarian and he really hated any kind of dependence — depending on other people destroys your integrity, your authenticity — therefore the ideal situation was one where every citizen was an atom separated from all the other atoms... The Swedish system's logic is that it is dangerous to be dependent on other people, to be beholden to other people. Even to your family."

..."But," I wondered, "doesn't this just replace one dependency with another — the state — which takes us back to those concerns about totalitarianism?"

"We are not arguing that people are totally independent, because they are dependent on the state. One take is your totalitarian take, but I don't buy that. I think it's a rather even trade-off. You can get an awful lot of autonomy by accepting a democratic state is actually furnishing you with the means to be autonomous in this way, and reach a certain self-realization. I wouldn't take it to its extreme, too far and you do end up with a totalitarian state. For Americans and Brits the state is such a bogeyman, such a horrible menacing thing, and in the States now they can't even have a health system because they are so scared of the state. But the point here is not that the state is saying this is how you should live your life, but it is providing you with the support structure. Society is unequal and people don't have the same opportunities, but we are trying to lift everybody to the same level so they can achieve the same kind of freedom and self-realization, which only a small group could do previously."

Burke's "little platoons" versus Rousseau's "social contract". It's funny that we're still working within the rhetorical and conceptual boundaries laid down by those two. It's a different sort of funny that anyone would think it's an improvement on socialist theory to rebrand it as Eau de Rousseau. Eh, time will tell with the Swedish experiment, but as long as it's an open question, I'll side with the Irishman here. Honestly, though, to paraphrase Churchill, if the argument were between Rousseau and the devil, I'd at least be favorably inclined toward the latter.