Crispin Sartwell has an interesting critique of the left-right distinction in The Atlantic.
I think he’s right that the left-right distinction doesn’t make sense. I also, however, think two other things. First, it doesn’t matter. In extremis the distinction is meaningless. In practice, however, that means nothing. At any given time, political coalitions do make sense. Burkean conservatives may switch sides, as would egalitarians and democrats and cultural conservatives and the supporters of entrenched power. I am not sure why we should care that these coalitions change over time.
More importantly, Sartwell completely loses all credibility when he writes this: “The welfare state is more pervasive now than it was a century ago, and we now have institutions like compulsory public education. These are achievements of the left, programs they are still trying enhance, but have they actually resulted in more equal societies? Quite the contrary, I believe: They have led to ever-more-frozen hierarchies. The mainstream left is a technocratic elite, with a cult of science and expertise and an ear for the unanimous catchphrase. This is anything but a meritocracy; it an entrenched intergenerational class hierarchy.”
There are two problems with this paragraph. The first is when he claims that public education has not resulted in more equality. That is simply false. Goldin and Katz are the go-to resource here, but I challenge Prof. Sartwell to produce evidence that the expansion of public education has been inegalitarian in any country in any time period.
The second problem is in the penultimate sentence. I believe him that so-called meritocracies lead to unfair inequality: I am a great believer in the Rawlsian veil of uncertainty. (How could I not be, given the wide range of outcomes in my own immediate family?) But the reference to a “cult of science” is bizarre and gives the game away. He wants you to believe that expertise is a meaningless social construction. To add insult to injury, he wants you to believe in an “ear for the unanimous catchphrase” without defining what that means or providing evidence that it exists. Me, I have no idea what he is talking about, although it sounds like a bad thing. Which is his rhetorical point.
It gets worse. Sartwell’s next paragraph is: “Whatever the right is, it runs aground in contradiction similarly in its treatment of its own sacred concept ‘liberty,’ which is hard to hold in solution with opposing gay marriage or marijuana legalization, or with a thousand dimensions of the contemporary surveillance/security state.”
Sartwell could explain that liberty is incoherent, in the sense that a poor person is not free. But he does not. Rather, he takes a rather boringly conventional libertarian stance.
So ... he believes that public education has not increased equality, that expertise is meaningless, and that old-fashioned conservatism is stupid.
And I call bullshit. Sartwell is peddling garden-variety yawn-inducing libertarianism. Either that or his essay was badly composed. I am sympathetic to that problem! My own blog writing is generally badly-composed, although I would be more careful if asked to write for The Atlantic.
Am I wrong? I am happy to be schooled, including by Prof. Sartwell himself. (I deliberately refrained from googling his name before writing this; all I know is what is in the article.)
UPDATE: Googling has now occured, what with the Bosnia-Nigeria game not being as interesting as the earlier two matches today. Here is Sartwell’s blog. It is ... uh ... I am not sure what to say.