In a three-part series, the ORB interviews Kwame Anthony Appiah. Raised in Ghana, educated at Cambridge, and now a University Professor at NYU, Appiah is a prize-winning philosopher of, among other things, identity, race and ethics. Also a novelist, he writes and speaks extensively on cosmopolitanism and race, having last year given the BBC’s annual Reith Lectures on the subject of ‘Mistaken Identities’. His latest book, As If, published by Harvard University Press, deals with the phenomena of imagination and idealisation, in domains from representations in mathematics to weather forecasting. In Part I, interviewer Daniel Kodsi and Appiah talked about the very beginning of Appiah’s career, professional philosophy, and trends in academic philosophy. Here, they discuss the contrast between transgenderism and transracialism, the personalities of distinguished 20th-century philosophers, green card marriages, and Trump.
DK: Moving away from ethics for the moment, the controversy over Rebecca Tuvel’s article in Hypatia has struck back up a bit. I suppose I have two questions. The first is, what do you think of the content of her article itself, being a philosopher of race? [Appiah, grinning slightly, holds up Trans by Rogers Brubaker, which was on his desk – DK] And then there’s a second question about what it reflects about disagreements in the discipline, about how philosophy should be done and so on.
KAA: Yes. I haven’t read the article, and I haven’t actually followed much of the debate. It sounded to me … Why? Because a) I’m not currently working on these things, I don’t feel that I have a professional obligation to keep up, and b) because it sounds to me like a lot of people were saying a lot of silly things. I mean, it annoys me, to spend my time wading into a world where there’s a lot of that going on. There’s a lot of silliness in the world that I have to attend to because it has direct impacts on my life. But, I think it’s a perfectly reasonable philosophical question to ask, about the analogies and disanalogies between race and gender. I think you are not under an obligation to give special weight to the views of people of any particular identity and I think taking umbrage because somebody has taken a view other than yours or even ignored your view is not usually a helpful contribution to ethical debate. I would say that philosophers as a professional group have become much more concerned with questions about whether our professional practices involve forms of bias implicit or explicit, structural or otherwise, and that those are interesting questions, but I am not inclined to think that it’s something about the character of philosophical methods that we now use that explains where the problems are. The problems come from the fact that philosophers, like everybody else, are social creatures, and we are shaped by the society we come from, and, despite our high opinion of ourselves, we have the same tendencies to bias and self-deception as anybody else. Part of it is that the skills that make you successful, especially in M&E are not strongly correlated with emotional intelligence and human skills. It’s not that there aren’t some very … And I think the notion of emotional intelligence is a little bit dodgy. But you know what I mean. And I think some people are not good at dealing with other people, and you can be very, very good at metaphysics and not good at dealing with other people, and so if you have a collection of people in a room … Also, you know, philosophers spend a lot of time rationalizing, making arguments. And so we can make an argument for any conclusion. We’re very good at that. For any p, I can give you a good argument for p. I mean, an argument that seems compelling in some way. That’s what we’re good at.
DK: As you’ve said, there are very few dead options in philosophy, perhaps for that reason.
KAA: Yeah, perhaps for that reason. But also, as I say, the field doesn’t develop certain human skills. But I think we’ve gotten better. When I was an undergraduate, the first paper I ever gave at the Moral Sciences Club at Cambridge was a paper about drawing analogies between the role of metaphors in science and somethings that Iris Murdoch had said about oral examples, and Elizabeth Anscombe, who was in the chair, began the discussion by saying to this undergraduate, ‘We speak to each other across a very great gulf’. And that kind of thing … I mean, Elizabeth was particularly bad at it, particularly inhumane, and I was used to it, so I didn’t really mind very much, but that sort of thing, you’re not supposed to do that anymore. And there are still people who do it, especially some older people, and they think it’s good philosophical style or something.
DK: Did Williams do it? Or was he better about it?
KAA: No, no. In fact, Williams – Bernard defended me there, that evening, because he was so annoyed with Elizabeth for doing that. The thing about Bernard was, like Ronnie [Dworkin] (and like Bob Nozick, actually), he was very good at seeing twenty stages down the road in the argument. They got there much quicker than everybody else, and it’s interesting, they responded differently. Until a certain stage in his life, Bernard’s response to that was just to focus on negative stuff, because he could see that whatever you said, somewhere down the road he already could see there was a problem. Then he got over it and just, I think, became an excellent philosopher. Bob Nozick, his view was, of course it’s going to have problems, so you just do as much as you can. You can see that there’s a problem over there – maybe you’ll solve it, maybe you won’t, but you just keep going, and I think that’s a better view.
DK: And Dworkin?
KAA: Well, it could lead Ronnie to be maybe a little bit impatient. Bernard knew that other people couldn’t get there as fast as he could, so he could be patient about it. He knew where he was going, and you could follow, and if you couldn’t follow him, he’d come back and drag you along. Ronnie could be a little bit impatient with people who didn’t see that he was right, but on the other hand, he was very good at laying out arguments, so he was, on the whole … He was a bit like Russell in this way. Russell, I think, made things clearer – seem clearer – than they were. He could write in a way that was extremely persuasive and lay things out, and you had to stop yourself from being drawn along and think, ‘Wait a minute, what’s being covered over here as we move smoothly along?’ And, you know, Ronnie was incredibly persuasive, and clever, and so you needed to stop and ask, ‘Well, what’s being presupposed here?’ And he wasn’t very patient with that. He was a very nice man, but he was not a patient man. So, I don’t know. The point is, all of these style habits, habits of interaction, have gotten better on the whole over the course over my career, I think. And, actually, some of it’s under the influence of feminist critiques of the testosterone-driven character of certain kinds of argumentative behavior. So I think it’s gotten better, but I think all disciplines – and very much philosophy – profit from having people with very different styles and stakes and identities all working along together, and therefore things that exclude people from discussion because they don’t have some identitarian property strikes me as very unhelpful.
DK: I suppose there are two questions about two ways philosophy seems to be going: one of which seems to be positive and one of which doesn’t. The first is that, as you’ve said before, it’s becoming more polyphonic. There are more voices and there’s more reliance on non-a priori stuff, and there’s race and gender, and that’s good. But there’s also a question about whether it’s becoming more professionalized or scientistic in a way that isn’t amenable to the kind of systematic theorising that many philosophers, many great philosophers, used to do.
KAA: The fields where you might think there’s the greatest risk of that are things like cognitive science and so on, where you might think that all people are doing is the more theoretical end of the development of theories about the five levels of visual perception and all that sort of thing, but the kind of people who are drawn, in philosophy, now, to that kind of thing, tend to be systematic in a different way from scientific theorising, I think, often drawing analogies between questions in a wider range of fields than much contemporary science does and so on. So, what’s gone, I suppose, is the thought that philosophy is about making one big picture that explains how all the pictures fit together, that it’s the queen of the sciences and that it’s its job to, in metaphysics, lay out what’s there for the scientist to study. I think a sensible view in ontology now would be that you can’t say what’s there unless you know the physics, and you’re not going to figure out what’s there absent grappling with the best physics of our time.
DK: Unger has a book in which he calls a great deal of philosophy ‘concretely empty’. And I’m not exactly sure what he means by that, except that it seems to mean all philosophers should be more like Tim Maudlin…
KAA: I think that what Tim is doing is a very important continuation of the historic project of philosophy and that if your questions are questions about being qua being, you should probably talk to him because you need to know the things he knows and push the questions he’s pushing in order to get to it. I agree with that, but that’s about one part of our picture. Yes, I think you need to be in touch with concreteness, but I don’t think the concreteness is all in physics. Concreteness is in biochemistry, it’s in psychology, and it’s in political life. It’s in the social life of us as creatures. So I think the picture … I agree that it’s not a good idea to think of philosophy as an a priori activity, but that, for God’s sake, is something that Quine said! It’s hardly a new thought. It’s a thought that was articulated by one of the first or second generation. Quine was shaped by the Vienna Circle. So it’s not a new thought, and, as I argued in the book about the experimental turn in ethics, if you look back at the history of ethics, there’s a very short period when Hare and such people were what ethics was, but already before Hare’s great book, Elizabeth Anscombe had written ‘Modern Moral Philosophy’.
DK: A paper very characteristic of her style.
KAA: Yes, and it’s characteristic in many ways. It’s full of terrible arguments and good arguments. It’s very insightful but also dotty. It’s a weird mix. I mean, she was a great philosopher; she was a terrible person, but she was a great philosopher. But, like all philosophers, she had characteristic weaknesses. So I think one of the interesting things about analytic philosophy when it was self-conscious is that it had an account of what it was doing that it didn’t believe and didn’t really practice. Again, the analytic-synthetic distinction is one of … Quine’s attack on the analytic-synthetic distinction occurs more or less as analytic philosophy is self-consciously taking off, so already the idea that you could be exploring truth in virtue of meaning, which was one of the main… I think that paper [‘Two Dogmas of Empiricism’], it’s very hard to say what the argument is in the paper, but nevertheless, we should recognize that it was a very important paper, if you were telling a history of analytic philosophy, and it already questions the idea that you could be doing anything interesting if you thought that all you were doing was working out the consequences of meaning. I entered philosophy at a time when that was the story. Working out the consequences of what we already know was the story, and it was nice because you didn’t have to study anything outside your own mind. You could just sit alone in your study and work stuff out – and one way human beings make progress is by sitting alone in studies and working stuff out, I’m not against that – but the idea that we’re going to make deep progress in anything without input from the messy world of actual things, I think, is a mistake. But in a way what Peter Unger’s arguing against is not something that anybody was ever really doing. It’s something that some people said they were doing, but the actual practice of philosophy was never closed off to the sciences or to everyday life, and some of the leading figures, including in the analytic tradition were very empirically minded.
DK: You’ve also published a great deal of work on philosophy of race, where you’re well known for being an eliminativist.
KAA: Something like that.
DK: Something like that. So I suppose my question is, what’s the content of the ‘something like that’ – and how well does your view sit with a social constructivist line, like Sally Haslanger’s.
KAA: I think that the way that the word ‘race’ has mostly worked in the general culture, not in the life sciences but in the general culture, has been by assuming that there was a way of classifying human beings that came from the life sciences that captured deep and important differences between different kinds of human beings. That’s a view that has been a minority view in the life sciences for a very, very long time, and I suppose part of what I was insisting on in my earliest work was just that therefore the vernacular view couldn’t be right, so whatever races were, they couldn’t be, as they tended to be understood, ways of classifying people into different groups of different essential characteristics. Now, I guess my diagnosis is that a lot of philosophers – as I say, they’re people, they come out of a culture. If the culture takes the race concept seriously, then they, like everybody else, are going to say, ‘well, we can make these distinctions, so there must be something to them, so if that’s wrong, something else must be right.’ So they’re reluctant to be eliminativist in that way, to say it’s just, I think I once said, like ‘witchcraft.’ It’s not that there’s nothing there: There are unpopular old women, and there are fires, and there is oxygen, but phlogiston and witchcraft aren’t good ways of thinking about those things. So they try to provide something else. I think that there’s a perfectly good alternative account, which is something like the social constructivist account, but it has to be nominalist rather than realist, because the realist story doesn’t work, and it has to say that, yes, there are labelling practices in our society which are associated in the case of race with certain kinds of appearance. They come with implicit theories, including theories about the heritability of these properties, which are false, but nevertheless widely believed, and that’s what explains the appearance of a coherent phenomenon. Once you see that the theories don’t make much sense, that doesn’t make it the case that the social identities go away. Even for you, even for someone who knows that, you can see that the world is still shaped by these things, but the story you tell about it has to be one about social shaping and so on. And that’s basically what I think. So that’s a kind of social constructivist view. I suppose it differs from some social constructivist views. Halsanger’s view is more… She’s engaged in politically revisionary metaphysics… It’s an interesting and complex social empirical question whether, if your project is to –
DK: ‘Ameliorate,’ as she puts it.
KAA: —ameliorate, whether what she’s up to is going to work better than pushing eliminativism. I think it’s … Who knows? Right now, I think that in the United States there’s enough material reality to the forces that shape people into racial identities that we need to talk about it, and the eliminativists are perfectly capable of talking about it, because I just did. I talk about it in terms of identities. But there is a disagreement about the long haul, I think, in that some people think that it’s obvious that in the long haul it would be better if we didn’t have any racial identities, and other people think that they could be purged of their hierarchical and discriminatory character and they would be fine. I guess my view is that it’s hard to distinguish those two hypotheses, because a form of racial identity that is completely purged of discrimination and hierarchy would look so unlike anything that we’ve currently got that it would be hard to distinguish between having gotten rid of it and having replaced it with something else and sustained it. Of course there’ll be identities. Human beings do that. We’ll have identities, and maybe some of them will be connected with appearance; maybe some of them will be connected with ancestry. I don’t know, if you’re talking a thousand years down the road, but between now and then, we’ve got to get there, and to get there, we need to recognize the pervasive importance of these social identities without encouraging people to have false views about what grounds them.
DK: I suppose that as concerns Sally Halsanger’s project, there’s a question about whether you think that it’s something for philosophy to do, to suggest new concepts or new ways of understanding words that we already use to make our use of language better.
KAA: American philosophy distinctively begins with Peirce’s “How to make our ideas clear” and the thought that there is a role to help people think about things. Somebody should be doing that! I think somebody with contemporary philosophical training can be helpful, but a lot of what’s needed isn’t stuff that philosophers are characteristically especially good at. A lot of it is social science and so on, and if you’re going to pursue the questions, you need to take account of the best social science, that is, questions of which reforms of our social practices, including our linguistic practices, would make the world better. I think there’s a part of that that people with philosophical training can certainly contribute to, and I’m in favour of doing that, but I don’t know that it’s a task that philosophers are especially well placed to… I think imagining and giving life to alternative forms of social relations is something that novelists do pretty well too, and maybe more effectively in some senses.
DK: In one of your New York Times Ethicist columns a couple months ago you wrote that it would be legitimate to report a marriage which was conducted for the sake of gaining U.S. citizenship, which some people online and a few I know at Oxford didn’t think was right. And you also wrote that the nation-state has the right to regulate who crosses its borders, which is a contested question in political theory. Do you stand by those conclusions?
KAA: I don’t read responses to the Ethicist column, so I don’t know what people said there. I would have to spend all my life thinking about that, so I have a principled position, which is, I don’t say anything in response to such criticism and usually I don’t read it either, so I don’t actually know what people said. I literally don’t know what people said. I think that if you discover that a person in a foreign country has contracted a marriage with an American in order to come here, and they’re about to present themselves at the embassy for the purpose of starting the process, I think it’s perfectly fine to tell the embassy. All that’s going to happen is that they’re not going to get in. I think it’s very different if you do it in the United States, because there are legal penalties for lying in this context, which include imprisonment and fines and so on, but those aren’t going to happen to someone who presents at the embassy. What’s going to happen is they’re going to be denied entry, and I think it’s perfectly proper to deny someone entry if they abuse a system and perfectly proper to help the country stop people.
So that’s the view that I have about the particular case, but the more general and interesting philosophical question is the question about borders … and I am the kind of cosmopolitan who thinks that you should be able to make cosmopolitanism compatible with the persisting existence of nation-states, and I think that that’s intrinsically tied-up with something like a form of freedom of association that says that you can make reasonable limits on who’s in and out. The point of having different countries is that they should be allowed to perform different practices. Now, as I think I said there, but I have said it in other places, certainly, I don’t think racism, sexism, homophobia are justifiable motives for doing anything, let alone stopping people crossing borders, so I wouldn’t be in favour of racist, sexist, homophobic, islamophobic restrictions. And, also, I think you have to think about the kind of community a nation is: it is not, and I have argued about this too, it is not a unity of cultural sameness and homogeneity and so on, so I don’t think you should define your national entry policies on the basis of trying to make sure that everybody agree with you, whatever the official state cultural ideology is, and that’s true even if you are, let’s say, Pakistan, which is a constitutionally Muslim state. There are lots of ways of being a Muslim, and I don’t think that a nation should be in the business of enforcing one of them, and anyway, it can’t. It doesn’t work. So, yeah, I think it is built into the idea of the existence of distinct nations that they should have some control over their borders, over their membership, and I think that that in the modern world, at least, that’s going to require control over your borders…
Now, I think you should be generous in allowing people to visit, but again, there are reasons for limiting visits. If you are Bhutan, your ecology won’t survive if you don’t limit the number of tourists you have – so you’re entitled to limit the number of tourists, in order to preserve your ecology. So I don’t think that there’s a right to go anywhere you want to go, myself. I think that everybody’s entitled to a state, to a nationality, and therefore our system of international law should be such that everybody is guaranteed such a thing, and I don’t want to live in a country that doesn’t have pretty free movement across its borders and free immigration, but if you want to live in a country like that, you can find one, and provided it’s not racist or sexist or all these other things, go ahead. That’s the point. Now, I would warn you that countries like that are going to do less well in the current world for economic reasons and that therefore you have to sadly pay a price, a significant economic penalty, for excluding lots and lots of kinds of people, but money isn’t everything, and societies can be willing to pay the price of limiting entry. The United States is somewhat peculiar among the large migration nations in not having (in recent years, anyway) paid much attention to the country’s needs in terms of employment in thinking about immigration. We have a relatively small category of visas for people who do things that we can’t find anyone to do here, some H1 visas, but the vast majority of migration into the United States is driven by family reunification and so on. That’s very different from Canada. In Canada, you get in if they need you. They have national policies about who they need, and if you’re one of those, they’ll take lots of you, and if you’re not one of those, they won’t take you (though there’s a whole category of people who you must take who are refugees and you have a moral obligation to let in).
So that’s how I think about it, and I agree with the idea that there’s a natural right – that you should have a right in international law – to a state, to membership in one of these communities, but I don’t think you have a right to membership in whichever one you prefer. And of course there are many things that are wrong with the current distribution of nation-states, lots of inequalities that are unjustified and so on and so on and so on. But that’s different from the question of whether as a cosmopolitan, I can believe in the defensibility of distinct states. And I think it’s very clear. It’s always been my view. I’m the author of an article called “Cosmopolitan Patriots”.
DK: As concerns recent American politics, I wonder if there’s anything that you think is not sufficiently appreciated elsewhere, about Trump, about the Republican Party…
KAA: We always over-interpret our electoral and, for that matter, referendum results. Both Brexit and the election of Trump could have gone very easily the other way if a few things had gone the other way, and the fact is (in the case of Trump in particular) a significant majority voted against him, and his polling popularity has not risen above 40 percent, which is in the first six or seven months he’s been in office, and no American president, since we’ve had polls, has been that low for the whole of that period. So the idea that he reflects some huge shift in American opinion is just crazy. Nor, I think, should we assume that his supporters are … What he did do was authorise the expression of opinions that were previously more stigmatised and that has bad effects, because it actually leads more people to contemplate holding those views and then maybe even more people to having them. I think there’s more racism and sexism in several areas of society than there were before because he’s authorised people. He himself, particularly, on the sexist front, gave legitimacy to views that are deplorable and were on the way out. But again, the response of large numbers of people to President Obama showed that there was lots and lots of racism in the United States still, and I think there’s lots and lots of sexism, and I’m not sure that the fact that we have a president who’s willing to be more explicit in his encouragement of chauvinism of various sorts should be interpreted as showing that the country in general is more chauvinist. I think it’s just permitting the expression of things that were already there.
And, I think a significant part of the appeal of Trump has nothing to do with any of his policy proposals. It has to do with the fact that the vast majority of the Americans who vote, vote the same way in every election. They vote for their party. Then there’s the small number of people whose propensity to vote depends on the enthusiasm they have in every election – they’ll always vote for one party, but they may not vote at all. Then there are people that don’t vote at all. Then there are people who are labelled independents, many of whom actually, it turns out, when they do vote always vote for the same party, even though they call themselves independents. But there are few genuine floaters, people who float back and forth. To interpret the Trump phenomenon in terms of a small proportion of the voters who voted for him who are this very interesting group of badly-off white disenfranchised people whose position in our society has been negatively affected by the end of the old working class jobs and who also mostly live in contexts where they don’t have a lot of regular interaction either with people from outside the country or people who are not white and who are therefore somewhat alienated from the anti-racist concerns of the Democratic party, which they think of as stigmatizing them as racist and so on – that’s an interesting group of people. There’s a genuine social problem there, which is that the form of the economy that made their lives prosperous and in which they were invested and which gave them a sense of significance and meaning has disappeared, and there is a part of the white, especially rural, working class which is in genuine trouble and wasn’t being heard and Trump seemed to be talking to them, and they don’t vote in huge numbers usually, but they heard him and so they responded. And we should all along have been attentive to the problem that they have – this is the group that Angus Deaton and Mary Anne Case have identified, who are the only demographic group in the United States whose life expectancy has gone down over the last twenty years … That’s a serious problem in a society, and we should be worried about them. The fact that their interpretation of what’s happened leads them to be racist and hostile to foreigners is sad, and I think it’s also the wrong analysis of their problem.
They’re not actually mostly in places where their prospects in work have been affected by immigration; they’re not people whose jobs have been substituted with(especially poor) Mexican immigrants, nor are they people whose jobs could have been saved by stopping globalisation. If we’d stopped globalisation, you and I wouldn’t have cellphones because we wouldn’t be able to afford them. Globalisation has been enormously good for most of the world. It’s been especially good for China, which I think is great. That they and globalization together have taken millions of people out of poverty in China, that’s a good thing. It’s not a bad thing. What we should have done was put more effort into thinking about what to do in the places where those jobs disappeared. And we didn’t do that, but the ‘we’ there is bipartisan and elite – it’s the policy elite, who weren’t thinking about these people very much, and I think that’s a pity, and we should be thinking about how to solve that problem now, independently of trying to discourage them from supporting the kind of unpleasant populism that’s associated with Trump. We should be worried about dealing with that problem. And, by the way, we should be worried about it because everybody needs to be worried about it, globally, because it is the coming problem. It’s connected not so much with globalisation as with a new economy in which production is dominated by small numbers of people operating large numbers of machines, and there’ll just be fewer jobs for people, especially people who don’t have higher degrees of education. So we need, the world needs to figure out what to do about that, and I don’t think much proper attention is being paid to that problem.
I think some people are sanguine about it. They think that it’s always the case that new technologies remove jobs but they also create them. I just think that it’s not obvious. I don’t know why anyone would think that it’s obvious that that’s true. It was true, in the industrial revolution: a lot of jobs disappeared and a lot of new jobs came up, but a) the transition was awful for lots and lots and lots of people, so we should try to manage the transition better than we managed the industrial revolution and b) you know, Hume. The problem of induction. It just doesn’t follow from the fact that every time we’ve done one of these before, we’ve got out of it, that we’re going to get out of this one – unless we do something. And here’s a place where philosophers are making contributions. I think that Philippe van Parijs’ work on the basic income and so on is relevant here because once you solve the problems of production, one thing you need to do is figure out how to share the social product without using the labor market to do it, and there are lots of things to be thought about here, and the depressing thing, I think about the election … Well, the good thing about the election of Donald Trump is that it has forced this question on us; the bad thing is that it’s forced it on us in the context of a president who is absolutely not going to make any contribution at all to pushing the right answers to these questions. But that shouldn’t stop us. We’re a free people. We can go ahead and think about these things and be prepared to do something about them when we get some sanity back in the White House.
DK: You’ve characterised yourself as a liberal, which is a term that’s deeply ambiguous in most contexts. So here’s one place where your understanding as a philosopher might be conducive to broader understanding. What do you take that term to mean? Is it a way of living or a certain ideology… ?
KAA: So, I actually think the best way to understand liberalism is like the best way to understand philosophy: it’s genealogical. It’s to ask, ‘To what concerns was liberalism a response?’ And so it’ll constantly need revision, because the challenges change. That kind of liberal [Appiah points to a portrait on his wall; he has four – David Hume, Immanuel Kant, John Stuart Mill (the pointee, in this case) and Mary Wollstonecraft – along with other artwork, including a small Picasso] – the John Stuart Mill liberal – is responding to a challenge to individuality; as he says in Chapter 3 of On Liberty, the problem is how to create a society in which free people can together live their own lives without getting in each other’s way. That’s the first part of the liberal package. It’s the rights part; it’s the part that produces in Rawls the priority of liberty. And it’s connected, etymologically, with the root in ‘freedom,’ because it’s about a society in which nobody is a slave. Everybody is a free person. Everybody is making their own lives. They’re not women being told what to do by husbands and fathers; they’re not slaves being told what to do by msters; they’re not wage-slaves being told what to do by capitalists. They’re free people, people making their own lives together in a community.
So that’s one part of the picture. But in the twentieth century, actually beginning … well, I don’t know that … I’m not an intellectual historian, sorry, but my sense is that in the twentieth century, a lot of this beginning with the Fabians, I think, in England, more than with socialism in general, was the question of worrying about making sure that people had the economic preconditions for life as free people, that they had good jobs, health care: the things that we now call ‘the welfare state.’ I think the Fabians (among whom I proudly claim my great-great-aunt Beatrice Webb and great-uncle Sidney) helped prepare the world for – what in this country happened in a different way, in response to the Great Depression, than it did in England after the War – the creation of the welfare state, which is under pressure, but again even on the right in England, nobody wants to take away universal education, universal health care and so on, none of which were part of the 19th century liberal package.
So, the core idea is people are in charge of their own lives – what are the social conditions necessary for them to live free lives? Well, they have to have a bundle of rights protected, and they have to have some kind of economic security. That second thing is part of the challenge that we face in relation to the deindustrialisation. We put together a society for industrial society to secure the basic conditions of material welfare; in post-industrial society we may have to put together a different way of doing it, because the particular combination of the labour-market being used to manage production, the distribution of the surplus in the way of wages, and meaning (which there was in a lot of industrial jobs), that’s fallen apart. And so we need to figure out how to solve it, and the hardest part to solve, I think, is the meaning part.
In the United States, we’re not culturally equipped, I believe, to think about the basic income solution, a) because people are unwilling to think that it’s a social obligation to make sure that everybody else in your society has a certain level of welfare even though I think it is, but b) and more importantly, because many people in our society, including many poor people, are ideologically disposed against the idea of receiving ‘handouts,’ as they think of them and so even if you could persuade the other people to pay the taxes to give it to them, they don’t really want to be given it. And that’s a real problem with some of our social welfare provision. We have people who won’t take available healthcare, for example. We have some veterans who won’t take healthcare from the Veterans’ Administration because they think it’s a handout. And that’s ridiculous, in my view. I think if you’ve served this country, it’s part of what we owe you, that we should give you decent health care. I think the Veterans’ Administration gives them too little, not too much, but still the fact that they feel like that is a problem, and it’s not a cultural problem everywhere. It’s not a cultural problem in Scandinavia. People understand that it’s okay to take things from society because it’s a shared enterprise and we are responsible for each other, but that’s not an American way of thinking, so we have bigger cultural challenges in the United States, I think, than one might have in some other places.
Anyway, I still think the core of liberalism is well-articulated in Chapter 3 of On Liberty. It’s about making sure that individuals can make meaningful lives of their own, building things together but not getting in each other’s ways. So, in that sense, Jesse Helms was a liberal, as far as I can tell, and he believed that too. And maybe one should invent some other word, because ‘liberal’ in our society has now come to be used … I’m not quite sure that there’s a coherent account of how it’s used. It’s often just used to mean whatever the Democratic party is currently proposing, which seems to me not a good way to use it.
DK: There seems to be a sense in which many socialists are liberals in your sense, but in which “liberal” is opposed to socialist in the sense of “Democratic party.”
KAA: Yes. I am not a socialist, even though I was raised by socialists, and my grandfather was the author of a book on Christian socialism and so on … It’s hard to say, because it’s another word that has no particularly well-defined consensus about how it should be used, but I suppose I put more weight on the freedom for people to make their own lives than much of the socialist tradition did. On the other hand, part of the socialist tradition was, in fact, about respecting the individuality of workers, about taking workers’ lives and putting them back under their own control rather than leaving them in the hands of other people, and that’s a liberal agenda.