The Promises You Meant to Carry Out Leave You Tasting Doubt

I agree with what Ygz, Spencer, and Rob say on the one-state solution as far as it goes. Obviously, a binational state would be an utter disaster and result in the relocation, most likely forced, of one or the other ethnic group between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean. And I agree whole-heartedly with Spencer when he says that the real threat to Israel’s continued existence comes from continued occupation of the West Bank, not Iran or some invisible army of Tony Judts coming to give Abu Mazen a seat in the Knesset.

My problem comes when we start making statements like this one of Matt’s:

Readers will know that I’m not a big fan of nationalism and I am a big fan of trans-national projects like the European Union and the United Nations. And it’s even true that I really kind of hope that hundreds of years from now there won’t be national states at all, instead we’ll all be lumped in with the Vulcans and the Andorians in a United Federation of Planets and off we’ll go. But there’s clearly no prospects for the abolition of the nation-state in the short-term. And the Jewish people’s claim to a nation-state is just as strong as the Finnish or Dutch or Thai claim. Or, for that matter, as the Palestinian claim. By far the best way to secure a just resolution of those conflicting claims is through a two-state solution—an independent Palestine, and a democratic Jewish Israel.

There’s something bizarre about a two-headed cosmopolitanism that accepts the end of the nation-state as its goal while backing all manner of nationalist claims in the short-run. And more to the point, the comparison to Finland and the Netherlands seems quite off base. This is a live issue for Israel in a way it simply isn’t for, say, Finland. You don’t hear Finnish politicians referring to the reproductive rates of ethnic minorities as a “demographic threat” and frantically planning ways to thin their ranks. I suppose if some of the Russians who stayed in Finland after the partition began reproducing at a clip that threatened to end ethnic Finns’ hold on the country, one could say that the Finland will cease to exist as a Finnish state in some technical sense. That said, all cosmopolitans would condemn as racist calls for expelling Russo-Finns or for a redrawing of Finnish borders in order to make them Russian citizens again. Cosmpolitans would similarly condemn an argument that Russian refugees from the war should not have a right to return based not on the grounds that the historical moment is too far gone or that such relocation would be wholly impractical, but on the grounds that such a right would threaten Finland’s Finnishness.

Yet these are precisely the conversations going on about Arabs, both (second-class) Israeli citizens and those suffering occupation. To be sure, one can dismiss the expulsionist rantings of Benny Morris and Avigdor Lieberman as representative of the extremes (though given Lieberman’s current gig as foreign minister, the latter’s a stretch). But even Matt endorses the notion that we should reject the right of return not on practical grounds but to “preserve its Jewish character”. Unless one advances some form of Israeli exceptionalism, I can’t see how this can be reconciled with what cosmopolitans like Matt and I believe about ethnicity and national identity. In any other society, this endorsement of policymaking based upon preserving an ethnic majority would be seen as completely repugnant. Because it is.

Freedom of Action: A better conversation

(Cross-posted at The Hastings Center)

First of all, thanks to the Hastings Center for hosting this discussion, and for putting together such a thought-provoking set of essays. Connecting American Values with Health Reform brings up enough vital issues that I fear I will barely be able to scratch the surface in this space.

Let me start with Bruce Jennings’ fascinating opening essay on liberty. Given reform opponents’ frequent appeals to personal freedom both in specific cases–fears about government intrusion into end of life care, most notably–and in broader “the government is controlling your body” terms, establishing that health care reform is part and parcel of American ideals of freedom is absolutely essential, and so arguments like Jennings’ are absolutely critical to winning the debate.

That said, I fear Jennings is pursuing the wrong tack. I fear that buying into Isaiah Berlin’s famous distinction between positive and negative liberty is ultimately harmful both on this issue, and for advocates of progressive causes more generally. First off, the dichotomy is altogether too strict. As Cass Sunstein and Stephen Holmes argued in their The Cost of Rights, the negative rights we have are enabled by government protection, just as much as positive rights are. To pick the most obvious example, the negative right to property only exists in a world with police, firemen, and civil courts to protect that rights for individuals. Positive rights require more resources, perhaps, but this is a difference of degree, not of essence.

More to the point, a focus on positive liberty is essentially a focus on the least popular element of health reform, namely taxation. After all, the difference between positive and negative liberty in Berlin’s formulation is the necessity of tax dollars for the former, so defenses of positive liberty must necessarily be defenses of taxation. There is nothing wrong with this, of course; I have no problem with using tax dollars to reform the health care system, or indeed with raising taxes for that purpose if need be. However, in a nation with a long, distinguished history of tax revolts, this will be a difficult argument to win.

I would posit that a more productive conversation would focus on the gains health care reform would bring in terms of enabling greater freedom of action. A positive liberty conversation focuses on the costs health reform would exact due to financing issues, but a freedom of action conversation would focus on how American would have a greater ability to take risks, change jobs, and generally live freely without fear of medical bankruptcy or a similar calamity befalling them. The model here would be an exceptionally clever ad launched by Ron Wyden for his Wyden-Bennett health care bill. The ad emphasizes how health care reform would enable to change jobs without fear of losing their health care.

Of course, Wyden had a better bill to promote than the current watered-down legislation emanating from Max Baucus’ negotiations, but the principle is still one worth emphasizing. This approach recasts health care reform not as government intrusion in one’s health decisions, but as an end to insurance company and employer intrusion, and in doing so appeals to the traditional American ideal of self-reliance. That seems like a better debate to have than a head-on discussion of taxes, which is where a positive liberty debate would leave us.

Ivy League Legacies Are Privileged. News at 11.

This post of Emily’s strikes as wrong in a number of ways. Let me go paragraph by paragraph:

[Kevin] Carey states as fact that “the existing class includes underqualified children of legacies, rich people, politicians, celebrities, and others who benefit from the questionable Ivy League admissions process.” I know, I know, there’s been bestseller after bestseller that has attempted to demonstrate the extent to which Ivy League admissions are unfair to the earnest but non-connected student who just can’t get into Harvard because s/he doesn’t know people in power. I’m sorry, but that’s just not the case. You have to meet a basic standard of academic competence to be admitted to Harvard. Or Princeton. Or any of their peer institutions. I know, I know, George W. Bush, but since about the late ’80s family connections have begun to be far less of a point on which college admissions turn.

This doesn’t respond to Carey’s point. He’s not saying that there isn’t a base standard for admission. Everyone knows there is. The problem is that most applicants meet that standard. A vast majority, in fact. William Fitzsimmons, Harvard’s longtime admissions dean, pegs the number at 80-90 percent of applicants. So the legacies admitted are going to fall under that group. The question then is, of those qualified people, whether legacies get an unfair advantage in becoming among the ten percent of applicants admitted. The answer there is an unqualified yes. The acceptance rate for legacies in the class of 2011 was about 34-35 percent, far higher than the 9 percent overall acceptance rate that year. That these students–of whom, in the interest of full disclosure, I am one–get an big leg-up on the basis of something they can’t control is pretty indisputable.

[A]lumni children are not de facto less qualified than other admits. In fact, if anything, they are likely to be a very academically well-qualified constituency: their parents received a very high-quality education. They probably went on to become middle-class, if they weren’t already. The children were probably raised with encouragement to academic pursuits. They probably had a certain number of environmental advantages.

Two things here. First, Emily’s arguing against a straw man. No one is saying that equivalently qualified legacies should be at a disadvantage to non-legacies. What Carey, myself, and others want is an equal playing field, as opposed to the current system that explicitly privileges equivalently qualified legacies above non-legacies. Are alumni children not less qualified? Great, then let’s prove it. If they can still get in without an extra boost, they’ll have proven to be as qualified as their non-legacy peers. If not, then not. But let’s base it on merit–or what passes for “merit” in the Ivy League admissions process–and not on some other factor that may or may not be correlated.

Secondly, I find Emily’s suggestion that legacies should be entitled to get in on the basis of their families’ superior education, their academically nourishing childhood, environmental advantages, etc. to be profoundly disturbing. Sure, this might make students more academically engaged, but it’s also a factor wholly beyond their control. A student who becomes smart through these factors didn’t “earn” anything. They just slipped into success on the basis of exogenous factors. That they should thus be privileged over, say, someone with working class parents who never went to college seems totally perverse to me.

You probably know that I’m the child of a Princeton alum. And I find the insinuation that I am less entitled to be here because my mother spent 10 years on this campus pretty insulting, frankly. I wouldn’t have lasted very long here if I couldn’t engage with my professors and my peers on a higher level, and I worked very hard both throughout high school and in the admissions process to get here. I find it very hard to believe that all this places me at some greater advantage, or suggests I’m less qualified to be here, than the kid whose parents also both have graduate degrees, but got them from different universities than mine did.

This, frankly, is what bothers me the most about Emily’s post. It’s not just that she repeats the straw man that anyone thinks legacies are “less” deserving of being admitted than non-legacies, rather than engaging with the real belief many hold that legacies should be placed on an equal footing. It’s not even that Emily, in contradiction to the explicit admissions policy of Princeton and every other Ivy, finds it “very hard to believe” that she’s at a greater advantage due to her status as a legacy. It’s that her comparison isn’t to the vast majority of high school students whose parents didn’t finish college, let alone go to graduate school, it’s to someone whose parents got graduate degrees at another school. The total lack of acknowledgment that the graduate education of Emily’s–and my–parents places us at a huge advantage in all our educational pursuits due to no virtues of our own is jarring, to say the least. It’s not normal to have parents who went to grad school. It’s not normal, and we didn’t earn it. We should at the very least be cognizant of that fact, and not take it as a given.