Monthly Archives: July 2017

job opening: the Newhouse Professor of Civic Studies

The Department of Political Science and the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life at Tufts University invite applications for the Newhouse Professor of Civic Studies in Arts & Sciences. Civic Studies encompass civic engagement, political participation, social capital, civil society, citizenship, civic virtue, the public sphere, and related topics. The Newhouse Professorship is a joint appointment between the School of Arts & Sciences and the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life at Tufts University. The Newhouse Professorship will promote the intellectual inquiry into civic life necessary to fulfill the University’s mission to shape students into active and engaged citizens. Teaching responsibilities will focus on the undergraduate level.

From the perspective of Tisch College: this is one of a small set of senior faculty positions that we are filling across the University. The new professors will form the nucleus of an intellectual community here that is dedicated to understanding civic life in all of its aspects. They will also connect to numerous existing Tufts scholars and students who study relevant topics. Our goal is to develop new approaches to defining, investigating, and improving civic engagement in the US and around the world.

The position requires a Ph.D. in Political Science or a related field, and a record of excellence in scholarship and teaching. Current rank of Full Professor or advanced Associate Professor is required. The position is open with respect to subfield and methodological approaches.

All application materials must be submitted via Interfolio at: Applicants should submit a cover letter describing their research and teaching, a curriculum vitae, two representative scholarly works, and contact information for three references. References will only be contacted with prior candidate approval. Review of applications will begin on September 15, 2017, and will continue until the position is filled. Please contact Peter Morency, Administrative Assistant, at with any questions.

libertarianism and democracy

In  the Washington Post, Michael Chwe argues that the “beliefs and values” of James M. Buchanan “conflict with basic democratic norms.” Buchanan (1919-2013) was a hugely influential public choice economist. Chwe is intervening in the debate about him that has been provoked by Nancy MacLean’s recent book Democracy in Chains. Although I haven’t read MacLean, I want to offer a theoretical point.

If freedom means non-interference, and if democracy means equitable decision-making in groups, then freedom and democracy are in tension.

“Non-interference” means not being told what to do or what not to do. “Equitable decision-making” means a process that yields a result binding on the whole group, based on everyone’s input. It need not mean majority-rule; democratic processes can be more complex and demanding than that. But democracy does yield binding outcomes, which may interfere with what individuals want to do. Therefore, democracy as equitable decision-making conflicts with freedom as non-interference.

This means that libertarians and classical liberals should own up to the fact that they are critics of democracy. Yes, they favor certain forms of liberty and equity, but those don’t equal democracy. Libertarians are leery of binding decisions by non-voluntary groups.

For their part, strong democrats–people who want to defend and expand the scope of democratic decision-making–should admit that they are critics of freedom as non-interference.

But one can compromise. I happen to think that non-interference is a real good. People rightly don’t like to be told what they may and may not do, except when it is strictly necessary. I also happen to think that democratic decision-making is a real good: people should deliberate and shape their common world. If the two goods trade off, then we can design institutions that offer elements of democracy along with strong constraints to protect individuals from unjust interference by the group. For those who favor a compromise, Buchanan’s work is full of important insights and cautions, but is not a satisfactory political theory all by itself.

Two important complications:

  1. Non-interference is a problematic concept. We tend to think of a person as free from interference insofar as she goes about her everyday life without anyone else making explicit commands or threats. But that person lives in a world shaped by institutions, norms, and powerful decisions by other people, starting with her parents and including her employer, competing companies in the marketplace, celebrities who shape the culture, etc. It’s not clear that she is more free if she faces fewer explicit, immediate rules.
  2. There are other kinds of freedom, besides non-interference. In a post that still draws daily traffic, I summarized six types. I actually omitted an important seventh type on which Philip Pettit is an expert: freedom as non-domination. This means freedom from any other person’s arbitrary will or discretionary choice. One can be highly limited by rules that are non-arbitrary, or one can be subject to arbitrary decisions that happen not to be very consequential. If you think that arbitrariness (rather than constraint) is the main threat to liberty, then you can favor strong democratic institutions. But they can’t be simply majoritarian. Instead, they must be aimed at producing non-arbitrary decisions: decisions that are justified by reasons, influenced by all opinions, and consistent with rules. I find this very promising, but I also believe that we must attend to the insights of Buchanan and others about how real institutions fail to honor such abstract principles.

lessons from a large youth service program

I’ve previously posted a link to my evaluation of Points of Light’s ServiceWorks program, which engages thousands of disadvantaged teenagers and young adults in service projects. In addition to yielding good outcomes for the participating youth, the program also suggests lessons of general interest to anyone who promotes youth civic engagement. This is a summary of four issues, taken from the CIRCLE website:

  • Scale vs. Depth: Programs that aim to provide compelling positive experiences for young people must weigh the competing goals of reaching many youth and deeply affecting the participants, particularly those who are highly disadvantaged. ServiceWorks sought to reach 25,000 youth over three years with a medium-dosage program (more sustained than a one-time service project, but less intensive than a full-time opportunity lasting months such as YouthBuild, City Year, or the National Guard’s Youth ChalleNGe program). Although ServiceWorks has found a reasonable balance between size and depth, this demonstration project reinforces that trade-off. Pushing for large numbers may have shifted at least some ServiceWorks sites toward enrolling not-as-disadvantaged youth or lowering expectations for how much each Scholar would accomplish. Focusing resources on fewer youth might produce higher impact and increase the proportion of participants who are particularly disadvantaged.
  • Demonstrating Skills for the Labor Market: Although the evidence collected here shows that ServiceWorks Scholars gain skills, particularly project-management skills that would help them in the workforce, prospective employers may not always recognize the value of these skills. ServiceWorks and similar programs should consider offering reliable certificates or credentials for participants who demonstrate job-relevant skills (and not automatically for those who complete the program). The challenge of connecting youth who have 21st century skills to jobs will require shared understanding and partnerships between youth-serving nonprofits and employers.
  • Incorporating Youth into Diverse, Intergenerational Teams: At least some ServiceWorks sites bring youth of diverse backgrounds together with adults to collaborate on social issues. Youth contribute distinctive knowledge and talents, as do the VISTA members, unpaid adult volunteers, program staff, and professional educators. The atmosphere is one of mutual respect, shared learning, empathy, and collaboration. Scholars value that atmosphere and find it atypical in their lives. ServiceWorks and similar programs should give explicit attention to creating such climates.
  • Youth Voice: ServiceWorks encourages Scholars to choose issues and strategies for their service projects. Scholars often identify very difficult issues, discuss these topics with sophistication and nuance, and then struggle to implement projects that would address the underlying causes that they have identified. Although giving young people choice and voice is important, asking them to plan and implement a whole social change initiative in a short period may produce frustration. Possible solutions include structuring deliberations so that young people are more likely to choose successful projects, connecting youth to ongoing initiatives, or recognizing that they have natural talents and affinities for awareness-raising, media-production, and policy advocacy, and highlighting those activities (along with conventional community service). That would mean viewing programs like ServiceWorks as a potential space for youth-driven media-literacy education or Action Civics (a recent movement that emphasizes youth voice in policy) as well as examples of service-learning and workforce education.

Josh Patten’s satire

I’m very amused by Josh Patten’s project: replying to President Trump’s tweets as if they were texts for him personally:

Imagine going back to 1990 and trying to explain the humor here. “We have a president, you see, who makes a fool of himself daily by tweeting inane remarks to about 34 million followers. Yes, the President of the United States. A tweet? Well, it’s a short message that you type and anyone who wants to read all your ad hoc thoughts can subscribe. Yes, lots and lots of people do this all the time. OK, so a comedian imagines that the president’s tweets are messages just for him. (We all get these ‘texts’ on fancy phones that we carry everywhere.) The comedian responds in the banal way you might answer a friend’s texts, imagining that he’s part of the president’s private circle instead of a mass audience. And this is funny because … I guess you’d have to live in 2017.”

A serious point is buried in Patten’s humor. Companies and governments have long sought to infiltrate private spaces in order to increase their influence. FDR arrived in Americans’ living rooms during “fireside chats.” The TV screen brought “Friends” into your house. To various degrees, most people have protected their real lives from these infiltrations by drawing distinctions between actual and fake friends, authentic and artificial messages. Now that we lead a lot of our private life online, where anyone can “follow” it, and now that almost all leaders (popes and Dalai Lamas as well as heads of state) broadcast messages through the same media that we employ for social purposes, the borders are harder to police. Donald Trump is intruding–often counterproductively, but still pervasively. Patten’s satire pushes back.

See also: protecting authentic human interactionDoes Twitter “smoosh” the public and private?Habermas illustrated by Twitter.

deliberation depends on social movements

Why would people deliberate? Here I’ll argue that citizens will only come together to exchange reasons if they are empowered to make decisions. In turn, it often takes a social movement to  change institutions so that any particular group of citizens has power. And social movements cannot be (fully) deliberative.

In an important passage in Talking to Strangers, Danielle Allen argues that it’s an error to assume that speakers “enter [any] deliberative forum already mutually well-minded toward one another.” She writes, “If they do so enter, the battle to achieve a reasonable policy outcome is already 75 percent won. The hard part is getting citizens to that point of being mutually well-intentioned.”

Allen proposes rhetorical solutions to this problem: ways of communicating that encourage other people want to hear your reasons and respond with good arguments, rather than walk out or shout you down. For example, you can begin a conversation by making an unsolicited sacrifice, which is “the most powerful tool for generating trust.” You can also “aim to convince 100 percent” of the audience instead of trying to build a mere majority, and you can look for ways to “ameliorate the remaining disagreement and distrust” after a decision has been reached. These are techniques for creating the conditions under which people will exchange reasons about what is right to do.

The rhetorical techniques that Allen suggests manifest political friendship, in Aristotle’s sense. First you act like a friend; then people will trust you enough to deliberate with you. The good news is that many people exhibit a desire for such friendship that makes deliberation possible. In 1982, my friend James Youniss, a developmental psychologist who had studied with Habermas, wrote:

Persons enter discussion, debate, negotiation, and so on … to clarify uncertainties, check doubts, receive criticism, justify views, gain different opinions, or explore novel ideas. But that is not all. Persons who respect one another seek to maintain their relation, and they communicate voluntarily for this purpose. They want to understand and to be understood. They want to show that they care and want to be cared for in return. In the reciprocal cooperation epitomized in friendship, each retains freedom of thought by acknowledging freedom in the other and, thus, communication is essential so that the respective parties do not lose the opportunity for truth seeking in common. [“Why Persons Communicate on Moral Matters: A Response to Shweder,” Merrill-Palmer Quarterly, vol. 28, no. 1, 1982]

These relational motives make deliberation seem plausible. Talking can be its own reward, if and when people value friendship. However, the mode of discussion may have to be emotional and personal and may have to involve speech-acts like making sacrifices. Abstract arguments will fall on deaf ears unless trust has been built.

Allen’s rhetorical suggestions are valuable as long as relevant citizens have chosen to gather together at one time and place in order to communicate. But most people allocate their time and energy to purposes other than meetings. Those who stay away may be foolishly renouncing their influence, or selfishly free-riding on others’ efforts–but both behaviors are predictable.

If group exists, we can try to invite, entice, cajole, or reward people to participate. But we cannot just assume that a group exists that has the capacity to make decisions. To be sure, once a group forms, then (almost regardless of its assets) it can empower itself by creating goods that it allocates. A Parent-Teacher Association (PTA) raises money at a bake-sale, which gives it a budget to deliberate about. In such cases, the deliberation depends on a prior solution to a collective-action problem: getting parents to contribute goods for the sale.

In many circumstances, the problem is more difficult than that. It’s not just a matter of generating a resource that can be discussed, but of capturing it from someone else. For instance, if the municipal government sets the city budget, then a public meeting about priorities is not really a deliberation; it is just a forum for talking to power. Forcing or persuading the city to share ts power would require an organized political effort that would precede a citizen deliberation about taxing and spending. But how to get people involved in that political effort is again a problem of motivation and coordination.

The broader point is that any reasonably decent conversation depends on rules, which must not only cover the speech itself (e.g., by giving everyone an equal chance to talk) but must also create groups that have the power to make decisions that are worth talking about. Since power rarely yields voluntarily, the main way to change unacceptable rules is to organize social movements. Such movements may harbor some internal deliberations, but they cannot be deliberative fora. They must aim for specific reforms that then create groups that are worth deliberating in.

This is why I think that “Ostrom, Habermas, and Gandhi are all we need.” See also: Habermas, Ostrom, Gandhi (II) and how to get a deliberative democracy.