Blogs > HNN > Richard Posner on the News Media, Joseph Ellis on Thomas Paine

Jul 30, 2005 12:38 pm

Richard Posner on the News Media, Joseph Ellis on Thomas Paine

Richard Posner has an interesting essay in tomorrow’s New York Times Book Review about the current state of the news media. I don’t always agree with Posner, but I do agree with almost all of his argument here, and I particularly liked his defense of blogging vis-à-vis the traditional media. I sometimes get depressed at the low intellectual standards I encounter on so many blogs, but all things considered, I think Posner is right that blogs make a net positive contribution to discourse.

Joseph J. Ellis has an interesting if somewhat odd review in the same place of Harvey J. Kaye’s book, Thomas Paine and the Promise of America. Bizarrely titled “Founding Father of the American Left,” Ellis actually says this in the review:
Oddly enough, however, over the past 30 years Paine's chief fans have appeared within the conservative wing of the Republican Party, making Paine, like Jefferson, the proverbial man for all seasons. Though weird, and surely not the legacy Kaye has in mind, the Goldwater-Reagan-Gingrich persuasion has a plausible claim on the libertarian side of the Paine legacy, which is deeply suspicious of all forms of consolidated political power and views government as ''them'' rather than ''us.'' Paul Wolfowitz would also be able to cite Paine in support of George W. Bush's Iraq policy, since Paine believed that democratic values were both universal and self-enacting. History makes strange bedfellows.
The terms “oddly” and “weird” mark the points at which Ellis’s powers of argument have essentially failed him. Paine’s views, like Jefferson’s, are a popularized version of Locke’s, and it should be obvious to anyone who has read Locke (or Louis Hartz or Robert Nozick ) why Locke, Jefferson and Paine are as much “founding fathers of the American left” as they are founders of the secular-individualist part of the American right.

Paine is sometimes described as a precursor of the left on the basis of his 1795 essay “Agrarian Justice,” which can justifiably be read as a defense of a redistributionist welfare state. But it can with equal justification be read as a defense of what Robert Nozick, in his 1974 book Anarchy, State, and Utopia, described as non-redistributionist"rectificatory justice." Paine describes the fund defended in “Agrarian Justice” as “compensation” for a “loss” imposed by “the introduction of the system of landed property.” That is an appeal to compensation (which is compatible with classical liberalism) not welfare rights (which isn't). (This online essay makes some interesting points to that effect , albeit from a normative perspective I reject.)

Paine's views may not be music to hard-core libertarian ears, but they shouldn't be music to the ears of contemporary egalitarians of the Rawlsian or Dworkinian sort either--much less to Marxists like G.A. Cohen . In form, I think Paine's argument offers the sort of defense of government poverty programs that a Lockean classical liberal like myself can in principle countenance or at least be fellow traveler to. And Paine makes points in the essay that are useful for thinking about the transformation of quasi-feudal economies to capitalist ones in the contemporary"Third World", e.g., Egypt, Pakistan, and India.

At any rate, this part of the classical liberal heritage is one that I think both libertarians and redistributionist liberals would do well to take a harder look at. Nozick aside, it’s unfortunate that so few have.

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Irfan Khawaja - 8/4/2006

I think Shafer's article is a pretty obvious case of missing the forest for the trees.

First, the entire article is premised on a gigantic bluff: he's found a few questionable claims in one of Posner's books. He then tries to insinuate (on the basis of an unargued conditional: "if..., then...") that the few questionable claims are representative of Posner's work as a whole. He's treating a conditional claim as though it were equivalent a categorical one but pretending all the while that the claim he's making is merely conditional. Sorry, that is the definition of slop.

But even if we grant Shafer every particular claim he makes against Posner, he's missing Posner's larger point. The larger point is that regardless of the frequency of error in the mainstream media, there have been serious errors, and there is a serious left-oriented bias in a lot reporting. Beyond that, reporters cannot, given their constraints, sustain the sort of monomanical focus on a given issue or event that bloggers can, and sometime that is precisely what is required to uncover the truth.

Bloggers are for all their faults a useful corrective to those error-conducive features of mainstream reporting.

Irfan Khawaja - 8/4/2006

Thanks. There is an interesting, and I think, undiscussed connection between Paine's essay and Rand's "The Question of Scholarships" in "The Voice of Reason." Both of them take the first-person perspective on poverty more seriously than most classical liberals have (although I don't think Rand was consistent about doing this).

Paine rightly saw, I think, that a great deal of 18th c American poverty was the causal result of its pre-capitalist past. Rand I think rightly saw that a good part of the explanation for 20th c American poverty is its non-capitalist present. They both saw poverty as something needing urgent attention within a classical liberal context. I don't quite agree with either of them (I think Paine skates too close to redistribution and Rand doesn't always take poverty sufficiently seriously), but both were onto something.

If you write something on Paine, feel free to cross post it here, I'd be interested in getting a discussion started.

Irfan Khawaja - 8/4/2006

Thanks, haven't read enough Spencer to speak intelligently about him. The Little article strikes me as the sort of thing that classical liberals should be writing on Paine from their own perspective. I don't know that there's very much of a specifically classical liberal literature on him, I'm more familiar with the literature from the left, much of which distorts Paine's thought in a left-ward direction.

Kenneth R Gregg - 8/2/2005

Certainly, Irfan.
"Agrarian Justice" should be looked at in the context of its time, not only in the sense of being critical of pre-capitalist feudal institutions, but also in terms of the writings of other radicals of the time who wrote about land. Thomas Spence and Richard Ogilvie were both prominent land reform radicals, and in part Paine was responding to other writings on the subject (a point not indicated by Paine historians that I'm familiar with) and the somewhat popular notion in radical circles of the Christian "Jubilee" which would create a radical break from the past by redistributing all property equally--and I do mean ALL property!

Paine's proposal was far more sensible and less socialistic than the alternatives. Moreover, a good reading of "Agrarian Justice" leads to much better solutions than many interpretations of this work.

Just a thought.
Just Ken

Jonathan Rick - 8/1/2005

Slate media critic Jack Shafer denounces Posner's sloppy research:

Mark Brady - 8/1/2005

Your post at Liberty & Power brought me over here and I was immediately drawn to your discussion of Thomas Paine. You've written an interesting post on a subject that contemporary libertarians and classical liberals should explore further. I appreciate the link to Adrian Little's article. And I'd like to take the opportunity to reference Herbert Spencer's critical perspective on private property in land enshrined in the first edition (1851) of Social Statics. Spencer had revised his views by the time the abridged and revised second edition was published in 1892.

Btw, as you may know, Harvey J. Kaye is a Marxist historian and author of many interesting books.

Kenneth R Gregg - 8/1/2005

I'm glad that you mentioned "Agrarian Justice," Irfan. It's one of the many gems on Paine's offering plate, and I've thought about writing on it.

You're quite right about this being a response to feudalistic forms of landed property, and there is much that can be said about understanding it in the context of his times and that of many of the other radical writers of the period on land.

Paine was one of the first writers that I began reading thoroughly some 35 years ago in high school, and I still go back to his thoughts often. That his influence is broad throughout both the left and the right is no surprise. That he is misinterpreted should be no surprise either.

Thanks for mentioning him!

Just a thought.
Just Ken