29 April 2007

The Unger Experiment in Brazil

According to economist Dani Rodrik's blog, Brazilian President Luis Inacio “Lula” da Silva has appointed pragmatist law professer Roberto Mangabeira Unger to a ministerial post heading a newly created "special secretariat for long-term actions." This is an interesting appointment from my perspective insofar as Unger has articulated (more on that verb below) a view of institutional pluralism and political experimentalism that I find extremely congenial.* (You can find an earlier post of mine on Unger here.) Unger himself is Brazilian and, if I have this correctly, was the youngest person ever granted tenure at Harvard Law School.

Rodrik describes Unger as "the most erudite and impenetrable man I know." And this recent interview with Unger from The Guardian begins with this observation: "Talking to Roberto Mangabeira Unger for an hour is like waltzing with a very articulate cement mixer. Being slippery in his intellectual formulations is a matter of perverse pride to him. When The London Review of Books rejected an article of his on the grounds that it was somewhat lacking in "conversational" tone, Unger retorted that he was never conversational; even in conversation."

I find that sort of purposeful obscurity totally unhelpful, especially because Unger's underlying ideas are, I think, both extremely provocative and politically innovative. This obscurity has been a problem for pragmatist political thought since Dewey, whose writing "style" was, to be polite, atrocious. Reading either presents an unnecessarily high barrier to entry.

Interesingly enough, I cannot find any reference to Unger's appointment in the press but it puts him into a public position similarly visible to that occupied by Richard Posner which, from a pragmatist viewpoint should be interesting. We should soon see something of an answer to the question that Unger proposd in his recent book "What Should the Left Propose?"

Follow up (added later that evening): You can find a disparaging - and I think not entirely fair - review of Unger's What Should the Left Propose? by Michael Bérubé from Dissent here. I guess just as initial warrent regarding the seriousness of a writer's political-economic ideas, I find the endorsement of an economist like Rodrik more persuasive than the flippancy of English Professors, even smart ones like Bérubé.

More importantly, and disturbingly, are claims by bloggers that Unger recently has removed a 2005 paper from his Harvard web page in which he attacked Lula's first administration as “the most corrupt government in the history of Brazil.” Unger was among the founders of the Brazilian Republican Party and his new appointment has been interpreted as a political sidepayment by Lula to the party which is part of the President's political coalition. Stay tuned.

* For the truly nerdy, you can find my views on such things in Jack Knight and James Johnson. 2007. “The Priority of Democracy: A Pragmatist Approach to Political-Economic Institutions and the Burden of Justification,” American Political Science Review, Volume 101, Issue 01, pages 47-61. This essay is an advertisement for the book Jack & I are writing.

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Blogger Hans said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

30 April, 2007 03:05  
Blogger Hans said...

What I meant to say (in the deleted comment): I like your and Jacks article and the pragmatisk argument. When is the book expected to come?

30 April, 2007 03:06  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Interesting post. It would be interesting to have a discussion on Unger's book also, not so much on his background. Do you have any recommendations regarding his more theoretical works by the way?

A side note on your 'advertisement essay' with Jack Knight:
It was a very interesting and clearly written article, and I would be interested in learning more about how the argument of the article relates to other areas that you in order to focus the argument do not deal with here.

You stress at the end of the article that it represents a ‘first step in a full argument for the priority of democracy’. I suppose that is what the book is about so I share Dysterkvisten's enthusiasm that a book will be coming up.

For one thing, I hope that you will write more on the issues of political equality and the trade-offs between it and other societal goals (you did treat this issue broadly in the 1997 volume edited by Bohman and Rehg).

It would also be interesting for me to learn how your position compares with that of for instance Ian Shapiro (The State of Democratic Theory, is the work I have read by him). Shapiro interprets Schumpeter in a way that seems to fit your interpretation (in n12, p. 55) and criticizes Posner in a way that you would (I think) be sympathetic to. But he also ascribes less importance than you and Knight to Arrow’s impossibility theorem for instance.

I hope these discussions make their way into the book.

On a technical matter, I did not understand why, in the APSR article you do not mention the technical assumptions about consumer preferences in the article (that is noted in the January 2005 version of the paper –note 16).

30 April, 2007 05:59  
Blogger Jim Johnson said...

Thanks for the comments. We are working on the book now (actually JACK is!) and hope to have a draft by late summer.

I too believe that (in the current context, not the book) we ought to focus on Unger's ideas. While the Brazilians surely need to be concerned with the politics of his appointment and his behavior (I myself think it very sketchy of him to have removed the paper critical of Lula from his web page), that is not my concern. I am interested in figuring out what he thinks and what we might make of it for our own analyses of the political economy of development.

Back to the book. The reason why we set aside the technical conditions on preferences is that our preoccupation is with institutions and the conditions presupposed for their effective (normatively attractive) operation. I would love to hear what you think of the standard technical assumptions on preferences.

I think our views intersect with Ian Shapiro's insofar as we both take pragmatism seriously and we both see competition and conflict and the interests (etc.) that drive them as central to and ineliminable from politics. As you know Ian takes a dim view of rational choice models. I think his views on that score are daft and have said so in print. (Review essay in Philosophy of the Social Sciences mid 90s).

Jack & I have a critical article on Posner's approach to pragmatism in Political Theory some time ago (late '90s). His problem is that he throws pragmatism overboard when it threatens his ideological views. We do not think (contra RP) that Schumpeter was a pragmatist. We think he (JS) was correct to focus on competition; wrong to focus solely on the elecctoral or aggregative dimension of the competition and thereby to neglect debate, argument and so on; and inconsistent insofar as he smuggles freedom. equality and so forth back in as conditions for the proper operation of competition. Neither Posner nor other current day minimalists re: democracy like Adam Przeworski who take Schmupeter as a hero acknowledge the latter inconsistency. That mostly is becauase it undermines their own positions as well!

03 May, 2007 07:24  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you very much for the feedback.

I see that the technical conditions are not central or even directly relevant to your argument. But as someone who has only taken a one-year course in economics some time back it was nice (in the paper version) to be reminded about what the technicalities were. I do not have anything to add there, unfortunately.

I don't know if Shapiro's view on rational choice is dim, but I'll try to consult your article on it. I am sympathetic to his recent discussion about the flight from reality in the human sciences. His argument, as far as I see it, is not that model-building is a bad thing as such. He praises, for instance, the formal model-type work of John Roemer who is an explicitly ‘Newtonian’ social scientist. Shapiro’s problem is rather with model-building that is not problem-driven, regardless of whether it is a formal model of rational choice or an 'interpretive' model. Put in this way, I guess it is hard to disagree with, but I like the way he phrases it with reference to some concrete examples. I will read your review essay which I guess is about the Pathologies of Rational Choice book which I have not read.

Shapiro makes an argument (on his view, from Schumpeter) that the conditions for actual debate making a difference, are better secured through basic electoral competition. That does not, as I see it, dismiss the value of argument and discussion in politics. It is rather a question of the circumstances under which competition between arguments will be a more or less free and equal. Thus, Schumpeter makes the point that “information and arguments that are really driven home are likely to be the servants of political intent. Since the first thing man will do for his ideal or interest is to lie, we shall expect… that effective information is almost always adulterated and selective and that effective reasoning in politics consists mainly in trying to exalt certain propositions into axioms and to put others out of court.” (CSD, 4th ed., p. 264). The use of ‘relativizers’ here – ‘likely’, ‘almost always’, ‘mainly’ – do give some indication of a role for debate and argument, but also supports your point that important elements in his view are smuggled in.

I will be looking out for your book.

16 May, 2007 04:21  

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