Friday, 18 November 2011

On The Paul Kane NYT Op-Ed

Following last week's publication in the New York Times of a guest op-ed by a certain Paul Kane, there has been a flurry of enraged responses - particularly from supporters of Taiwan independence on the Left. In Taiwan itself, the Pragmatist seems to have been the first to react with follow up responses from other bloggers in Taiwan and, naturally, the people at the Taipei Times: both Washington correspondent William Lowther and deputy news editor J.M. Cole had words to say about it. Even Kane himself later tried to distance himself from his own writing in an apology piece for Foreign Policy by claiming his article was intended as "Swiftian satire". Yet at a time when the sitting U.S. President can spend almost as much money on "stimulus" in a mere three years as the last President did on wars over a decade... readers can surely be forgiven for a lack of distinguishing humour.

Although I too thought Kane's piece was bad, I nevertheless find one aspect of the affair perversely amusing.

Kane's piece called for the Obama administration to close a deal with the PRC whereby the latter would agree to a debt-forgiveness plan to the tune of U.S.$1.14 trillion and the former would renege on long-standing U.S. commitments either to defend Taiwan, or to supply Taiwan with defensive articles.

Of course, this is an utterly crass, amoral and naive utilitarian calculation. As noted above, Kane himself, in his Foreign Policy response, claimed that he had written it sardonically. This may or may not be the case; either way, it certainly made quite a few heads "explode" over here in Taiwan.

Yet what I find perversely amusing is that Kane's argument, once you subtract its' obvious crassness and apparent naivity, arises from the same collectivist-utilitarian premises that much of the Left routinely operates on - i.e. that the State must always act to protect and advance the "common good", even if it means deliberately violating the rights of individual subjects. There is no difference in the principles involved between an argument for legalized land theft in order to construct say, a factory that may benefit the wider economy, and the selling out of an entire island in order to acquire a write-off of public debt. The only differences between the two arguments are the empirical accounting of collective benefits and assessment of strategic outcomes.

Thus, many of the criticisms put to Kane have centered on just such points, e.g. the benefit to the U.S. of a $1.14 trillion write-off would be relatively small; the "naivity" of his view of PRC ambitions. Such criticisms are all valid, but they do not get to the root of the matter - they are not actually damning criticisms at all, but mere fannying about with vague calculations of interest.

Memo to the Left: Kane's is the kind of absurd conclusion to which the logic of your amoral, majoritarian Pragmatism points. Of course, it would be an irony too far to suggest that this was the real reason why Kane had his article published in the New York Times (!), so perhaps he really was just being "Swiftian"?

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