Or the irrelevance of philosophy, continued. In graduate school I read a book whose author claimed that John Rawls was the font of liberal thought in America and I said to myself, “John who?” Until then I’d thought the font of liberal thought in America was probably this chap named John Locke. Because of course I’d read Louis Hartz’s Liberal Tradition in America, which argues

One of the central characteristics of a nonfeudal society is that it lacks a genuine revolutionary tradition … that it is “born equal,” as Tocqueville said. And this being the case it lacks also a tradition of reaction: lacking Robespierre it lacks Maistre…. Its liberalism is what Santayana called … a “natural” phenomenon…. [A] society which begins with Locke, and thus transforms him, stays with Locke, by virtue of an absolute and irrational attachment it develops for him, and becomes as indifferent to the challenge of socialism in the later era as it was unfamiliar with the heritage of feudalism in the earlier one. It has within it, as it were, a kind of self-completing mechanism, which insures the universality of the liberal idea…. [W]e have only the American Way of Life, a nationalist articulation of Locke which usually does not know that Locke himself is involved….

Or, as one of my former colleagues explained when teaching the American Revolution,

Remember litmus paper? Imagine political litmus paper. Dip it into Robespierre and it turns scarlet. Dip it into Maistre and it turns blue. But dip it into any American, or anyway any non-fringe American, and all you get is a kind of mauve.

Without getting into why this is true, it’s pretty nearly always true: there are limits to the scope of American thought. Me, I don’t think they’re kept in place by a “self-completing mechanism”, I think they’re actively reproduced generation after generation. But they’re there. No matter how the oppressed financier classes scream, there are precious few socialists in American public life. Nor are there quite fascists, or at least not out in the open.

Which is why I think I disagree with Sinhababu. It’s not that “the forces governing American politics at present don’t put any premium on intellectual opinion, or show any interest in mainstreaming intellectual debate”—it’s because Rawls isn’t asking us to overhaul our beliefs, merely to live by them. Which is a big difference from, and less exciting than, the changes Peter Singer demands of us.

I think too that this is why I disagree with Yglesias: it’s not the economists / pop philosophers who brought us “the perverse notion that it’s wrong or inappropriate to subject people to moral criticism for making selfish decisions as long as the decisions don’t involve breaking the law”, it’s all but written into the original spin on the US Constitution: Madison assumes citizens with selfish and even destructive interests banding together to pursue them, and urges against preventing this from happening. He doesn’t go so far as to say that selfishness is exempt from criticism, but he does indicate that such criticism is useless.

Which is to say, John Rawls is irrelevant to modern political debate not because anti-intellectualism is so strong—though it is, I’m just not convinced it’s markedly stronger than in, say, Britain—but because the intellectual tradition is so weak.