Jason Stanley: On the Question of the Stability of Democracy

After a divisive election, the question of democracy’s stability has again commanded public attention. What has philosophy said to this, one of our discipline’s foundational questions?

Plato and Aristotle both regarded stability as a vital metric by which to evaluate political systems, though they differed in their judgments about democracy. Plato’s Republic is about proper governance, of the City and the Soul. In Book VIII, Socrates introduces the democratic city to his interlocutor Adeimantus, as follows:

First of all, then, aren’t they free? And isn’t the city full of freedom and freedom of speech? And doesn’t everyone in it have the license to do what he wants?
That’s what they say at any rate.
And where people have this license, it’s clear that each of them will arrange his own life in whatever manner pleases him.
It is.
Then I suppose that it’s most of all under this constitution that one finds people of all varieties.
Of course. [557b]

What follows this passage is a description of “the characteristics of democracy,” such as “the city’s tolerance.” [558b] In summary, “…it would seem to be a pleasant constitution, which lacks rulers and not variety and which distributes a sort of equality to both equals and unequals alike.” [558c]

A culture whose central value is liberty will lead to sweeping social equality. In a democratic city, students in the academies challenge their teachers (there are campus protests) [563a]. A democratic culture equalizes those who are natural-born and immigrant; in such a system “[a] resident alien or a foreign visitor is made equal to a citizen.” [562e] Democracy is inconsistent with enslaving others [563b], and in a democracy there is equality between men and women [563b].

Lacking access to a quality education is a severe restriction on freedom, as it limits one’s career possibilities. Lacking a safe source of fresh water is a limit on freedom, as the search for it can absorb time better spent on pursuing liberty, rather than attending to necessity. A society’s commitment to liberty is precarious if the sphere of free action accorded to some, merely by virtue of birth position, is vastly greater than the sphere of free action accorded to others. This is why we provide public goods, in the form of for example public education, and drinking water. But even if unjust inequality is eliminated, liberty will lead to inequalities of wealth due to life choices. In a society devoted to liberty, people will rise to positions of wealth and influence by such choices, and obstacles to the rise of members of traditionally oppressed groups will be dismantled.

Socrates recognizes that the flourishing of liberties, the diversity of practices and customs, and social equality may seem attractive. However, he urges us to attend to its risks. People are not naturally inclined to self-governance, “always in the habit of setting up one man as their special champion, nurturing him and making him great.” [565d] Democracy also creates a vast amount of resentment, due to the social upheaval required by prizing freedom, and the attendant costs to traditions, customs, and hierarchies. A tyrant takes advantage of the resentments created by democracy, and the hunger for authority. The tyrant “dominates a docile mob” by bringing “someone to trial on false charges.” [565a] The tyrant’s “impious tongue and lips taste kindred citizen blood,” and the tyrant “drops hints to the people about the cancellation of debts and the redistribution of land.” [566a]

About the first days of the future tyrant’s reign, Plato writes:

During the first days of his reign, and for some time after, won’t he smile in welcome at anyone he meets, saying that he’s no tyrant, making all sorts of promises both in public and in private, freeing the people from debt, redistributing the land to them and to his followers, and pretending to be gracious and gentle to all? [566d,e]

What follows [566e -569c] is a description of the descent from the first days. The tyrant will need to “stir up a war, so that the people will continue to feel the need for a leader” [566e], those who dare “to speak freely to each other and to him, criticizing what’s happening” [567b] will be purged. Finally, the tyrant will appoint a bodyguard from among his most “loyal followers.” [567e]

Plato sees in democracy’s ideal of the freedom of speech the cause of its inevitable downfall. Ever increasing pressure for freedom and equality will lead to resentments of fellow citizens, as will the inevitable hypocritical use of these ideals (e.g. when the ideal of liberty is used to justify corruption). A tyrant will exploit these resentments to stoke fear of fellow citizens. Taking advantage of the human attraction to authority, they will present themselves as the only savior from the enemies who are the focus of their demagoguery. Once the tyrant takes over they will end democracy, replacing it with tyranny.

Aristotle was more sanguine. In Aristotle’s democratic city, all citizens participate in the formation of the laws by which they are governed, an activity that for Aristotle was the purest expression of freedom. The equal participation of all citizens in the formation of the policies that will be adopted and fairly applied lends the system its stability. Aristotle also emphasizes Democracy’s epistemic virtues, arguing that open and honest cooperative deliberation about policy between all citizens yields better results, in the form of wiser policy, further strengthening the stability of the system. Democracy requires a clean public square.

Plato’s democratic city is based upon a notion of liberty as unconstrained freedom to satisfy one’s desires, freedom from the limitations of customs and traditions. Aristotle’s conception of democracy, by contrast, allows democratic societies to have homogeneous value systems. However, this is possible only if all citizens freely and equally participate in the decision to adopt them, decisions that must be continually revisited. Participating equally in such decisions is, for Aristotle, genuine freedom.

Contemporary liberal democracies differ from these conceptions of democracy in at least two ways. First, they incorporate essential insights of Christianity, such as the concept of human rights. Secondly, they involve elected representatives to act on behalf of our best interests, tasked to deliberate with one another reflectively, openly, and truthfully, with willingness to changing their minds and compromise.

American democracy differs in a significant way from most other Western democracies, which make Plato’s concerns particularly relevant. Democracies throughout the world, in the words of Jeremy Waldron, have the “conviction that a liberal democracy must take affirmative responsibility for protecting the atmosphere of mutual respect for its citizens.” But our Constitution provides the broadest protections for speech in the political arena. India’s first amendment bans hate speech; our first amendment protects it. In many other democracies, a public official who described Islam as “like a cancer,” a “political ideology that hides behind this notion of being a religion,” as the incoming National Security Advisor has said, would be prosecuted. In the United States, we have chosen a different path. If Plato is right, our democracy is especially in danger.

The historical record, however, speaks differently. The United States is the world’s oldest continuous government. Our institutions and practices seem especially safe.

Yet optimism is warranted only insofar as it reflects our country’s historical commitment to its values. Sadly our democracy has always been partial, its ideals hypocritically employed. In 1852, in a Fourth of July speech, Frederick Douglass asked:

What have I, or those I represent, to do with your national independence? Are the great principles of political freedom and of natural justice, embodied in that Declaration of Independence, extended to us?

Perhaps the fact that American politicians have traditionally felt the need to express their loyalty most centrally to the democratic ideal of freedom speaks to the strength of our country’s democratic character, even in the face of its history?

Aimé Césaire writes, “a civilization which justifies colonization – and therefore force – is already a sick civilization, a civilization which is morally diseased, which irresistibly, progressing from one consequence to another, one denial to another call for its Hitler, I mean its punishment.” This was not lost on Thomas Jefferson, whose rejection of what we now call “nation building” was due to his understanding of the difficulty of insulating an imperial power’s domestic politics from the clearly anti-democratic practices required in invading and occupying other nations by force. When we waged war against the Japanese, we interned our fellow citizens of Japanese ancestry. Our recent colonial adventures in the Middle East threaten to reverberate in similar ways back to our shores.

This election campaign raises clear concerns about our democratic character. A press free to criticize those in political power is the emblem of a healthy democracy. But during his campaign rallies, the president-elect would place the media into a “pen,” and whip his audience into a frenzy of hatred against them. Campaigning by demonizing a critical media is campaigning against democracy. The explicit illiberalism of the president-elect, his hatred of the press and his open intolerance, is what attracted voters to him.

Clinton’s campaign made a devastating error by failing to recognize the appeal of illiberalism. The strategy of their ad campaign, which featured lengthy snippets of the president-elect at his most illiberal, presupposed a general commitment to liberal democratic values. It is in any case a familiar point from George Lakoff’s 2004 book Don’t Think of an Elephant, that one should not repeat the opposition’s rhetorical frames even if it is to condemn them. Instead, one should provide an alternative positive vision, in this case of liberal democratic values. Anything else is campaign money spent on advertising for the opposition.

For Aristotle, it is the law that gives democracy its stability. If all citizens participate equally in its formation, and the law is applied fairly, the system will be stable. Taking these two criteria as metrics of stability, how should we think of our current situation?

In many states, the laws that ensured that minority groups could equally participate have been abandoned and replaced by laws that impede their ability. The president-elect has nominated Jeff Sessions to administer the laws; he is famous for harshly pursuing the prosecution of civil rights activists registering black fellow citizens for voter fraud. The president-elect has claimed that there was an immense voter fraud problem in the recent election. Bernie Sanders has pointed out that there is a “hidden message” here; it is green lighting Republican governors to pursue restrictive voter registration laws that disenfranchise minorities in large numbers.

It is also important to note how the president-elect communicates the message that even more restrictive voter registration laws are required. He does so by appealing to his power as leader to define an alternative reality. Given his alternative reality, one needs such laws. Therefore, one needs such laws. This is not normal democratic politics. It is authoritarian politics. The leader can dictate the reality that justifies the application of the laws.

There are other signs of an embrace of an authoritarian conception of the law. Recently, Sessions praised the president-elect’s 1989 comments about the Central Park Five, teenagers accused and convicted on the basis of coerced testimony of a terrible crime and later completely exonerated, as showing his commitment to “law and order.” At the time, the president-elect described them as “crazed misfits,” and called for their execution. Sessions’ use of “law and order” refers to a system of laws that has at its center an authority figure whose judgments, whether fair or not, constitute the law. This is a conception of law and order the rejection of which is the very basis upon which our country is founded. To be subject to the arbitrary whim of a ruler is not freedom.

From a perspective that regards tradition, identity, or religion as the chief sources of value, liberal democracy is an existential threat to what gives meaning to human life. If liberal democracy’s disturbances of the social order bring no obvious benefit, materially or spiritually, to those to whom the losses have been most deeply felt, we can hardly expect universal support for its values.

Carl Schmitt denounced freedom as a merely hypocritical ideal, on the grounds that liberal states regularly defend their freedoms by suspending them. A healthy liberal democratic culture resists these temptations to “protect” its democratic freedoms in such manifestly hypocritical ways. And yet our nation has a long history of this kind of hypocrisy. Nixon advisor John Ehrlichman recently described the motivation for Nixon’s “war on drugs” as follows:

The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.

In Michigan, democratically elected mayors and city councils are disbanded in cases of supposed “financial emergency.” Even liberal democracy’s greatest critics did not think its citizens would allow the language of emergency to be so misused in peacetime.

And what if the United States fails? What if we replace our allegiance to freedom with an allegiance to some version of national identity, of a fictionalized shared heritage, or an official national religion? What if we become a one party state, with a muted and cowed press, left with the formal procedures of democracy but little else? What obstacles will face those of us who seek to make America great again?

We have grown accustomed to hyper-incarceration as a solution to our social problems. This is dangerous in a country that has only ever known what W.E.B. Du Bois called our “two systems of justice,” one for our white citizens, and the other for our black citizens. When the president-elect randomly tweets, apropos nothing, that burning the flag should lead to loss of citizenship, or a term in prison, he is signaling that it is the second system of justice that awaits those who dissent.

Both previous administrations have defended an all-powerful security apparatus and severe punishment for its whistleblowers. In the face of legal protest, our police don the garments of our military. Too many members of the political class in the UK and USA have profited mightily from power. While it has not been to the extent of the world’s most notable authoritarians, it has been notable enough to ward off future alarm bells that should be headed. Charges of dynastic succession will ring hollow when it is recalled that in this election, the “smart money” pit the son and brother of two former presidents against the wife of another.

Suspicion of the press has mutated into the loss of truth; we lack a common reality. But when truth is gone, the press can no longer defend itself against charges of bias. Our deliberative bodies have long since collapsed, our representatives locked in combat, not cooperation. Politicians have placed fealty to Christian values explicitly over democratic ones, and have been rewarded for it at the ballot box. With this background, it is understandable that many Americans are sympathetic to the view that all politics is struggle between groups, with the façade of cooperation or honesty being only propaganda used to mask that reality. Convincing American citizens that the values of liberal democracy are not mere masks for political struggle between groups is the largest challenge we face.

Illiberal nationalist parties have swept to power, or its doorstep, in healthy and prosperous European liberal democracies. Judging by Hungary and Poland, such parties have no incentive to be fair to their critics. Nor we should not expect them to be. Fairness is a liberal value. Illiberal nationalists view politics through the prism of war, and the legal system as a weapon.

Plato predicted that democracy would end by the hand of a demagogue who stoked the fuel of the resentments caused by freedom’s disturbances of the ground of tradition. Faced with an enemy for whom political disagreement is war, the struggle to retain our liberal freedoms will be hard. We must resist the temptation to adopt their ethic; it is no way to defend our own. But the window of liberal democracy is closing, and the time for its vigorous defense is now.

StanleyJason Stanley is the Jacob Urowsky Professor of Philosophy at Yale University. He is the author of How Propaganda Works.

Cass Sunstein: A sneak peek at #Republic

Forthcoming in March 2017, Cass Sunstein’s new book, #Republic speaks to our heightened state of internet-driven polarization. Arguing that social media sorts us into like-minded groups, causing political fragmentation and even extremism, Sunstein proposes practical and legal changes to make the Internet friendlier to democratic deliberation. Today on Facebook, he shared a snapshot of a section of his page proofs addressing the 2016 presidential election:

Sunstein

Sunstein

Cass R. Sunstein is the Robert Walmsley University Professor at Harvard Law School. His many books include the New York Times bestsellers Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness (with Richard H. Thaler) and The World According to Star Wars. He lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Books for Understanding: A Reading List

In the aftermath of the election, here are some books for better understanding the current political climate:

White Backlash
Marisa Abrajano & Zoltan Hajnal

White

The Rise and Fall of American Growth
Robert Gordon

Gordon

Democracy for Realists
Christopher Achen & Larry Bartels

Achen Bartels

Expert Political Judgement
Philip Tetlock

Tetlock

Against Democracy
Jason Brennan

Brennan
Free Trade under Fire
Douglas Irwin

Irwin

Waiting for José
Harel Shapira

Shapira

Polarized
James Campbell

Campbell

Red State Religion
Robert Wuthnow

Wuthnow

How Propaganda Works
Jason Stanley

Stanley

Good Neighbors
Nancy L. Rosenblum

Rosenblum

 Myth of the Rational Voter
Bryan Caplan

Caplan

On Bullshit
  Harry Frankfurt

Bullshit

Albert J. Raboteau: What does it mean to be an American prophet?

In American Prophets, acclaimed religious scholar Albert Raboteau tells the remarkable stories of Abraham Joshua Heschel, A. J. Muste, Dorothy Day, and many other individuals who conveyed their vision to the broader public through writing, speaking, demonstrating, and organizing. In this interview for the PUP blog, Raboteau discusses his new book, social justice, and the good religion can do in politics.


What inspired you to write this book?

I was inspired to write this book by an undergraduate seminar course, “Religious Radicals” that I have taught at Princeton several times over the years. The students’ active engagement with the figures discussed in the course was refreshing and inspiring to me as a veteran of 1960s activism, inspired in part by meeting Dorothy Day when I was a freshman in college.

Your book is called American Prophets. How do you define prophets in your book?

I use Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel’s definition of the prophet as “one who feels the divine pathos for humanity like a fire in the bones and has to share it.”

These days when we think of the intersection of religion and politics, we think of the influence of the conservative right. But this hasn’t always been the case. How has religion’s intersection with American politics changed over time?

Our attention has been attenuated to focus on the “religious right,” but within the memory of many the civil rights movement, the anti-slavery movement, and the anti-war movement is still vivid. Moreover, large scale movements for radical social change are, in the nature of the case, rare.

What good can religion do in politics?

Two booksellers at our local bookstore asked me that question one morning several years ago. My immediate answer was “Martin Luther King, Jr. and Fannie Lou Hamer.” They responded “yes, but they were exceptions.” I responded “true, they were exceptional but they also were exemplary.” My book is an attempt to turn the exceptional into the exemplary.

Your book tells the stories of characters from Abraham Joshua Heschel, to A. J. Muste, to Dorothy Day, Howard Thurman, Thomas Merton, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Fannie Lou Hamer—all inspired individuals. Did you have a favorite story?

Yes. When Howard Thurman and Sue Bailey Thurman met Gandhi on a visit to India, he asked them to sing him an American Negro Spiritual. They obliged by singing “Were You There When They Crucified My Lord.” As they sang, Gandhi and his assistants prayed and afterwards he said, “that song gets at the universal human feeling under the wings of suffering.” He went on to speculate that perhaps it would be the black American struggle that would finally succeed in breaking the hold of racism over white society.

How is prophetic thought and action at work in today’s world?

One prominent place is in the Industrial Area Foundation movement founded by Saul Alinsky, which my colleague, Jeffrey Stout has describes so well in his book Blessed Are the Organized. Another is the Catholic Worker movement, which has houses of hospitality for the poor around the U.S. and in Europe as well. The prophetic struggle goes on in local communities across the nation. Hopeful examples exist in the activism of the Industrial Areas Foundation chapters and similar networks of organizing for social change that continue to crop up in local struggles. Typically based in existing congregations, churches, synagogues, and mosques, the foundation encourages local people to meet and identify issues of common concern. Citizens are encouraged to speak of their own experiences, tell their own stories to encourage empathy, and raise the possibility of imagining change in their lives. Home meetings serve to identify and recruit leaders from the community. Mass meetings are structured to hold public officials accountable for problems of concern. The IAF has fifty-nine affiliates active across the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia, and Germany. Jeffrey Stout has told their story in his book. By 2015 the Catholic Worker movement organized by Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin in the 1930s had grown to 207 communities across the U.S. and 25 abroad, committed to nonviolence and hospitality for the poor and homeless. Circulation of the Catholic Worker newspaper had reached approximately ninety thousand. And several local Worker houses had established their own newspapers in Los Angeles, Houston, Washington D.C., and Philadelphia.

RaboteauAlbert J. Raboteau is the Henry W. Putnam Professor of Religion Emeritus at Princeton University. His books include Slave Religion: The “Invisible Institution” in the Antebellum South, A Fire in the Bones: Reflections on African-American Religious History, and Canaan Land: A Religious History of African Americans. He lives in Princeton, New Jersey. He is the author of American Prophets: Seven Religious Radicals and Their Struggle for Social and Political Justice.

Hugo Drochon on Nietzsche’s Politics

DrochonWhen Hugo Drochon first encountered Nietzsche’s intoxicating Beyond Good and Evil, he was struck by the realization that “many things in life didn’t rise out of a politics of good faith, as it were, but rather of bad faith.” But what exactly did Nietzsche think and how did he engage with the main political events and transformations of his time? While Nietzsche’s impact on the world of culture, philosophy, and the arts is uncontested, his political thought has long been mired in controversy and remains, according to Drochon, seriously under-explored. In his new book, Nietzsche’s Great Politics, Drochon places Nietzsche’s politics back in the nineteenth century from which they arose, asking what politics meant for the famous thinker as well as how his ideas speak to contemporary debates. Recently, Drochon took the time to answer some questions about his new book.

When did you first encounter Nietzsche?

I first encountered Nietzsche during the second year of my undergraduate degree. I took two different courses that year that were to be quite significant for me: ‘History of Political Thought’ and ‘Theories of International Relations’. The latter focused on different theories of IR, from classic realism, liberalism, neo-realism and neo-liberalism, to more critical approaches including critical theory, green theory, feminism and postmodernism. Theory was new to me, but I was an instant convert. I think I bombarded the lecturer with questions until she finally said to me: ‘go read Nietzsche’. Happily we had an anthology for the History of Political Thought course – one I also really enjoyed, and which set me upon my future career path – which had as its final text Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil. I read it over the summer.

And…?

It was an epiphany. Nietzsche just spoke to so many themes that resonated with me, and he opened up my eyes to the fact that many things in life didn’t arise out of a politics of good faith, as it were, but rather of bad faith. Moreover, all readers of Nietzsche will bear witness to the intoxicating nature of his writing.

Did you decide there and then you would work on Nietzsche’s politics?

Not quite, that would come a little later. In the last year of my undergraduate I studied Marxism, democratic theory and the French Revolution, which all combined very nicely in a certain way. And whilst I was impressed by the analytical tools Marxism provided, I always felt the picture it offered was incomplete. It was up to Nietzsche to fill it out.

So you came back to Nietzsche’s politics.

Yes. Beyond Good and Evil had struck me as being obviously interested in politics in different ways, but when I turned to the secondary literature to get a firmer grasp of what Nietzsche’s politics were meant to be, I was left feeling quite dissatisfied. Not least because half the literature denied Nietzsche was interested in politics!

A legacy of his use by the Nazis during WWII?

Undoubtedly. After his misappropriation by the Nazis it was natural to depict Nietzsche as a thinker who was not interested in politics as a way of saving him from the philosophical abyss he had fallen into after the war, which Bertrand Russell had branded ‘Nietzsche’s War’. And we are undeniably indebted to Walter Kaufmann and others for having done that. Since then there has been a renewal of interest in Nietzsche and politics, but that has mainly been through the various ways Nietzsche is thought to contribute to the renewal of ‘agonistic’ democracy. What exactly politics meant for him, however, is still something that remains, in my view, mostly under-explored.

How did you go about exploring Nietzsche’s politics?

I think the main move was to place Nietzsche back into his own context of late nineteenth century Germany and Europe – our current debates are still too stuck, to my mind, in the twentieth century. Nietzsche was writing during Bismarck’s era, not Hitler’s. And Bismarck’s era was fascinating. It saw a number of tremendous transformations, not least the unification of Germany through Bismarck’s infamous politics of ‘blood and iron’, and the power politics between the great European nations. It was an era full of tensions and contradictions, with the simultaneous rise of nationalism and colonization – the ‘Scramble for Africa’ – socialism and democracy.

Bismarck’s ‘Great Politics’ inspired the title of your book?

Indeed. The idea was to see whether Nietzsche thought and engaged with the main political events and transformations of his time, and if he did then whether that might open the door to understanding what Nietzsche’s own politics might amount to. Nietzsche, in fact, actively participated in many of the major events of his time: he served as a medical orderly during the Franco-Prussian War, which sealed Prussia’s dominance over the newly-founded German Empire. And he thought hard about them too. Drawing from his own experience of the war, Nietzsche was at first very critical of Bismarck’s ‘great politics’. But with Beyond Good and Evil he was able to develop his own theory of what great politics should truly be about. Instead of a politics of nationalism and self-aggrandizement, Nietzsche wanted to unify Europe through a trans-European ‘Good European’ cultural elite. This united Europe could then play on a level playing field with the British and Russian Empires in the ‘Great Game’ of international politics, but it would also have a more exalted calling of fostering the emergence of a new high European culture, reminiscent of the Greeks of old.

By placing Nietzsche back in his nineteenth century context, does that mean he has nothing to say to us today?

I hope not. But if we are to understand what we might still learn from him today, we must first get a good handle on what politics meant for him, instead of just seeing how he might contribute to our contemporary debates. In the book I argue that Nietzsche’s greatest legacy is the conceptual tools he affords us in understanding the world we live in. Of course the late nineteenth century is quite different to our own time, but it also saw the development of certain aspects of politics – democratization, not least – which are still relevant to us today. The notions Nietzsche developed to theorize his world can help us better understand the world we live in today. Therein lies, in my view, his greatest teaching.

And guide us too?

Hopefully, yes. Coming up to the EU referendum in the UK on the 23 June I wrote a piece for Project Syndicate about how Nietzsche can help us think about the European question. Much of what Nietzsche says about Europe is of course dated, but there is at least one way in which I think Nietzsche can help. That is in his distinction between a ‘great’ – as he understood it – and ‘petty’ politics of European unification, which is how he recast Bismarck’s power politics in light of his own. So do we want a ‘great’ politics of European unification or a ‘petty’ politics of European fragmentation? Unfortunately the vote didn’t really go in the direction I was advocating, but I hope to have at least shown how Nietzsche can be made to address our present concerns.

Final question: who do you want to reach with this book, and what are you hoping to achieve?

Nietzsche scholars of course, but I’d like to think historians of political thought, political theorists/philosophers, intellectual historians, and a larger discerning public might be interested in it too. Nietzsche has a broad appeal, and I hope to offer here a slightly different dimension. I’ve suggested some of the things I hope to achieve above – relocating Nietzsche’s politics to his own time; how the intellectual tools he fashioned for himself can help us better understand the world we live in today – but let me finish with one last thought. I said I first came across Nietzsche in an anthology of political thought, where I read Beyond Good and Evil. That anthology, in its revised version, has replaced Beyond Good and Evil with On the Genealogy of Morality, which is in line with how Nietzsche is being taught across universities today. That, to me, is a shame. I do not mean in the least to deny the importance of the Genealogy – which is a fantastic book, and I can understand how it is easier to teach given its more focused material – but Beyond Good and Evil strikes me as a more complete text (the Genealogy was meant to serve as its appendix), which applies Nietzsche’s main philosophical ideas directly to his political context. If we are serious about studying Nietzsche’s political thought in its own right, then we must try to understand how Nietzsche’s politics is related to his philosophy. Beyond Good and Evil is the best place to do just that.

Hugo Drochon is a historian of nineteenth- and twentieth-century political thought and a postdoctoral research fellow at CRASSH, the Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences, and Humanities, at the University of Cambridge.

Ethics in the Real World: An interview with philosopher Peter Singer

Peter Singer

Peter Singer, renowned philosopher and author of such influential books as Animal Liberation, Rethinking Life and Death, and The Life You Can Save, has taken the time to answer questions about his new collection of essays, Ethics in the Real World: 82 Brief Essays on Things that Matter. Applying moral philosophy to recent current events, Singer’s essays address thorny issues such as whether chimpanzees are people, whether smoking should be outlawed, and whether consensual sex between adult siblings should be decriminalized. Read on for Singer’s own thoughts on altruism, the influence of his work and its controversial nature.

You’ve written essays on climate change, extreme poverty, animal rights, abortion, and the ethics of high-priced art, to name just a few. Is there a certain topic that has attracted the most attention?

PS: From that list, the two issues on which my views have been most widely discussed are our treatment of animals, and what we ought to be doing about extreme poverty. These are also the issues on which my writings have had the biggest impact. In the case of animals, they have contributed to new laws that have improved the lives of billions of animals, and in the case of extreme poverty, my work has spurred the development of the effective altruism movement, which has caused hundreds of millions of dollars to flow to the non-profit organizations that are most effective in helping people in extreme poverty.

You address a wide range of ethical questions with arguments that challenge people’s deeply held beliefs. In your experience, do people change their beliefs based on others’ arguments?

PS: There is no doubt that some of them do. Almost every time I give a public lecture, people come up to me afterwards and tell me how reading my work led them to become vegan, or start donating a share of their income to organizations that are aiding people in need. I know someone who donated a kidney to a stranger as a result of a discussion of one of my articles in his class

Who is the audience for your new book, Ethics in the Real World?

PS: Socrates said that the unexamined life is not worth living. This book is for everyone who is willing to reflect on how he or she lives, and everyone who wants to be stimulated to think about how we ought to live.

You’ve been called both the most influential and the most controversial philosopher of our time. Why do you think your work stirs controversy?

PS: It can be controversial to question accepted moral views. To discuss whether it is more seriously wrong to kill a member of our own species than to kill an animal, you need to ask “What is wrong with killing?” Even if you conclude, as I do, that in most circumstances killing a human being is worse than killing an animal, some people object to raising the question at all. They don’t want their ethical views disturbed. And we all know what happened to Socrates.

What would you have been if not a philosopher?

PS: Probably a lawyer. I was planning to continue with law, because I enjoy a good argument, but I got a scholarship to do graduate work in philosophy, and found that in philosophy I could argue for what I really believe is right and true, and not just for what is in the interests of my client.

Peter Singer is the Ira W. DeCamp Professor of Bioethics in the University Center for Human Values at Princeton University and Laureate Professor at the University of Melbourne. He first became well known internationally in 1975 with the publication of Animal Liberation. His other books include How Are We to Live?, The Ethics of What We Eat (with Jim Mason), and The Most Good You Can Do. He divides his time between Princeton and Melbourne.

Singer

 

Offer and Söderberg on the real-world consequences of economics–and the Nobel Prize

Offer and SoderbergThe Nobel Prize in Economics arose during a changing time for the world’s markets. Was this a coincidence? Avner Offer and Gabriel Söderberg say no. In  The Nobel Factor: The Prize in Economics, Social Democracy and the Market Turn, Offer and Söderberg detail  how the prize, which was first awarded to economists Jan Tinbergen and Ragnar Frisch in 1969, was created by the Swedish central bank to enhance the central bank authority and the prestige of market-friendly economics. Offer and Söderberg have taken some time to answer questions about the origins of this esteemed prize and how it emerged from a conflict between central bank orthodoxy and social democracy.

What is the core argument of this book?

AO & GS: Since the 1970s, academic economics and social democracy have disputed how society should be managed. The challenge is those parts of the life cycle when people have little market power, the contingencies of motherhood, education, illness, disability, unemployment, and old age. Economics claims that it is best to buy protection in financial markets, by means of saving, borrowing and insurance. This is backed up by the supposed authority of science, symbolized by the Nobel Prize in Economics. It is also the objective of business and finance in their quest to capture profit from everybody’s income streams. Social democracy deals with dependency by means of transfers from producers to dependents, providing education, healthcare, pensions, physical infrastructure and culture, and pooling the individual risks by means of taxation and transfers. We question the claims of economics to impartiality and superior reason.

Why does the Prize in Economics matter?

AO & GS: Nobel prize-winners provide a high-quality sample of economics. The prize has a halo that makes economics credible to the wider public, for policies which are often inimical to the public interest. It arose out of the long conflict between the interests of the wealthy in stable prices, and of everyone else in social and material improvement. Between the wars, this conflict became focused in central banks, which became a brake on social democracy. After the Second World War, the Swedish Central Bank clashed repeatedly with the social democratic government over financing the welfare state, and extracted the prize as a concession. The prize was then captured by conservative Swedish economists, who used it to provide credibility for sustained resistance to social democracy. This story shows how ideas and arguments work through society and politics, and how the prestige of science has been mobilised for political ends.

Who is this book for?

AO & GS: It enlarges understanding of economic and social development with a wealth of new findings that will engage students and academics in economics, social science, and history. This includes the two-thirds of economists who hold onto social-democratic values, at odds with their professional indoctrination. Policy makers in government, business, finance, and voluntary organizations may find that the concepts on which they rely are not well founded. The argument is written to be attractive to read for anyone interested in current affairs, economic policy, and the future of society, all over the world.

After the financial crisis many new books have criticized mainstream economics. How is this book different?

AO & GS: One rebuttal by economists is that critics have no alternative to offer. But economics is not in fact hegemonic: public policy is dominated by a pervasive, pragmatic and effective system of social democracy which allocates about 30 percent of GDP in most advanced countries (lower in the USA due to a private health system). ‘It works in practice, but will it work in theory?’ is the challenge of economics. It imagines a world of self-interested, rational persons whose choices scale up to a benign equilibrium, as if by an invisible hand. But this vision is arbitrary, difficult to apply, and not even consistent. Economics has turned its back to social democracy, and has also missed the buildup to the recent financial crisis.

Many Americans regard social democracy as something exclusively European. Why should Americans be interested?

AO & GS: This is delusive, like the tea party member who asked the government to take its hands off his medicare. The United States deploys a broad range of social democratic arrangements: free public schools up to eighteen, a public higher education system; health services for the indigent, the old, and military veterans; unemployment benefits, some income and disability support, and a reasonable system of old-age pensions (social security). Much of its other spending (fiscal and other subsidies, especially the mortgage interest offset against tax) is regressive and misdirected. Americans are becoming aware of the cost of their dysfunctional and expensive medical system. Educational debt is a crisis in the making. Private retirement arrangements are failing. Bernie Sanders, a self-proclaimed democratic socialist, has mounted a formidable challenge in the Democratic primaries. The other candidates have joined him in advocating more social security and free higher education; like the tea party member, the supporters of Trump are also responding to the weakness of American social democracy.

Many commentators in Europe are discussing the crisis of social democracy in terms of lack of vision and declining support. What do you think is the future of social democracy and how must it adapt to survive and flourish in the future?

AO & GS: The problems of social democracy arise partly from its success. It developed as a one-size-fits-all solution for male manual wage-earners, and was difficult to adapt to a more diverse, educated, and affluent society, and to service economies that employ men and women in almost equal proportions. Social democracy is still the bedrock of personal security. Its objectives and methods are not fully understood by its practitioners and advocates, and hardly at all by those who benefit. Centre-left politicians, beguiled by market rhetoric, have not served it well. The values of reciprocity and solidarity underpin social democracy: they are more attractive ethically than unbridled greed, but also more effective and efficient. The ‘market turn’ held out the prospect of moving beyond social democracy to private ‘nest egg’ provision for economic security. Home ownership promised wealth for everybody. Driven by easy credit and mounting debt, this seemed to work for a while but has now built up inequality, social exclusion and financial crisis. The advocates of self-regulating markets did not anticipate such a precarious outcome.

Avner Offer is Chichele Professor Emeritus of Economic History at the University of Oxford in Oxford, England. He is a fellow of All Souls College, Oxford and the British Academy.  His books include The Challenge of AffluenceGabriel Söderberg is a researcher in the Department of Economic History at Uppsala University in Uppsala, Sweden. The two recently collaborated on the book The Nobel Factor: The Prize in Economics, Social Democracy and the Market Turn.

Maurizio Viroli: Machiavelli not in support of Donald Trump

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Maurizio Viroli

Donald Trump has cashed Niccolò Machiavelli’s political support. The endorsement, with important qualifications, comes via Professor Harvey C. Mansfield, a world authority in the field of Machiavelli studies (The Wall Street Journal, July 29, 2016). In his view, Donald Trump puts well in practice Machiavelli’s advice that “winning dishonorably is better than losing honorably.” Trump does not care at all of being regarded as a gentleman, and has openly expressed his disrespect for John McCain and Mitt Romney, two leaders who are, in his mind, gentlemen but losers. He wants, on the contrary, to be a winner.

The problem with Machiavelli’s alleged endorsement is that he would consider Trump a very poor pupil, if he truly believes that to be a good Machiavellian one must endorse the view that to win dishonorably is better than to lose honorably. ‘Donald – Machiavelli would say – I appreciate your efforts, but you have got my counsels wrong. Read my books carefully. I have never ever written, or implied, that to win dishonorably is better than losing honorably. What I have taught is that to win dishonorably is better than to lose honorably, if you cannot win honorably. Your goal, to put it differently, must be to win honorably, unless you are compelled to use dishonorable means.’

Is there anyone prepared to argue that an unescapable necessity forces Trump not to be a gentleman? If he wanted to, he could run his campaign against Hillary with impeccable gentlemanly style. I am almost sure that Professor Harvey Mansfield too would agree that nothing prevents Trump from being a gentleman. Unless it is his very character, his truest nature, and his deepest self that force him to behave in an ungentlemanly manner.

But if this is in fact the case, Machiavelli would severely reprimand the republican candidate ‘Donald, how many times do I have to tell you that if you want to become the president of the United States of America you must learn to simulate and dissimulate? I repeat it: a wise prince must be very careful never to let out of his mouth a single word that would not make him appear merciful, trustworthy, humane, blameless and religious. If you cannot restrain your tongue, just keep being a businessman and leave politics alone. People like you do cause great, and often tragic, damages to their countries.’

If one of Trump’s distinctive qualities is that he is always himself, that he always does things his way, then he lacks yet another virtue that Machiavelli regards as necessary in political leaders, namely the ability of adapting one’s conduct with the times. Although firmness is, in general, a virtue in private life, in politics it is often a vice. The main cause of the success or failure of men depend upon their manner of suiting their conduct to the times. Impetuous and cautious leaders alike may lose, or win, “but he errs least and will be most favored by fortune who suits his proceedings to the times,” Machiavelli writes. On balance, therefore, Machiavelli would endorse Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump: not because she embodies his ideal of a political leader, but because he would consider her less amateurish than Trump. And for him a political amateur in power is a sure recipe for tragedies.

Professor Mansfield maintains that Machiavelli and Trump have in common the mark, of “deplorable, out-of-date sexism.” If by sexism we mean the mentality based on the belief that males are better fit than females to be leaders in the most prestigious social activities, above all in politics, then Trump qualifies as a sexist, but Machiavelli surely does not, even if he was not politically correct either. He has written in the most eloquent manner that women do in fact possess the fundamental leadership qualities of prudence, courage and compassion. Caterina Sforza, the duchess of Forlì whom he met in 1499, was for him the perfect example, but not the only one. It is the princess of Carthage Dido who illustrates, in The Prince, the fundamental Machiavellian principle that it is impossible for a prince new to avoid the reputation of being cruel. In the unfinished poem, The (Golden) Ass Machiavelli puts in the mouth of a women a long and wise lecture on politics, history and the human condition.

Like Professor Mansfield, I mourn and bemoan the fading of gentlemen in political life in particular and in social life in general. I know I will be severely chastised, but I do believe that women can be, and many of them are, perfect gentlemen, if to be a gentlemen means, as Mansfield writes, to be a person “who is gentle by habit and character,” and not because he or she “is somehow forced to be.” By these standards, Hillary is surely a better gentleman than Trump. For this reason too Machiavelli would support her over. Professor Mansfield, I respectfully suggest, should do the same thereby gaining Machiavelli’s admiration. I know that this would mean a lot for him, as it does for me.

Viroli Maurizio Viroli is professor emeritus of politics at Princeton University, professor of government at the University of Texas, Austin, and professor of political communication at the University of Italian Switzerland in Lugano. His many works include Niccolò’s Smile: A Biography of Machiavelli (Hill & Wang) and How to Choose a Leader: Machiavelli’s Advice to Citizens (Princeton). His most recent book is The Quotable Machiavelli.

 

Hammer, Painting, Person: How to Value Democracy

Jason Brennan

What kind of value does democracy have? Should we value it the way we value hammers, paintings, or persons?

When we ask what makes a hammer valuable, we usually ask whether it is functional for us, as we are. Hammers have a purpose—to pound in nails—and good hammers serve that purpose. Hammers primarily have instrumental value. They help us achieve an independent goal. If some other tool better serves that goal, then we’d gladly replace our hammers with that other tool. No one insists on using a hammer when a driver or wrench works better.

When we ask what makes a painting valuable, we usually look to its symbolic value. We ask whether the painting is sublime, whether it evokes various feelings or ideas. We also value some paintings more highly because of how they were made, and who made them. An ugly Picasso scribble on a napkin might fetch a hundred grand, but if you or I drew the same picture, it wouldn’t fetch a dollar.

When we ask what makes human beings valuable, we will often say that they are ends in themselves. Sure, people can also have instrumental value—the person who makes you coffee serves a purpose—but they also have intrinsic value. People have a dignity, not a price, or so many philosophers insist.

What about democracy? Most political philosophers agree that democracy has instrumental value. It functions pretty well, and tends to produce relatively just outcomes. So, they think, democracy is valuable at least in the way a hammer is valuable.

They have a point. In general, the best places to live are liberal democracies, not genuine monarchies, sham democracies, oligarchies, or one party states. But, still, if democracy only has the kind of value a hammer has, then if we we’re able to identify a better functioning form of government, a form of government that better realizes procedure-independent standards of justice, we would happily replace democracy with this better functioning regime.

However, most philosophers—and many laypeople living in modern democracies—also think we should also value democracy the way we value a painting or a person. They claim that democracy uniquely expresses the idea that all people have equal worth and value. They claim that democratic outcomes are justified because of who made them and how they were made. They see democracy as an end in itself. Some philosophers think that democracy is an inherently just decision-making procedure. A few go so far as to hold that anything a democracy decides to do is justified simply because a democracy decided to do it. They deny there any procedure-independent standards by which to judge what democracies do.

Proceduralism is the view that certain political regimes are inherently just or that certain regimes are inherently unjust. Proceduralists about democracy tend to think democracy has the kind of value paintings and people have. For instance, the philosopher Thomas Christiano seems to think democracy is an end in itself, while David Estlund (in his 2007 Princeton University Press book Democratic Authority) argues most other forms of government other than democracy are inherently unjust.

Pure proceduralism, the most radical version of proceduralism, holds that there are no independent moral standards for evaluating the outcome of the decision-making institutions. Whatever a democracy does is just just because a democracy does it. This view—which is popular among certain democratic theorists—is on reflection rather absurd. For instance, suppose we had a dispute about whether citizens should be allowed to rape children. Suppose the majority votes, after following an idealized deliberative procedure, to allow adults to rape any children they please. They also vote to have the police ensure that no one stops adults from raping children. A pure proceduralist about democracy would have to say that, in this case, child rape would indeed be permissible. For that reason, pure proceduralism appears to be absurd. There are at least some procedure-independent standards of justice. It would be odd if there were independent moral truths about how to make decisions but not independent truths about what we may do.

Instrumentalism, in contrast, holds that 1) there are procedure-independent right answers to at least some political questions, and 2) what justifies a distribution of power or decision-making method is, at least in part, that this distribution or that method tends to select the right answer. So, for instance, in criminal law, we have an adversarial system, in which one lawyer represents the state and the other represents the defendant. There is an independent truth of the matter about whether the defendant is guilty. This truth is not decided by the jury’s fiat. Rather, the jury is supposed to discover what the truth is. Defenders of jury trials and the adversarial system believe that, as a whole, the system tends to track the truth better than other systems. If they learned they were mistaken about that, they’d stop advocating jury trials.

When it comes to democracy, do you advocate it on procedural grounds, instrumental grounds, or both?

In my forthcoming book Against Democracy, I argue that democracy is nothing more than a hammer. It is a means to an end, but not an end in itself. It is not intrinsically just. It is not justified on proceduralist grounds. Any value democracy has is purely instrumental. If we can find a better hammer, we’re obligated to use it. Further, I argue, there’s a good chance we know what the better hammer would be, and it’s time to experiment and find out.

BrennanJason Brennan is the Robert J. and Elizabeth Flanagan Family Associate Professor of Strategy, Economics, Ethics, and Public Policy at the McDonough School of Business at Georgetown University. He has written numerous books including The Ethics of Voting (Princeton), Why Not Capitalism?, and Libertarianism and is the coauthor of  Markets without Limits, Compulsory Voting, and A Brief History of Liberty. His most recent book is Against Democracy. He frequently writes for the blog Bleeding Heart Libertarians.

Jason Brennan: Justice isn’t “whatever democracy decides”

brennanThree cheers for democracy! Not so fast, says Jason Brennan, who argues that justice isn’t necessarily ‘whatever democracy decides’, and that participation in the political process all too often fails to produce citizens who are smarter, nobler, and more considerate of others. In his new book, Against Democracy, Brennan says democracy isn’t the only path to moral justice, and that it’s time to experiment with a new form of government called epistocracy. Recently, Brennan took the time to answer a few questions about his new book:

Your book is a response to a view you call “democratic triumphalism.” What is that view and what’s wrong with it?

JB: Triumphalism—a widely accepted set of conclusions—holds that democracy deserves three cheers. Cheer one: Political participation is good for us, makes us smarter, and produces fellow-feeling. Cheer two: We have a basic right to an equal share of political power. Cheer three: Democracy is a uniquely just form of politics.

I think democracy doesn’t deserve the first two cheers, and probably doesn’t deserve the latter. Politics is bad for us and we’re bad at politics.

Empirical work generally shows that participating in politics makes us worse: meaner, more biased, more angry. Ideally, I argue, we’d want to minimize our degree of political participation. Further, I examine about twelve major arguments for the claim that we’re owed the right to vote, and find them all lacking. In the end, the right to vote isn’t so much about giving individuals power over themselves, but power over others. The problem is that because individuals matter so little, most individuals use what little power they have unwisely. As a result, democracies tend to make bad decisions. Against the third chair, I suggest that epistocracy—a constitutional, republican form of government in which political power is to some degree, by law, apportioned according to competence—may outperform democracy.

What kind of value does democracy have, then?

JB: The best places to live right now are almost all liberal democracies. So, the point isn’t to argue that democracy is a disaster. But it’s not the end of history either. In my view, democracy has the same kind of value a hammer has. It’s an instrument for producing just and efficient outcomes, according to procedure-independent standards of justice. If we can find a better hammer, we should feel free to use it.

Some people deny there are procedure-independent standards of justice. Justice, they say, is whatever a democracy decides. But on reflection, I doubt anyone would accept that. Suppose the US has a referendum and unanimously votes to nuke Tuvalu. Or suppose 70 percent of voters decide to enact protectionist policies simply because they don’t understand economics. I don’t see either move as just.

We tend to treat the right to vote as a badge of honor, as a way of saying, “You’re a valuable member of our national club.” I think that’s a mistake. We should view the right to vote the way we view a fishing or plumbing license. We should view the president not as a majestic leader but as the chief public goods administrator. We need to downgrade the “status” we attach to political participation and power. If we did that, then differences in voting rights would carry no further stigma than the stigma I face for lacking a plumbing license.

You claim people have a “right to competent government.” What does that mean, and why think that?

JB: Political decisions are high stakes. They decide matters of life and death, peace and prosperity. Our decisions can deprive innocent people of life, liberty, and their rights, or greatly harm them.

Most of us think a jury owes the defendant (or owes the rest of us) a competent decision. They should decide a criminal trial by 1) being aware of the relevant facts, 2) processing those facts in a rational way, and 3) deciding on good faith rather than out of prejudice, malice, or bias. Similarly, I argue, any group that wields political power must act out competently and in good faith. Just as it would be unjust to enforce a jury decision if the jurors paid no attention to the fact and decided on whim, it would be unjust to enforce a vote made out of ignorance, misinformation, or whimsy.

Are democracies competent?

JB: Sixty years of empirical work show that mean, median, and modal levels of political knowledge among the electorate are low. In fact, voters aren’t just ignorant, but systematically misinformed about many issues, including simple issues like what the unemployment rate is, and complicated issues like basic economic theory. Further, empirical work shows that voters would have different policy preferences if they were better informed. In a world where every voter has high information, we’d never have an election between Trump and Clinton. We’d have better candidates.

That said, democracies do tend to have pretty good policies compared to, say, monarchies and oligarchies. But part of the reason for that is that democracies don’t just do what the people want. Instead, elites, parties, bureaucrats, and others have significant discretion to act against the will of the people.

Some political theorists have advanced ambitious arguments trying to claim that democratic electorates are highly competent as a whole even though most voters are ignorant. These arguments, however, are usually based on mathematical theorems that, while correct in principle, bear no resemblance to the reality of democratic behavior. For instance, Hélène Landemore’s book Democratic Reason (PUP 2012) isn’t a defense of any actual existing  or likely to exist democracy, but instead at most an argument about why democracies would be smart if only voters behaved in radically different ways.

Throughout the book, you talk about three species of voters: hobbits, hooligans, and Vulcans. What are these?

 JB: I use these as terms of art to describe three classes of voters. In the Lord of the Rings, Hobbits are simply folk who don’t care much about the outside world, and just want to eat, drink, and be merry. The political analogue would be a person who doesn’t care much about politics, doesn’t have strong opinions, doesn’t know much, and doesn’t participate much. Roughly half of Americans are political hobbits. Think the typical non-voter.

Hooligans are the rabid sports fans of politics. Consider: Soccer hooligans are pretty well informed about soccer, but they are biased and mean. They tend to be nasty toward fans from other teams. They only accept information that makes their team look good. Political hooligans are like that about Team Republican or Team Democrat. They have more information, and they participate frequently. But they are biased, and only accept evidence that confirms their own pre-existing views. They tend to think anyone who disagrees with them is mean or stupid. Roughly half of Americans are political hooligans. Think your typical activist or party member.

Vulcans are dispassionate, scientific thinkers. They have high knowledge, but are also aware of what they don’t know. They change their minds when the evidence calls for it. In the US, hardly anyone is a Vulcan.

Most political theories that defend democracy inadvertently do so by imagining how democracy would work if only we were all Vulcans (or on our way to becoming Vulcans). But we’re not Vulcans; we’re hobbits and hooligans. And so many proposals for making democracy better actually make it worse. For example, democratic deliberation not only fails to deliver the results political theorist say it would, but backfires.

 Your view is often criticized as elitist. What’s your response?

JB: We don’t say it’s elitist to think a plumber knows more about pipes than I do. We don’t think it’s elitist to say a truck driver knows more about driving than I do. But for some reason it seems elitist to say that I know more about economics than the average truck driver or plumber. Why? The issue here is that we treat truck driving and plumbing as low status, and political power as high status. But, I think, we should change that attitude. We should upgrade the status of non-political activities and downgrade the status of political activity. Once we do that, we can freely say something that’s, to be blunt, obviously true: The electorate doesn’t know what it’s doing, and putting so much power in the hands of a body that doesn’t know what it’s doing is dangerous.

Jason Brennan is the Robert J. and Elizabeth Flanagan Family Associate Professor of Strategy, Economics, Ethics, and Policy at the McDonough School of Business in Georgetown University. He is the author of  The Ethics of VotingWhy Not Capitalism? and Libertarianism.

Along with these books, Brennan is the co-author of Markets Without Limits, Compulsory Voting, and A Brief History of Liberty. He is a regular writer for the blog, Bleeding Heart Libertarians.

 

 

Jason Stanley: How free market ideology perverts the vocabulary of democracy

Election_Blog_Series_Banner2[1]By Jason Stanley

This essay appears simultaneously in Aeon Magazine and is republished with permission in our Election 2016 series

Citizens of the United States are quite taken with the vocabulary of liberal democracy, with words such as ‘freedom’ and ‘democracy’, which conjure key democratic values and distance the nation from the Old World taint of oligarchy and aristocracy. It is much less clear, however, that Americans are guided by democratic ideals. Or that ideology and propaganda play a crucial role in concealing the large gap between rhetoric and reality.

In truth, the Old World systems have proved extremely difficult to shrug off. In their 2014 paper, Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page argue that, as in an oligarchy, ordinary US citizens have no ‘substantial power over policy decisions [and] little or no independent influence on policy at all’.

Moreover, the US regularly subscribes to a form of managerial aristocracy. In Michigan, Governor Rick Snyder successfully replaced the mayors and city councils of several cities with ‘emergency managers’ supposedly able to negotiate financial emergencies better than elected officials. In the current presidential race, Hillary Clinton advertises her managerial expertise via the language of policy, while Donald Trump parades his via the language of business. Neither language is democratic. Neither invites self-governance.

Why is there no outcry about these oligarchical and aristocratic methods? Is it because plutocrats have power over the mechanisms of representation and repression? Is it, in short, about power? In my view, power can’t explain why voters are so enthusiastically voting for the very people who promise the least democratic outcomes. Nor are Americans knowingly rejecting democratic ideals. Instead, I see an anti-democratic ideology at work, inverting the meaning of democratic vocabulary and transforming it into propaganda.

Consider the example of mass incarceration in the US. Black Americans make up around 13 per cent of the population, but around 40 per cent of country’s ballooning prison population. Even if we assume, falsely, that black American crime rates justify this disparity, why is the state so punitive? Shouldn’t citizens instead be motivated to address the underlying socio-economic conditions that lead to such dramatic differences in behaviour between equals?

In The New Jim Crow (2010), Michelle Alexander argues that a national rhetoric of law and order has long justified mass incarceration. President Richard Nixon used it to crack down on black Americans under the cover of an epidemic of heroin use; this continued in the 1980s, as a merciless ‘war on drugs’ whose victims were all too often black men. In the US, the ideology of anti-black racism takes the view that blacks are violent and lazy, thereby masking the misapplication of the ideals of law and order.

Compare the ‘war on drugs’ to the current heroin crisis among middle-class white Americans, which has led to a national discussion of the socio-economic distress facing this class. Law and order doesn’t come into it. ‘The new face of heroin’ is new because, unlike the old face, it calls out for an empathetic response, rather than a punitive one. Now that heroin is ravaging white communities not black ones, the language of law and order (deemed appropriate to keep blacks in their place) has been retired. More significant still is that while the ideals of law and order preclude their unequal application, the propaganda of law and order does not: Americans were thus prevented from seeing the disguised gradient of law and order by racist ideology.

But what is the flawed ideology masking the misapplication of democratic ideals? Let’s bring it out by exploring the most cherished US democratic ideal, the ideal of freedom – popularly embodied in attacks on ‘big government’. Voters are repeatedly told that ‘big government’ is the primary source of coercion that limits freedom, which it certainly sometimes does, as the Patriot Act reminds us. But corporations also limit civic freedom in significant ways.

For example, corporations are leading direct attacks on the freedom to collectively bargain. Via outsourcing, free trade agreements allow corporations to move jobs to countries where labour is cheap; meanwhile, as a result of pressure from the conservative non-profit Citizens United, corporations can fund political candidates, thereby increasing corporate control of government. The weaker a government is, the more power corporations have over it. Across the political spectrum, there is anger that government is too influenced by industry lobbyists.

Voters concerned about government – as opposed to corporate – constraints on freedom are under the grip of what I will call a free market ideology. According to that ideology, the world of capital is by its nature free. All other substantial freedoms, including political freedom and personal freedom, are made possible by the freedom of markets.

Why do citizens who cherish freedom as an ideal vote to constrain their own freedoms by increasing the power of corporations? It’s because free market ideology masks the ways in which corporations deploy undemocratic modes of coercion. When a corporation bans employees from expressing, outside of work, opinions it disapproves of, this is seen as a legitimate protection of its economic interests. If workers have to sign non-disclosure contracts that silence them after they are employed elsewhere, it’s accepted as the cost of doing business.

The contradictions here are telling. If our most basic freedoms are self-expression and choiceful action, then corporations frequently limit our most basic freedoms. In liberal democratic theory, it is government that is regarded as the protector of such rights. But it’s precisely because government is attacked in the name of freedom that corporations have vastly greater power to constrain and shape it.

Free market ideology uses democratic vocabulary as propaganda, obscuring a non-democratic reality. Take education. In a liberal democracy, education equips citizens with the tools and confidence to weigh in on policy decisions and play a role in their own self-governance. Hence, democratic education is at the very centre of democratic political philosophy, as the philosophies of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, W E B Du Bois, John Dewey and Elizabeth Cady Stanton attest. But the US rhetoric surrounding education is explicitly anti-democratic. Citizens prefer ‘efficient’ education systems that train children to perform vocational tasks, rather than education that fosters community, autonomy and civic participation.

The rhetoric politicians use when running for office is usually explicitly anti-democratic. Managerial culture is paradigmatically undemocratic: a CEO is like a feudal lord. But if markets are zones of freedom, then CEOs ought to be its representatives. Free market ideology also explains why, when politicians with great wealth run for office, voters are not put off by the threat of oligarchy: wealth is acquired in markets – which are the source of freedom. Finally, free market ideology explains why voters so easily give up their right to hold institutions accountable to experts who promise ‘efficiency’. Efficiency is the ideal of business, and business is the engine of the market – again the source of freedom.

Free market ideology has perverted democratic vocabulary, transforming it into propaganda that, in turn, obscures an anti-democratic reality. Yet there’s hope that voters have wised up to this and begun to challenge party elites. Such moments of awareness feel dangerous but offer great opportunities. Voters are using the proper tool – elections – to make their concerns heard. Will anyone listen?

Stanley jacketJason Stanley is the Jacob Urowsky Professor of Philosophy at Yale University. He is the author of Knowledge and Practical Interests, Language in Context, and Know How. His latest book is How Propaganda Works, recently released by Princeton University Press.