Democracy’s Paradox

Scene at the Signing of the Constitution of the United States, Oil on Canvas, Howard Chandler Christy

After the conclusion of the Constitutional Convention of 1787 it was reported in the notes of Dr. James McHenry, one of Maryland’s delegates to the Convention, that a lady asked Benjamin Franklin, “Well Doctor what have we got, a republic or a monarchy?”  Franklin replied, “A republic, madam…If you can keep it.”

There is somewhat of a paradox in the practice of popular governance.  This afflicts not just pure democracies, but democratic republics like that of the United States.  The paradox is that with increased access to political participation, free speech and access to information in general, the responsibility required of the citizen also increases.

Fundamentally, increased access to information is also increased access to disinformation.  In some areas, experts are outnumbered by charlatans and so disinformation is easier to find if one does not know better or seeks out such disinformation.  Human psychology is prone to seek a comforting untruth at the expense of a discomforting truth. Hence, we have confirmation bias, availability heuristic, belief perseverance, etc.

This isn’t a new story.  Democratizing access to information and political participation has often led to uprisings for right or wrong.  The American Revolution is a great example. Most citizens were not versed in English Law as the learned Founding Fathers were.  They were influenced by local preacher pulpits, and an anti-establishment, anti-elitist attitude toward King George and the British Parliament.  There cannot be a revolution based solely on academic argument. There needs to be a rebellious popular will. It requires hostile emotions more than cool-headed reasoning.

The rub is that although we believe people ought to have a say in how they are governed, this freedom also demands civic responsibility from the governed.  A sad truth is that although people share the same political participation rights and access to information, not all people are equally equipped to express those rights responsibly. We may force disinformation onto people by mistaking the freedom to express ideas, even falsehoods, with the right to have a captive audience to present them to. Hence, some states in the U.S. force teaching the Biblical story of Genesis in biology, geology and astronomy classes. This may lead one to think access ought to be restricted. But, when those rights are restricted, we often get far worse results, at least in history. Hitler, Stalin, McCarthyism, Mao, banned books, etc. How do we maintain a healthy balance?

Perhaps our current situation can be viewed through this lens.  Money and special interests seem to rule politics because they have a more intimate knowledge of how to participate and influence political outcomes.  It is an asymmetry of information and access on their part with the structures of political power. The general public, on the other hand, have increased access to information and disinformation, especially via the internet and social media but before that with tabloids, radio, etc. This created a popular class ripe for rebellion against the gatekeepers. This is not an entirely unjustified development. There are, however, consequences.

As a result, many voters no longer treat politics as statecraft requiring developed skills, knowledge and experience. Those voters demand that governance becomes an “everyman’s” game. Without any official demand on individual responsibility for one’s opinions—the idea that one has a responsibility to hold true, opposed to false, beliefs.

With our current president, we have the most obvious display of a politician trying, not to lead voters in a direction that challenges their views or asks more from them but, to acquiesce to their currently held beliefs. A politician not inspiring the better angels of our nature but cultivating our worst impulses.  The far left of the political class tries in their own way to find a version of this playbook that will work for them. Appeasement, not leadership, is the new game. At least during campaign season.

We have a republic for now…If we can keep it.

Liberal and Conservative: Defining Terms in Political Theory

In his chapter, “Liberalism” in the anthology, Public and Private Morality, Ronald Dworkin takes to the task of defining what a liberal and a conservative are in political theory.  To do this, Dworkin distinguishes between constitutive and derivative positions, constitutive positions being essential to the theory and derivatives being strategies for implementing the constitutive positions.  For example the essential, intrinsic value, of utilitarianism can be happiness, and a derivative principle for achieving happiness could be a romantic relationship, traveling abroad, education, a mansion, etc.

Dworkin distinguishes treatment as equals deserving of concern and respect, and equal treatment in distribution of some resource or opportunity.  For example, if there were two flooded communities, one devastated and the other with minor damage, it would violate treatment as equals deserving concern and respect to give each community the same amount of flood relief, or equal treatment.   On the other hand, to treat people with equal concern and respect may require equal treatment as some argue is the case with voting rights. Both the liberal and conservative are committed constitutively to treatment as equals rather than equal treatment, which can be a derivative, though they are committed in different ways.  To the liberal, treatment as equals means the political establishment should be neutral between competing conceptions of the good life. For a liberal to treat someone with respect is to allow one to lead one’s life according to one’s own conception of the valuable life. In contrast, conservatives believe that people cannot be treated as equals without establishing some conception of what the good life is, because treating a person as equal means treating one as a rational or moral agent would wish to be treated.  The conservative may question whether or not we are demonstrating proper concern for another if we allow one to continue to make decisions which causes them pain or suffering.

Under the liberal theory, a derivative position of representative democracy creates civil rights that are needed to ensure that the personal preferences of the minority are not prohibited by the personal preferences of the majority, as this would create a system of external preferences in which some personal pursuits of the good life are prohibited, and therefore, violate equal concern and respect.  But due to the nature of the criminal justice system in a representative democracy, someone will be deciding guilt or innocence based on their own conception of the good life. Therefore, procedural rights are necessary to protect the innocent from the prejudices of the majority even if this means that the accuracy of the verdict in criminal proceedings is not improved. The liberal may contend a similar scenario exists in hiring practices in which racial prejudice is an external preference which limits the opportunities of members of minority groups.  Affirmative action may be required as a procedural guard against these external preferences even if it does not improve the odds of the most qualified person being accepted.

In contrast, the conservative believes that the political structure must not be neutral regarding a conception of the good life, but must enforce some notion of social morality, or virtuous society in which people are rewarded for virtues like hard work and talent.  In a representative democracy, the conception of the good life is not based on an abstract principle, but reliant upon tradition and majoritian rule, and in the marketplace values like talent and perseverance are rewarded.

In the case of Hopwood v. Texas, the affirmative action component of the admission policy of University of Texas School of Law is at issue.  The plaintiffs are white and filed suit against the school for discrimination in their admission policy. The Appellant Court agreed with the plaintiffs that the admission policy violated the Constitution because it granted an advantage to preferred minority students (blacks and Mexicans) to non-preferred minorities and whites in admission.  It did this by setting lower standards of admission for the preferred minorities than for non-preferred minorities and whites.

The liberal and the conservative should both agree with the decision in this case.  The conservative will argue that having a racial preference in admission policy will not properly reward individuals for their hard work and talent.  Although the conservative will recognize that consideration to a person’s background and any adversity one may have overcome is a testament to one’s hard work and talent, using a race as a proxy for such an assessment is a representative fallacy because it assumes that people of the same skin color all have the same life experiences and that this is indicative of their abilities.  But if the conservative values majority rule, then whatever the majority decides is the preferred policy is okay. Though, this conflicts with the notion of merit-based rewards in which people need to be treated individually and more variables need to be considered than race in assessing a person’s life experiences and perspective. The liberal will argue that race is a valid consideration because there are external preferences based on race that influence admissions.  In order to prevent discrimination against what have historically been disfavored minorities, affirmative action to ensure a certain number or percentage of selected minorities are admitted is appropriate because it provides diversity and enables minorities to attain a status closer to the status enjoyed by whites. Ironically, this compelling interest in diversity seems it is more easily argued as a conservative position in promoting a virtuous society (a diverse society is a good society).  Furthermore, a liberal seeks to defend the individual, as an individual, against the majoritian notions of the good life supported by the conservative. To do this, the liberal believes in the narrow tailoring of a statute in order to pass constitutional muster. A statute that emphasizes race fails to treat the individual with equal concern and respect. A rich black person with well educated parents comes from a different circumstance than a poor white person with poorly educated parents. To grant the black person an additional advantage based on his race seems grossly unjust.  

To treat people based on race is to deny individuality and treat them as a homogenous group.  Race can be a factor but only one of many. This means an individual assessment is needed in all cases.  This defeats the applicability of a broad policy granting advantages to one race over another. The liberal has more invested in keeping the focus on the individual than does the conservative because the conservative can rely on tradition and majoritian rule.  The liberal seeks to remedy these external preferences but the liberal cannot do so by creating another external preference that prefers the opposite group of people or beliefs.

Reference: Public and Private Morality, ch. 6 “Liberalism”, Ronald Dworkin (Cambridge University Press, 1978)

An Irony of Social Conservatism

There is an irony at the ideological heart of social conservatism.  Many social conservatives are uncomfortable with lifestyle choices that differ from their own.  That is pretty much what makes them social conservatives.  The great irony is that in order for these social conservatives to freely express their views, and even try to petition government to change its laws and policies in their favor, they need a government which is liberal, as in legally neutral, about the lifestyle choices of its citizens.  If social conservatives lived in another country which was socially conservative in a different way (say it forced its people to observe certain religious or moral codes with which our American social conservatives disagreed) they would be out of luck.  It is the great virtue of social liberalism that the government seeks to be tolerant of many different lifestyle choices, and even give those who seek to undermine this virtue the political right to express their opinions.  If social conservatives really think they’re the marginalized ones in society, they should be especially grateful they live in a society that observes social liberalism.

[I seek to distinguish social conservatism from economic conservatism as libertarians are socially liberal but economically conservative–that is economically “conservative” in the contemporary vernacular, but actually classically liberal.  In the above I use the terms “conservative” and “liberal” in the academic sense (liberals are pro freedom and government neutrality or non-interference, as argued by Ronald Dworkin—though there is a healthy discussion philosophically between positive and negative liberty).  Also, any use of “ideological” isn’t meant as a term of derision, but as, “a set of beliefs about the proper order of society and how it can be achieved.”  (Erikson and Tedin 2003, p. 64, cited in Jost, Federico, and Napier 2009, p. 309).]

For more on positive and negative liberty and conservatism and libertarianism, see “Liberty: Positive and Negative (Cato Unbound)”, by David Schmidtz, et al. here: