The core of liberalism is the decentralization of initiative. This is its great value if knowledge and creativity are diffused through the population and not subject to aggregation in some central authority. On this view, the compelling fact about liberalism is that, as Friedrich Hayek and others in the Austrian school of economics might say, it fits the epistemology of a creative social order. It does this because it gives autonomy to individuals and their own spontaneous, changing organizations. One might take such autonomy to be the central value of liberalism, or one might take the autonomy to be a means to other things, such as, especially, welfare. Nevertheless, as virtually all agree, we need government to secure our liberty. This generally means democratic government, and in the modern era of large states, it means representative democracy. Indeed, already in the days of the colony of Massachusetts, representation was necessary because the whole community could not possibly have met to govern. Each Massachusetts community of at least 120 citizens had one representative, and an additional representative was added for each additional 100 citizens. Today, the people of Massachusetts have one representative in the U.S. House of Representatives for roughly 640,000 citizens.
The Austrian vision of distributed knowledge is consistent with John Stuart Mill's grounding for his principle of liberty – that individuals have the best knowledge of what their interests are. This claim can be qualified, of course, in ways that the individual would allow.
Far too much of the concern with subnational groups, either long established (and even indigenous) or recently immigrated, is with abstract principles of justice. Far too little of it is about making societies work at all well to give prosperity to everyone and to do so through democratic procedures. Many of the ostensible principles of justice erect barriers between various groups, minority and majority. Assimilationist arguments, pro and con, typically assume assimilation of the minority or new group into the majority or established group. American, Canadian and Australian experience during the twentieth century clearly shows that assimilation goes both ways. Those from Northern European backgrounds in these nations have substantially assimilated with the newly arriving groups of Asians, Latinos and others. There is a substantial shortfall in the assimilation in both directions of blacks in the USA and of indigenous peoples in all three of the former colonial outposts.
Brian Barry (2001) is among the few writers who have forcefully taken on these issues with a main eye out for the workability of contemporary societies, especially liberal societies. It would be easy to read him as merely aggressively supporting liberalism over all-comers. But one of his main concerns is with making the societies he addresses reasonably good places. I wish to take up this problem as it is affected by the massive movement of globalization of the past few decades, a movement that is still on the rise.
If we wish to assess the morality of elected officials, we must understand their function as our representatives and then infer how they can fulfill this function. I propose to treat the class of elected officials as a profession, so that their morality is a role morality and it is functionally determined. If we conceive the role morality of legislators to be analogous to the ethics of other professions, then this morality must be functionally defined by the purpose that legislators are to fulfill once in office. Hence, the role morality of legislators will largely be determined by our theory of representation. We will need not a normative account of their role, but an empirical explanatory account. In David Hume's terms, the morality of role holders is one of “artificial” duties, that is to say, duties defined by their functional fit with the institutional purposes of a profession. Our most difficult problem, therefore, is to understand the role of our elected representatives.
This problem is severely complicated by the nature of democratic choice and participation in a modern, complex society. A central problem of democratic theory for such a society is the general political ignorance of the citizens. In Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy (1942), Joseph Schumpeter argues that citizens have no chance of affecting electoral outcomes and, therefore, no reason to learn enough about politics even to know which candidates or policies would serve their interests.
Jeremy Bentham remarked that religious motivations are among the most constant of all motivations. And, although such a motivation need not be especially powerful, it can be among the most powerful. Because of the constancy of the motivation, “A pernicious act, therefore, when committed through the motive of religion, is more mischievous than when committed through the motive of ill-will” (Bentham 1970: 156). He explains this conclusion from fanaticism, which, of course, need not be religiously motivated and in the twentieth century has been as destructively motivated by ideological and nationalist sentiments as by religious sentiments. This is Bentham's explanation:
If a man happen to take it into his head to assassinate with his own hands, or with the sword of justice, those whom he calls heretics, that is, people who think, or perhaps only speak, differently upon a subject which neither party understands, he will be as inclined to do this [at] one time as at another. Fanaticism never sleeps: it is never glutted: it is never stopped by philanthropy; for it makes a merit of trampling on philanthropy: it is never stopped by conscience; for it has pressed conscience into service. Avarice, lust, and vengeance, have piety, benevolence, honour; fanaticism has nothing to oppose it.
A constitution is not intended to embody a particular economic theory, whether of paternalism and the organic relation of the citizen to the State or of laissez faire
A NEUTRAL CONSTITUTION
In his short but sharp dissent in Lochner v. New York, 198 U.S. 45 (1904), Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes declared that a constitution is neutral on economic policy. He was wrong in general because some constitutions have gone very far toward embodying particular economic theories. Even the U.S. Constitution embodies a limited degree of laissez-faire, enough to give capitalism at least an advantage over any other economic organization of the society, if Adam Smith's theory is roughly right. What capitalism mainly needed was free markets, and the U.S. Constitution went very far toward providing that markets would not be trammeled by the states acting for narrow interests against farmers and producers in other states.
Holmes was right, however, in the sense that the Constitution of 1787 would allow various economic theories to prevail. One of three systems of economic organization favored by different groups was plantation agrarianism. Although not constitutionally bound to fail, plantation agrarianism failed economically on its own in the face of overpowering capitalism. But the framers of the Constitution did not intentionally put capitalism into the Constitution. They merely designed an economically almost neutral – at least neutral between plantation agrarianism and capitalism – national government, which was virtually all that capitalism needed. And they arguably did even that without much understanding.
Although it is commonly called a positive theory – to imply that it is purely descriptive and without value assumptions – rational choice theory is typically grounded in a powerful and simple value theory, from which many of its most compelling results follow. In actual applications, the word “rational” in rational choice theory is typically not a merely formal term. It is also a substantive term that refers to particular values, essentially welfare values. It may be true, as some rational choice theorists insist, that the theory could be applied to actors whose values are other than welfare and, especially, other than their own welfare. But the remarkable success of rational choice explanations turns on the surprising power they have when they are grounded almost exclusively in the actors' own welfares.
To this extent, rational choice theory is, practically, a two-fold theory that says what values govern individuals' choices and what the result of those choices will be. Often, the result is collective rather than merely individual, although rational choice explanations are strictly at the individual level and can govern individual actions outside social interactions as well as within such interactions. In the discussion here, however, I will focus on rational choice explanations of social-political interactions, including large group interactions.
A common complaint against rational choice theory is that it mistakes concern with self-interest for rationality. The complaint is well grounded but pointless. Rational choice theorists commonly do suppose that the agent's own welfare is the chief value of concern to the agent. But there is no mistake involved in such an assumption.
Most of the knowledge of an ordinary person has a very messy structure and cannot meet standard epistemological criteria for its justification. Rather, a street-level epistemology makes sense of ordinary knowledge. Street-level epistemology is a subjective account of knowledge, not a public account. It is not about what counts as knowledge in, say, physics, but deals rather, with your knowledge, my knowledge, the ordinary person's knowledge. I wish not to elaborate this view here, but to apply it to the problems of representative democracy. I will briefly lay out the central implications of a street-level epistemology and then bring it to bear on democratic citizenship, especially on the problem of the citizen's holding elected officials accountable for their actions.
Standard philosophical epistemology is concerned with justification, that is, justification of any claim that some piece of putative knowledge is actually true. Street-level epistemology is economic; it is not generally about justification but about usefulness. It follows John Dewey's “pragmatic rule,” which is: In order to discover the meaning of an idea, ask for its consequences. In essence, a street-level epistemology applies this to the idea of knowledge, with consequences broadly defined to include the full costs and benefits of coming to know and using knowledge. Note that the pragmatic or street-level epistemology sounds like an economic theory; but it is not an economic theory that presumes full knowledge, as in rational expectations theory or much of game theory.
In the analysis of trust and government, we may focus on two quite distinct causal issues: citizen trust in other citizens as a result, in part, of governmental institutions and citizen trust in government itself. The former is a variant of the central thesis of Thomas Hobbes. We need government in order to maintain the order that enables us to invest effort in our own well-being and to deal with others in the expectation that we will not be violated. Almost no one other than anarchists disagrees with this view, although some writers have supposed that large government is disruptive of relations between citizens. The American Anti-Federalists and such anti-urban thinkers as Ibn Khaldun (Gellner 1988) therefore opposed large government or urbanization.
The second issue – that citizens might specifically trust government – is suggested in a passage by John Locke. Locke (1988: 381) wrote that society turns power over to its governors, “whom society hath set over it self, with this express or tacit Trust, That it shall be imployed for their good, and the preservation of their Property.” Niklas Luhmann (1979: 54) says that this “old theme of political trust, which played a large role, especially in the period after the end of the religious wars, has virtually disappeared from contemporary political theory.” If it had disappeared, it has come back in force, at least in consideration of the United States and other advanced democratic societies. Now, the supposition that citizens could trust government lies behind a large contemporary literature.
Supporters of democracy might take special pleasure in noting how well democratic decision-making, even as messy as it typically is, has handled several problems of the generation of collective bads, such as air and water pollution. Many autocratic states, which are often thought to have advantages in pushing through difficult policies, have been environmental disasters while Western democracies were actually improving their environments even while continuing economic growth. At the same time, democratic states – especially, but not only, the United States – have been relatively poor at handling distributive issues such as poverty and equal opportunity. These contrary results are inherent in the nature of democracy and the kinds of problems at stake. This fact bodes ill, oddly, for international handling of collective bads.
Democracy is particularly good at handling problems of coordination, sometimes including relatively difficult problems of coordination within the context of standard collective actions. It is generally poor at handling more conflicted issues, such as, especially, straight distributional issues. The regulation of many collective bads in our time falls on both sides of the democratic divide. In so far as these problems are purely domestic, as in the pollution of, say, Lake Tahoe, they are relatively easily seen as coordination problems by at least the bulk of the relevant population. In so far as they are very substantially international, as in the destruction of the ozone layer or acid rain, however, they often have massive distributive implications that would make their resolution difficult even in domestic politics but that make resolution extremely difficult in international politics.
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