Sunday, February 06, 2011

Governments and wisdom

Sage asks a good question:
what if slightly more than half of the population wants something stupid? What if they all vote to ban same-sex marriage, for instance. Do we follow the will of the people, or do the people have to trust the intelligence of the government.

I think the question of how to have the wisest or most intelligent government is unanswerable. Answers that yesterday seemed "stupid" might seem smart today, and vice-versa. Someone might well ask, "What if they all vote to allow same-sex marriage, for instance?" I don't know what's "really" wise and what's "really" foolish. I know what I personally happen to think is wise and foolish, but I don't think that I personally have a privileged position to determine how all of society operates.

There are three things I think we can get from the institutions of government. Wisdom and intelligence are not really among them, especially at the highest level of public policy.

First, we can get a degree of stability and continuity across time and space: things today will be much like they were yesterday or next door, and will be much the same tomorrow. This prevents issues that are "close" from changing public policy back and forth every day.

Second, we can get what I call "elevation to the meta-level." When there are persistently controversial questions the institutions of government can encourage us to think not just about the issue at hand, but about higher-level issues, precisely because they are charged with stability and continuity. For example, we can think about the larger, higher-level issue of the right to marry in general instead of the lower-level question of whether specifically gay people should marry; that's how we resolved the last controversial question about marriage, i.e. interracial marriage.

Finally, the most important point is that our institutions of government can be set up not to provide wisdom, but to make the right kind of mistakes and foolish decisions. If a decision is going to turn out to be foolish, I'd rather it be the foolishness of the people than the foolishness of some privileged elite. We can't get a wise government, but we can, I think, get a government where foolish mistakes are not protected by a privileged elite.

There's an underlying philosophical issue here. I am a strong proponent of real democracy, real rule of the people, as opposed to republicanism, where the people choose their rulers. I am not, however, a proponent of the idea that the majority determines what is "right"; the majority just determines (by and large) what happens. To the extent that right and wrong are meaningful, they can still do what's wrong. Too bad, so sad, shit happens. I'm not aiming for perfection, I'm aiming for the right kind of imperfection.

It is tough, I think, for someone in the middle class to contemplate a true democracy. (I don't want to attribute this attitude towards Sage personally; I don't know her at all. But I suspect the attitude is common in any middle class.) Middle-class people often fancy themselves in the "penumbra" of ruling-class privilege. There are two problems with this attitude.

First, no ruling class has very much special wisdom, especially about high levels of public policy. They usually have better education (and thus may have some expertise as to pragmatic problems), but their approach to public policy has always been first and foremost to maintain their own privilege and status as the ruling class. To the extent that there is such a thing as the "public good", it emerges at best as an unintended consequence of the ruling class's maintenance of their own power, and the happenstance of actual personalities among its members. We went straight from Marcus Aurelius, for example, to Commodus, who arguably began the fall of the Western Roman Empire.

Second, to the extent that the middle class really is at any given time in the penumbra of ruling class privilege, that status is accidental, and the ruling class never feels any principled loyalty to the middle class. The clever ruling class cultivates a stable middle class, but the middle class receives privilege only to the extent that they prop up the power of the ruling class. Start arguing effectively for the "public good" (or your own) to the detriment of the ruling class, and your middle class privilege will quickly vanish. (Witness, for example, the attempts of the feudal ruling class to enlist the people in its struggle against the capitalist/mercantile middle class at the beginning of the bourgeois revolutions.)

I think that the middle class is much better off throwing their lot in with the people and real democracy. Clever members of the middle class with special merit will, if that merit really serves the people, will find a comfortable life for themselves. Only those members of the middle class who know their talents and abilities lie only in supporting the ruling class have anything to fear from democracy.

1 comment:

  1. I can imagine a true or pure democracy, like Rousseau suggested wherein, if we find ourselves on the minority end of a vote, it simply means we're in the wrong. And I agree it's better to have a bad vote by the people, than a bad policy decreed from on high - by elites. And you don't care to be perfect.

    BUT - can we get closer to perfect than majority rules or is that the best there is? I'm in Ontario where Harris totally destroyed health care and education in the late 90s. I recall that sinking feeling when he was voted in a second time, and I realized that people in my parts cared more about cash in pocket than hospital wait times. He was finally ousted when he neglected water regulations and people died, and when he sent the OPP to "get some f-ing indians out of a park" and people died. Is it because I'm middle class or because I'm educated, or because I've been educated in a left-leaning environment that I was able to foresee that he was a really bad choice? You can argue that maybe it wasn't a bad choice, just a choice I didn't like, but now people in Ontario cross the border to get health care. I think some decisions work against the people, and sometimes the people just don't see that. Is there any way to guard against that? I don't know the answer, but I think it's still an important questions to try to address.

    So, if it's the case that every issue is voted on, then my next question is, who's in charge of education and media. I saw that particular election as a problem of both greed and short-sightedness on the part of the voting population. But if issues are decided on by popular vote, then media and education will largely determine which way the vote sways. Plato saw that and decided, in the pure democracy of ancient Athens, that it was more important to be a teacher than a politician. Maybe everyone starting in first grade is taught Rawls' veil of ignorance idea - taught to consider the best decision as if they could be placed in the society in any position. Would everyone vote against same-sex marriage if they contemplated the idea that they could end up in a society in which they were barred from marriage? Would they vote against money put into health care if they could end up in serious need tomorrow? It's a mind game, but perhaps a useful one to get people thinking about the full ramifications of their decisions.

    I'm not as optimistic as I once was about the willingness of people to put forth an effort to think beyond their own immediate gains. I still think communism is the best form of government though.


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