Brennan vs. a Bad Argument for Democracy

Jason Brennan has a post up criticizing a bad argument for democracy:

  1. “People disagree about the facts, about principles of justice, about the principles of political economy, and so on.
  2. Therefore, it is illegitimate to make reference to an external, objective standard by which to judge political outcomes.
  3. Therefore, in order to resolve this disagreements in a fair way, we must have democracy.”

He has two main reasons for thinking that this is a bad argument. First, if we only cared about fairness, we could flip coins (Estlund), since that would give everyone exactly the same share of authority (none), but randomization isn’t democratic (since it’s not responsive), and it could be very unwise (if some of the options on the agenda are obviously disastrous – I’m embellishing a bit here).

Second, the argument involves an unstable combination of confidence about procedural fairness with diffidence about the evaluation of outcomes – a “half-assed form of moral relativism” because it holds that “there are objective moral standards about how to resolve disagreements, but no standards about what we should decide when we disagree.”

(He also makes a third point, which I won’t discuss: It’s not because they disagree that real voters have conflict; rather, they disagree because they identify with groups that have conflicts, and then engage in after-the-fact rationalization to justify the beliefs associated with those groups. This criticism raises bigger issues about the relevance of ideals to reality, when the gap between the two is great. I think it’s going to undermine or at least sideline a lot of different normative arguments about democracy, not just this one).

So can we make the argument better?

Here’s an argument that’s a bit better, though I think still not satisfactory:

  1. People disagree about facts, principles of justice, etc., hence they disagree about what the right public policies are, e.g. what rights and duties we should recognize in law, and enforce.
  2. But for a fairly wide range of policies, on a fairly wide range of issues, it’s clearly better to have some common policy than none at all, i.e. better than leaving each individual free to follow their own conscience about which rights are and aren’t valid, and therefore about who can defend which rights by force when.
  3. ‘Having a common policy’ involves some sizeable share of the population accepting as legitimate, and binding, policies that they think are not optimal, perhaps even unjust.
  4. To have common policies, we need a decision-procedure – one whose results will be fairly obvious even to people who disagree about what the rights policies are. The crucial function of this procedure is to legitimate controversial policy choices in the eyes of those that disagree with them.
  5. A decision-procedure won’t have this capacity to confer legitimacy on policies (with respect to those who disagree with them) if all that can be said in the procedure’s favour is that it maximizes the chances of selecting the policies one group deems optimal. For example, if a good Rawlsian like me is trying to persuade a Nozickian that she should pay the taxes she thinks too high, it will be no help for me to say “these tax rates were selected by a procedure that maximized our chances of picking Rawlsian policies.”
  6. It would not be self-defeating, however, for me to say “you should pay your taxes because they were decided upon by a procedure that gave equal authority to everyone, whatever their opinion on tax policy.”

That’s how I understand Jeremy Waldron’s arguments against the instrumental assessment of decision-procedures, from the 1990s.

The problem I see with this argument is that in steps 5 and 6 there is a confounding of two variables: intrinsic vs. instrumental modes of assessment, and degree of (reasonable?) controversy. Instrumentally-justified procedures can be legitimacy-conferring when the values and principles appealed to in assessing outcomes are uncontroversial, or at least less controversial than the values and principles at stake in the specific disputes in question (cf. Aileen Kavanagh’s critique of Waldron). Conversely, intrinsically-justified procedures can fail to be legitimacy-conferring if the values appealed to are controversial / more controversial. Imagine debating an aristocrat in a fledgling democracy in the 19th C. One couldn’t persuade the aristocrat to obey some new law the aristocrat disagrees with by pointing out that democratic procedures respect everyone’s fundamental equality. The mode of justification is intrinsic, but the value appealed to is disputed by the argument’s target audience, in this case.

The goal of legitimizing controversial policies in the eyes of those who disagree with them comes at a cost, if it requires that we appeal to a narrower range of values and principles in assessing / justifying our political decision-procedures. Should we really care what the aristocrat or racist thinks? So the arguments gets run in terms of reasonable disagreement; grounds for assessing our political system should be acceptable to all but only reasonable moral points of view. Thus the argument that Waldron at one point saw as being crucial to the defence of democracy against judicial review actually supports a principle of public reason.

More on Neoliberalism

The Guardian had a ‘long read’ a couple weeks ago on “neoliberalism” by Stephen Metcalfe. I want to comment on the piece’s interpretation of Hayek. Although I don’t share Hayek’s politics, I think it important not to misrepresent what he said. (See also this earlier post on neoliberalism, and this post on the issue of the fairness of reward by contribution).

Continue reading More on Neoliberalism

Worries about the Stability of Meritocracy

In §17 of A Theory of Justice, Rawls attempted “to forestall the objection to the principle of fair equality of opportunity that it leads to a meritocratic society” (86, emphasis added; see also 73). This statement is surprising, at least at first glance; isn’t meritocracy a good thing? Continue reading Worries about the Stability of Meritocracy

Talk on Frank Knight and John Rawls

This past weekend I attended the inaugural conference of the PPE Society in New Orleans – an excellent event, with lots of interesting papers on related themes. My presentation was based on my paper ‘Markets, Desert, and Reciprocity,’ Politics, Philosophy & Economics, 16, (2017): 47-69. It was called The Free Market Critique of Desert, and its Relation with Justice as Fairness; the text of the talk (lightly revised) is available on my academia.edu site, via the link above. “Free-market critique of desert” is misleading; it should really be “the free-market critique of the desert-based justification of capitalism” but that’s too long. Another possible title for the talk would be “the neoliberal foundations of liberal egalitarianism,” but that would generate too much confusion.

Self-defeat, anarchy, unfair exclusion

I have a new paper forthcoming on public reason, in The Journal of Moral Philosophy. The paper ties together three objections that are central to David Enoch’s recent critique: that theories of public reason are self-defeating, that they lead to libertarianism / minimal-statism / anarchy, and that they unfairly exclude people deemed unreasonable.  Here is the abstract:

Theories of public reason are alleged to be self-defeating, to lead to anarchy, and to treat those classified as unreasonable with unequal respect, suggesting that public reason is incoherent rather than simply outweighed by competing considerations. To avoid anarchy and self-defeat, advocates of public reason can idealize heavily, adopting a strict standard of reasonableness. Yet the more they restrict the justificatory constituency, the more the resulting exclusion of putatively unreasonable views seems unfair. This paper shows how to avoid this dilemma. The paper focuses on David Enoch’s recent critique of public reason, which marshalls the worries about self-defeat, anarchy, and unfairness of exclusion to undermine the very idea of public reason. Although he doesn’t explicitly identify the dilemma sketched above, it is consistent with his view to recognize that the solution to the first two problems exacerbates the third. My suggestion about how to avoid the dilemma depends on a distinction between two models of public reason. The first frames the principle as a constraint on coercive state action, with a default of inaction; the second sees the principle as a constraint on reasons for decisions, with a default of exclusion from consideration. The coercion model is vulnerable to the worry about anarchy but not self-defeat, I argue, the reasons model to the worry about self-defeat but not anarchy. The coercion model does not apply to itself, and so cannot be self-defeating, and there are plausible ways of avoiding anarchy without idealizing heavily. As a result, this model is less vulnerable to the charge of unfair exclusion. The reasons for decisions model is not subject to the anarchy objection, but does apply to itself. The only way to avoid self-defeat is to idealize heavily, making the reasons model is thus particularly susceptible to the worry about unfair exclusion. My response is to appeal to reciprocity, in order to justify making acceptance of public reason one of the conditions of reasonableness. Those who exclude everyone but themselves from the constituency of justification can’t object that others draw the boundaries of this constituency too narrowly, since they themselves draw its boundaries more narrowly still.

Forthcoming Paper on Frank Knight and John Rawls

A few years ago I wrote a paper on Hayek and Rawls (ungated early version here). This, plus teaching a course on libertarianism, led me to the early 20th century University of Chicago economist Frank Knight. One of the points of commonality between Hayek and Rawls is their scepticism about desert as the basis for social institutions. This scepticism owes much to Frank Knight. Rawls cited Knight’s 1923 essay “The Ethics of Competition” in the discussion of desert from A Theory of Justice, and in an earlier essay cited Hayek, who in turn cited Knight. Knight is remembered as one of the founders of Chicago economics, and thus indirectly one of the fathers of free market fundamentalism. He was indeed a teacher / colleague of both Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman. Yet Knight was a fierce critic of what he took to be bad, simplistic arguments for laissez-faire, chief among them the view that by distributing income according to marginal product the competitive system rewards the deserving. Knight didn’t deny that marginal productivity explained the distribution of income, he just denied that reward according to marginal product was ethically important, in itself. Hayek and Friedman had essentially the same view. The virtue of reward by marginal product is efficiency, not fairness. It’s surprising, then, to read that neoliberalism teaches that markets reward the deserving. I posted about this earlier, but now I have a paper on the topic forthcoming in PPE. It’s called “Markets, Desert, and Reciprocity,” but its subtitle could be “Knight, Hayek, Friedman, and Rawls (vs. Bell, Nozick, Sandel, etc.)” The final section includes some discussion of the reciprocity objection to proposals for an unconditional basic income.