Political Philosophy and the Popular Will

1. Megan McArdle’s musing on the failure of the Supercommittee rightly targets the central issue:

I don’t really care how much better things could be if we were more like Europe/19th century America.  Given events in Europe, this doesn’t really seem like a good time to be talking up the virtues of larger welfare states or a weak central bank.

In a modern democratic state, two things are true of any policy agenda:

1.  You eventually have to pay for it, with actual money.

2.  You have to get those bastards on the other side to agree to it.

We seem to have an electorate who believes neither of these things, and the political class has followed them. [emphasis mine]

Against this backdrop, we ask: Shouldn’t political scientists get people to prioritize? We know the answer is haha. Yeah, political science can aim higher and ask more serious questions than “Can GDP tell us who exactly is going to win an election?” (The correct answer: if it can in every single instance, we as human beings have a lot more problems than we thought.) But changing people’s minds requires a lot more than the best question or correct thought. And some attitudes – including the attitudes of some prone to be more partisan – are impossible to work with.

2. Socrates’ dismissal of the populace seems to be on the grounds that their unreasonableness makes them unable to persuade anyone. They act randomly, and while they can kill, they never have enough consistency to win the day thoroughly. The argument sounds like a lie. Don’t people join up with causes because lots of people are there and look very wise or foolish because they joined the crowd? Doesn’t that appearance sometimes become the judgment of history? One could say anyone who does such a thing already was foolish and of no consequence.

That pushes us to wonder whether the world divides into smart people and idiots. Maybe idiots follow the crowd, smart people have intellectual independence. It’s too cruel to make any sense, especially after Socrates has wished that the crowd had the power to do the greatest evil, as it would be able to do great good. Does that make Socrates a friend of democracy? Not in the slightest. But combined with “now,” as in “now they can do neither of the two [greatest evils and goods],” it leaves open the possibility of something better for a democracy.

3. The solution to the puzzle might lie in the difference between appearance and reality. You can join up with a cause and appear wise or foolish, or actually try to find out what is wise and foolish. The crowd will be attracted to appearances more or less no matter what. The degree to which this is a problem probably can be altered.

The degree might be altered by actually demonstrating something good. I can scream the federal budget is roughly 40-50% Social Security/Medicare, 30% defense, 20% everything else until I’m blue in the face. That will get a few of the people who think all we do is spend on defense or foreign aid to think twice. Most people will go “huh, whatever” and start positing ridiculous things such as whether we can cut all 30% for defense.

But what if you actually do something good for someone? Yeah, it can be explained away. Rhetoric can be used to make what is right seem wrong, what is good seem bad. A number of people, though, hate betraying benefactors. And most people find themselves loyal to those who’ve done good for them, provided gratitude is something society preserves to an extent.

I’m not saying you automatically get good politics by doing good for others. Plenty of us do good things every day and still find politics terrible. I am saying a more grateful (perhaps less factionalized) nation can be receptive to better ideas when accompanied by their getting actual goods. Class warfare can be devastating because at times one class can accuse the other of secretly hiding wealth everyone can share in (see Machiavelli’s Discourses for more). Hopes as only hopes can be deadly. Right now, both parties seem attracted to ideologies that are more hopeful the other party gets the blame than actually getting something accomplished for America as a whole (health care reform doesn’t count when the bill is so bad).

The task of the political philosopher is to see the higher priorities. The highest priority is wisdom simply. A populace committed to keeping itself dumb is a problem. We’re not exempt from this critique: our love of status and college sports have probably destroyed the university as a serious institution. It provides research, some of it even useful. But as it is increasingly a battleground for issues of ideology or class, it doesn’t pay attention to those all important appearances that frame the goods we get. We need to feel like we’re all in this together, for the simple reason that we are.


  1. I can’t help but think that the Super Committee was doomed to fail from the start. The GOP would not yield to new revenues and the Democrats would accept nothing less.

    The Defense cuts that kick in are mostly smoke and mirrors based on planned increases.

    Basically, they’ve all passed the buck to the 2012 election.

  2. The only political action that makes sense to me is to do whatever it takes to transform the political culture.

    There are two reasons for disagreeng with Socrates:

    First, it is clear that the individuals who make up the populace are not actually as stupid as their political choices suggest. Those same people actually act very intelligently in other pursuits. I’ve known a lot of really smart people who hold some really idiotic political (and/or religious) views. There just seems to be something about the process by which political opinions operate in the aggregate that sets up vicious circles causing people to act stupider than they are.

    And second, if we are going to participate in self-fulfilling prophecies, they might as well be beneficial.

  3. I would always advice people to be honest and abide by the laws of the country and leave the rest to government.But for this advice to be implemented requires the politicians themselves to be honest.Political offices are made to help people,not for adding and building your bank accounts.If politicians are honest then people will at least take some level of initiative to be honest.So,honesty is the best advice i can give to my people.

  4. When we talk about politics, one thing that most probably would enter our mind is corruption, or some other negative things that is actually happening in the political world. Though, i’m not telling that it is being applied to all, maybe its already part of people’s thinking that politics is dirty. Most aspiring “public servant” as they say would make good things during campaign, then when they’re already on the position, they started to make way on how to get what they really want.

    Actually, there is no perfect leader in the eyes of all people. I think the best thing we could do is to choose the one that is less evil.

  5. Merely having ideology congruent with mainstream conservatism doesn’t automatically make you an activist. Political activism requires exactly what the term suggests — that you become active and interactive in public political processes. By doing this, you can parlay your political passion into deeds of progressive action that can further your cause and serve your community..

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