This is the story of how I, a young aspiring Libertarian, made peace with the prevailing order, and evolved into a Tory squish, wrapped up in a defense of the broad outlines of Liberal democracy. More importantly it is the story of my disillusionment with Monism, and embrace of Value Pluralism, which I will develop as we go on. Let me set the stage with a quote from Sir James Fitzjames Stephen, Bt, in whose honour I have adopted my nom de blog.
[T]here are differences which can neither be left unsettled nor be settled without a struggle, and a real one, but in regard to which the struggle is rather between inconsistent forms of good than between good and evil. […]There is no surer mark of a poor, contemptible, cowardly character than the inability to conduct disputes of this sort with fairness, temper, humanity, goodwill to antagonists, and a determination to accept a fair defeat in good part and to make the best of it. – Liberty, Equality, Fraternity (1874)
In was early in the year of our lord two thousand and seven and I, as a young undergraduate, was sitting in my dorm room, surfing the internet and avoiding my assignments, as one does, when, in the comments of Reason.com I came across I question. Why are we Libertarian? Is Liberty (I always capitalised Liberty at that age) the means to the greatest good for the greatest number, and so our libertarianism just utilitarianism by another name, or, is Liberty an end to itself, worth pursuing even if a free society is more impoverished, or contained more suffering than an ordered one. I had a ready answer of course, that a free society would produce the greatest good, free from government interference, and able to solve the knowledge problem, and so on, and so on. This was obvious, because we all really wanted the same things, the satiation of our basic needs, success in our endeavours, and to minimize suffering. But then something strange happened. Several people seemed to think that, in fact, Liberty might not lead to the best material outcomes, but still be valuable in itself. This was impossible, since I didn’t think that Liberty was an end, and after all, we all want the same things. Thankfully as a good undergraduate I was able to convince myself that they were merely confused, that after all everyone wants to be able to pursue their own ends, and that being coerced was a kind of suffering, and so really, in the end, we all just want the same things.
However soon I was to experience an even greater shock. You see we all really want the same things, it’s just that different people have disagreements about the best way to go about it. Once we can agree about what ends a particular thing is going to serve, then it is just a matter of research and reason, and expert knowledge, and eventually we will discover, or at least asymptotically approach, the ideal form of an institution to serve that end and go about our business. Politics is fundamentally about letting one group of experts and theorists try something to see if it works, and if it fails, then trying something else according to a different set of means, but still fundamentally oriented to the same ends. We might disagree over whether a regulated monopoly, or a competitive market, or a crown corporation would produce the best, say, rail service, (competitive market obviously) but deep down what we all want is a decent rail service. Now this was the year of the French presidential election, and I was an aspiring political junkie, so I watched as CTV declared Sarkozy the winner, and stuck around for the speeches afterwards. The losing socialist candidate, Ségolène Royal, declared that even though she had lost she would, I recite from memory, “Continuer le combat pour l’égalité”. No doubt this was a platitude, something she had said a hundred thousand times in the course of the campaign, but equality is not a word that comes up much unadorned in anglo-politics. We talk about marriage equality, or income inequality, but this was the first time I had ever registered someone talking about equality simpliciter, not as a means, but as an end. And, stated like that, watching her there, I believed her. That, human failing aside, she really did believe in human equality, not as a means to some common good, but as a positive good in its own right. As something she was willing to give things up to get. And I began to think that maybe, deep down, we don’t really all want the same things after all.
Indeed, when I started looking at how people argued, the questions were not framed as seeking the best way to put our common values into practice, but rather, by which values we were to be governed. Further, when trying to persuade, the most effective arguments would show that a given arrangement would serve to secure not only the values of its supporters, but also the values of something like a majority. Here an example might do well. In 2005, (and again, with a similar question, in 2009), British Columbians were asked to vote in a referendum, on the following question: “Should British Columbia change to the BC-STV electoral system […]?” Now a change to the voting mechanism is a change to the distribution of power in the province, which could have serious consequences in regards to the things we all want, you know deep down. So I started paying attention to the arguments of both sides. Some countries already used something similar to the STV system, so waiting to hear the evidence, Were those countries better at satiating the basic needs of the citizens? Were their citizens more successful in their own private endeavours? Was there overall less suffering in those countries when compared to similar ones using different systems? This was… not, in fact, the ground on which that debate was fought. Instead, supporters talked about how it would be more democratic, fairer, and would result in less partisan acrimony, and more civic engagement. Opponents talked about political stability and the ability of the average person to understand the system by which they were governed. There was no appeal to the universal set of values because such a universal set of values does not meaningfully exist.
Our problem then is that, instead of a small set of universally held ur-values, with different possible interpretations of how the ur-values applied to given contexts, there is a multiplicity of values, with no particular way to objectively adjudicate between them. If certain people feel an instinctive disgust with inequality, such that they are willing to treat it as an intrinsic evil, and even willing to sacrifice some positive good to reduce it, what should I make of that, given that I lack that instinctive disgust. How does a society with such wildly different conceptions of what a good society looks like, determine which arrangements will best secure their common interest, if they cannot even define what the common interest is?
There is one more complicating factor at play. Even if you, as an individual, have a rock solid indication of exactly what trade-offs you are willing to make, what the good life looks like, there is only so much time in the day and only so much knowledge available. For any given institutional arrangement, it is impossible to know, in detail, exactly what trade-offs are being proposed. Even if you were willing to trade a given amount of growth for a given amount of increased equality, or a given amount of privacy for a given amount of security, it is, in practice, nearly impossible to determine whether the arrangements under consideration will result in exactly those trade-offs even with immense study. For arrangements which you have not attempted to understand in detail, it can be impossible to determine even the signs on the trade-offs are correct. For the vast majority of decisions you will make, you will be ignorant of the trade-offs being proposed.
So, together, we have a system where different people are seeking different ends, with no good way to determine which of the given ends are best. Further for any given set of values there is uncertainty as to which set of institutions will best uphold those values. Given these conditions, what set of political institutions will produce a society, close enough to the values of most of its citizens, that they will find living there tolerable?
First, given that it is difficult to translate an institutions into the value trade-offs that it embodies, and impossible for a single person to do this for all institutions, or the interaction between even a small number of institutions, a decision-making body must consist of a large group of people, with different experiences, prejudices and interests, but similar values. Together these people can determine which institutions are serving their values, which undermining them, which need to be reformed, strengthened or abolished. The groups of common values can compete amoungst themselves for assent to institute their critiques, based on whether the society at large assents to the grouping of trade offs and values presented, as well as the relative competency of the groups. Secondly, given that there will be several different more or less coherent, groups of values that will produce a society that some people will be happy with, a society should delegate decision-making to the lowest level at which it can be effectively made, allowing people to sort themselves into groupings that best reflect the trade-offs they are willing to make. Finally, given that such a system will necessarily alternate the people who are making decisions and the sort of trade-offs they are willing to make, for the sake of political continuity, there needs to be some basic principles, which can only be changed through an enduring and widespread consensus, to prevent a political whiplash from destabilizing the system.
For the next post, I will explore the first point in more detail; the use and misuse of the party system in a world where common values are elusive.