Perhaps, when Elijah returns as promised, he will stand outside our stores with a handful of pebbles and pay us to buy nothing. When we object that a pebble is worthless, he might well answer: “I took it from the future, and with it you can buy a little bit of time”. And perhaps a few will believe him; they might even return home and pay a neighbor to not do something for them. Would that be just enough to save us?
From my readings this morning I learned that one should not love people for who they are (for their characteristics), but only in order to be loved in return.
A walled city — be it Jericho, Athens, Rome or Florence — allows those who live in violent lands to pool their defensive efforts by agreeing to labor (or taxes) and laws that will afford the construction of a rampart and then man and maintain it thereafter. This reduces enemy raids on inhabitants’ homes; they do not die as often by the sword, are not sold into slavery, and needn’t watch their houses and possessions burn. They are hence freer, wealthier, and perhaps even happier.
A pollyty is like a walled city, only the marauding it abates is now but financial, and the barbarian at its gate incorporated.
Having recently found Isaiah Berlin’s Freedom and Its Betrayal: Six Enemies of Human Liberty at my local bookstore, i decided to read through some of the essays in search of a healthy contrarian view. The chapter on Rousseau was tendentious and at times frankly ad hominem, but nevertheless worthwhile. (The other indictees in this little book are Helvétius, Fichte, Hegel, Saint-Simon and de Maistre.) Though Berlin objects primarily to the outcome of the philosophy (Hitler and Mussolini! — these are, after all, transcribed radio addresses from the early ’50s), his main contention is with “the mysterious assumption of the coincidence of authority and liberty” which is his gloss on Rousseau’s volonté générale.
Without attempting to defend Mr. Rousseau against Sir Berlin, i would nevertheless like to suggest how the Genevan’s bohemian “paradox” might be calmly explained to a gentleman and a scholar. One might think of this general will, as an instance of Harry Frankfurt’s second-order will. In agreeing to such a social contract, each individual is establishing a second-order will, namely, that e will want what the democratic institutions decide (because it is in es overall or long-term interest). Of course, this defense would be rather weak for large representative democracies as we know them today, but it should be remembered that Rousseau was advocating town-sized direct democracy, so every law was voted upon by every one (well, all eligible voters). Though this does not reduce the Contrat Social to an acceptable form of “negative liberty”, it does explain how one’s liberty might be reconciled with the authority of laws one has freely elected to follow.
Finally, i would like to point out a few modifications one might make to Rousseau’s idea, which would take it yet further towards something Sir Isaiah Berlin might find less objectionable. Two advances in our modern societies have made Rousseau’s general idea more palatable. One is the existence of liberal democracy and its rule of law. A Rousseauvian mini-democracy could easily sit atop this legal framework. This would add two further degrees of freedom: For one, such an association would no longer need to span a defined land area. This would make it much easier for people to leave the association should any of the laws passed not meet with their approval; exit would not require emigration. For another, being freed from maintaining the conditions of negative liberty, the associations could be truly voluntary, making entrance, as well as exit, a matter of individual choice. The second advance is the Internet and mobile computing devices, which add further degrees of simplicity. Associations can now be easily managed, significantly reducing the overhead of direct democracy, since the laws or rules can be automatically implemented by software, and voting requires only that one’s fingers do the traveling.
From Stephen Toulmin’s Cosmopolis i learned that the open-mindedness and liberality of Montaigne and Henri IV’s century was abruptly destroyed by the religious morass of the Thirty Years War and replaced in a panic by Descartes’ stubborn certainty and the Westphalian notion of an absolutely sovereign state. Luckily for us, the first of those modern follies is already ceding ground…
Deliberative Democracy is described as the grandchild of Jürgen Habermas’ theory of communicative action. As such it is an attempt to avoid the problems of liberal democratic electioneering by substituting a principle of reasoned debate that should as much as possible reach a consensus, but which can employ voting when a decision is not forthcoming. Against liberalism, it sees the democratic process as one of changing people’s minds and preferences, not aggregating them.
If only due to their relatively small size, pollyties will naturally tend towards a more deliberative and consensual approach. Even if a pollyty is operated through software applications, and hence relies primarily upon voting for decision making, it can easily emulate a consensual process by instituting rules that apply a proposed change as soon as 60% or 90% of members have voted “yes” and none or very few have voted “no”. Moreover, since pollyties are voluntary and self-selecting (unlike nation states or government districts) they will also perhaps more easily reach consensus.
Democratic Pragmatism is not so much another theory of democracy, according to Cunningham who is drawing primarily on Dewey, but more so an orientation towards the problems that arise within democracies. In particular, it pays attention to the scope, context and differing degrees of existing democratic institutions. This conforms well with the pollyty inasmuch as the pragmatic approach sees democratic possibilities in a wide range of institutions such as guilds, unions, associations, corporations and, of course, governments at all levels. Democracy will also look and behave differently depending on the cultural, social or economic situation in which people find themselves. Like a pollyty, also, such a pragmatic approach is not concerned with understanding perfectly democratic institutions, but merely how to make existing institutions a bit more democratic than they currently are.
This brings me to a tangent. Why are we striving for democratic solutions in the first place? All theories Cunningham has so far brought forth are concerned with justifying the desirability of democratic institutions, and doing so from the perspective of the (lone) individual. I do not believe the best form of government is democratic, though i could not exactly describe a better form of government. However, i would argue that we needn’t settle on a theory of justice or democracy only then to tweak our institutions into such a format. To channel Rawls, the first virtue of social institutions is not justice but malleability. If we can ensure that our institutions are flexible and respond well to their members’ desires, then they will naturally move towards something like justice, liberty and equality — though perhaps nothing that would exactly fit those three ideals. Continue reading