My last word on political philosophy (hopefully): chase no more

Posted on July 6, 2018

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The fundamental question of politics concerns power: is power an end unto itself?

If it is, politics is fundamentally about managing power. It involves creating and managing social practices that determine who wields power and the extent to which they wield it. In principle, power could be exercised with an eye to true, good or best outcomes, but, so long as power is seen as an end unto itself, gaining, maintaining and exercising power will always trump the true, the good, or the best. Inevitably, this kind of politics is or will become authoritarian because any balance of power will always eventually be upset in favour of someone or some group.

If power is not an end unto itself, politics is fundamentally a form of inquiry. It involves creating social practices that have the best chance of identifying true, good, or best outcomes. It is unlikely that any set of social practices will always identify true, good, or best outcomes, but the shared commitment to social practices that aim for these kinds of outcomes can, nevertheless, justify abiding by outcomes even when we or others disagree with them. This kind of politics relies on both the expertise of the individual and the wisdom of the crowd.

In principle, we could empirically determine which of these two approaches to politics works best for human flourishing. In practice, however, people who think power is an end unto itself are little interested in empirical justification. For them, the experience of power is the most important consideration. It trumps all other considerations, including empirical evidence.

The human propensity to treat power as an end unto itself is, I think, the essential challenge of all politics. The authoritarian urge seems to be primordial, in an infantile sort of way, and can manifest itself in anyone and everyone, wherever they happen to fall on the conventional political spectrum. It also seems highly unlikely that there is any particular set of social practices that will exorcise the authoritarian urge from human existence. Instead, we must constantly work to correct, inhibit and contain it whenever and wherever it might emerge.

We must also accept that people who treat power as an end unto itself are not interested in facts, figures, argument or reason unless these are used to buttress their own power. Accordingly, it is appropriate, I think, to use power to contain or dispose of those who treat power as an end unto itself. However, if we are successful, we must be careful to remember that it does not prove that we are right and they are wrong. It only shows that we are sufficiently powerful to contain or dispose of those who would use power to contain or dispose of us, whatever the merits of our beliefs and values may be. A successful exercise of power proves nothing about the truth, value or merit of anyone’s beliefs. Might does not make right, even if it is our right that it serves.

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At some point in their growth and development, all things being equal, most humans will be able to make effective judgments about most matters that relate to them. No person will always be right but no person will always be wrong either. Furthermore, between right and wrong, there will always be many different judgments a person can reach that, all things being equal, are reasonable even if they are not wholly correct or wholly wrong.

Similarly, when a majority of people who are effective judges independently reach the same conclusion about some state of affairs, all things being equal, the fact of that independently shared judgement is the best evidence we have that the conclusion is correct. We can’t say with absolute certainty that the conclusion is correct but, in most cases and as a general rule, we should tentatively accept that the conclusion is probably correct even if we or others disagree with it. At the same time, we should also accept that we may learn in the future that the conclusion is incorrect. That is simply the nature of inquiry, political or otherwise.

It is the interplay between the effective judgments of individuals and the wisdom of the crowd that drives and shapes any politics conceived as a form of inquiry. The ultimate aim is to develop social practices that make the most of both. Practically-speaking, this means we should expect our social practices to evolve and change over time. We must always be ready to propose and test new ideas, mechanisms, and institutions and we must give up on the idea that any one person or any one group of people can, could have or will ever identify the one and only true form of government for all time. To do otherwise is to simply give up on the hope that our understanding of the world and each other grows and evolves over time.

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Politics does not only happen at the ballet box or when parliament is in session or between the commercials of the nightly news. It happens wherever we live, work and play. It happens whenever we decide together how we are going to live, work, and play. It happens wherever and whenever we answer in word and deed the question: is power an end unto itself?

Our answers shape our lives, our communities, our society.

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It takes only a moment of reflection to realize that we live most of our lives in authoritarian communities, organizations and institutions.

We are born into families that are authoritarian. We are educated in institutions that are authoritarian. We work at jobs that are authoritarian. Our political system is run, administered and governed by authoritarian individuals, groups and institutions. Our economy too.

The habits and practices of politics are like any other. We learn from doing and, if authoritarianism is all we do, then, our politics are also authoritarian, whatever we might think of the ribbons and bows of periodic elections. Elections are also an instrument of authoritarianism.

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I want to tell a noble lie. I want to claim that we need only conceive of politics as a form of inquiry to ensure everything will always work out well for everyone. Unfortunately, inquiry doesn’t work that way. We can make better or worse judgements based on the evidence, but there is nothing in and of itself that can definitively point the way to the best outcomes for all people for all time. There are no guarantees.

We also can’t avoid the use of power and there is always — always — a risk that we will abuse it, even when we use it judiciously and cautiously. Nothing can absolve us of the responsibility of the wrongs we may do even when we intend to do right. There are better and worse ways to avoid the abuse of power, but there is nothing in and of itself that will prevent all people for all time from abusing power. Again, there are no guarantees.

And, perhaps, after all these years, that is all political philosophy I need.

I suspect now that I may have wanted much more than that only because I also wanted there to be some kind of secular magic that would guarantee the best outcomes for all people for all time and that would also absolve me of any responsibility to attend to the unintended consequences of my well-intentioned actions. I suspect I also wanted to avoid the messy and uncertain business of winning friends, influencing people, and fighting enemies. I hoped also, I think, that I might bequeath to the world some magical words that would help solve all problems everywhere. I would then be free to enjoy the beauty of the day safe in the comfort that I had done all that I could to do to make the world a better place without ever breaking an egg, pulling a trigger or currying favour. I see now that I was chasing a chimera, a wild goose, and a dragon all in one.

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I am suddenly reminded that my very first essay in political philosophy was written in grade eleven or, perhaps, grade twelve. It was a short paper that attempted to explain what Marx had meant by the notion that religion is “the opiate of the masses.” I don’t remember if I wrote anything noteworthy, but I do remember struggling to write the paper. I also remember enjoying very much the struggle to write it. I also received a good mark. It’s easy to imagine that the struggle and the reward made me feel important — perhaps, even special. It probably provided a heady rush of meaning, purpose, and distinction at a time of lonely adolescence. Like opiates everywhere, it soothed and it distracted and, like junkies everywhere, I remember that first fix with a mix of fondness, regret, and understanding.

It has been said before and it will be said again: “In my beginning is my end.”