On Politics and Principles

I’m a great fan of Neil Sinhababu, but I really think he’s terribly wrong in a post he titled “What Philosophy Can Save You From” last week, in which he argues that the way to avoid the various traps people might fall into in politics — such as emotional manipulation from professional experts — is to keep your eyes on the bottom line, which he insists consists of core principles:

What’s of fundamental importance in the world, and what good people are really trying to advance through involvement in public life, doesn’t have a proper name like “Obama”, “Bush”, “Reagan”, or “the Republican Party.” It’s described by more general terms like “the greatest happiness for all” or “helping people” or (according to views I think are wrong) “obeying God” or “property rights” or “the revolution.” If you don’t try to sort out what you care about at this level, the emotions that tie you to politics may attach to politicians and tribes and not the things that are described in well-reasoned principles. And then the things that motivate you won’t be the things of real value. Maybe you’ll do the right thing accidentally — that happens often enough. But you’ll be very easy to lead astray.

I’ve been known to get very excited about particular politicians. But if I’m doing it right, I’ll be able to subordinate my feelings about them to the thing my utilitarian views tell me is most important — the greatest happiness for all.

I’m fully, completely, and totally against this view of politics.

First of all, most of us don’t actually have “well-reasoned principles” to apply to particular cases. Sinhababu is a philosopher, but most of us aren’t — and we’re not ideologues, either. Establishing a hierarchy in which “well-reasoned principles” are the best basis for politics is, in my view, awfully risky if one is concerned about full participation for all, including those unable, untrained, or just uninterested in formulating or adopting such principles.

Second, I’m sympathetic to Arendtian concerns about the mismatch between absolute principles and the intensely particular world of human affairs.

Despite all that, I have no real objection to anyone who chooses to base their own political choices on some sort of first principles. But I also have no objections to those who base political choices on something else, including that most common basis: affiliation with and advocacy for some in-group or groups.* That would include, by the way, political party as the relevant in-group. Of course, our choices of which groups to affiliate with politically is in itself an intensely political decision, whether or not we perceive it that way — we choose whether to be “gun owners” or “Iowans” or “left handed” or “Polish-American” or “conservative” or “urban” or “suburban” or “bowler” or “small business” or “podiatrist” or “Protestant” or “Star Wars fan” or whatever, even when all of those are descriptively true (okay, I made up an odd mix, but you get the idea).

Nor do I have any problem with those who make political choices based on raw emotional impulse. You like Barack Obama because he seems like a nice person to you, and that seems like a good reason to support a politician? Fine; I might caution you about accuracy of impressions filtered through the media and campaigns, but I don’t think there’s anything wrong with it.

Now, could those non-principled bases for political action lead to errors? Sure: it’s politics! You don’t get to know in advance what the “correct” choice is. Sinhababu is worried that emotional attachment to a “tribe or politician” may lead to poor choices, choices that don’t conform to one’s deeper values — but that’s irrelevant for those who don’t have those principles (or whose principles include loyalty to a group), and at any rate it’s, again, a hopeless standard, because there is no way to avoid errors in politics.**

The reason I care about all of this gets back to the very beginning, when I was mentioned the possibility of being “uninterested” in principles. More to the point, I worry about those whose principles are not strongly enough held to entice them into political action, because I do share what I see as Madison’s concern: that it’s one thing to establish a republic in which all citizens are empowered to act equally, and quite another to figure out how to entice them to actually get involved. That’s the crisis of 1787; not just that the mechanics of the Articles were broken, but that republicans had always assumed that only a virtuous people could make a republic work, and as 1776 gives way to 1787 it’s increasingly clear that the people were to be corrupt, not virtuous. In my reading, Madison’s leap is to essentially jettison the assumption of virtue and try to use self-interest to entice people back into public action. That’s why Madison’s Federalist essays are so radical: he’s overturning not only centuries of assumptions about the mechanics of republics, but far more critical assumptions about the citizens of republics. Madison makes self-interest — not well-argued principles — the entryway for political participation precisely because he’s seeing all around him the lure of private happiness, rather than the appeal of public happiness. Now, I think Madison certainly still cared about virtue, but he chose to hope that once people entered politics (usually for self-interested reasons) that they then would enlarge their views and eventually (perhaps, or at least potentially) learn virtue.***

So what worries me is that over two centuries on we still have a residue of contempt for the plurality of things that actually get real-life citizens to enter into public affairs, and that we should fight hard against that residue — because the far more real danger isn’t that people will enter political life and then make poor choices, but that they won’t enter into public affairs at all.

OK, I think I’ll quit there. One of these days I need to talk about the angels in Fed 51, but I’ve written enough for now, and I need something to save for a slow news day!

*Indeed, I’m tempted to define away Sinhababu’s first principles into a group advocacy: he doesn’t really advocate for utilitarian principles, but instead advocates in favor of what-utilitarians-should-support. But that’s probably not only cheating and overly clever, but also wrong, so I wouldn’t really go that far.

**I’m tempted here by two arguments. One is that I’m likely to avoid certain types of errors through group affiliation politics; if my only question is “Is it good for the Jews?”, then I may still be wrong about what’s actually good for the Jews, and I may also accidentally support some monstrous policy because I overlook its implications outside of the Jews, but it’s at least got to be a heck of a lot easier than figuring out whether a policy meets utilitarian (or, say, Randian) principles. The other is that it’s all illusion anyway, since most of us most of the time are unlikely to actually understand our own reasons for choosing a candidate or policy, and quite good at manipulating our own arguments to justify why our choices conform with whatever we think of as our core principles.

***OK, I know, I’m oversimplifying the idea of “virtue” here. Sorry.

[Cross-posted at A plain blog about politics]

Jonathan Bernstein

Jonathan Bernstein is a political scientist who writes about American politics, especially the presidency, Congress, parties, and elections.