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The Problem of Pluralism Isn’t Real

Summary:
Democracy, Book/Article Reviews I recently read Linda Zerilli’s  A Democratic Theory of Judgment. The book explores and sort of gestures at a solution to what we might call the Problem of Pluralism. Here’s the problem, in the abstract, in my own words. Many political theorists believe that democratic theory faces a puzzle or paradox. Democracy is supposed to answer to the differing worldviews, opinions, perspectives, and considered judgments of its citizens. But, we’re told, the polity has intractable value and perspective pluralism—citizens have myriad incompatible comprehensive worldviews and value systems. So we face the Puzzle of Pluralism: How can we pass any laws or even offer

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Democracy, Book/Article Reviews

The Problem of Pluralism Isn’t Real

I recently read Linda Zerilli’s  A Democratic Theory of Judgment. The book explores and sort of gestures at a solution to what we might call the Problem of Pluralism. Here’s the problem, in the abstract, in my own words.

Many political theorists believe that democratic theory faces a puzzle or paradox. Democracy is supposed to answer to the differing worldviews, opinions, perspectives, and considered judgments of its citizens. But, we’re told, the polity has intractable value and perspective pluralism—citizens have myriad incompatible comprehensive worldviews and value systems. So we face the Puzzle of Pluralism: How can we pass any laws or even offer judgments about what is just or unjust, without thereby disrespecting our fellow citizens and running roughshod over their different worldviews?

Many political theorists think the idea of “truth” is a threat to democracy. To illustrate, suppose that utilitarianism is the objectively true theory of justice. By hypothesis the government should just do whatever utilitarianism requires. If the public disagrees, too bad—they’re wrong. But this strikes some theorists as undemocratic, as it seems to make citizens’ opinions irrelevant for deciding what to do.

On the other hand, if we dispense with the idea of an objective truth, we fall into skepticism or pernicious relativism. Rational argument is impossible. Debating justice is equivalent to arguing about whether the present king of France is bald or whether pineapple pizza tastes good. Denying truth leaves democrats defenseless against authoritarian critics of democracy—by hypothesis, it’s not true that democracy is better than other forms of government.

Zerilli’s book offers an extremely abstract sketch of a possible solution to this problem. It’s really unclear at the end what her view is and how it’s supposed to solve the problem.

But I don’t think that’s the major problem with the book. Rather, I worry that Zerilli, Rawls, Habermas, Arendt, Okin, and the countless other political philosophers and theorists who write about this problem are dealing with a pseudo-problem.* I worry this book, and those it builds upon, tries to solve a merely theoretical problem created by mistaken theory of democracy, rather than a real problem plaguing actual democracies.[1]  What Achen and Bartels call the “folk theory of democracy” holds that voters’ ideologies, political beliefs, and policy preferences explain their voting behavior and the outcome of elections.[2] The Puzzle of Pluralism presupposes a version of this folk theory, and holds that the diversity of ideology, political belief, and policy preferences is philosophically problematic. But the folk theory is false.

By analogy, consider that in Dungeons & Dragons, there is a monster—the Tarrasque– so powerful that it’s puzzling how any adventuring party could defeat it. A Google search indicates gamers have written hundreds of pages theorizing how to fight it. But while there really are better and worse theories about killing the Tarrasque, it’s merely a theoretical problem, because the Tarrasque doesn’t actually exist.

I worry something like that holds true of this book and others in the genre. Normative political theorists write book after book about how to solve the Problem of Pluralism. But after you read, say, Achen and Bartels’s Democracy for Realists, which provides a comprehensive overview of sixty years of empirical work on voter behavior, you realize they might as well debate how to kill the Tarrasque.[3]

Rawls, Arendt, Habermas, and others believe that citizens have diverse ideologies, incompatible perspectives, distinct values, and differing worldviews. Anyone pushing an agenda has to justify her favored policies to these different points of view.

Now compare this to Democracy for Realists: Empirical research finds the overwhelming majority of citizens in modern democracies lack an ideology or anything like a comprehensive political worldview. Most citizens have hardly any real political opinions—they have few opinions at all, and the few opinions they have are largely ephemeral. They are loyal to this or that party on the basis of identity politics—“people like us vote Democrat”—not because they accept, or even know which, ideas and policies the parties push. They sometimes engage in post-hoc rationalization that “feels like thinking”; that is, they sometimes temporarily convince themselves that they agree with whatever they mistakenly and temporarily believe their party believes. Citizens don’t have much in the way of political values, period, let alone competing or incommensurable values. They have few beliefs about politically salient facts, about recent or distant history, or about what causes what. Democracy is not a bunch of citizens with incompatible judgments about social scientific, historical, and moral matters; it’s more like a system which chooses government by periodically polling overwhelmingly judgment- and perspective-free citizens. Elections are “largely random events”.[4] And this is not some new development—democracy has been like this since political scientists started studying voter behavior.

The Puzzle of Pluralism is at best/worst a puzzle for a tiny subset of the citizenry. The modal, mean, and median voter lacks an “ism”; so there is little value or belief pluralism. We don’t have to worry about forcing our vision of the truth onto their differing worldviews, because they don’t have worldviews.

Democracy is not like a giant amateur political theory conference with interminable debates. It’s a system of agnostic know-nothing, opine-nothing Hobbits and party loyalist Hooligans.

The central problem of democracy is not “How do we justify policy when citizens have an intractable diversity of political beliefs?” It’s more like, “How do we justify policy when there is no ‘will of the people’, and further, the overwhelming majority of individuals lack any significant political beliefs?” If anything, democratic theory faces the problem of perspectival and ideological nihilism, not pluralism.

[1] Cf. Daniel Dennett, “Higher-Order Truths about Chmess,” Topoi 25 (2006) 39-41

[2] Achen, C. and Bartels. L., Democracy for Realist (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2016), 1-10.

[3] Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels, Democracy for Realists (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2016). My own Against Democracy (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2016), contains a less comprehensive summary of the same position.

[4] Achen and Bartels 2016, 2.

*Note that I think Jacob Levy’s work on pluralism is different, because it’s about identity rather than about belief.

The Problem of Pluralism Isn’t Real

Jason Brennan
Jason Brennan (Ph.D., 2007, University of Arizona) is Robert J. and Elizabeth Flanagan Family Chair and Associate Professor of Strategy, Economics, Ethics, and Public Policy at the McDonough School of Business, and by courtesy, Associate Professor of Philosophy, at Georgetown University, and formerly Assistant Professor of Philosophy, Research, at Brown University. He specializes in political philosophy and applied ethics.

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