Apr 20, 2018

Challenging Ideal Theory

“Ideal theory” political philosophy, like that of Rawls, glosses over the core problems with social democracy and other forms of statism.

One of the least interesting, least robust approaches to political theory and public policy is that of present-day progressivism, which simply takes it for granted that proposed new laws will (1) be applied as intended (that is, ideally, fairly, equally); (2) perfectly accomplish their intended goals; and (3) yield no unintended or unanticipated consequences. These assumptions, which idealize government and its ability to actualize justice, are related philosophically to ideal institutional theory, associated most notably with the work of John Rawls. Within Rawls’s ideal theoretical framework, people just do act in strict compliance with justice, thus disposing of questions as to whether proposed institutions are likely to be practical or effective given ordinary human frailties. Philosopher Christopher Freiman encapsulates the problem with this approach in his book Unequivocal Justice: “the very reasons why the state is needed are the reasons why the state won’t work.” Freiman continues, “Since the injustice that creates a need for the state threatens the justness of the state itself, our theory cannot coherently assume a just state. But ideal theories of the state, like John Rawls’s, make precisely this assumption.” Ideal theory thus raises a question: Does the state stand outside the realm of human behavior, a machine operating automatically, on its own, or within human behavior, moored to its dynamics, whatever they may be? Freiman’s book is related to and expands upon public choice theory, “which makes behavioral symmetry a foundational assumption.” Behavior symmetry is the idea that we should assume people on the whole will not act differently depending on whether they are acting in the state or civil society, the public or private sector, etc. Holding to this assumption of behavioral symmetry keeps us honest, removing the kinds of shortcuts that are available to us if we don’t have to be realistic about how people act.

Yet we might ask, why be realistic? After all, in philosophy, reflections upon unrealistic hypotheticals can be fun and, furthermore, provide interesting and important insights. Philosophers are famous for talking and arguing about zombies, brains in vats, and bizarre trolley problems that are incredibly unlikely to occur in reality. Such strange mental exercises are designed to test us, to test our ideas and explanations, challenging us to be consistent and to make decisions about the bullets we are willing to bite. The unrealisticness we find in ideal theory, however, is different—it’s a convenient escape hatch that allows us to evade consistency, to avoid having to bite any bullets. If imaginary constructs like philosophical zombies help us isolate and focus on the difficult questions, then ideal theory simply assumes those questions away, content to concern itself with how people should act or might act given the right set of hypothetical conditions. Ideal theory as we find it in thinkers like Rawls works backwards from a set of preferred policies; it carefully explains that if we grant certain assumptions about human behavior and indeed the human mind (which assumptions, we should add, are quite controversial), a certain set of policies and political structures best accomplish justice. For ideal theorists, the state is an almost perfect embodiment of justice, staffed by high-minded altruists, by seemingly faultless model citizens or philosopher-kings (on which more below). In contrast, people acting in civil society and in the market are self-serving, uncaring and uncharitable, focused on maximizing their personal gains rather than the common good. That such pronounced behavioral asymmetry is so quietly taken for granted—almost completely unnoticed and unremarked—is perhaps the single most important fact in the history of political thought.

Libertarians tend to think that this is the wrong way to go about building a theory of politics and justice—that we should factor in how people actually behave (and have behaved in the past). When we give such considerations their due, government begins to appear significantly less benevolent. The real, historical state is conspicuously absent from the work of political theorists like Rawls (and in the Rawlsian tradition generally), incongruent with their ungrounded picture of the state as the servant of justice. Simply, the real historical state is designed not for protection, but for invasion; it is designed not to safeguard justice and the rule of law, but to carry out injustice and protect the unaccountability of those who hold power. Still, even if we assume the good intentions of those who hold political power and make laws today (and we should), government is not capable, as an empirical matter, of serving the ends ideal theorists would have it serve. Because laws are executed and enforced by actual human beings, who have their own incentives, biases, prejudices, and values, they’re never applied ideally or equally. The law is not a spiritual being with its own existence and motivations, animated by platonic ideals of justice; it operates unevenly, through flawed and self-interested people.

Criminal law and procedure provide notable examples of rules applied unequally and discriminatorily. If you are poor or a person of color, you will fare differently — worse — in the American criminal justice system than someone with more money or a white person. For example, “African Americans are incarcerated at more than 5 times the rate of whites.” American government at the local, state, and federal level systematically disregards the rights of certain unfortunate groups; the abuses visited upon these groups, by police and prosecutors, for example, are by now a well-documented national crisis of justice, an obvious extension of America’s history of slavery, segregation, and racism generally.

Further, and apart from any ethical shortcomings or incentive problems, policymakers are not omniscient; they can’t see into the future and often fail to account for the possibility that their favored policies won’t play out as they expect. Price control measures (in the form of either legally-enforced price floors or ceilings) provide an example of unintended consequences. Progressives, socialists, and others who would use coercive state intervention to plan or otherwise manipulate the economy have a confused, indeed upside-down, understanding of prices; they incorrectly see prices as levers that can be tweaked to determine value, rather than as metrics responding to value, showing what people already value. Thus, when politicians ban prices above or below a certain threshold amount, they do not thereby alter reality, actually succeeding in their attempt to change the value of a particular economic good or service. They couldn’t possibly do this, for economic value is something that exists as a result of the subjective opinions of thousands (or millions, or billions) of separate individuals. Prices act as a shorthand means of communicating the sum of these opinions, telling us how best to allocate our energies, time, and resources. If government officials do not allow us to price goods and services how we otherwise would—i.e., in the absence of coercion—the opinions do not simply disappear; they will find other outlets, other ways to express themselves. We find new ways to ration our energies, time, and resources. As economist Antony Davies explains, “Minimum wage creates unemployment amongst those who are less skilled, precisely the people we’re looking to help [by enacting minimum wage laws].” Today, we can see unemployment as an unintended consequence of minimum wage laws, because we know that the supporters of such laws don’t want to cause unemployment. Interestingly, though, the progressives of days gone by wanted to do exactly that, to exclude certain undesirable groups from the American workforce.

Human society is an enormously complex web of relationships and institutions of all kinds — social, governmental, economic, charitable, religious, etc. The density of these variables makes accurate prediction of a given policy’s long-term effects exceptionally difficult. Consider the stock market, a comparatively tiny piece of human activity on which we have an enormous amount of data, gathered every second and giving us a detailed picture of the functioning of the mechanism. Even in this case, experts who dedicate their lives to making accurate predictions regularly make mistakes, unable to anticipate the movements of markets. In his essay “From Freedom to Bondage,” Herbert Spencer explains:

Iron and brass are simpler things than flesh and blood, and dead wood than living nerve; and a machine constructed of the one works in more definite ways than an organism constructed of the other,—especially when the machine is worked by the inorganic forces of steam or water, while the organism is worked by the forces of living nerve-centres. Manifestly, then, the ways in which the machine will work are much more readily calculable than the ways in which the organism will work. Yet in how few cases does the inventor foresee rightly the actions of his new apparatus! Read the patent-list, and it will be found that not more than one device in fifty turns out to be of any service. Plausible as his scheme seemed to the inventor, one or other hitch prevents the intended operation, and brings out a widely different result from that which he wished.

Relationships in the “hard sciences” are deterministic relationships, their causal connections holding in all cases, all the time. Social analysis is conspicuously different. We talk of economic laws, patterns expressing themselves in human action, but such laws—if we can call then such—are not like physical or mathematical laws. And as Spencer observes above, even those apparently definite inorganic forces are not so easily manipulated in human designs. Ideal theorists wave such concerns away. Because the exercise in which they are engaged is one of ideals, the methods and insights of economic thinking are of no use or concern. Incentive structures and empirical reality itself are likewise treated as unimportant, the hypothetical situation simply stipulating that people will act in accordance with justice. And if we pretend such concerns don’t exist, political philosophy becomes easy and straightforward. The hard part is defining institutional arrangements that will work for real people, imperfect and, on the whole, unlikely to be thinking about Rawlsian conceptions of justice when they’re deciding between various courses of action in real life.

We might assume that progressives (or socialists, or social democrats, etc.) would harbor a general mistrust of politicians and political power, rooted in an awareness of the fact that the state has been the most acute historical enemy of society’s marginalized communities and the working class. We might think they would see the broader implications of their earnest philippics condemning greedy corporations and the special interests who hold politicians in their pockets. There’s no reason to think that the state isn’t just another greedy corporate monopoly. As Christopher Freiman notes, “[W]e have a dilemma. If we assume that people act justly, the state isn’t needed in the first place. On the other hand, if we assume that people act unjustly, then we should assume that the state itself will act unjustly, too.” For example, although ideal theorists like John Rawls advocate extensive government redistribution of wealth, this would actually be unnecessary, the assumptions of ideal theory granted. If justice requires redistribution, people would simply be motivated to redistribute voluntarily — that is, without the necessity of state compulsion. If we’re not doing ideal theory, and people do not have a perfect sense of justice, but are instead captive to ordinary human impulses and incentives, then a state with such power over economic activity and the wealth that activity generates becomes extraordinarily dangerous, fraught with moral hazard (for more on this point, see, for instance, Jason Brennan’s Why Not Capitalism?).

In ideal-theoretical analysis, though, the state is ever the savior of the downtrodden, the chosen solution of philosophers devoted to justice. We might forgive them this blind spot. Living in a world shaped, at least to some extent, by the legacy of the Enlightenment, by classical liberal philosophy, in which the inherent goodness of liberal democracy is largely assumed, it is easy to forget that historically the law has more often served injustice than justice. Even more difficult to accept is the admittedly unnerving notion that this truth may still hold today. We were supposed to have reached the end of history. Without any conscious realization of the idea, most people alive today believe that political authority, the state, and the law underwent a process of transmutation, their ethical content and character changed by democracy; they are now institutions of, by, and for the People. Political sovereignty, that ineffable quality, once thought to derive from God himself, would henceforth belong to the People.

Certain psychological factors may also help us account for this rather astounding blind spot. One such factor is what we might call philosopher-king bias, the tendency to imagine that ideal political institutions will naturally be directed and administered by society’s learned and enlightened, the actions of whom will always accord with justice. Rawls and his ilk do not relate to or identify with the low-minded businessperson or the crude values of the marketplace, so they are treated (quite unconsciously, we must grant) in the socio-political calculus as selfish, ignorant, and unsophisticated. While ideal theorists hold these uncharitable, and importantly unrealistic, assumptions about markets and civil society, they suppose that people working in government will be as philosopher-kings, concerned only with justice in the abstract.

In this, there is at least some acceptance, albeit only implied, of the libertarian or public choice critique of ideal theory: ideal theorists, perhaps, admit that the proper functioning of their design would require something close to ideal or perfect human beings—they just imagine that not only do people with a perfect sense of justice exist, but also that they are those people. If this seems uncharitable, it is certainly not meant to be. After all, this hypothesis explicitly rejects the notion (which has become something like a conservative folk tradition) that academics such as Rawls are would-be authoritarians, nefariously plotting against liberty. Even if their system is indeed authoritarian (and I think it is), it is not intended to be. The failure of the system is not in the abstract ideals at which it aims, but in its lack of understanding of how people and their institutions actually work. They may have worthwhile principles in mind, but their instrumental analysis, which makes the state the indefectible emissary of Justice, is deeply out of touch with reality.

Unfortunately, in legitimizing the state as the source of justice, the ideas of ideal theorists play an important role in bolstering existing injustices. David Hume famously remarked upon the fact that while “Force is always on the side of the governed,” i.e. the many, the few are nonetheless able to rule—their power resting ultimately on ideas. Writes Hume, “the governors have nothing to support them but opinion.” Ideas, it turns out, are incredibly powerful, capable of sustaining systems of injustice that should be quite fragile and liable to break. George Orwell’s 1984 also treats this question, its protagonist Winston Smith wondering at the fact that the proles, “85 per cent of the population of Oceania,” could easily generate the force necessary to overthrow the Party, “if only they could somehow become conscious of their own strength.” The people will have freedom when they want it—when they understand what it is and adopt it as a social practice. Until then, the few who already do, the libertarian elect, as it were, will have to watch and wait. In the meantime, though, we should be sure to challenge the easy assumptions of philosophers who make gods of the state and its agents.