What Makes Institutions Just or Unjust? 06:04

Brennan gives a sense of the sort of questions examined in the field of political philosophy.

Brennan: So imagine that your neighbor, Vani, is really virtuous.  Let’s call her Virtuous Vani.  And she realizes that too many people are consuming too much sugar so she decides to take the nation’s health problems into her own hands.  Next thing you know, she’s showing up at the local 7-11 with a gun in her hand saying, “You can’t sell Big Gulps anymore, or candy bars.  And if you do, well I’ve got this gun to take care of that.”  And suppose you’ve got another neighbor, Principled Peter, who thinks you’re not giving enough money to charity.  He thinks you should be giving more money to Oxfam.  He hacks into your bank account, takes some of your money out, and gives it to Oxfam on your behalf, and sends you a little email saying, “Good news!  Your duties are done.  I discharged your duties on your behalf.”  And finally suppose that you’ve got another neighbor named Decent Danny who thinks it’s really important that you buy American.  I mean you’ve benefit so much from your neighbors and their work and you want to buy a German car.  Why should you do that?  So when you show up to the dealership, he comes over and says, “You know I’m willing to let you buy this car but only if you first me say another $3,000 which I’ll then redistribute to various people that are being put out of work in Michigan because of your choice to buy German rather than buy American.”  

Now if your neighbors, Danny, Vani, or Peter did this, you probably call the cops.  And the police would in fact show up and would in fact arrest them for doing these things.  But there’s a bit of a puzzle here because the police are also helping other people do exactly the same things that Vani, Danny, and Peter want to do.  So right now, there are people who will go into your bank account and take some of your money and give it to other people that are poor on your behalf.  There are people that think that it’s okay to restrict you from buying things from foreign countries or to tax you for doing so.  And there are people that think it’s okay for them to forbid you from consuming sugar and other things that are bad for you.  The difference though is it’s not your neighbors; it’s the government.  

So why is the government allowed to do that if you’re not?  I’m not allowed to do that.  Your neighbors aren’t allowed to do that.  Why is the government allowed to?  Why is it the police will help with one group and forbid the other group from doing it?  So this is a puzzle.  It’s a puzzle that calls for explanation.  And in political philosophy, the problem here, the terms we use for this is the problem of political legitimacy and political authority.  What allows government to do things that no normal person is permitted to do?  So one of the questions of political philosophy is “Is there an explanation for this?” or maybe not.  Maybe the answer will turn out to be that government shouldn’t be doing this, we should dispense with government altogether, or its rights should be really restricted.  

There are a lot of other questions we quit asking too though.  So one question is we have speed signs and things like that.  Should you obey the law?  When you’re told what to do, do you have to actually obey that rule?  Another question is “Should we have government in the first place?”  Another question is “When we’re talking about government, who counts as the governed?  Who counts as a fellow citizen?”  We’re accustomed to thinking about national borders and thinking like we’re Americans and they’re Canadian, and they’re Mexican but is that right?  Is there any reason to divide the world up into nation states the way that we do? When we’re talking about governments, we can ask questions like “Well should we have democracy or something else, some alternative form of government?  If we do have democracy, what form should it take?”  And also finally, and maybe the most abstract way of putting this is “What makes the institutions that we live under good and just?  What are the standards by which we evaluate institutions as good or just?”  So by institutions, what I mean is the rules of the game that we live under.  

So you don’t realize it but in our common lives, we’re constantly living under rules most of which are kind of unconscious, and we’re not really paying attention to.  We walk around the hallway, we’re not thinking about like consciously thinking about whether we should kill one another or not or take one another’s stuff.  We just unconsciously follow a bunch of moral rules.  And that’s probably a good thing that we’re doing that but the question is “What are the good rules?”  So economists like to use the word institution to refer to the rules of the game that structures social life.  And if you think about it, a lot of the things that we deal with are just a set of rules.  So take the private property like if this is my mug, it’s just a set of rules governing how people can use this and destroy it and modify it.  So what counts as good rules with regard to private property?  If you think about democracy, democracy is just a set of rules.  It’s a set of rules about who gets to make the other rules, it’s a set of rules about who gets to decide certain things; or the institution of marriage is a set of rules about how custody rights will be allocated and how property rights will be allocated among two people, so literally a contract.  

So what makes institutions good or bad?  What political philosophy is trying to do is come up with the ultimate fundamental standards for evaluating institutions as good or bad, just or unjust.  So there are a lot of people who look at political philosophy and say, “This stuff is just high-falutin’ nonsense.  I don’t really care about this.  I’m a pragmatist and I only care about what works.”  But the problem with that is it’s kind of dogmatically saying, “I care about what works.”  Well everybody cares about what works.  The question is what counts as working.  So if you have institutions that help some people and hurt other people, does that count as working?  If you have institutions that are making some people free but less equal, does that count as working?  If you’ve institutions that make people more equal but less free, does that count as working?  These are big, hard moral questions, and just saying you care about what works doesn’t really answer the question for you.  

So what we’re talking about over the next few sessions are some attempts to answer these questions about what counts as working.  But one final bit about this is that at the end of the day, you can’t really evaluate the institutions just with the tools of political philosophy alone.  You’re going to need some other tools, the tools of the social sciences, because it’s not enough to have a set of standards about what counts as better and worse, you need to know how the institutions actually function in the real world before you can set a final stance one way or another.