Tuesday, 2 August 2011

Walzer's Philosophy and Democracy

Today's reading was Walzer's Philosophy and Democracy (1981). Walzer's piece is interesting, and sometimes heavy on exposition, and covers tensions between philosophy and democracy. Two tensions Walzer highlights are:

1. The will of the people vs what is right: quoting Rosseau's argument that political legitimacy rests on will (consent) and not on reason (rightness)
2. The more rights the judges award to the people as individuals the less free the people are as a decision making body

Point 1 can in a simple form be summed up as 'mob rule'. We are not willing to give limitless decision making power to the people as a whole, because this power can be used to abuse others. Boundaries must be placed to constrain the decision making power of the people, as this is normally done in the form of rights and/or a constitution. Persons are granted rights such as the right to life, such that the people cannot simply will the death of an individual. Which brings us around to point 2; the more rights that are given out, the less decision making power the people have in a democracy.

This may or may not be a problem. If rights are limited to 'foundational rights', those that should take precedence, then this can only be a good thing. The situation becomes problematic when we have rights inflation, or rights are over-applied or over-interpreted.

Returning to point 1, another aspect of the issue is that what the people choose may not be right. There is a clear tension here, and it needs to be carefully considered to see where the boundaries lie. Democracy can loosely be termed rule by the people for the people. The decisions reached should be beneficial for the people, and not parochial. Both parts here are important; decisions and beneficial. The people should influence the law because they are the subject of the law. Autonomy, freedom, liberty... are goods and therefore beneficial. One must have plausible options to be exercising freedom and autonomy. The people then must be allowed to make bad choices, or perhaps at least choices that aren't as good. How to define this is of course fraught with danger, potential totalitarianism and the like. Returning to point 2, the according of rights could be said to constrain certain choices but to act to overall maximise autonomy. As Walzer says "[providing a minimum set of welfare]... would guarantee to each citizen the opportunity to exercise his citizenship, and that is an opportunity he can hardly be said to have, or to have in any meaningful fashion, if he were starving to death or desperately seeking shelter for himself and his family".

Rights constrain certain choices, but maximise choice overall. Democracy-as-autonomy is preserved and enhanced by an appropriate set of rights.

Can we go further? To bound potential choices to better choices? We already do this in part through supporting democratic citizenship (education etc), public discourse, and general progress of knowledge. We, at least in the West, are no longer in a position where burning little old ladies as witches can be seen to be a 'good' choice in the political landscape. Much remains open in the political landscape, and it is the job of political theorists and philosophers to help us move up to the heights and avoid the valleys.

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