Harmony versus Dichotomy

by Benjamin Studebaker

It is often overlooked how democracy changes the nature of politics from a question of “what is best for society, what leads to harmony?” to a question of “how can my faction or voting block get its way over other factions or voting blocks, how can I best exploit dichotomy?”.  Philosophers and theorists often see politics as a question of how to create the good state, the good society, but this view does not correspond to the larger population’s understanding. As most voters are not philosophers or theorists, the entire political process becomes designed around this alternate, inaccurate understanding. Let us elaborate on the differences between the harmony of the philosopher and the dichotomy of the voter and see how truly dangerous and destructive the latter’s perception is to wider society.

Let us consider, for example, the problem of distributive justice, or the distribution of wealth. For centuries this has been a recurrent theme in the works of philosophers, in which they attempt to balance different perspectives and points of view to reach a conclusion that is to the harmonious benefit of society broadly. Take, for example, John Rawls–Rawls argues that if none of us knew what sort of role we would have in society (whether we would be rich or poor, intelligent or stupid, and so on), we would choose a system in which inequality of wealth is only tolerated to the extent that it benefits the poorest individual. This system is designed to be accommodating to everyone–the particularly capable under Rawls’ system can justify an unequal distribution of wealth if they can show that paying them more will result in greater benefit to the poor. In this sense, one could be both economically right wing and Rawlsian, if one genuinely believed the unequal distribution to be to the benefit of all, including the poor. Rawls would certainly reject making everyone poorer merely to make everyone more equal. This is a system which, if you buy into its premises, desires to construct a society that is to the harmonious mutual benefit of all participants.

There are many other arguments in philosophy about distribution that come from a similar desire–the utilitarians, for instance, want to maximise the efficiency of society as a whole, embracing inequalities where they lead to efficiencies and rejecting them where they lead to deficiencies.

However, there is no utilitarian party or Rawlsian party or Lockean or Kantian, or Benthamite, or any other kind of political party with philosophical beliefs of this kind. In the world of empirical politics, we have parties devoted to protecting and advancing particular interests. Republicans advocate policies that are to the immediate benefit of the wealthier sections of society without even bothering to go after the remainder, because those people do not donate money to the party and are unlikely to vote for it. Romney said that 47% of the public is not going to vote republican, and he is in this sense correct about that–Romney is making no effort to create a society that is to the benefit of that portion of society. At the same time, the democrats exclusively make policies that are to the immediate benefit of the middle classes without bothering to go after the remainder for the very same reason.

What results is not a debate over what is to the harmonious benefit of society as a whole, but an argument over which group or team you should feel you belong in. As a result, the right and left frequently argue over what it means to be “rich”, over whether or not the average person is personally benefiting directly and immediately from spending programmes or not. Indirect benefits are ignored–if the government puts out a stimulus package that gives money to the poor, is any effort made at convincing business that it will benefit from increased sales? Not at all–business is just not the constituency being targeted. To even bring positive impacts on business into the discussion would make it seem to those receiving the benefit as if they did not score a point against the other team and undermine the dichotomy between the poor and the rich, with the middle’s loyalties being fought over. It is inconceivable in democratic politics that one would create a policy that is in the interest of all socio-economic classes. Why should they? In the next election, the “teams” must be defined, there must be a narrative in which one group of people loses and one group of people wins depending on who is elected.

In reality, this dichotomy does not exist. Policies are not good for some people and bad for other people, they are either, on balance, good for society as a whole in the long-term, or they are, on balance, bad for society as a whole in the long-term. If you squelch unions and as a result demand and purchasing power collapse in the long run, business suffers. If you crush management and as a result wages climb too high and your country’s businesses become uncompetitive internationally, jobs will be lost and workers will suffer. Choosing a team is wrong–selecting the right balance is the work of government. No political party is in the balancing business. These calls for bi-partisanship you hear from time to time assume that there is some sort of cooperation inherent to the relationship between the parties in democracies. They are based on a faulty understanding of democracy. The longer democracy persists, the more the dichotomy overruns harmony, the less able we are to conceive of mutually beneficially policies and the more our policies become about soaking the rich or crushing the poor.

This is no defence of centrism or moderates–there may very well be compelling reasons that left wing or right wing policy brings about better long-term social benefits for all, but we certainly are not hearing those arguments. The people making the cases are not logicians, they are not theoreticians, they are propagandists attempting to key into the emotional prejudices of the people in favour of one team or against another. Democracy deafens us to how politics is not about selecting winners or losers, but about developing a means by which we can all maximise our winnings as a group. Each party wishes to push the pendulum one way or the other, but instead of blindly pushing, we should step back, look at situation as a whole, and find the precise place to put the pendulum that has the best impact across the board. Democratically elected leaders will never give us that because the voters who elect them cannot see politics as anything other than a good versus evil, black versus white, narrative. We get precisely what the average voter is capable of processing, and nothing more.

Just another reason to turn from democracy and consider other alternatives, like sophiarchism, that preserve our liberties without condemning us to mediocre government.