The Value of Political Concepts
It seems to me that most of our high-level political concepts like “freedom” or “equality” are tailored and tweaked to justify the kind of political regime we already tend to favor. If you are offended by taxation, you’ll settle on a conception of liberty according to which taxation is a violation. If you think a relatively high level of taxation is necessary to give people what you think they ought to get, you’ll settle on a conception of liberty according to which taxation is not a violation, but not giving people what you think they ought to get is. That’s why abstract political philosophy is so often futile. It’s probably more useful to start out arguing over regime types in the first place, since mostly what we do is choose our favorite regime type and then reason backwards to conceptions of liberty, equality, and so forth that justify our pick.
I seldom disagree with him, but I can’t say I’m convinced here.
First, yes, of course we tweak our concepts. That’s what philosophy has always done, at least in the West. That’s not a bug; that’s a job description.
Clear thinkers will be frank hereabouts and explain what they’re doing, why they’re doing it, which defects the untweaked concepts had, and how their adjustments give analytical clarity. Obfuscators will deny that they’re doing anything in particular. This is annoying, but at least it makes recognizing the obfuscators easy. The real question remains either way — after the tweaks, do we find a more coherent and reasonable picture of the world? Or is our account less realistic? Or even a total mess?
That’s a useful question, in part because it leaves open the possibility of falsification, if not always for the proponent of a theory, then at least for the audience. (Proponents — does this scare you? It should!) That philosophy may begin with reflexive affinities or intuitions is irrelevant, as long as this is where it ends. Which is also why philosophy is so often understood as a dialogue.
Brand Blanshard seems appropriate here:
Philosophy is not an attempt to excite or entertain; it is not an airing of one’s prejudices—the philosopher is supposed to have no prejudices; it is not an attempt to tell a story, or paint a picture, or to get anyone to do anything, or to make anyone like this and dislike that. It is, as James said, “a peculiarly stubborn effort to think clearly,” to find out by thinking what is true. Any person who has made this attempt with the seriousness which alone justifies writing about it knows what an austere business it is. He knows that his hopes and fears and likes and dislikes are to be rated philosophically at zero or worse, that they not only make no difference to the truth, but get in the way of his seeing it. Of course he has such feelings; he may well have become a philosopher precisely because he felt so strongly about these issues. But… he knows from inner experience how often and how easily the needle of the compass is deflected away from truth by the presence in its neighbourhood of egotism, impatience, or the desire to score off somebody; and he would feel like a charlatan if he used on others methods he would resist in his own thinking (“On Philosophical Style,” South Bend, IN: St. Augustine’s Press, 2009, p 13-14).
I’m not at all convinced that it improves things to “argue over regime types” without attempting abstract analytical clarity. If we start with regime types, we will start with all the important questions unexamined, their answers presumed or implicit, never to be looked at again. Very often we will find ourselves arguing past one another unless we venture into the forbidden territory.
My suspicion is that the result will look a lot less like political theory and a lot more like political practice—nearly the opposite of Blanshard’s description of philosophy. Seldom do theory and practice so poorly coincide as in politics, but whatever political theory’s faults, it’s definitely the winner.
Here’s an example, drawn also from Will’s post:
Generally, libertarians rely on a tendentiously loaded conception of coercion that simply stipulates that commonsense forms of emotional, psychological, and social coercion aren’t really coercive in the relevant sense. And then they tend to want to tack onto their conception of liberty [sic, though I presume he means “coercion,” as libertarians routinely condemn fraud and do not put it in with “liberty” at all] a notion of fraud that has no obvious connection at all to their narrowly-specified notion coercion.
Let’s leave aside the first bit for a moment, though it is important and should be addressed elsewhere. Is there a connection between coercion and fraud? Are there important reasons to treat them similarly? One might easily deny it, as Will just did.
I suspect, however, that the denial is easier in word than in deed. If Will were robbed of $1,000, or if he were cheated of $1,000, he would feel similarly wronged, and he would probably want at least a roughly similar punishment for the perpetrator in either case.
Is there a way to describe in words the likeness that I intuit here? There is! Physical coercion and fraud both defeat the will without convincing the intellect, as my friend Timothy Sandefur has pointed out. In other words, they are both impediments to reflective self-rule, and any political theory that values reflective self-rule is permitted to find them similar problems. This is why both are properly censured in libertarian political thought as well as in mainstream liberalism. While there remain many salient differences between force and fraud, the likeness is not imaginary or arbitrary, at least not any more so than are concepts like “will” and “intellect.”
We can have that debate too, but we don’t need to do it here.