A Polemic on Modern Liberal Democratic Politics

It seems fairly obvious that a political system in a society needs to have a way of guaranteeing that the long term interests of the society, including the interests of future generations are taken care of and respected (intergenerational justice.) This seems to simply flow from the recognition that all other things equal we want a society to develop to the fullest of its potential, and to be structured so that future generations are not sacrificed for the present desires of existing generations.  According to some, like Burke, one way of ensuring this is through the presence of an aristocratic land-owning class. This class is tied to their estate and has a long term interest in the well-being and health of their state as they want to pass on a fine legacy to their descendants.

However, nothing like this class exists in modern liberal democracies, so what methods do liberal democracies have to ensure long term interests and intergenerational justice? One method is through trying to create institutions that serve to ensure that these long term interests are safeguarded. However, I will argue that in themselves institutions are not enough to ensure long term interests and intergenerational justice whether in an aristocracy, mixed constitution or a democracy. Instead, a particular kind of culture and public ethic needs to exist that actively condemns sacrificing genuine long term interests to immediate self-interest. As such a culture will help to ensure the long term good of the society is actively maintained.

To serve long term interest and the justice of future generations some modern liberal democratic states have tried to create certain institutions to secure these goods. One such example of this is the US Senate.  In contrast to the House of Representatives in which Representatives have a two year term US Senators have a term of six years. Part of the justification of having these two bodies separate is that the House of Representatives would tend to be more dominated by the needs of political expediency as members of this body have to be extremely concerned with how they vote as their term is so short that they are likely to be punished in an election if they vote against their constituent’s avowed interests. Consequently, members of this legislative body would be more likely to simply vote in a way that got them re-elected rather than in a way that necessary served the long term interest of the community. Contrastingly according to this justification due to the fact that senators have a six year term they are more free to vote according to their best judgment about the interests of the community as their term is long enough that the senator can show their constituents that while their constituents may have initially disagreed with the senator’s actions, his or her actions are actually supportive of their interests, and the long term interest of the state.

While this justification of the US Senate is somewhat plausible, given the current state of US politics it seems that this institutional structure is not enough to secure intergenerational justice and long term interests.  Currently, in the US, at all levels of government including the Senate political expedience seems to dominate over genuine deliberation concerning long term interests. The deliberations within both the lower and upper house have become but theatrical precursors to an election in which senators strut before voters and make sure that their actions translate into electability rather than ensuring long term interests and intergenerational justice.

If the example provided by the US Senate is at all typical then it seems that institutions structured in a particular way are not enough to ensure some semblance of intergenerational justice and the safeguarding of long term interests. Even when these institutions are present we tend to see politics in modern liberal democracies dominated by political game playing that serves to ensure an official is re-elected rather than that long term interests are taken care of.

One element that can ameliorate this problem in modern liberal democracies is a culture and public ethic that condemns political activity that puts immediate self-interest ahead of the pursuit of long term interests and intergenerational justice. The trouble with modern liberal democracies is not just that institutions are not perfectly setup but that as a whole we have come to accept the unabashed pursuit of self-interest within the bounds of law as legitimate. Just as we do not condemn someone for leaving a company at a challenging time for that company because they have received a tempting job offer, so to in politics we do not condemn voters, or politicians for pursuing their immediate self-interest at the expense of long term interests and intergenerational justice. There is a mild distaste for the crass pursuit of self-interest by politicians, but by and large we do not condemn them and view these agents as having violated some important principle. Instead we see it as the norm for politicians to act this way, and while this norm may bother us we are resigned to accept it as natural.

However, if a culture condemns political activity that pursues immediate self-interest at the expense of all other goods and positively affirms the value of defending long term interests and intergenerational justice, then this would help to ensure that long term interests and intergenerational justice were taken care of.  In this kind of culture all will be more likely to recognize the value of the goods of long term societal interests and intergenerational justice, and act from these principles as the culture affirms them, and consequently people would be honoured for ensuring long term interests and intergenerational justice, and dishonoured for sacrificing these goods before the goddess of immediate self-interest. Therefore, a certain kind of culture and public ethic would help to ensure that politics in a liberal democracy serves long term interests and intergenerational justice.

Similarly, this point does not merely apply to liberal democracies, but to other forms of government as well. What ensures that long term interests are served in an aristocracy is not the presence of a landed gentry itself,  but rather the presence of a landed gentry that recognizes that as powerful members of their community they have the responsibility to ensure the long term interests of their state by taking care of their estate and subjects. If an aristocrat in an aristocracy were to act based on crass self-interest they would not ensure long term interest and intergenerational justice as there is no reason inherent in being a member of the landed gentry that determines that one will take care of one’s estate and subject and pass on a fine legacy to one’s descendent and future subjects. What ensures that the landed gentry secure long term interests and intergenerational justice is the culture and public ethic that they act from, not the institution of the landed gentry itself.

However, in putting forward an argument for this kind of political culture that condemns sacrificing long term interests for immediate self-interest we are faced with a huge challenge on three fronts. The first and most obvious challenge is how such a culture comes into being while respecting the independence and freedom of persons. Many historical attempts by states to make a certain kind of culture have been utterly disastrous and cruel such as the Terror in the French Revolution and attempts to assimilate groups like Canadian First Nations. This should make us very cautious about how state policy is used to try to purposefully shape a culture.

The second challenge is that acts that pursue the long term interest and intergenerational justice are not immediately transparent. It is fairly easy for a politician, voter or activist to do something that only furthers their immediate self-interest and yet present it as something that furthers long term interests; in the case of a politician they just need to espouse an argument that shows how their actions will serve long term interests even if this argument is particularly facile or weak. Consequently, it is not always easy to determine when we are dealing with overt acts of immediate self-interest versus at the expense of long term interests and acts that are meant to pursue the overall good of the community including its long term interests and intergenerational justice.

The other challenge is more particular to modern liberal democracy, and that is that these societies carry a heavy mark of consumerism, and consumerism is dominated by the pursuit of immediate self-interest and instant gratification. This raises the question of if the kind of political culture that I am gesturing towards is compatible with our current consumerist economic way of life as there is something quite schizophrenic about rejecting the uncontrolled pursuit of self-interest within the bounds of law within the economic sphere, while rejecting it in the political sphere.  Unfortunately, if it turns out that these two modes of activity are incompatible then we will have to choose between a politics that can help us secure intergenerational justice as well as long term interests and the maintenance of our current economic practises.

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5 thoughts on “A Polemic on Modern Liberal Democratic Politics

  1. “What ensures that the landed gentry secure long term interests and intergenerational justice is the culture and public ethic that they act from, not the institution of the landed gentry itself.”

    This very much reminds me of Downton Abbey. I think this attitude is exemplified in that show, all the way down to the butler even, who seems to be a mirror of Lord Grantham’s part.

    I don’t see the culture of securing future generations to be necessarily in conflict with capitalism. It really does depend on the culture acting as a counterbalance to the greed that capitalism produces. Moderation, harmony, balance, right?

    Think about this: We are naturally inclined to secure a better world for our children. We have at least that much foresight, and that’s not a bad base to start from. Now in the political arena we have a different ballgame, but so long as voters care about the future—and I think many do—then the politicians will have to pander to them. This will consist of many lies, for sure, but they can only lie so much before they get called out. (Or so I hope. This could be the weak link.)

    Now what about the far future? How does that get secured by our current system? Unfortunately, that’s going to be a bit harder. This is when individuals will have to advocate for it and hopefully with proper information and research, these ideas spread to become a part of the culture’s conscience. It all comes back to education, once again. But you’ve heard me pontificate about that already. 🙂

    • Thanks for your insightful comments.

      To be honest one reason why I really like Downton Abbey is because Lord Grantham is a fair representation of an aristocrat. In contemporary film and literature aristocrats are too often presented in the overly noble Tolkienien way, or as just evil money grubbers. But Lord Grantham truly embodies the spirit of noblesse oblige, both in its positive aspects of generosity and care and its more negative aspects of being overly hidebound and elitist. So I am not surprised that my presentation of a properly constituted aristocrat would make you think of Downton Abbey. So, I take your comment as a compliment. 🙂

      Capitalism may not be necessarily at odds with recognizing and acting on long term interests, but I think that our particular consumerist version of capitalism stands in tension with any form of thinking in terms of long term interests that extend past our deaths. This is why I specifically referred to consumerism as opposed to capitalism. The issue with consumerism in particular is that it focuses on immediate self-interest and instant gratification, while other forms of capitalism focus on saving, frugality and passing a legacy on to your children, relative, and fellow citizens. Now I would also add that consumerism and maintaining long term societal interests are not inherently opposed, but there is significant tension between the ethics that they put forth.

      I do agree that most people care, in a sense, about the future and intuitively this would seem to ensure that politicians do not sacrifice long term interests as they would have to appeal to these future driven considerations of the electorate. The trouble however is that short term interests often conflict with long term interests. For example, in Alberta, where I live, it is probably in our long term interest to diversify our economy as we tend to be quite reliant on oil and gas, but it is political suicide to take genuine steps towards diversification because this would likely increase taxes without major immediate benefits. In this case and there are many others like it, it seems to me that while voters and politicians may care about the future, they tend to be driven to act based on short term interests, at the expense of the future. In politics as in our daily lives there is a lot of discounting of the future. I probably should have been clearer in my posts that it seems to me that what typically gets someone re-elected is not acting to secure long term interests, but rather trying to guarantee some short term interest. And this does not suggest that people do not think that the future is important, but that they tend to be driven by short term interests, as these somehow seem more immediate and pressing. In this sense, I think we need to distinguish between people’s avowed belief that something is important and what they will sacrifice other important things for. For many people, the future is something that is recognized as important, but not something that is worth sacrificing much of value for. That said, where the present cost of ensuring long term interests is relatively low voters would have every reason to encourage politicians to act on these interests, but I am hard pressed to think of situations where ensuring a long term interest has little cost for the present.

      You are right that ensuring the interests of a society in the distant future is a lot more difficult than thinking about it one or two generations down the line. And I think you are right that education is the answer here; unless people understand (a) what factors contribute to the long term well-being of a society and (b) are inclined to act on the basis of this knowledge, the distant future of a society is very uncertain.

      • I think we pretty much agree. I think that tension between consumerism and future-preservation may be in harmony for a while, but there’s always the risk that what we’re doing is not enough. It all depends on the values of a culture.

        I tend to think of consumerism as a spiritual problem (not in any religious sense…I just can’t think of the right word for it). There’s nothing wrong with wanting material things, but there is a problem with not valuing these things appropriately. When it happens on a massive scale, how does that affect the future? How long can it be sustained? I really don’t know. The boom-bust cycle suggests we have to learn things the hard way, but can this cycle itself be sustained? Have we just been lucky thus far?

        And your point about the problem of sacrifice is well taken. Yes, sure, people want to secure a good future for their children and even their children’s children, but at what cost? How much are they willing to pay?

      • I too think we agree, and I also see consumerism as a spiritual problem. The term “spiritual” does bring to mind new age people into yoga, paleodieting and the like, but it also gets at the sense in which we are called to something higher and beyond ourselves whether that is conceived in a naturalistic, theological or other sense.

        I think the Aristotleian critique of moneymaking still give a relatively useful frame for thinking about the issue with consumerism. The problem is not that material goods are evil, and that we should live a life of frugal poverty, but that those who fall prey to consumerism fail to see that objects exist for particular purposes and start to see the collection of these objects as the point of life. Buying an iPhone because you want to be able to communicate with people makes sense, but buying an iPhone because it somehow completes you as a person seems like a misguided form of fetishism. So, in other words, I agree with you. The issue with consumerism is that it involves inappropriately valuing things.

      • LOL…spiritual paleodieting. That was good. Yeah, that’s why I don’t like that word. It’s a word I use in a special way, but I realize it’s not the ordinary way. 🙂 Kind of like the word “metaphysics” which I always take in the context of Western philosophy. Then I go to that section of the bookstore and see weird hippie stuff.

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