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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Economics, Politics and Self-Interest

It is quite commonplace within the political culture of liberal democratic societies to view politics and politicians in an exceedingly negative light. Many people will often speak of how all politicians are “crooks”. Furthermore, we often hear people using the term “politics” to refer to any situation involving illegitimate bias, partisanship or unfairness. For example, when people refer to a workplace as “political,” they tend to mean that people are not rewarded by their merit, but because of other factors including manipulation and deceit. Consequently, it seems that “politics” as a subject occupies a particularly negative place in the popular imagination of liberal democratic society. However, the trouble with this attitude towards politics is that while it rightly condemns the untrammeled pursuit of self-interest within politics, it cannot explain why politics should not operate according to self-interest, when the broader economy largely operates according to this logic.

Within liberal democratic culture it is seen as perfectly legitimate to try to secure the best possible job for yourself as long as you do not violate the rights of others. To a large extent this has become the dominant maxim of public morality within liberal democratic culture. But while letting the relatively uncontrolled pursuit of self-interest dominate within the broader economy may be acceptable, it leads to a deep problem at the level of politics. For example, when politicians are motivated by the need for re-election they will pass legislation that ensures their re-election, rather than legislation that best serves the interests of all. Furthermore, the person who switches his views at a financial institution to get a promotion or to keep his job, is viewed is prudent, but a politician who takes a different position to ensure re-election is viewed negatively. This disconnect between politics and the broader economy show that the morality of the broader economy is inadequate to govern politics in that we think that there is something wrong with a politician putting career self-interest before the common good, whereas it is legitimate for a person working within the broader economy to do this. Consequently, politics seems to require a more robust morality than the mutual pursuit of self-interest. Rather, in order for politics to reach its moral potential it must operate according to some kind of commitment to the common interest to ensure that legislation is passed that actually serves the common interest.

The trouble is that within liberal democratic culture there seems to be very few voices who speak of the importance of being committed to the common interest, rather at one moment we seem to view politics as just another job that should operate according to the same logic as others, but at the same time we seem to hold politicians to a higher standard, but without being able to explain why they should be held to a higher standard. Consequently, we need to recover the distinction between the morality governing the broader economy, and the morality governing politics so that we adequately grasp the differences between these two realms. If we fail to grasp the difference between these two realms then our criticism of politics will seem incoherent, as we will be criticizing politics and politicians for engaging in actions that are perfectly legitimate outside of politics, without being able to explain why politicians should not engage in these actions while they are involved in the practise of politics.