The Season of Political Irrelevance

It is my considered opinion that the next three months will involve no serious deliberations regarding substantive public policy. Though readership and viewership for such matters will be at its highest, none of the things discussed will be discussed in a way that comports with public reason or with anything like the goal of exchanging reasons and evidence in the search for truth-tracking beliefs. Our best analysts, pundits, and public intellectuals will be busy with horse-race coverage and fact-checking the candidates’ claims. Worse, few of the matters discussed in highly rhetorical fashion, upon which our fellow citizens will be asked to make their determinations, will even be relevant to the public policy matters that ought to concern us most.

Here are the things I suspect we will discuss most:

  • Taxes
  • Jobs and the economy
  • The distribution of income and wealth
  • Globalization and outsourcing

Since none of these are under the control of the presidency, it’s absurd to stage the debates on these matters around the presidential election. And yet we will.

Since this is a highly cynical claim for a democratic political philosopher to make (well, not contentious among professionals) here are the things we ought to be talking about:

  • Climate change
  • Mass incarceration and its causes
  • Immigration
  • Regulatory agency capture by the financial sector
  • The proper size and role of the US military

Notice that all of these policies are administered by agencies under the President’s control. But perhaps even this is undemocratic. Accounts of politics that focus on leaders and the vertical measures of “greatness” are at odds with the pervasive sense of horizontality that ought to guide us in a democracy. Presidents are not the only political actors, nor even the most important: they perch atop the bureaucratic state barely able to steer it, using the reins merely to hold on to their office a bit longer.

Here’s Arendt in Reflections on Violence:

These definitions coincide with the terms which, since Greek antiquity, have been used to define the forms of government as the rule of man over man—of one or the few in monarchy and oligarchy, of the best or the many in aristocracy and democracy, to which today we ought to add the latest and perhaps most formidable form of such dominion, bureaucracy, or the rule by an intricate system of bureaux in which no men, neither one nor the best, neither the few nor the many, can be held responsible, and which could be properly called the rule by Nobody. Indeed, if we identify tyranny as the government that is not held to give account of itself, rule by Nobody is clearly the most tyrannical of all, since there is no one left who could even be asked to answer for what is being done. It is this state of affairs which is among the most potent causes for the current world-wide rebellious unrest.

Still relevant, forty-three years later.

Voice Beyond Recourse and Rights (Workplace Domination Part Four)

I’ve been putting off finishing my series on the Bleeding Hearts/Crooked Timber debates, because Chris Bertram had suggested that there might be a reply to critics. Now he says it might be a while longer, so I’m going to finish up.

In my last post, I suggested that none of the methods proposed by the Crooked Timber bloggers could actually guarantee “voice” instead of merely reciprocal power. Most of their proposed solutions, like workplace regulations, offer only rights and institutional recourse. But “voice” is special, and especially central to our conceptions of positive, active liberty: in the political sphere we contrast the ability to seek redress of rights-infractions in a court of law with the ability to protest and deliberate about what rights we should have and how our society should be organized. Even voting for representatives isn’t enough to guarantee “voice” if the choice offered to citizens forecloses some options they would like to consider, as Kenneth Arrow has proven it must.

Following Jim Bohman and Hannah Arendt, I’d suggest that the ultimate source of “voice” lies in issue selection, the capacity to initiate deliberation rather than simply responding to choices offered by bureaucrats. Neither unions nor regulators can offer this opportunity: as they grow in size and complexity, it becomes more and more difficult for an ordinary worker to offer a unique solution and to have that opinion heard. This is why Arendt called bureaucracy “the rule of No Man,” critically echoing the self-satisfied pronouncements of the Federalists that democracy requires “the rule of laws, and not the rule of men.” Perhaps I cannot be dominated (arbitrarily interfered with) by a law, a rule, or a procedure, but neither can I exercise the important human capacity to engage fully in the constitution of our shared world.

How, then, can we guarantee voice? I have three suggestions: the No Asshole Rule, Workplace Democracy, and Syndicalism.

The No Asshole Rule is a book by Richard Sutton that I often recommend. It’s a great mix of Harvard Business Review cases studies and common sense advice, but the punchline is simple: assholes are bad for business, so identify them, put them on notice, and if they don’t shape up, get rid of them. (This is precisely the kind of soft evaluation that strict union rules make impossible.)

Workplace Democracy: Have you ever thought that your workplace was overly political, too dominated by gossip and loyalties? Well, you were wrong: the truth is, your workplace is not political enough. Workers can and have deliberated and voted on matters as diverse as pay and management, workplace safety, and hiring and firing. Of course, as an introvert I know that this can seem a daunting task: too many meetings, too much social coordination, too many opportunities for status and exclusion games. It’s exhausting, and I can readily see the ways in which the ultimate recourse to group decision-making removes many of the safeguards supplied by constitional provisions that guarantee procedural justice. But if you want voice, this is how to get it. If you don’t like the idea of workplace democracy, then perhaps these objections point to a problem with voice.

Syndicalism: This term has a long and variegated history, but syndicalism basically just means worker ownership of the firm. The real problem with instituting no asshole rules and more democratic procedures in the workplace is that it pits workers against shareholders. Yet there are already corporate forms, like partnerships, where workers participate in decision-making because they are part-owners of the company. If they make good decisions, they receive dividends; if they make bad decisions, they may have to give up some of their salary or even go out of business.

Of course, part of the special history of syndicalism is the forceful expropriation of currently existing physical plant and machinery by the workers. But pacifist syndicalism is also possible, and many community development corporations are organized in basically this way. The real problem for syndicalism is how to allocate savings and manage reinvestment: a successful industry will produce profits in excess of what should be reinvested in the same industry. If those profits are invested in another industry, the workers in the first industry becomes owners of the capital and physical plant used by workers in the second industry. This problem is probably insurmountable: savings equals investment and investment creates inequality. That’s probably okay because investment also produces increased productivity, i.e. a bigger pie to divide less evenly.

One solution is to conclude that it is better to forgo voice in the workplace and simply to advocate for a generous welfare state and a Basic Income Guarantee so that each worker has adequate exit options. This is what Tyler Cowen and Matt Yglesias conclude, and I can’t help thinking that their critics at Crooked Timber were unwilling to recognize that they might have good reason for coming to that conclusion because the critics are so excited to paint libertarians as heartless.

Another solution is to advocate for “property-owning democracy,” fully cognizant that this may create a smaller savings rate and leave future generations worse off, as Rawls did. But if this is your stance, you shouldn’t be satisfied with regulations and unions: you should advocate for a fuller reorganization of the political economy beyond simple workplace antagonism. This the Crooked Timber bloggers have not done.