Category Archives: political philosophy

Political Power Play: The Game of Politics

We often ideally think that democracy is about taking the political equality of all citizens seriously. It’s about giving them an equal voice and vote, encouraging them to participate, allowing their views to be fairly represented, and facilitating an open and respectful dialogue in the search for the best solutions to the collective problems of society.

In reality, democratic politics are not that pretty. “Adversarial” might not be the first word that pops into our minds when we think of democracy in the US, but maybe it should be. The electoral system in the United States is fundamentally adversarial in nature: parties and candidates are encouraged to play to win.

As citizens in a constitutional republic, every American has one equal vote to elect representatives to the government in each electoral cycle. Elections pit candidates against each other in a competition for power. Almost all the offices of government, from Congress to the Presidency, are elected within this adversarial framework which requires them to compete against other candidates in order to gain or hold their jobs. Although most people don’t want to think of electoral politics as a game, a game is precisely what electoral politics looks like, except the prize for winning is a whole lot bigger than a ring or a trophy—it is power.

This is the first of a series of posts in which I will explore different angles of thinking about democratic politics as a game: one that is heavily regulated to help it achieve certain desired ends, and one that demands a degree of “good sportsmanship” from the players, to be sure. The open question at this stage is whether this way of “framing” democratic politics will help us evaluate and analyze both normative and empirical questions about democracy more clearly and effectively.

Why do we have this adversarial system of elections? What non-adversarial alternatives might there be? Is there value, moral or otherwise, inherent in this system; or is it justified entirely by the ends it might promote? Then there are more specific questions of function—if the system really is like a game, what are the rules that govern how it is played or ought to be played? What constitutes fair versus foul play? Who are the referees, what powers ought they be given, and how do we ensure their impartiality? These are just a few questions that I hope to address in later posts.

New blog alert: Bleeding Heart Libertarians

Ethics for Adversaries is a newish kid on the blogging block. In the life-cycle of a typical blog, it’s probably a toddler now; just beginning to find its legs and sometimes capable of walking in the direction it intends, for at least a few steps.

There’s an even newer kid, though. Still wrapped in blankets and being passed back and forth between parents and nurses: Bleeding Heart Libertarians. It is the brainchild of a clutch of unusually large and active brains, who will occupy themselves there with questions of how to formulate and justify an urbane libertarian-like political philosophy. They don’t put it this way, but the name they chose for the blog could be replaced by “How to be a libertarian without being an asshole.” (I had a professor as an undergrad who wrote a book manuscript with the socialist version of that as his working title.)

In the actual words of one of the founding bloggers, Matt Zwolinski, a philosopher at the University of San Diego:

I’ve created this blog as a forum for academic philosophers who are attracted both to libertarianism and to ideals of social or distributive justice.  Labels are often a greater source of confusion than insight in academic discourse, and no doubt most of the contributors to this blog will wish to qualify the sense in which they fit this description.  Some, for instance, will qualify their libertarianism with a label – “left-libertarian,” or perhaps “liberaltarian.” Others might prefer to think of themselves as “classical liberals” or even “market anarchists.”  But libertarianism, as I’ve argued elsewhere, is a broad intellectual tradition bound together more by rough agreement than by meeting a set of necessary and sufficient conditions.   What we have in common on this blog is an appreciati0n for market mechanisms, for voluntary social cooperation, for property rights, and for individual liberty.  But we appreciate those things, in large part, becauseof the way they contribute to important human goods – and especially the way in which they allow some of society’s most vulnerable members to realize those goods.

Not everybody who is concerned about the design of, and ethics within, deliberately adversarial institutions will consider themselves to a member of Matt’s broad coalition. But everyone in that tent should be interested in the challenges raised here at Ethics for Adversaries. So with this shout-out I happily send them what may well be their first ping-back.

Best of luck, fellows (for so far their team is very masculine). Let us know when we should cross-post.

Bipartisan or Bust?

It seems that nearly every time President Obama or Speaker of the House John Bohener makes a speech the magic B word is somewhere in it—bipartisanship. Just yesterday when the Senate passed a stopgap measure to avoid a government shutdown, Obama said, “I’m pleased that Democrats and Republicans in Congress came together and passed a plan.” Throughout his campaign, Obama also crafted an image of bipartisanship. I can’t help but ask the question, do Democrats and Republicans truly want to work together like they claim? If they do, then there actions (like voting to repeal “Obamacare” by the Republicans or walking out of the Wisconsin state legislature by the Democrats) don’t seem to match their words. And if they don’t actually want to be bipartisan, then why do they insist on spending so much time on it?

The American political party system is an example of an adversarial institution. What makes this institution so interesting is that nothing in our Constitution creates a party system, in fact our founding fathers warned against the influence of parties. Now, however, we have a highly regulated system with complex rules and the party system is one of the foremost features of American democracy. There is a common notion, however, that the party system is somehow detrimental to our democracy and that being an “independent” is a matter of pride.

Nancy Rosenblum, a Harvard professor of government, writes in her book On the Side of the Angels: An Appreciation of Parties and Partisanship, that there is a notion in America that anti-partisanship is an ideal to strive for. In an interview with the Dartmouth student newspaper, she said that “Anti-partisanship is as old as politics and as old as the dinosaurs.”

Rosenblum, however maintains that partisanship is exactly one of democracies strongest positive features, and without it the system of American democracy that exists today would look totally different—and worse. “We don’t need independence or post-partisanship, but better partisanship.”

So, maybe instead of always throwing out empty words about bipartisanship and “above the Beltway” rhetoric, our political leaders could do well to reexamine their own party politics.

For Milton Friedman, life is but a game, sweetheart

(Note: This is the inaugural post by “tiaramer.”)

One big open question for those thinking about ethics in deliberately adversarial institutions concerns how literally or directly we can transplant the vocabulary of sports to other domains. Are markets, for example, just games, or just like games, or only metaphorically and very imperfectly like games?

For Nobel-prize-winning economist Milton Friedman, this question doesn’t seem very open at all. He seems to take it as obvious that not only markets, but life in society in general, is very similar in structure to a game.

The day-to-day activities are like the actions of the participants in a game when they are playing it; the framework, like the rules of the game they play. And just as a good game requires acceptance by the players both of the rules and of the umpire to interpret and enforce them, so a good society requires that its members agree on general conditions that will govern relations among them, on some means of arbitrating different interpretations of these conditions, and on some device for enforcing compliance with the generally accepted rules. As in games, so also in society, most of the general conditions are the unintended outcome of custom, accepted unthinkingly. At most, we consider explicitly only minor modifications in them, though the cumulative effect of a series of minor modifications may be a drastic alteration in the character of the game or of the society. In both games and society also, no set of rules can prevail unless most participants most of the time conform to them without external sanctions; unless that is, there is a broad underlying social census. But we cannot rely on custom or on census alone to interpret and enforce the rules; we need an umpire. These then are the basic roles of government in a free society: to provide a means whereby we can modify the rules, to mediate differences among us on the meaning of the rules,  and to enforce compliance with the rules on the part of those few who would otherwise not play the game.” (Milton Friedman, Capitalism and Freedom, 1962, p. 25; emphasis added)

So for Friedman we willingly, and usually unthinkingly, accept many of these “rules of the game” although we may not know their origins. And if we don’t, there is always an “umpire” there to enforce them anyway!

But his thorough-going acceptance of the direct parallel between good games and good societies raises more questions than it answers. Even if markets can be quite game-like, what does it mean for life in general to be compared to a game? Are we talking about the same kind of “goodness” when we think about a “good game” and a “good society”? Does a “good” society really require acceptance of rules by all of the citizens?

And what if you don’t want to “play” any more? Is it even possible to pick up your bat and ball and go home?

 

Love is not a battlefield: it’s a market

And that’s why the New York Times can run a headline (in the Sunday Styles section…), Adam Smith, Marriage Counselor.

It’s a bit of a stretch. But when you come up with a sure-fire title for a book like “Spousonomics” (not to be confused with “home economics,” which was a whole nother thing — or is it?), all that remains is to find a bundle of theory and anecdotes to fill up the space between the covers. I haven’t read the book yet, so please take that as a plug and not a dis.

In the Times article, Jenny Anderson notes, after losing an argument with her husband:

I had just spent two years writing a book about how to have a better marriage. One secret, my co-author and I concluded, was to think like an economist: apply the rational laws of Adam Smith, as well as recent findings about why we do some of the weird things we do — mining the field of behavioral economics — to increase marital happiness.

Adam Smith, of course, is most famous for developing the “invisible hand” argument for how deliberately adversarial institutions like markets can produce benefits for the society that none of the “players” intended. “It’s not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner,” he argued, “but from their regard to their own interest.”

Is that the way we want to think about a successful marriage?! Can “you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours” get you all the way “until death do us part”?

Of course, incentives and mutually advantageous arrangements can help in both cooperative and competitive endeavors. And a family should surely be more about cooperation than competition. It is also worth remembering that Adam Smith never claimed that humans could be moved only by the pursuit of their own self-interest. The ability to sympathize and empathize with others, and to be moved to act on the basis of their needs was, for Smith, equally a part of human nature.

Seven years before he founded modern economics (and post-modern marriage counseling, apparently) with his famous Wealth of Nations, he published his Theory of Moral Sentiments which begins with the following much more Valentines-friendly observation:

How selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortune of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it except the pleasure of seeing it. Of this kind is pity or compassion, the emotion which we feel for the misery of others, when we either see it, or are made to conceive it in a very lively manner. That we often derive sorrow from the sorrow of others, is a matter of fact too obvious to require any instances to prove it….

State of the Union, part 3: the reactions

Over the past two decades, academic political philosophers spent a lot of time thinking and talking about “deliberative (read: cooperative) democracy.” But can there be any doubt that our actual democracy is overwhelmingly adversarial or competitive and not cooperative? Consider this typical analysis of last night’s SOTU by The New Republic‘s Ed Kilgore, under the headline: “Snore or Snare: the State of the Union set a cunning trap for Obama’s enemies.” This piece appears in a section of the on-line magazine called “Politics. The Permanent Campaign.”

The piece operates under the assumption that important political moments must always be partisan. So even when the message itself is explicitly cooperative, as Kilgore thinks it was, it must ultimately be a tactic in the contest. Here are some representative snatches from the piece.

Much of it could easily have been harvested from any number of interchangeable speeches given during the last 20 years—not just by presidents by members of Congress, governors, mayors, and CEOs—from both parties. Yet that may have been exactly the point. By staking his claim to decades of well-worn political detritus, I think Obama has set a cunning political trap for his enemies...

And that’s the beauty of Obama’s address. He basically put together every modest, centrist, reasonable-sounding idea for public investment aimed at job creation and economic growth that anyone has ever uttered…

Paul Ryan’s deficit-maniac response played right into Obama’s trap

Moreover, Obama’s tone—the constant invocation of bipartisanship at a time when Republicans are certain to oppose most of what he’s called for, while going after the progressive programs and policies of the past—should sound familiar as well…

By playing this rope-a-dope, Obama has positioned himself well to push back hard against the conservative agenda. …  Boring it may have been, but as a positioning device for the next two years, Obama’s speech was a masterpiece.

What better proof can we have that Obama’s speech was cunning and adversarial than that it sounded so perfectly non-partisan and cooperative!

The State of the Union, part 1: toward a more perfect competition?

Democracy is a delicate — well, often not so delicate — balancing of competition and cooperation. The competitive aspects of democracy are largely justified as the best available means to good government in the public interest over the long haul. By forcing would-be leaders to compete for the loyalty of the electorate, they are incentivized to at least appear to act and to propose policies that will benefit the public and not just themselves.

But again, the rough-and-tumble of the democratic competition does not guarantee good government. Sometimes winning tactics might undermine the public good. Sometimes cooperation across the partisan divide can be a more effective way to do what is best for the society. Opinion polls routinely find the electorate clamoring for more cooperation and less partisan gamesmanship; but they also reveal that people want both sides to cooperate around the policies already favored by their prefer partisans.

Adversarial ethics in the political realm is in part about when the competitors should set aside their attempt to “win” the next contest and instead cooperate with their opponents to achieve more directly results in the public interest.

I suspect that all State-of-the-Union speeches implore the members from both sides of the aisle to put aside their differences — and their focus on the next election — and to work cooperatively together. And President Obama’s speech tonight was no exception. In fact, it led with this “adversarial ethics” issue.

It’s no secret that those of us here tonight have had our differences over the last two years. The debates have been contentious; we have fought fiercely for our beliefs. And that’s a good thing. That’s what a robust democracy demands. That’s what helps set us apart as a nation.

But there’s a reason the tragedy in Tucson gave us pause. Amid all the noise and passions and rancor of our public debate, Tucson reminded us that no matter who we are or where we come from, each of us is a part of something greater – something more consequential than party or political preference.

We are part of the American family. We believe that in a country where every race and faith and point of view can be found, we are still bound together as one people; that we share common hopes and a common creed; that the dreams of a little girl in Tucson are not so different than those of our own children, and that they all deserve the chance to be fulfilled.

That, too, is what sets us apart as a nation.

Now, by itself, this simple recognition won’t usher in a new era of cooperation. What comes of this moment is up to us. What comes of this moment will be determined not by whether we can sit together tonight, but whether we can work together tomorrow.

I believe we can. I believe we must. That’s what the people who sent us here expect of us. With their votes, they’ve determined that governing will now be a shared responsibility between parties. New laws will only pass with support from Democrats and Republicans. We will move forward together, or not at all – for the challenges we face are bigger than party, and bigger than politics.

At stake right now is not who wins the next election – after all, we just had an election. At stake is whether new jobs and industries take root in this country, or somewhere else. It’s whether the hard work and industry of our people is rewarded. It’s whether we sustain the leadership that has made America not just a place on a map, but a light to the world.

This way of defining the basic war in the breast of any democratic polity — between competition (to benefit the public indirectly) and cooperation (to benefit the public directly) — could be uttered by any President of either stripe. Of course, all it really does is describe the inherent, perennial conflict.

It says nothing of any substance about the solution — unless you consider the globbing of sweet nationalist syrup over this mess to be a solution. Do we really think that it is a shared sense that we are members of a common family that sets Americans apart as a nation? Do we have to believe that we are a beacon of light to the rest of the world in order to set aside our partisan differences and work together? If we can’t set those differences aside to come up with, say, a sane system of healthcare for all members of the American nation, are we really going to do it because we are duty-bound to light that beacon for foreigners who are counting on us to lead the way?!

The absurdity or vacuousness of this appeal to nationalism just shows how acute this tension is between competition and cooperation in 21st-century democratic federal politics in the United States of America. It is a perfectly adversarial union.