A bit of metaphysics should help us understand that our political condition is more hopeful than it seems.
If you are a realist about social entities like governments (as I am), then you believe that there exists a ‘preference function’ capable of being realized in and enacted by governments. Since our form of government is democratic, that preference function is derived from the preference functions of the individual citizens. That social preference function has a real, separately identifiable value; it’s not merely a summary of the individual orderings.
A central question of democratic theory concerns how that public preference function is to be derived. Two theories prevail. On the first model, ‘Legislative Deliberation’, democracy poses the question, “How does justice require us to distribute the goods which government controls?” The answer: by dialogue among fellow citizens (or their representatives) who are all pursuing the same goal, namely to satisfy the requirements of justice.
On the second model, ‘Pluralist Bargaining’, democracy poses the question, “How do we resolve the competition among us for those goods? The answer: by negotiation in which each party tries to gain as much as possible short of undermining the arrangements. If we all take care of ourselves, justice will take care of itself.
Both theories have problems. The first makes us sound like angels (or Kantian Transcendental Egos). But human beings have particularistic, messy ties that can conflict quite badly with impersonal justice – and so much the worse for impersonal justice. Democracy cannot require us to lay down our humanity. It also suggests that there is One True Answer to the distribution question. But then is there some Platonic ‘Cognitive Elite’ who, by their understanding of that answer, may supplant democratic processes to implement it? (So Progressives reason.)
The second accepts the need for disguising preferences, withholding information, even undermining others. Strategies acceptable for bargaining even among enemies should not be acceptable among fellow citizens.
Some more metaphysics will help here. An externalist regarding the contents of mental states maintains that those contents may not be represented internally. Thus I can be intending to buy milk at the store even though my intention incorporates nothing representing ‘milk’: I have a list in my shirt pocket that has the word ‘milk’ on it. Why store it “in the head”?
Likewise, while it is true that each democratic citizen has a preference ordering, they may not have introspective access to it (because it’s not “in the head”). Indeed, each of us may have false beliefs about what our actual preferences are.
How then to derive the social preference function from the individual functions in a democracy? It seems impossible.
No, it’s not.
When we must come to an agreement about the social preference, but are confronted with others with different preferences, an inevitable process of refining our own preferences takes place. Maybe you don’t want a Medicare drug benefit as much as you thought you did, if it means foregoing military modernization that makes the nation safer. Or vice versa.
This process of discernment ordinarily takes place in legislatures: in our federal system in the House of Representatives. That’s why budget bills originate there.
Therefore, it becomes very, very important who constitutes that body if the process of discernment is to be effective.
And that is on you. The election of members of Congress, to say nothing of state assemblies and school boards, is a genuine and significant social act.
But, you respond, the issues are very complicated; you can’t form an opinion worth having on all those issues and live your life too.
Fair enough. That’s why decision heuristics are important. Don’t work out the details of policy. Work out your heuristic rules for deciding generally what policies you should favor.
Decision heuristics have a bad reputation, since they involve cognitive bias. But they are also indispensable. (Suppose you come to a stoplight on a two-lane street. In one lane is an elderly lady in a Lincoln Towncar; in the other lane is a Dude in a muscle car with flame decals. Who do you get behind? Granny may lay rubber through the intersection when the light turns green. But is that the way to bet? What if some issue of importance rests on your choice?)
One of my own decision heuristics for deciding what view to hold on proposed government programs is this: A program that places some good necessary for ordinary life solely or even predominantly in the hands of government undermines the proper relation between the citizen and the state. We would cease to be citizens and become clients or subjects instead.
Each of us will have different decision heuristics. But if we are going to be clear even on our own preference functions, we need to be confronted with other, different ones.
So take time to figure out the races down the ticket. That’s where the real action is. Metaphysics says so.
Department of Philosophy