the plan for the future
In this series of segments, we'll consider one family of answers to the question, why should we have a state? This set of answers suggest that the state is either useful or essential for bringing about various good outcomes, in particular for improving the welfare or happiness of those people living under the state. This is a familiar rationale for the state. Consider, for example, the United States' Declaration of Independence, which says:
The preamble to the constitution for South Korea refers to, among other things, the role of the government being to provide for the fullest development of individual capabilities in all fields, including political, economic, social and cultural life by further strengthening the basic free and democratic order conducive to private initiative and public harmony, and to elevate the quality of life for all citizens and contribute to lasting world peace and the common prosperity of mankind and thereby to ensure security, liberty and happiness for ourselves and our posterity forever.
The upcoming segments cover a number of these different rationales, all focusing on happiness or what some people call utility, which is something more general than happiness. We begin by talking about Thomas Hobbes and the arguments of those who maintain that the state is useful for escaping what's called the state of nature, and for avoiding violence, vengeance and for promoting peace amongst people who live near each other. We'll then discuss John Stuart Mill's harm principle and a view on which the state improves human welfare by preventing us from harming each other, largely through the criminal law.
A different conception of how the state can improve welfare or happiness focuses on how the state can help us to help each other, and to build and do things together that we might not be able to build or do on our own. We will consider the capabilities approach to promoting human flourishing that has been developed by Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum, among others, identifying the role that the state can play in helping all of us to access the material and other kinds of resources that we need to develop our capabilities as human beings.
Within each of these segments, we'll think about how they answer the question, why should we have a state? That'll be our primary focus. But we'll also want to think about how these particular answers rule out or compete with the others. So, we'll want to see whether we can embrace all of them or whether we have to choose one of them as our rationale for having the state.
A second question we'll consider throughout is how the possibility of disagreement about what is good or what is valuable or what the state should be involved in doing might undermine some of these answers or complicate some of these answers. What happens if we don't all agree in what makes life go well or what constitutes happiness? In that case, it might be difficult to use one of these rationales as the motivation for having the state in a context where not everyone under that state agrees. Finally, a question that will run throughout this discussion and the others is, why should we have the state do this rather than private associations? Is there something special about government filling these roles or could we have this done by various kinds of private arrangements?
Thomas Hobbes was born in 1588 and died in 1679. He was an English philosopher best known today for his work on political philosophy, although he also had an influence in a wide range of fields, including what's called philosophy of mind, logic, philosophy of language, metaphysics, mathematics, and even physics. He is probably best known for his 1651 book, Leviathan. All of his main works of philosophy were actually written when he was in his early 50s and later, so he was not one of these prodigies who was writing his best work in his teens and 20s.
Little is known about his mother, but his father was a somewhat disreputable local clergyman. Hobbes came from relatively modest means and spent most of his life working as a tutor and in other capacities for members of the wealthy Cavendish family. This gave him time to think, write, and have access to books and other leading scientists and intellectuals, including Galileo, Descartes, and Francis Bacon.
In part due to civil wars going on in England at the time, he spent the years from 1640 to 1651 living in exile in Paris. This political turmoil in the background was important to the views he developed in Leviathan. His social contract theory of the state has served as the foundation for much of Western political philosophy. He is credited by some as being the founder of modern political philosophy and even political science. He was a materialist, embracing the view that human beings were composed of physical matter and that we obey the same physical laws as other matter, or at least the matter that composes us obeys those laws.
He developed the idea of the importance of the consent of the people as a basis for the foundation of the state. For our purposes, we're interested in the answer he gave to the question, why should we have a state? To answer that question, he asks us to imagine what things would be like without any government at all, what things would be like if we lived in what he calls a state of nature. Some might imagine a state of nature to be a kind of paradise, but that was not Hobbes's view.
As he put it, there would be no place for industry because the fruit thereof is uncertain. And consequently, no culture of the earth, no navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by sea, no commodious building, no instruments of moving and removing such things as require much force, no knowledge of the face of the Earth, no account of time, no arts, no letters, and which is worst of all, continual fear and danger of violent death.
Premise one is that by nature, each of us is roughly equal in the faculties of body and mind. None of us can consistently dominate the others through force or wit. Premise two is that in each of our natures, there are several desires: (A) desires for things, (B) desires for safety and (C) desires for social standing. Premise three is that if there are conditions of natural equality, and human beings posses the above desires, and there is no external checking force, then there will be a state of war where "where every man is enemy to every man." Premise four is that a state of nature is a condition in which there is no external checking force, such as common power.
Philosophers spend a lot of time thinking about how to reconstruct arguments and about whether those arguments have certain properties, whether they're valid or whether they're sound. A valid argument is one in which if the premises are true, then the conclusion must be true. The truth of the premises logically entails the truth of the conclusion, but we don't say anything yet when we talk about validity as to whether the premises are actually true or not. It is just supposing, if they were true, then the conclusion would follow. A sound argument is one that is valid and which has premises which are in fact true.
Returning to the argument at hand, we might ask several questions about the various premises that we've set out, including whether Hobbes has an unduly pessimistic view of human nature, which would go to whether premises two and three are true. And whether the state as an external force is really necessary to move us out of the state of nature. So, in the next segment, we will turn to consider those questions and other questions about the state of nature argument.
Thomas Hobbes' argument is that in the absence of some external force such as a state to hold our natures in check, there'll be a natural state of war where every man is a enemy to every man. In that situation, Hobbes argues, life would be solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short. In Hobbes' argument, one premise was that we're roughly equal in terms of our strength and wit and other abilities.
Hobbes thought about this and says a few things about it. First, he suggests that in the state of nature, moral rules don't apply or alternatively, that there are no moral rules. Somehow, morality isn't present and there are no rules of justice. And then second, he suggests that moral rules by themselves would be insufficient to keep us in check. Regarding the first point, Hobbes says several different things, all of which we might put under the heading of, if there's no law and if there's no state, then all is permitted.
Hobbes suggests that the state of nature would be a terrible war of all against all. Hobbes suggests that we do need an external checking force, some sort of state or common power, to protect us against this war of all against all. All of this motivates the argument for what Hobbes calls the sovereign.
Much has been said about what it is to submit one's will to the judgement of a sovereign and whether that's a good idea, whether or not that would undermine our autonomy. Premise E1 is plausible if it is because of these foregoing arguments about the state of nature and the war of all against all. One could run the argument in a more or less moralised fashion. You could say it's rational in these premises or you could say it's morally obligatory. What about premise E2? One thing Hobbes thinks is that the sovereign's power should be absolute.
Many of us think that the state has some power but it can't just do whatever it wants, but for Hobbes, the sovereign was supposed to have absolute power. The reason for this absolute power was that if there's second guessing about the common power does or can do, this will lead to instability and eventually lead us back into the state of war of all against all. His worry was that if the sovereign had to be limited in various ways, there'd be questions about the details of those limits, and we'd fight about them, eventually leading us all the way back into the state of nature, the war of all against all.
But that does not need to be the case and many people have tried to come up with ways of limiting the role of government, but doing it in a principled way that doesn't lead to chaos. Many after Hobbes have embraced a similar line of thought, thinking about how it would be rational for each of us to consent to the political system, to the state or that it would be rational for us to enter into a social contract with each other so as to prevent a war of all against all, or to agree to work together and to lay down our weapons and not fight with each other.
These are all ideas that have been taken up, many of which not accompanied by this absolute sovereign. Hobbes is offering one rationale for the state that's been very popular, that it will help us to escape the state of nature and in particular, help us to live peaceful and productively with each other. Many later views can be seen as expansions or elaborations of this basic idea, with some of the differences stemming from different views about what it is to be bad about being in a state of nature. Some people think it's the violence, some think it's because we can't work together under those conditions.
This argument might support a kind of minimal state, where there might be police officers and criminal law and things that would protect us from harming each other. It might not immediately support something as robust as a state that would be concerned with providing for everybody's needs, or social welfare more generally, or regulation of drinking water.
These two views are related, although they are argued for in different ways. One thing that both have in common is they set out a rather limited role for this state. The state is needed to prevent us from fighting, harming and doing violence against each other. Views of this sort could be offered as the sole justification for this state. Views of this sort might also be offered in tandem with other views.
A different view is that the state creates the conditions for peace but also takes steps to improve economic life and efficiency of exchange through state-enforced contract and property law. The state might take steps to improve incentives toward innovation through patent and copyright law. The state might take steps to ensure that all have enough and are educated so that they can be happy and productive members of society by having compelled taxation and redistribution.
Both of these views, the Nozick view and the Rand view, have a clear affinity with both the Hobbesian argument concerning self-defence and the state of nature, escaping the state of nature. But these views differ in the details of the arguments. Both Nozick and Rand endorse what might be described as a libertarian view because they ground their view of the appropriateness of the minimal state on the significance of individual moral rights.
It's worth noting how these views interact with some of the discussions about the state's role in promoting happiness or utility. Another kind of view suggests that we should have a minimal state because it turns out the state isn't good at doing more. It's inefficient, wasteful or unwieldy. There are questions we can ask, about what exactly is meant by minimal here. What should be included in the state and why? On the other side of the spectrum are those who think the state can and should be doing more than just preventing us from doing violence or harm to each other.
John Stuart Mill was born in 1806 and lived until 1873. He was a British philosopher, economist, and civil servant, and is seen by some as the most influential English-speaking philosopher of the 19th century. His views have roots in the works of John Locke, David Hume and Jeremy Bentham, but he developed original and brilliantly written defences of liberal political views regarding moralities, speech, society, and culture. His work was and remains widely read.
Mill's book, System of Logic, published in 1843, established his name as a philosopher. This work revitalised the study of logic and was very influential as an account of the philosophy of science. In 1851, he published the excellent and probably underappreciated Considerations on Representative Government. His three best known works are On Liberty, published in 1859, Utilitarianism, published in 1861, and The Subjection of Women, published in 1869.
Suppose, however, for the sake of argument, that the mere will to separate were in this case, or in any case, a sufficient ground for separation, I beg to be informed whose will? The will of any knot of men, who, by fair means or foul, by usurpation, terrorism, or fraud, have got the reins of government into their hands?
They are a part of the population. However natural in the country itself, meaning in the United States, it is rather cool in English writers who talk so glibly of the 10 millions of white southerners to pass over the very existence of 4 millions of enslaved people who must abhor the idea of separation. Remember, we consider them to be human beings, entitled to human rights.
So this was Mill talking about the argument that people living in the south should be free to decide to break off from the United States if that was what they wanted. At that time people talking about this weren't thinking of what the slaves wanted. Mill highlighted this in this passage in this essay. Here, Mill makes what most of us would take to be an obviously correct point, but one that was certainly not universally endorsed at the time in which he was writing. In these ways, Mill was something of a progressive.
Among many reasons why the same rules cannot be applicable to situations so different, the two following are among the most important. In the first place, the rules of ordinary international morality imply reciprocity. But barbarians will not reciprocate. They cannot be depended on for observing any rules. Their minds are not capable of so great an effort, nor their will sufficiently under the influence of distant motives.
There is much that could be said about this passage from Mill and Mill's discussion here for a few reasons. First, it's worth noticing the sexist and racist views that some great thinkers and even enlightened and ahead-of-their-times thinkers have had, in part to show that they too are human and flawed, in part to show that even very thoughtful, smart people can have some very small-minded or flawed views. There's no doubt that Mill was brilliant and innovative and had progressive views about women's right and women's suffrage, among other things, but he still had surprisingly poorly thought out and retrograde views about other things such as the colonial power and the colonial relationship.
That principle is, the sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively, in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number, is self-protection. That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilised community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant. This principle has been very influential in thinking about the proper role of the state and the boundaries on what the state can permissibly do. But it's, in many ways, in stark opposition to his much more paternalistic attitude toward people living in what were then British colonies.
Necessary conditions are commonly expressed this way, B only if A. This means that A is a necessary condition for B. For example, a person can be the Pope only if he is Catholic. A state can permissibly exercise its power against some person Jane only if it does so to prevent harm to others. Necessary conditions do not imply the opposite. For example, the fact that you are Catholic does not mean you are the Pope. It doesn't go that direction.
Sometimes, one condition can be both necessary and sufficient. So, in some cases, scoring the most points in a game is both a necessary condition for winning the game and a sufficient condition for winning the game. Much of what philosophers do is think about concepts such as freedom, justice, equality, happiness and ask, what conditions are necessary for freedom? What conditions are sufficient for freedom?
In particular, the state can't interfere with Jane's liberty to prevent her from harming herself. That's a core part of the harm principle. The harm principle is supposed to rule out a certain kind of paternalism where the state makes decisions about what would be harmful to you and then prevents you from doing that thing.
It also makes it seem that the state can't interfere with Jane's liberty to force her to help or provide benefits to others. This would seem to rule out many things that the state might otherwise do to improve the lives of people if doing those things would require, for example, taxing Jane even if she didn't want to pay the taxes, or using or taking her property. Of course, whether these last things, paying taxes, interfering with property, actually interfere with Jane's liberty depends on how we understand property and taxation, and the way in which interfering with those constitutes interfering with us.
In chapter five of On Liberty, he says that the state should make education compulsory, which might seem to at least violate the liberty of parents. Perhaps children have different kinds of liberty considerations, so being forced to go to school doesn't violate their liberty, but the parents who are forced to send their children to school might seem to be violating their liberty. Perhaps the parents would be doing harm to their children if they didn't send them to school, but that needn't be the case. Maybe the parents are doing a great job educating their children at home so that it's hard to make out the case that the children are being harmed and so the state has to intervene.
So, Mill himself does not seem to endorse the strictest possible version of the harm principle as a necessary condition on state action. One might try to suggest that he does. But all of these cases seem like cases in which liberty is restricted not to prevent harm to others, but rather to provide benefits, or if not benefits exactly, to help people, not to prevent them from being harmed.
Let's return to the conditions that Mill identifies in the mentioned On Liberty passage. Among the conditions that must obtain are that I engage in A, some conduct. B, my conduct must affect others. C, my conduct must affect others directly, not just indirectly, because of its effects on me. So if I do something to myself that harms me, it might have effects on you because you care about me. Mill wants to rule out that kind of thing. D, the others affected by my conduct must not have robustly consented to the conduct. And E, at least some of the effect on others must be harmful.
On this picture we would first ask 1, does state intervention satisfy all of the above conditions, and 2, if it does, then should we intervene if doing so will promote the general will, or at least, would there be a case for intervention? The state could intervene, but whether it should or not, whether it should actually intervene, depends on whether doing so would be in the general welfare.
It seems odd to imagine state intervention in this case that would somehow force them to have children or force A to change her mind about what to do. The strong version of the principle would say you could intervene because the conditions are satisfied, the A through E. But we don't want to say that the state would be justified in intervening.
Then we could ask, what does the weak version of this principle say about this case? Would this case in particular pass the sort of weak version where you look at utility calculation of the state intervening? And there, it seems like it might not. In particular, we might be worried about the state intervening in personal affairs in this way, particularly in these kinds of personal choices about whether to reproduce, whether to have children. We might not want the state to be involved in those decisions. For all kinds of reasons, looking at the general welfare might make many of us really unhappy for the state to get involved.
He writes that each is the proper guardian of his own health, whether bodily, or mental and spiritual. Mankind are greater gainers by suffering each other to live as seems good to themselves, than by compelling each to live as seems good to the rest.
Related to this, it's very hard to do successful paternalistic intervention. Mill writes, the strongest off all the arguments against the interference of the public with purely personal conduct is that, when it does interfere, the odds are that it interferes wrongly, and in the wrong place. This is another kind of worry about having the state involved in certain kinds of personal affairs.
Mill writes, neither one person, nor any number of persons, is warranted in saying to another human creature of ripe years, that he shall not do with his life for his own benefit what he chooses to do with it. He is the person most interested in his own well-being, the interest which any other person, except in cases of strong personal attachment, can have in it, is trifling compared with that which he himself has. This quotation does not square with his remarks about colonial relationships.
You could benefit me, for example, by transferring all of your money to my bank account, but it doesn't follow that your failure to do so harms me. Why not? Presumably, because we assess harm counterfactually. If x harms me, it makes me significantly worse, or at least somewhat worse off, than I would have been otherwise. This makes clear that harms are assessed relative to some baseline. There's this otherwise question. And it's a hard question of how to set the baseline.
In this second version of the harm principle, many more things will be tolerated because there might be many things that you do where you are not directly harming people, but preventing you from doing those things would prevent harm to others. Assume that A is the fastest person in the world. A is in competition with all others. And every time A runs, A wins the race, and this makes everybody else sad. A is not harming anybody but it might be true that if he is barred from running in these races, all other people would be better off.
Relative to some baseline, it would be preventing harm to the others. That's controversial because is it really preventing harm to them? There will be lots of cases like this where much of the debate turns on whether there's an entitlement or a right to something, and so that establishes a certain kind of baseline. When people don't get what they're entitled to, they're harmed, as opposed to a different kind of picture where there's no entitlement or right. Those entitlements could be good for those that have them. That changes for many people the argument that the state can play a role enforcing other people to make them have these good things.
In the background is the idea that much of what the state does will have the effect of restricting individual liberty. Obviously, if the state enacts a law against some conduct and will imprison or otherwise punish those who break this law, that restricts individual liberty and that's a kind of easy case.
But there are harder questions about whether my liberty is restricted if the government taxes some of my income. Or whether the government limits my property rights, limiting what I can do with my property, or how or whether I can pass on my property after I die. These are restrictions on me, but are they restrictions on my liberty?
These are hard questions and we'll consider them more fully in the section on the state's role in promoting or undermining freedom. If we interpret the harm principle as a necessary condition on permissible state action, then the state can intervene permissibly against an individual only if it does so to prevent harm to others beside that individual. This would dramatically limit what the state can do, assuming we think of harm in something like the ordinary way.
We begin by considering arguments developed both by philosophers and, in large part, by economists, political scientists and legal academics. First, we'll consider the possible role for the state in helping to solve collective action problems and to provide public goods.
We conclude our discussion on happiness and welfare with answers to the question, why should we have a state? One of the arguments running throughout this discussion is the extent to which the state is good at promoting happiness or welfare, and to the extent the state can play a role, what its role should be.
Human beings are social creatures. We like to interact with each other, even if we don't always get along or agree. We can do more together than any one of us can do on his or her own. Indeed, there are some projects that would be unimaginable as individual undertakings. For example, think of the development of modern medicine and a health system, or the creation of a national train network or sewer systems, firefighting departments, public education systems, creating a system of higher education, the production and support of the arts, music, theatre, film, dance, and providing for the public defence.
These are all familiar enough experiences if we want to spend any time working with others or trying to work with others in a group. Political economists and other academics working in the 20th century have done much to formalise and analyse this kind of problem under many different headings including, collective action problems, public choice theory, rational choice theory, and game theory, but these are, in a way, old concerns.
In this example, no individual is strong enough to subdue a deer by himself. It takes only one hunter to catch a hare. That's part of the example. It's also suggested that everyone prefers stag to hare, and hare do nothing at all, which is what the stag party will end if too many members run off chasing hares. So, why wouldn't everyone just work together to hunt the deer? One reason is that people might be uncertain that others will continue to work with them. If some of their group leave, this may undermine the stag hunting effort leaving those remaining with nothing.
There are many other examples similar to these, some of which have the structure of what is called a prisoner's dilemma. There are other examples. It might be better for none of us to build or have a nuclear bomb if it has not already been built. It's much worse if your country builds or has a nuclear bomb and mine does not. So we can end up in a situation in which both countries work hard to develop nuclear bombs, even if it would be better for the world and for each of us if neither country did.
Another kind of problem is posed by the possibility of free riding. Collective action occurs when people work together to achieve some common objective. However, individuals often fail to work together to achieve some group goal.
With prisoner's dilemma and free riding situations, one natural response is to have some third party impose or enforce certain group decisions. This is a natural role for the state. One aspect of the collective action problem is that posed by public goods in particular.
The problem posed for public goods by the free rider problem is that there are many things that will be under supplied, under funded, unfairly funded or that won't exist at all, although they are of significant value. The free rider problem occurs, or at least might occur, wherever there's a good that is non-excludable. Non-excludability leads to the free rider problem, because a person can enjoy the benefits of the good without having to pay for it, as long as the good is provided at all.
A possible response to this is to attempt to convince would-be free riders. But if they do not contribute, they will not receive the good, not because they'll be excluded but because the good will not be provided at all unless everyone does their part. This won't always be possible or it may be very difficult to convince people of this.
One thing to notice is that some of these collective action problems, and particular the free-rider problems, become more pronounced as the size of the group increases. It's certainly harder to organise a large group other things being equal. On the other hand, the larger the group, the less important any individual contribution may be to the success of the collective project. So, if there are a million people all paying taxes to fund basic science research, for example, tax evasion on the part of one of them is unlikely to make much difference.
Each individual may feel that the detection of their known contribution is going to be less likely if there is million people, and that it's less bad not to contribute since there are so many others. So unlike in a small group with four or five people where they can all tell that someone is not doing his or her part, and if does not do his or her part, it's quite likely going to fail. As the group gets larger both of those things are altered.
One difficulty with this kind of response, however, is that in order for positive selective incentives to work, individuals who take part in collective action must be identified so that they can be rewarded. And for negative selective incentives, those who do not take part, those who do not contribute must be identified so that they can be punished or disincentived. Either way, a good deal of organisation and monitoring is going to be required.
The second category are solidarity incentives, benefits or costs of participating or not, that arrive from relationships with other people, either gaining respect in the community and gaining honour or losing respect, losing honour, losing friends. This highlights the way in which we can get communal pleasure from doing things and from being a part of the team, being a part of the group and that we might lose out on that, if we are not actually contributing.
Finally, there are moral or internal incentives. These are ethical norms that might be embraced, so that one does the right thing, because one thinks that one ought to, or because one seeks out the feeling of having done the right thing. We want to feel like we're contributing, and we feel like we have a moral obligation to do that. Some of these incentives will be more or less effective depending on the particular context.
For example, groups that are more sociable and having greater networking subgroup organisations, are better at overcoming collective action problems than groups without those qualities. If people are relatively isolated, don't know each other, it's much harder to solve these kinds of collective action problems. Here we can see one promising role for the state, helping to provide selective incentive to support various collective action projects, and to enforce individual action so as to overcome prisoner's dilemma and free riding obstacles.
In this way, if we decide as a group that we want to engage or not in some project, we can use the power of the state through both positive and negative incentives to make sure that each of us act so as to do our agreed upon part with respect to that project, or to refrain from engaging in that activity, as the case may be.
We can make free riding or collective project undermining conduct illegal. We can encourage some behavior by providing incentives or benefits for those who engage in it, or we can decide to provide some public good, and the collect taxes, so as to make sure everyone contributes their fair share. This is a very significant role for the state to contributing to happiness in the general welfare. Particularly in the eyes of modern political economists and political scientists. This one of the main things they think the state might play a role in doing for us.
To make good policy with respect to these issues, one would probably need to know a lot more than the average person knows about those issues. One role that has been suggested for the state, or at least certain kinds of states, is to help improve the epistemic quality of the decisions that are made, which means making more informed decisions than any one of us could do.
There's a whole branch of philosophy called epistemology that focuses on theories of knowledge, theories of justified belief. In particular there's a branch called social epistemology that focuses on ways in which our practises in social communities and political institutions can help improve the accuracy or the truth of the judgements that we reach together. All of this falls under the category of epistemic virtues of the state. In this segment two different kinds of epistemic arguments are mentioned. Both apply only to some states, and states operating with some kinds of political institutions in particular. It's not a general argument.
There are many reasons to think that systems of electoral representation are likely to make epistemically good decisions, at least when those decisions are compared to those that be made by direct democracy, where each person in the community has a vote directly on each policy question, or whether to pass some legislation or not. Rather than have a representative do this for us, we each would be responsible for voting on everything.
The theory behind systems of representation, in part, is that representatives are going to be solely devoted to the task of making law and policy. This is a division of labour argument. They'll have time to research, consult experts, consult their constituents, deliberate and then debate. In many places they have considerable staffs helping them do all of this so they can come to have a more informed opinion about what needs to be done, about which problems are most urgent.
Furthermore, representatives have to face re-election, and so they want to do things that actually will make things better for their constituents. Representatives in a position to make decisions holistically, weighing tradeoffs, making compromises when necessary, balancing competing interests, and having a sense of relative priority and budget limitations. Unlike us, where we might just see one issue and not know what's coming next, they can look at the whole package and make an informed decision about what to focus on. At least that's the theory.
On the other hand, we might use something that is referred to at least, in the United States context as administrative administrative agency lawmaking. These agencies are devoted to carrying out in great detail what a legislature or executive has set as the policy agenda. In the United States, for example, there are agencies devoted to almost every aspect of our lives, such as NASA, the Food and Drug Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency. There are agencies that operate at the federal, state, and local level.
These administrative agencies are seen as somewhat technocratic bodies in some cases. They can improve the general welfare or the happiness of all of us by helping make informed decisions on our behalf. Some object to institutions of this sort on the grounds that they might intervene excessively in people's lives or that they can serve as kind of a paternalistic overlord.
There are many different arguments offered in this vein but they centre around three dominant issues. First, the value of public and transparent deliberation and explicit public reasoning. Second, the value of cognitive diversity and inclusivity, particularly including all informationally-relevant vantage points and perspectives. And third, the value of wisdom-pooling and mechanisms that allow for the aggregation of disparately held information.
The suggestion is that democratic norms will yield significant epistemic benefits. Democracy is inclusive, and in some cases it promotes reasoning and deliberation. Democracy allows for information aggregation. In some respects, all this harkens back to very old ideas going back to Aristotle and his politics. Aristotle lived in Ancient Greece from 384 to 322 BCE and is widely regarded as one of the greatest philosophers ever.
For each individual among the many has a share of virtue and prudence, and when they meet together, they become in a manner one man,. Who has many feet and hands and senses. That is a figure of their mind and disposition. Hence, the many are better judges than a single man, of music and poetry; for some, understand one part, and some another, and among them, they understand the whole.
This feast analogy has been used to support democracy on the grounds that, although each of us may be limited in what we know, together we bring a lot to the table. A natural worry is that whether it might make more sense to have experts make the decisions, at least if we are concerned with getting decisions made in light of the best information available. Aristotle himself considers this worry.
Those who know geometry, for example, will choose geometrician rightly, and those who know how to steer, a pilot. And even if there be some occupations and arts in which private persons share in the ability to choose, they certainly cannon choose better than those who know. So that, according to this argument, neither the election of magistrates, nor the calling of them to account should be entrusted to the many.
This suggestion may be a way of blocking this worry about well maybe experts will do better. Perhaps the many, the people are the best judge of the results of the art of politics. In the next segment we will consider some modern developments of these ideas, and modern arguments with with respect of the sort of epistemic virtues of democracy.
The first strand she focuses on, is the epistemic value of deliberation, or reasoning together to figure something out. Part of the thought here might be related to the Aristotelian feast idea, that we all bring something to the table. If that’s true, then we need some way for each of us to able to offer our input to the group and for each of us to be heard. So in particular, affirmative steps may need to be taken to make this possible and there are questions about how it could be possible in a large group.
It's an open question, the extent to which Hong and Paige's work in these models will actually work in real world conditions or will apply to real world conditions, but there's at least reason to think that an inclusive political system, like a democratic state, will do better in terms of cognitive diversity than a authoritarian system, where there's just one person, or a technocratic system, where there's just a group of experts who have been chosen for their expertise that might not be cognitively diverse. They might all use the same kind of heuristics or sort of causal models, for example.
One worry focuses on equality, but another worry is that there's a kind of distortion in the information we get if some people get to speak more or more loudly simply because they have greater resources. This concern comes from a perspective of making decisions in light of the best available information, so that we make decisions that lead to improving the general welfare and promoting happiness. If we all have something to contribute or if we might have something to contribute in terms of what we know about, even though we're not wealthy, then there will be reasons to want the state to help protect these freedoms and to fight to protect these freedoms against the state overreaching or against state censorship.
One well known argument here relies on what's called the Condorcet jury theorem, developed by Marquis de Condorcet, who was born in 1743 and died in 1794. He was a French philosopher, mathematician, and an early political scientist. Unusual for his day, he advocated for free and equal public education and equal rights for women and people of all races. He's best known for developing a number of formal tools that highlight the epistemic value of voting by large electorates.
There's been a great deal of recent discussion of the Condorcet jury theorem. The main concern has been about the enlightenment condition, the idea that the voters have to better than random at choosing the correct answer to the yes no question. Former work that has been done has been showing that what's needed is that the median voter, the person in the middle, has to be better than random. That means there would be better than a 50/50 chance if we flipped a coin at getting the answer right. This is the difficulty in the competence of the voters.
A related worry is the possibility of systematic error. If we've all been indoctrinated to believe something that's false, there's a chance that we'll all be below 50% chance of getting the question right. The answers are not going to be random or randomly distributed if we've all been indoctrinated in some way to believe something false. An important result from the Condorcet jury theorem is just as very quickly approach a certainty that we'll get the answer right if we're above 50% competence, if we're below 50% competence it very quickly approaches certainty that as the group gets larger, that we'll get the answer wrong.
It's worth thinking about the extent to which political questions look anything like factual yes or no questions and what it would mean to get correct answer to some political question. A big issue for epistemic arguments, and arguments about happiness or the general welfare in general, is that there can be significant disagreement within a political community about what even counts as promoting happiness or general welfare. There can be disagreement about what would count as getting the right answer to some of these political questions.
He was thinking about the median, which is the guess in the middle of all guesses. He calculated this median value to be 1,207 pounds. So to his surprise, this was the, within 0.8% of the weight measured by the judges, extremely close to getting the right answer. It turned out that the average guess, so all guesses added up and then divided by the total number, was 1,197 pounds, which was even more accurate, almost perfectly right.
One suggestion is that as long as uninformed people's answers are randomly or symmetrically distributed, they will cancel each other out. This will lead to a bunch of noise from the uninformed, with the views of a truly well informed subset of the whole, all congregating around the correct answer. Some views might be quite wrong, but they will cancel each other out in a nice way, leaving the views in the middle, maybe those of the truly well informed, to actually drive the result. The aggregation of many views allows the cream to rise to the top. This is better in many ways than having to identify the experts, the people who truly are well informed, since it may not always be apparent who counts as an expert.
There are questions about when this happens or why this happens. There are issues about why would we see this kind of cancelling out. But the thought is that as long as uninformed people's answers are randomly or symmetrically distributed, or as long as all of us are roughly correct, the incorrect answers will fall by the wayside, leaving the correct result as the average. Surowecki and other thinkers have highlighted the value of markets in terms of harnessing lots of disparately held information. They argue for using what are called prediction markets, where people are allowed to bet, for example, on who will be the Republican nominee for president in 2016. As people place various wagers, a market develops.
He also used this thought to motivate something like democratic input to political systems, since in that case, again, we're dealing with lots of detailed and dispersed information about what people want and what they value and what they think would be best. This connects to Mills' thought that each of us is a better judge of our own interest than any other person. So there's a liberty, freedom, autonomy dimension, but there's also an informational dimension. In thinking about cognitive diversity, the Condorcet jury theorem, the wisdom of crowds, and the informational value of markets, showed a number of reasons to think that the many will have better views than the few, even than a few experts, particularly if we have broadly inclusive rules regarding who gets to have a say, who gets to participate.
This may all provide a reason to have a democratic state with robust norms of inclusion and aggregation of views, where everyone gets to participate and have a say, and where there's robust norms of free speech and free press and free association, all to help us get the right or best answer to our political problems. Of course, this depends on whether any of these theories work in practise, and whether we actually get these expected results. Particularly, it depends on whether there are features of the informational environment that lead to systematic bias and error.
Perhaps everyone gets their news or their information from the same biased source, or there are strict limits on which views can be expressed. Under those circumstances, a lot of these arguments won't work. It also depends on political questions being ones that have a substantial factual component, so that these methods and talk of getting the right answer make sense. But if these things are in place, then there may be a significant role for the state in harnessing our collective intelligence, so as to make decisions that truly promote happiness and the general welfare.
So far, a number of different arguments that focus on the role the state might play in promoting happiness and the general welfare, have been discussed. Some of these, such as Hobbes' argument that the state might get us out of the state of nature, remain pretty vague about the details of what the state would look like or how the state would actually get us out of the state of nature. This segment provides a bit more detail, focusing in particular on the role that law can play in social and economic development, both of which might be important for improving the general welfare of a political community.
Another factor was the presence of rational law or what has come to be known as The Rule of Law. In his classic work, The Morality of Law, the legal philosopher Lon Fuller identified eight features central to regulation by law. They're helpful for understanding exactly how law might help structure and order society.
(3) The law should be clear, and intelligible, so that all can understand what's legally allowed and what's legally prohibited. (4) The laws should apply only to conduct that takes place after they are passed. So, after a law is put in place, it applies to conduct going forward.
(5) The laws should not contradict each other, so that it's possible for a person to obey all of the laws at the same time. (6) The law should not require to do something impossible. (7) The law should be relatively stable so as to allow us to plan our lives in accordance with them.
One suggestion made by some, particularly those who embrace the law and economics school of thought. is that if a legal system exhibits these eight features of law, then there'll be significant social and economic benefits that follow, so the suggestion is that this happens because of the helpful order and rational plan set out, and that's even leaving aside the details, the content, the specifics of the laws themselves. There's something just about the general phenomenon of a legally ordered society that's beneficial.
And then there must be institutions that will enforce the specifics and force these and other laws. There need to be specific kinds of laws in order to generate and harness the benefits of division of labour, free markets, and other benefits of structured social interaction that are made possible by law.
Others have focused on the importance of freedom of contract, and of legal institutions that will enforce contracts, so that they're worth more than the paper they're printed on. You can have a perfectly fine contract but if there's nothing backing it, then it's hard to see how it's much different than just having a promise or an agreement between two people.
Without a system of contract law, I might make informal agreements, and if everyone is part of a small, tight-knit community, I might know something about the reputations of all involved, about their trustworthiness and reliability of providing materials on time. Still this is somewhat of a risky venture, even if I know all four.
So, what if I've got half of the house built and then Dmitri tells me, he's out of his materials and won't be getting any more supply. If he's the only local supplier, it looks like all of my efforts might be wasted. And it gets riskier still if I don't know the others. They might be offering me a good deal or they might be trying to swindle me. Maybe they'll wait until I'm halfway done with the project and then dramatically raise their prices, leaving me in a bad spot. Either I can pay this high extortion level price or waste all the effort I've already put in place.
The five of us can draw up a contract with details concerning the price, the specific material's, the time at which they will be delivered. And if the level for damages are specified appropriately, either in the contract or in the background law, then this would be a real support for the agreement. Exactly how to specify the damages is something that's the subject of much discussion within the field of contract law. Once those issues are fixed then the house building venture can be made much less risky.
A similar story might be told with respect to property rights. I may be less inclined to invest my time and efforts in building a house or undertaking some other project if I will have no rights to the finished product. Of course, I might be motivated just by good will, but if I want to get some benefit from it, either by living in it myself or by selling it to someone else or giving it to someone else in exchange for something, I need to have some rights to the finished product.
I might still have an incentive to build the house even if by building it I don't get all of these rights in the bundle with respect to the house. At least it's plausible that the incentives to build the house will be very different if I don't have any of these rights with respect to the house upon its completion, especially if it's an economic venture of some sort.
This is a point that's been pressed by economists and people defending capitalist systems of private property for a long time. As with contracts, the rights matter in this way, only if they're going to be supported in some way. It really will make a difference if there's some kind of legal institution that will both help specify the details of these rights, and what I have a right to in a particular case, and which will help me enforce these rights against others who might violate them.
We can see a clear role for the state as an enforcer either of contractual agreements and property rights. There are arguments stating that supporting property rights and contractual arrangements are not about promoting the general welfare through efficient exchange, innovation and social cooperation. Instead these arguments suggest that we have natural rights to property or to things that we have put our labour into, and so that the role for the state here is to protect our freedom or to ensure that justice is done, and that each of us gets what he or she deserves.
One important set of questions in legal and political philosophy concerns the details of what these laws about contracts and property rights should actually be. There are a bunch of questions we might ask. Do we want to set a limit on how much property one person can have a right to? Should these property rights expire after some period of time or nonuse? Should we allow property rights to be transferred from one generation to the next? A lot of the incentive arguments suggest that we care about our children and the generations after us as and that's one reason we work hard. But then there become all kinds of problems in terms of inequalities with respect to wealth and unfair starting points.
One thing it's worth mentioning with respect to this and other arguments about the role of the state in promoting welfare and happiness. Good laws and policies can promote happiness and welfare but bad laws and policies in this domain might well undermine or impede happiness and welfare. Some think this is what has happened with laws allowing for unlimited ownership of private property and relatively few limits on contracting that essentially caused the rich to get richer and the poor get to poorer, and so we don't get all the presumed benefits. These are large debates and it's worth noticing the benefits of property and contract law, as well as the potential concerns.
There are also arguments concerning the way in which the state might do this in detail through legal structure and enforcement of property rights and contract law. Epistemic arguments show why democratic governments in particular might be good at promoting welfare. These arguments highlight the role that discussion, deliberation, cognitive diversity, and aggregating opinions might play in producing good results.