The radical transformation in the Western political thought

Discussing traditional voting and "voting with one's feet," Miller and Page write:

"For the moment, we judge each mechanism only by its effectiveness at maximizing the overall happiness of the citizens after a fixed amount of time. Thus, a good outcome will have citizens with similar preferences living in the same town, and that town offering a platform that aligns well with the preferences of its, relatively homogenous, residents." -- Miller, John H, and Scott E Page. 2007. Complex Adaptive Systems: An Introduction to Computational Models of Social Life. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

What is of note here is how Miller and Page assume that what quote Maximizes" peoples happiness is if they get what they want, and that it is the job of a political system to deliver this to them.

This view is a product of the radical disorientation of Western civilization that occurred beginning in the 1500s. Before that, it would have been agreed upon by all of the great political thinkers that the job of the rulers was to do what was best for the polity, whatever the citizens thought about that course of action. Of course, it will almost always be better to get the citizens to buy into the best course of action rather than not do so, but that is secondary to doing the right thing.

But once "the right thing" became "whatever I personally happen to decide is the right thing," actually governing in this fashion became impossible, and pandering to people's "preferences" (largely formed by marketing and propaganda in the first place) left us with:

11 comments:

  1. How much has this transformation affected the actual practice of ruling, as opposed to just the political discourse?

    I recall the Iraq war and the TARP bailouts meeting quite a bit of public resistance. W must have agreed with the older thinkers that doing the right thing trumps the opinions of the subjects.

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    1. "How much has this transformation affected the actual practice of ruling, as opposed to just the political discourse?"

      Tremendously.

      "W must have agreed with the older thinkers that doing the right thing trumps the opinions of the subjects."

      Very amusing, Matt. Being captured by special interest groups = doing the right thing.

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    2. I think Bush was sincere in his beliefs that those were the right things to do. What we may perceive as being captured by special interest groups, he sees as listening to trusted and informed advisors rather than the ignorant masses who don't know what's good for them.

      It's a positive contribution of liberalism that rulers don't get carte blanche to decide what is best for their polity.

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    3. Rulers never had "carte blanche."

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    4. That is non-responsive Gene. Matt, quite correctly IMO, suggests that Bush thought he was doing the right thing. A man can sincerely believe X is right and have been put into a position to do X through the machinations of a cabal. Let's assume that was the case with Bush. Now answer Matt's point.
      Here we have a leader following the dictum you and your medieval theorists prefer.

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    5. And Matt's point is...?

      So let's say I claim, "Scientists should be following truth, not what their funders prefer."

      You actually think it is a serious critique of this view to note, "Well, Nazi scientists thought they were following the truth"?!

      OF COURSE, any criterion for any action can be egregiously misapplied. So what? We don't know of cases where "following the will of the people" has led to terrible consequences?

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    6. I tentatively accept the claim that rulers ought to prioritize doing the right thing above the "preferences" of the people, and also that the transformation of political thought makes it more challenging for them to do so.

      I'm sympathetic to the general complaint because I see the shift in political thought as being harmful to our political discourse. Instead of speaking frankly about what they are doing and why it is the right thing to do, honest politicians have to disguise their conception of the good behind a veneer of preference-pandering.

      What's not clear to me is:

      A. The degree to which the decisions of modern Western rulers are actually affected by public opinion as opposed to what the rulers believe is right. I see a lot of pandering in the public discourse, but at the end of the day there are plenty of decisions being made that run against the will of the people (for better or worse).

      B. That the extra public check on the power of the rulers leads to worse overall outcomes. Sure, there may be some truly good things that rulers can no longer do because the public wouldn't stand for it. But there are also bad things that rulers can no longer do for the same reason.

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  2. "Before that, it would have been agreed upon by all of the great political thinkers that the job of the rulers was to do what was best for the polity". It sounds like a fantasy to think that there was ever a time when rulers were motivated by what was best for the polity, unless the polity just means their own personal interest. So, one question would be, if all the great political thinkers agreed on that standard, were they agreeing to an idea that was at all practical? Another would be, is there evidence of better governance under the influence of pre-1500 political thought?

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    1. "It sounds like a fantasy to think that there was ever a time when rulers were motivated by what was best for the polity..."

      Sleight-of-hand, Greg? I talk about great political thinkers, and you shift to "rulers", as if they were the same thing!

      In any case, rulers, like all people, are a mixed bunch: some of them are concerned with the greater good, some are not. There is no particular reason to assume that rulers are worse than anyone else, particularly if the position is hereditary.

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    2. I did not think it was a sleight-of-hand, since the great thinkers in question were talking about what rulers should do. I was not arguing that you are wrong or right about the rulers, I was complaining that the thinkers as you describe them don’t sound like they’re thinking practically about rulership.

      Medieval nor modern rulers are certainly not a randomly selected bunch, so they may or may not have worse character flaws than the modal citizen. However, it would not be necessary to believe they are any different from the mode in order to conclude that they have a strong tendency toward venality!

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  3. For the moment, we judge each mechanism only by its effectiveness at maximizing the overall happiness of the citizens after a fixed amount of time. Thus, a good outcome will have citizens with similar preferences living in the same town, and that town offering a platform that aligns well with the preferences of its, relatively homogenous, residents.

    Ugh. I hate it when people tell me to vote with my feet. It's used to dismiss my belief that X or Y shouldn't be allowed to do something (like to pass certain laws). That some people are made unhappy by refusing to do so, oh well.

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