Small-R Republicanism and the NeoL-word

social welfare maximization

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Many, many blog-years ago Dylan Matthews and I had a back-and-forth over abstract philosophy’s role in concrete political debates. I argued that philosophy could play a bigger, more active role in public discourse, whereas Dylan insisted that first principles are “largely irrelevant” in real-world politics and only “emphasizes differences that, in the trenches, are hardly relevant.”

But if there’s one thing we should learn from the progressive blogosphere’s ongoing debate over neoliberalism, it’s that these intramural differences over fundamental values can have significant implications. I was reminded of this when I grabbed a drink with Dylan just the other night, and we got to talking about his “neoliberalism”* versus my more traditionalist leftism. The more we explored the subject, the more we came to realize that our political differences reflected a deeper philosophical disagreement: I’m a small-r republican who equates justice with the maximization of non-domination, and Dylan is a utilitarian who treats non-domination as an ancillary concern to general well-being or flourishing.

My problem with utilitarianism in a public policy context is this: when it comes to accurately measuring and maximizing a phenomenon as fuzzy and nebulous as “well-being,” we’ve got a serious knowledge problem on our hands. On the other hand, Philip Pettit’s book on Republicanism includes a lengthy and fairly rigorous account of freedom as non-domination. And while the book — being, first and foremost, a work of analytic philosophy — does little to unravel the full policy implications, you can draw a direct line from my republican leanings and to emphasis on redistribution of power through workplace democracy, just as you can draw a line from Dylan’s utilitarianism to his preference for centrally-directed technocracy.

*I’m using scare quotes here because Dylan has a reasonable case that the term “neoliberal” is not really all that useful when explaining left/center-left divisions in American politics.

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4 Responses

  1. I guess I would find this explanation of things more plausible if you could give me a concrete example of a policy that Dylan or I might favor that would increase the economic well-being of the poor, but that you would oppose on the grounds of non-domination. Or alternative, a concrete example of a policy you would favor on domination-minimization grounds that you’re nonetheless prepared to concede would reduce material living standards.

    What seems to me to happen in practice is that left-wing critics of neoliberalism are simply putting forward accounts of the consequences of economic policy that neoliberals would deny. For example, Erik Loomis thinks that “So long as the government encourages companies to lay off everyone possible to maximize profits at the top or to move every single possible job overseas, this economy almost cannot recover.” I think (and I think any self-respecting neoliberal would agree) that this is a mistake, and that ending managers’ inclination to maximize profits is neither necessary nor sufficient to promote robust economic recovery. This, though, is just a disagreement about economics in which left-wing people are wrong.

  2. One way in which the republican-vs.-“utilitarian”* distinction might produce an important difference is with respect to theories of politics — i.e., adopting a republican approach to formulating policy might well entail a different theory of politics than adopting a “utilitarian” approach, insofar as the former is going to place more emphasis on political procedures used to arrive at policy results (contestability, transparency, openness to later revision, etc.). On any given issue, there may not be important differences with respect to redistribution if one is a republican or a “utilitarian,” but the two tendencies may emphasize different practical aspects of solving the problem, with the former emphasizing political procedures while the latter emphasizes policy outcomes. Again, this might only be true for certain conceptions of republicanism and “utilitarianism.”

    Or maybe the disagreement is better put in terms of what goods should count — redistributive and material goods, or epistemic goods, or a given ratio of the two. The republican is, of course, much more likely to think of freedom as non-domination as an important good worth maximizing or optimizing on.

    A final take: it’s not a disagreement over specific policy proposals but a disagreement over different patterns of institutional design. A republican is likelier, at least, to prefer a political decision-making institution that allows for greater input, debate, notice-and-comment, etc., *even* if such an institution is less likely to always deliver the latest and greatest policy solutions.

    * (As a term of art in analytic philosophy, “utilitarian” refers to a very specific interpretation of act consequentialism, and in this kind of debate I don’t think that’s always what people mean when they use the term.)

  3. I would add to Matt that I actually think this proves rather than undermines my point about the irrelevance of theory in the trenches of real politics. The significance of this disagreement, as I understand it, is that if I thought, overall, a stronger labor movement would be worse for well-being, I wouldn’t support concrete policies (like card check, though it’s a bit up in the air as to whether that’d even work for this) that would increase union density in the US, whereas you would support them on non-domination grounds even if they had negative consequences for well-being.

    But in the non-hypothetical world, you and I both agree that a stronger private sector labor movement that had a broad interest in economic growth and full employment would be a very good thing indeed. So why are we fighting?

  4. As a term of art in analytic philosophy, “utilitarian” refers to a very specific interpretation of act consequentialism, and in this kind of debate I don’t think that’s always what people mean when they use the term.

    Well, no. There are plenty of rule consequentialists who identify as utilitarians (Richard Brandt, R.M. Hare, etc.) I understand the choice of people like Derek Parfit and Brad Hooker to abandon “utilitarian” as a descriptor, but I think it’s fair to describe any theory that fairs consequentialism (rule or act) with a definition of the good as hedonic pleasure, well-being, preference satisfaction, etc. as “utilitarian”.

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