Hello, and welcome to Freedom and Corruption.
This blog is an outgrowth of a research project I began in late 2018 in an attempt to understand why it is that all of this *gestures at world events* is happening, and what kind of society might be immune from it. It’s about institutions and constitutions, but also the institutional cultures and informal arrangments underlying them. A lot of what I’ll be writing will be the product of the research I’ve already done, but my hope is that people will find it interesting enough to engage with the blog as I go, to challenge and find fault with my conclusions, and thereby force me to revise my views and improve the project as a whole. Some of what I post will be lifted from my existing papers and drafts; when I do that, I’ll make sure to label it as such.
The basic plan is this. I’m going to begin with a couple of posts on what makes a good society good – the societal virtues we should be aiming for. Then I’ll turn to examining what conditions enable or prevent those virtues from being realised, introducing the idea of corruption (best defined, as I will argue, as ‘the abuse of power that builds or maintains power’) as the ‘big enemy’ of a virtuous society. I’ll move through various spheres of social life – including government, economics, research institutions, the media, and the military – examining where corruption can arise within them and what institutional structures might best resist it. (Spoiler alert: there will be a lot of sortitional juries in this bit.) Finally, I’ll turn from statics to dynamics, looking at how crisis and revolution might be handled to best avoid catastrophic corruption, either in an existing order or in a new one constituted through the crisis.
I guess I should start by laying out my priors. Any account of society and politics has to begin with some idea of what the people who engage in them are like; if that picture isn’t realistic, the account will be flawed. Political theory that presupposes spherical humanoids of uniform density is a recipe for trouble, as I’ll argue when I get round to talking about Lenin’s State and Revolution. For this reason, a political theorist has to have the sensibility of a novelist. In this respect, I guess I could say that my political education began with Terry Pratchett.
So here are my background assumptions. I don’t subscribe to a particularly optimistic view of human nature; I’m inclined to think the strongest motives that prevail among people in any society are cupidity, conformity, pride, and self-preservation, and that this is not a product of a particular form of socioeconomic order but an unalterable constant. At the same time, though, I’m not a misanthrope: people will tend to do what they see as the right thing when it’s socially expected of them and not very costly (either materially or in any other regard). We are strongly aware of and like having social status, and will tend to form status hierarchies, however gentle and informal, whenever we get the chance; in certain people this drive is overwhelming, which can be both useful and dangerous.
Another important aspect of human nature, one which will come up repeatedly, is our tendency to self-deception. Most of us will be strongly drawn to beliefs that paint us in a rosy light, or are otherwise convenient to our peace of mind. Admitting things are wrong – whether about our actions or the world we live in – is unpleasant and often means we have to do things, like change our habits. This kind of psychological inertia and sunk-cost fallacy is, for example, why people who’ve been scammed are loath to admit it to themselves: ‘if I’ve been conned, I’m a sucker, and I’m not a sucker, so I can’t have been conned’.
Finally, one of the most significant factors affecting the decisions people make and the things we do is their available bandwidth – the amount of time and attention we have to spare on a given matter. Most of us are reasonably competent in the areas that receive the lion’s share of our attention – whether that be work, or sport, or our family lives, or something else. In areas where we don’t have a huge amount of attention to spare, our opinion-formation and decision-making is correspondingly patchier. The costs and difficulties of becoming informed on a subject are often very significant, especially when you have a bunch of other important things to do. This is a pretty basic point in social epistemology, but it has broad ramifications for many aspects of institutional design.
With this kind of view of human nature in mind, I should also set out my stall regarding fundamental values. In those terms, I’m basically a cosmopolitan liberal individualist, who cares about individual freedom and flourishing without regard for group-affiliation factors like nationality. But, like any sensible individualist, I see those goods as inextricably bound up with the social relations in which we stand with one another. On a gut level, I’m uncomfortable with social hierarchy and the indignity it visits on its losers – I view our ineradicable enthusiasm for it as a vice to be contained and carefully channeled where it can do the least damage. And, given what I’ve already said, it should come as little surprise that I’m profoundly opposed to the idea of retribution for its own sake. I know that instinct well enough not to mistake it for the voice of conscience.
Moving from the individual to the mass level, I’m unconvinced that there can in practice be such a thing as ‘self-rule’ for any large group of people, or that it would be desirable if there could. The sensation of collective agency arises when a whole group of people push in the same direction, so to speak, and their joint efforts together bring about the effect they all intended them to have – like a crowd of demonstrators driving back a line of riot police. But this demands a high level of coordination, not only between the different participants’ actions but between their desires. The more often this is supposed to happen, the more issues upon which the participants’ desires have to be in alignment with one another. This means that, long before the group is genuinely acting like a single, cohesive agent capable of meaningful self-rule, the required degree of alignment becomes incompatible with a) a society of free individuals and b) human nature as I have described it. The result is that ‘collective self-rule’ cannot be experienced as such by most of the people most of the time, and will in fact only be experienced by that fraction of the people who consistently get their own way. The more instances of collective action are meant to happen per unit time, the more people will find themselves not getting their own way on something like a regular basis. And this leads to their becoming alienated from the putative collective agent even when it moves their way: sure, they got their way today, but the link between the collective’s actions and the person’s own desires has been shown shaky enough that it no longer feels like agency.
This is clearly visible in the very different experiences had on each side of the Brexit vote. For most of the highly-engaged voters on the Leave side, it was ‘the will of the people’ – meaning that they wanted a big social change and, through their collective action, actually got it, or at least the promise of it. On the other side, on the other hand, the most positive emotional response widespread among Remain voters was resignation to the procedural legitimacy of the result – a far cry from the sense of collective agency experienced by their opponents. Equally if not more common was a sense of loss and profound alienation – the feeling that Britain ‘wasn’t their country any more’. But the Leavers are not left feeling as though they are self-governing; instead, many of them are plagued by fears that the government will ‘betray the people’s will’ and cancel Brexit, deliver what they see as an ersatz version of it, or – and here’s the revealing part – hold another referendum that they might lose. Their sense of collective agency and self-rule evaporated almost as soon as it arrived, because collective action might not keep going the way they want it to.
Without the lived experience of collective agency, what’s left of it? Nothing worth having, is my view. An autonomy that we can’t feel, that we’re merely told we have, is no autonomy at all. A far better ideal to aim for in problems of collective action is justice: the justified sense that the decision-making procedure is fair and treats the various claimants to the collective direction with the full and equal dignity that is their moral right. And, as with the sense of collective action, justice must not be a coincidence: the system of collective action must be reliably just, and seen to be so.
So those are the values underlying everything that’s to come in Freedom and Corruption: liberty, equality, fraternity, and justice. In my next post, though, I’ll be complicating this picture, with a look at how values develop over time, and what that means for free societies. Stay tuned.