p. 11. Why do we need political philosophy?
- David Miller
‘Why do we need political philosophy?’ examines the three ideas that stand at its very heart: that good and bad government profoundly affect the quality of human lives; that the form our government takes is not predetermined: we have a choice to make; and that we can know what distinguishes good government from bad: we can trace the effects of different forms of government, and we can learn what qualities go to make up the best form of government. In other words, there is such a thing as political knowledge, and we can define political philosophy as an investigation into the nature, causes, and effects of good and bad government.
This is a small book about a big subject, and since a picture is proverbially worth a thousand words I want to begin it by talking about a very large picture that can help us to see what political philosophy is all about. The picture in question was painted between 1337 and 1339 by Ambrogio Lorenzetti, and it covers three walls of the Sala dei Nove in the Palazzo Pubblico of Siena. It is usually called the Allegory of Good and Bad Government, and what Lorenzetti's frescos do is first of all to depict the nature of good and bad government respectively by means of figures who represent the qualities that rulers ought and ought not to have, and then to show the effects of the two kinds of government on the lives of ordinary people. So in the case of good government we see the dignified ruler dressed in rich robes and sitting on his throne, surrounded by figures representing the virtues of Courage, Justice, Magnanimity, Peace, Prudence, and Temperance. Beneath him stand a line of citizens encircled by a long rope the ends of which are tied to the ruler's wrist, symbolizing the harmonious binding together of ruler and people. As we turn to the right we see Lorenzetti's portrayal of the effects of good government first in the city and then in the countryside. The city is ordered and wealthy: we see artisans plying their trades, merchants buying and selling goods, nobles riding gaily decorated horses; in one place a group of dancers join hands in a circle. Beyond the city gate a well-dressed lady rides out to hunt, passing on the way a plump p. 2↵saddleback pig being driven in to market; in the countryside itself peasants till the earth and gather in the harvest. In case any careless viewer should fail to grasp the fresco's message, it is spelt out in a banner held aloft by a winged figure representing Security:
Without fear every man may travel freely and each may till and sow, so long as this commune still maintains this lady sovereign, for she has stripped the wicked of all power.
The fresco on the other side, representing evil government, is less well preserved, but its message is equally plain: a demonic ruler surrounded by vices like Avarice, Cruelty, and Pride, a city under military occupation, and a barren countryside devastated by ghostly armies. Here the inscription held by the figure of Fear reads:
Because each seeks only his own good, in this city Justice is subjected to tyranny; wherefore along this road nobody passes without fearing for his life, since there are robberies outside and inside the city gates.
There is no better way to understand what political philosophy is and why we need it than by looking at Lorenzetti's magnificent mural. We can define political philosophy as an investigation into the nature, causes, and effects of good and bad government, and our picture not only encapsulates this quest, but expresses in striking visual form three ideas that stand at the very heart of the subject. The first is that good and bad government profoundly affect the quality of human lives. Lorenzetti shows us how the rule of justice and the other virtues allows ordinary people to work, trade, hunt, dance, and generally do all those things that enrich human existence, while on the other side of the picture, tyranny breeds poverty and death. So that is the first idea: it really makes a difference to our lives whether we are governed well or badly. We cannot turn our back on politics, retreat into private life, and p. 3↵imagine that the way we are governed will not have profound effects on our personal happiness.
The second idea is that the form our government takes is not predetermined: we have a choice to make. Why, after all, was the mural painted in the first place? It was painted in the Sala dei Nove – the Room of the Nine – and these Nine were the rotating council of nine wealthy merchants who ruled the city in the first half of the 14th century. So it served not only to remind these men of their responsibilities to the people of Siena, but also as a celebration of the republican form of government that had been established there, at a time of considerable political turmoil in many of the Italian cities. The portrayal of evil government was not just an academic exercise: it was a reminder of what might happen if the rulers of the city failed in their duty to the people, or if the people failed in their duty to keep a watchful eye on their representatives.
The third idea is that we can know what distinguishes good government from bad: we can trace the effects of different forms of government, and we can learn what qualities go to make up the best form of government. In other words, there is such a thing as political knowledge. Lorenzetti's frescos bear all the marks of this idea. As we have seen, the virtuous ruler is shown surrounded by figures representing the qualities that, according to the political philosophy of the age, characterized good government. The frescos are meant to be instructive: they are meant to teach both rulers and citizens how to achieve the kind of life that they wanted. And this presupposes, as Lorenzetti surely believed, that we can know how this is to be done.
Should we believe the message of the frescos, however? Are the claims they implicitly make actually true? Does it really make a difference to our lives what kind of government we have? Do we have any choice in the matter, or is the form of our government something over which we have no control? And can we know what p. 4↵
makes one form of government better than another? These are some of the big questions that political philosophers ask, as well as many smaller ones. But before trying to answer them, I need to add a few more words of explanation.
When talking about government here, I mean something much broader than ‘the government of the day’ – the group of people in authority in any society at a particular moment. Indeed I mean something broader than the state – the political institutions through which authority is exercised, such as the cabinet of ministers, parliament, courts of law, police, armed forces, and so forth. I mean the whole body of rules, practices and institutions under whose guidance we live together in societies. That human beings need to cooperate with one another, to know who can do what with whom, who owns which parts of the material world, what happens if somebody breaks the rules, and so forth, we can p. 5↵perhaps take for granted here. But we cannot yet take it for granted that they must have a state to solve these problems. As we shall see in the next chapter, one central issue in political philosophy is why we need states, or more generally political authority, in the first place, and we need to engage with the anarchist argument that societies can perfectly well govern themselves without it. So for the time being, I want to leave it an open question whether ‘good government’ requires having a state, or a government in the conventional sense, at all. Another question that will remain open until the last chapter of the book is whether there should be just one government or many governments – a single system for the whole of humanity, or different systems for different peoples.
When Lorenzetti painted his murals, he presented good and bad government primarily in terms of the human qualities of the two kinds of rulers, and the effects those qualities had on the lives of their subjects. Given the medium in which the message was conveyed, this was perhaps unavoidable, but in any case it was very much in line with the thinking of his age. Good government was as much about the character of those who governed – their prudence, courage, generosity, and so on – as about the system of government itself. Of course there were also debates about the system: about whether monarchy was preferable to republican government or vice versa, for instance. Today the emphasis has changed: we think much more about the institutions of good government, and less about the personal qualities of the people who make them work. Arguably we have gone too far in this direction, but I will follow modern fashion and talk in later chapters primarily about good government as a system, not about how to make our rulers virtuous.
Back now to the ideas behind the big picture. The easiest of the three to defend is the idea that government profoundly affects the quality of our lives. If any reader fails to recognize this straight away, it is perhaps because he or she is living under a relatively p. 6↵stable form of government where not much changes from year to year. One party replaces another at election time, but the switch only makes a marginal impact on most people's lives (though politicians like to pretend otherwise). But think instead about some of the regimes that rose and fell in the last century: think about the Nazi regime in Germany and the 6 million Jews who were killed by it, or think about Mao's China and the 20 million or more who died as a result of the famine induced by the so-called ‘Great Leap Forward’. Meanwhile in other countries whole populations saw their living standards rise at an unprecedented rate. Twentieth-century history seems to have reproduced the stark contrast of Lorenzetti's mural almost exactly.
But at this point we have to consider the second of our three ideas. Even if different forms of government were, and still are, direct causes of prosperity and poverty, life and death, how far are we able to influence the regimes that govern us? Or are they just links in a chain, themselves governed by deeper causes over which we have no control? And if so, what is the point of political philosophy, whose avowed purpose is to help us choose the best form of government?
The fatalistic view that we have no real political choices to make has appeared in different forms at different times in history. In the period when Lorenzetti was painting his frescos, many believed that history moved in cycles: good government could not endure, but would inevitably become corrupted with the passage of time, collapse into tyranny, and only through slow stages be brought back to its best form. In other periods – most notably the 19th century – the prevailing belief was in the idea of historical progress: history moved in a straight line from primitive barbarism to the higher stages of civilization. But once again this implied that the way societies were governed depended on social causes that were not amenable to human control. The most influential version of this was Marxism, which held that the development of society depended ultimately on the way in which people produced material goods – p. 7↵the technology they used, and the economic system they adopted. Politics became part of the ‘superstructure’; it was geared to the needs of the prevailing form of production. So, according to Marx, in capitalist societies the state had to serve the interests of the capitalist class, in socialist societies it would serve the interests of the workers, and eventually, under communism, it would disappear completely. In this light, speculation about the best form of government becomes pointless: history will solve the problem for us.
Interestingly enough, the career of Marxism itself shows us what is wrong with this kind of determinism. Under the influence of Marxist ideas, socialist revolutions broke out in places where, according to Marx, they should not have occurred – in societies such as Russia and China which were relatively undeveloped economically, and therefore not ready to adopt a socialist form of production. In the more advanced capitalist societies, meanwhile, fairly stable democratic governments were established in some places – something Marx had thought impossible given the class-divided nature of these societies – while other countries fell prey to fascist regimes. Politics, it turned out, was to a considerable extent independent of economics, or of social development more generally. And this meant that once again people had big choices to make, not only about their form of government in the narrow sense, but about the broader way their society was constituted. Should they have a one-party state or a liberal democracy with free elections? Should the economy be centrally planned or based on the free market? These are questions of the sort that political philosophers try to answer, and they were once more back on the agenda.
But if 20th-century experience put paid to the kind of historical determinism that was so prevalent in the 19th, by the beginning of the 21st a new form of fatalism had appeared. This was inspired by the growth of a new global economy, and the belief that states had increasingly little room for manŒuvre if they wanted their people p. 8↵to benefit from it. Any state that tried to buck the market would find that its economy slumped. And the only states that were likely to succeed in the new global competition were the liberal democracies, so although it was possible for a society to be governed differently – to have an Islamic regime, for example – the price for this would be relative economic decline: a price, it was assumed, no society would wish to pay. This was the so-called ‘end of history’ thesis, essentially a claim that all societies would be propelled by economic forces into governing themselves in roughly the same way.
There is little doubt that this form of fatalism will be undermined by events just as earlier forms were. Already we can see a backlash against globalization in the form of political movements concerned about the environment, or the impact of global markets on developing nations, or the levelling-down quality of global culture. These movements challenge the idea that economic growth is the supreme goal, and in the course of doing so raise questions about what we ultimately value in our lives, and how we can achieve these aims, that are central questions of political philosophy. And even if we confine ourselves to political debate that lies closer to the conventional centre ground, there is still plenty of scope to argue about how much economic freedom we should sacrifice in the name of greater equality, or how far personal liberty should be restricted in order to strengthen the communities in which we live. As I write, there is a fierce argument going on about terrorism, the rights of individuals, and the principle that we cannot interfere in the internal affairs of other states, no matter how they are governed. Once again these are issues over which collective choices have to be made, and they are quintessentially issues of political philosophy.
So far I have argued that political philosophy deals with issues that are of vital importance to all of us, and furthermore issues over which we have real political choices to make. Now I want to confront another reason for dismissing the whole subject, namely p. 9↵that politics is about the use of power, and powerful people – politicians especially – do not pay any attention to works of political philosophy. If you want to change things, according to this line of thought, you should go out on the streets, demonstrate, and cause some chaos, or alternatively perhaps see if you can find a politician to bribe or blackmail, but you shouldn’t bother with learned treatises on the good society that nobody reads.
It is true that when political philosophers have tried to intervene directly in political life, they have usually come unstuck. They have advised powerful rulers – Aristotle acted as tutor to Alexander the Great, Machiavelli attempted to counsel the Medicis in Florence, and Diderot was invited to St Petersburg by Catherine the Great to discuss how to modernize Russia – but whether these interventions did any good is another question. Treatises written during times of intense political conflict have often succeeded merely in alienating both sides to the conflict. A famous example is Thomas Hobbes's Leviathan, a masterpiece of political philosophy written while the English Civil War was still raging. Hobbes's arguments in favour of absolute government, which I shall discuss more fully in the following chapter, were welcomed neither by the Royalists nor by the Parliamentarians. The former believed that kings had been divinely ordained to rule, the latter that legitimate government required the consent of its subjects. The bleak picture of the human condition painted by Hobbes led him to the conclusion that we must submit to any established and effective government, no matter what its credentials were. By implication Charles I had a right to rule when he was in power, but so did Cromwell when he had succeeded in deposing Charles. This was not what either side wanted to hear.
The example of Hobbes can help to explain why political philosophers have so rarely made a direct impact on political events. Because they look at politics from a philosophical perspective, they are bound to challenge many of the conventional beliefs held both p. 10↵by politicians and by the public at large. They put these beliefs under the microscope, asking exactly what people mean when they say such and such, what evidence they have for their convictions, how they would justify their beliefs if challenged to do so. One result of this forensic examination is that when political philosophers put forward their own ideas and proposals, these nearly always look strange and disturbing to those who are used to the conventional debate, as Hobbes's ideas did to those fighting on both sides in the Civil War.
But this does not stop political philosophy from having an influence, sometimes a considerable influence, with the passage of time. When we think about politics, we make assumptions that we are often barely aware of – underlying assumptions that nevertheless do change quite radically over the course of history. At the time Hobbes wrote, for instance, it was commonplace to argue politically by appeal to religious principles, and especially to the authority of the Bible. One of his lasting legacies was to make it possible to think about politics in a purely secular way. Although Hobbes himself was deeply preoccupied with religious questions, his radically new approach to political authority allowed politics and religion to be separated and discussed in different terms. Or consider that in Hobbes's time, only a few extreme radicals believed in democracy as a form of government (typically, Hobbes himself did not rule it out altogether, but he thought it was generally inferior to monarchy). Nowadays, of course, we take democracy for granted to the extent that we can barely imagine how any other form of government could be seen as legitimate. How has this change come about? The story is a complex one, but an indispensable part in it has been played by political philosophers arguing in favour of democracy, philosophers whose ideas were taken up, popularized, and cast into the mainstream of politics. The best known of these is probably Jean-Jacques Rousseau, whose impact on the French Revolution through his book The Social Contract is hard to dispute. (Thomas Carlyle, at least, had no doubts. Challenged to show the practical importance of abstract p. 11↵ideas, he is said to have replied, ‘There was once a man called Rousseau who wrote a book containing nothing but ideas. The second edition was bound in the skins of those who had laughed at the first.’)
Nobody can tell in advance whether any given work of political thought will have the effect of Hobbes's Leviathan or Rousseau's Social Contract, or to take a later example, Marx and Engels's The Communist Manifesto. It depends entirely on whether the underlying shift in thinking that the philosopher proposes corresponds to political and social change in such a way that the new ideas can become the commonplaces of the following generations. Other works of political philosophy have enjoyed a limited success and then disappeared virtually without trace. But the need for political philosophy is always there, especially perhaps at moments when we face new political challenges that we cannot deal with using the conventional wisdom of the day. At these moments we need to dig deeper, to probe the basis of our political beliefs, and it is here that we may turn to political philosophy, not perhaps at source, but as filtered through pamphlets, magazines, newspapers and the like – every successful political philosopher has relied on media-friendly disciples to put his or her ideas into circulation.
But even if political philosophy answers to a genuine need, are its own credentials genuine? (Horoscopes answer to a strongly felt need – people want to know what the future holds in store for them – but most of us think that horoscopes themselves are completely bogus.) For political philosophy claims that it can bring to us a kind of truth about politics, something different from the opinions that guide us from day to day. This claim was presented most dramatically by Plato, often regarded as the father of the subject, through the allegory of the cave in the Republic. Plato likens ordinary people to prisoners who have been chained in a cave in such a way that they can only see the shadows of things on a screen in front of them; they would p. 12↵
p. 13assume, Plato says, that these shadows were the only real things. Now suppose that one of the prisoners was to be freed and emerged blinking into the light. In time he would come to see real objects in the world, and understand that what he had seen before were no more than shadows. But if he were then to return to the cave to try to persuade his fellows of their mistake, they would be unlikely to believe him. This, Plato thinks, is the position of the philosopher: he has genuine knowledge while those around him have only distorted opinions, but because the path to philosophical knowledge is long and hard, very few are willing to take it.
But was Plato justified in drawing such a sharp contrast between philosophical knowledge and common opinion? This is not the place to discuss the metaphysical underpinning of his distinction, so let me say simply that my conception of political philosophy does not involve endowing philosophers with a special kind of knowledge not available to other human beings. Instead they think and reason in much the same way as everyone else, but they do so more critically and more systematically. They take less for granted: they ask whether our beliefs are consistent with one another, whether they are supported by evidence, and how, if at all, they can be fitted into one big picture. It is easiest to explain this by taking some examples.
Suppose we were to ask a politician what his goals were; what aims or values the political community he belongs to should be trying to achieve. If he belonged to a contemporary Western society, he would probably come up with a fairly predictable list: law and order, individual liberty, economic growth, full employment, and one or two others. How might a political philosopher respond to this? Well, first of all she would turn the spotlight on the goals themselves and ask which of them were really ultimate goals. Take economic growth, for instance. Is this a good thing in itself, or is it only good in so far as it gives people more opportunities to choose from, or makes their lives p. 14↵healthier and happier? Can we assume that further growth is always good, or does there come a point where it no longer contributes to the things that really matter? A similar question might be asked about full employment. Do we value full employment because we believe it is intrinsically valuable for people to engage in paid work, or is it rather that people cannot have a decent standard of living unless they do work? But if the second is true, why not give everyone an income whether they work or not, and make work into a voluntary activity for those who enjoy it?
Our political philosopher will also ask about how the different goals on the politicians’ list are related to one another. Politicians very rarely concede that they might have to sacrifice one aim in order to achieve another, but perhaps in reality they do. Take law and order versus individual liberty, for instance. Could our streets not be made safer by limiting individual liberty – for instance by giving the police greater powers to arrest people they suspected were about to engage in criminal acts? If so, which value should have the higher priority? Of course in order to decide that, she would need to say a bit more precisely what individual liberty means. Is it simply being able to do whatever you like, or is it doing what you like so long as you don’t harm anyone else? This makes a big difference to the question being asked.
In raising these questions, and suggesting some answers, political philosophers are not (or needn’t be) appealing to any esoteric form of knowledge. They are inviting their readers to reflect on their own political values, and to see which ones they care about most in the final analysis. Along the way they may add in some new pieces of information. For instance, when contemplating the value of economic growth, it is relevant to see how people whose material living standards are very different score in terms of physical indicators such as health and mortality, and psychological indicators such as how satisfied they feel with their lives. Political philosophers therefore need to have a p. 15↵good grasp of social and political science. In earlier periods, they attempted to obtain this primarily by collating such evidence as was available from the historical record about a wide range of human societies, and their various political systems. This evidence was somewhat impressionistic and often unreliable. In this respect political philosophers today can build on more solid empirical foundations by virtue of the huge expansion of the social sciences in the 20th century. But the essential nature of their task remains the same. They take what we know about human societies, and the ways in which they are governed, and then they ask what the best form of government would be, in the light of aims and values that they believe their audience will share. Sometimes this best form of government turns out to be quite close to the form that already exists; sometimes it is radically different.
What I have tried to do in the last few paragraphs is to show how political philosophy can illuminate the way we think about politics without making claims to a special kind of truth that is inaccessible to the ordinary person. There is a related issue here, which is how far the kind of truth political philosophy gives us is universal truth – truth that applies to all societies and in all periods of history. Or is the best we can hope for local knowledge, knowledge that is relevant only to the particular kind of society we live in today?
The answer I want to give is that the agenda of political philosophy changes as society and government change, although some items have stayed on it as far back as our records go. Among these perennial questions are basic questions about politics and political authority that I shall be addressing in the next chapter. Why do we need politics in the first place? What right has anybody to force another person to do something against their will? Why should I obey the law when it does not suit me to? But in other cases, either the questions, or the answers, or both, have changed over time, and we need to see why this is so.
p. 16One reason is that changes in society open up possibilities that did not exist before, or alternatively close them off. As an example, think of democracy as a form of government. Almost every political philosopher today – in Western societies at least – takes it for granted that good government must mean some kind of democracy; in one way or another the people must rule (as we shall see in Chapter 3, this leaves plenty of room for argument about what democracy really means in practice). For many centuries beforehand, the opposite view prevailed: good government meant government by a wise monarch, or an enlightened aristocracy, or men of property, or perhaps some combination of these. So are we right and our predecessors simply wrong? No, because democracy seems to need certain preconditions to function successfully: it needs a wealthy and literate population, media of mass communication so that ideas and opinions can circulate freely, a well-functioning legal system that commands people's respect, and so forth. And these conditions did not obtain anywhere until the fairly recent past, nor could they be created overnight (classical Athens is often held up as an exception, but it is important to remember that Athenian ‘democracy’ encompassed only a minority of the city's population, and rested, as the Greeks themselves recognized, on the work of women, slaves, and resident aliens). So the older philosophers were not wrong to dismiss democracy as a form of government. Even Rousseau, who as we saw earlier was an influential source of democratic ideas, said that it was suitable only for gods and not for men. Given the prevailing conditions, democracy as we understand it today was not a viable form of government.
For another example of the shifting agenda of political philosophy, consider the value we attach today to personal choice. We think people should be free to choose their jobs, their partners, their religious beliefs, the clothes they wear, the music they listen to, and so on and so forth. It is important, we think, that each person should discover or invent the style of life that p. 17↵suits them best. But how much sense would this make in a society where most people, in order to stay alive, are bound to follow in their parents’ footsteps, with little choice of occupation, few entertainments, a common religion, and so on? Here other values become much more important. And this is how societies have been for most of human history, so it is hardly surprising that only in the last couple of centuries do we find political philosophies built around the supreme value of personal choice, such as John Stuart Mill's On Liberty, which I shall discuss in Chapter 4.
In this book I have tried to strike a balance between the perennial questions of political philosophy and those that have appeared on its agenda only in the fairly recent past, such as the claims of women and cultural minorities discussed in Chapter 6. Striking this balance can be difficult: it is easy to get swept away by the political topics of the moment and lose sight of basic issues that underlie politics everywhere. One remedy is to travel back to Siena and Lorenzetti's frescos and be reminded again that how political authority is constituted can make the difference between plenty and poverty, life and death. This is the starting point of the chapter that follows.
I have also tried to strike a balance between laying out the contrasting positions that have been taken up on these issues, and presenting arguments of my own. My aim is to explain what is at issue when anarchists argue with statists, democrats argue with elitists, liberals argue with authoritarians, nationalists argue with cosmopolitans, and so on, but it would be disingenuous to claim that I am surveying these debates from some entirely neutral, Olympian perspective. One cannot write about political philosophy without doing it as well. So although I have tried not to browbeat the reader into thinking that there is only one plausible answer to some of the most fiercely contested questions of our time, I have not attempted to disguise my sympathies either. Where you disagree with me, I hope you will find the p. 18↵reasons on your side of the argument fairly presented. Of course, I hope even more that you will be convinced by the reasons on my side.