U.S. Intellectual History Blog

"Dialectic" or "Greater Good" or?


This is an invitation to any reader of this blog who would like to discuss liberty and democracy, two mythic symbols of both the American mixed enterprise system and the limited tyranny we call a constitutional democracy. I would like to inquire about the manner in which we justify our negotiated positions using arguments more appropriate to the polar positions. In dialectical terms, does the synthesis in the particular struggle between liberty and democracy have any theoretical support aside from the arguments of the thesis and the antithesis?

I hope that such a discussion will help me clearly think about a course I am designing for the fall semester, so I am deeply appreciative of any clarifications, speculations, and bibliographic guidance. Aside from this selfish motive, one of the initial intentions for this blog was to provide a low stakes space for debates and discussions of just this sort. And a dialogue about the internal contradictions between democracy and liberty may be fruitful for others as well. (Besides, how much more “low stakes” could this opportunity be, with the possibility of even anonymous comments?)

The set up: If “pure” democracy is, at its essence, a system by which a majority wields power over a minority; and if “pure” liberty is, essentially, the state of being free from the oppression of any other group or individual, then is it far fetched to describe democracy and liberty as near opposites, at least in their ideological forms? A libertarian goal may be to restrict the tyrannical devices of a majority, thereby protecting the liberty of even the smallest minority. And a democratic mandate for the “greater good,” may ignore injustices done to a minority.

The compromise that has been successfully struck between liberty and democracy to form rather workable (if constantly renegotiated) systems of economy and governance seems to function despite any legitimating arguments of its own. Certainly we could all argue the justifications for democracy as a legitimacy-providing-approach. And we can all, presumably, argue the case of freedom, especially the freedoms of “life, liberty” and the pursuits of things like pleasure and profit. But libertarian ideas and democratic ideas have been used against the compromise positions, the syntheses, such as “constitutional democracy” and “state regulated free enterprise system,” the very compromise positions that make the whole system function.

And I recognize that nothing yet in this observation is new. We have heard some decry regulations of industrial emissions on private property using libertarian arguments involving property rights and free enterprise. And we have heard others argue to empower elected officials to impose motorcycle helmet laws, decency standards, and birth control regulations on society, under the notion of electoral will. But how can we use either utilitarian or libertarian arguments to justify the magnitude of the compromises? How progressive should be a tax policy? How much head protection should be enforced on motorcycle riders? How many crude expressions can be tolerably included in the script of a PG-13 film?

My question might involve positivism, pragmatism, or utilitarianism, in this struggle against the synthesis by the alliance of the thesis and the antithesis. And I must admit to being unsure of how to phrase the question.

But when we apply this struggle between liberty and democracy to economics, my yet un-phrased question may become clearer. Living in a hypothetical cardboard box, I may wonder why my neighbors’ homes are all MacMansions. The democratic ideal of “equality” might suggest to me that unequal distribution of wealth is wrong. If each of us has an unalienable equal vote, then ultimately the only way someone might succeed in gaining more than one share of society’s stuff would be through the mechanism of voluntary relinquishment.

On the other hand, now that my neighbor has finally paid off his hypothetical law school loans, he considers it only fair and just that his MacMansion is the biggest on the block. He thinks, frankly, that the cops should move me and my cardboard box into another zoning district.

Obviously, both of these attitudes, mine and my neighbor’s, can be rationalized. I shout “democracy” while my neighbor in the mansion screams “liberty.” Yet, because there are enough of both kinds of people in the social mix, mansions can exist relatively near huts. A compromise position arises. This compromise, barely tolerable to both of us, endures for so long as a majority of people eat, find shelter, and safety. Hence, the underpinning rationalization for the system seems to be utilitarian. Once the majority (or powerful enough minority) is not eating, sheltered, and safe, then the system fails, property gets redistributed, and aggregate wealth generation suffers.

So must we consider this compromise between liberty and democracy through utilitarian bifocals? Are there better justifications, rationalizations, and ethical systems “out there” that might better theorize this tentative synthesis beyond the “greater good for the greater number?” If so, can you direct me to another level of complexity in my thinking?

Comments, arguments, critique, insults, and complaints will be gracefully accepted.

3 Thoughts on this Post

  1. If I follow your “non-phrased question,” you must be implying that it is incumbent upon the people who most benefit from “free enterprise” to insure (for their own good) that the vast majority of people eat, are sheltered, and participate in some minimal level of society’s wealth? If so, then you describe the unspoken compromise implied in the US system. As long as most eat, are sheltered, safe, and healthy, then go ahead and run your lemonade stand. Just do not ever fail to feed, shelter, and protect the vast majority, because wealth is a construct that can be changed at the whim of the majority.
    Those who argue against such a compromise, calling for an “ideal” form of “libertarian” economy, may be more of a threat to the American System and the economic American dream, than any Marxist could ever hope to be.

  2. Joe: Isn’t the core of your dialectic about the usefulness of government? This brings to mind the maxim, from one of the Federalist papers (J. Adams?), to the effect that if men were angels, government would be unnecessary. So, two other underlying factors would be ethics and the government theory. – TL

  3. Thank you both for your two new takes on my question. There is more here for me to think about now. I was initially led to this topic by a very clear and helpful description of the way a pragmatist might gain traction in the discussion over the distribution of wealth in a society. Read Mike O’Conner’s dissertation (or at least see the first two chapters of his hopefully soon to be published book.) Mike is a co-editor here at USIH, so questions should be directed his way. He positions pragmatism as a clear argument that asks something on the order of “if the public is happy, then why attempt to justify the status of things, especially if the act of justifying will upset the compromise that keeps the public happy?”
    So on to the comments…
    Am I implying that the burden of keeping the vast majority of Americans at some minimal safety net is the obligation of the wealthy? I think it prudent for them to do so, dare we call it “pragmatic” at least. For those who agree with the ultra right Libertarian position and think property rights are sacred, I would ask you to dig back to the origin of almost any charter of real estate. As we all must recognize, the present title of anything is only legitimate if the original charter was also legitimate. You may find an example of a legitimate original title out there somewhere, but I have not found one yet. Please let me know if you do. Instead, I have found most original titles to be based on a royal grant, or the acquisition of what had been community or cultural property taken through force. So if we all agree that by virtue of some imaginary social contract that we are all better off if we “play nice” and agree to recognize, for now, the original title to the lands, then those who have the lands had best make sure that we all share enough in the social wealth that originates theron. And for those of the ultra left, you may argue that the only appropriate distribution of wealth is strict equality. But take the profit motive out of the system and wealth generation stops. Soon we find that the lands do not feed us all unless someone is making profits. Again, it is incumbant on the majority not to redistribute wealth, otherwise this economic miracle will fizzle. From my way of seeing it, both ends of the argument, the ultra right and the ultra left, lead to unworkable systems. And their arguments can be used to justify nothing but their own extreme positions. So perhaps the pragmatist is the middle way that solves the problem from an ethical point of view.
    And Tim, I think my original questions were more oriented to the logic of using arguments of the extreme right and the extreme left to call into question the workable compromises that have been struck. For example, if I say a progressive tax system is socialist, and therefore we should give tax breaks to the rich, my argument is using the Libertarian extreme argument to unsettle a compromise (a progressive tax system whereby the rich provide more percapita support to the system than the poor.) Of course the option to the compromise is equal distribution of all wealth, so the use of that argument against the synthesis may be counter-productive to the stated aims of the far right.
    So no, I was not asking about the usefullness of government, which is the administrator of the compromise (for so long as government does not side with the rich or the poor, it is not a force for the undermining of society.) But perhaps I missed the point of your question Tim?

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