Thursday, January 18, 2007

Populism and Civic Initiative

An interesting conservative criticism claims that welfare liberalism erodes individual responsibility and autonomous agency by encouraging dependency on the state. There may be something to this – though the risk comes not from wealth redistribution, but statism. One sees this time and again, reading through the various case studies in Scott London’s ‘Creating Citizens through Public Deliberation’ [PDF]. For example:
There is a tradition in Puerto Rico of being policy-takers, not policy-makers. This fact became clear to Miranda-Marín early in his campaign for mayor. “We had study circles and forums with political leaders, community leaders, professionals, and private sector people,” he told interviewer Alfredo Carrasquillo-Ramírez. “We would ask people, ‘What are your problems?’ And we would get long lists and pages and pages of problems. Then we would ask, ‘What are your strengths?’ And we would get silence. Everybody would remain silent. Instead of sharing their strengths, they would share stories about what the government brought to the community. And I would think to myself, ‘How much dependency!’”

Miranda-Marín saw that the first step in breaking the cycle of dependency was to introduce a new language for discussing public issues. “The traditional political logic was blunt and simple: ‘I give you my vote in exchange for having you solve this or that, or in exchange for your giving me this or that.’ That discourse had to change.”

When citizens see themselves in this way as purely private actors – customers that some distant government agency is meant to serve – that is no democracy worthy of the name. Genuine democracy arguably requires active citizenship and participation in the public sphere, towards the ideal of collective self-government. Rather than waiting for someone else to fix everything, we should work together to address our common concerns. So claims a meta-political view – call it ‘populism’ – that emphasizes initiative and civic engagement.

Isn’t it then populism, rather than capitalism, that is the true opposite of communism’s “statist” aspect? This may be a variation on the old 'two kinds of liberty' debates (though I haven't framed it like that before). Totalitarianism deprives us of both private and civic agency. Capitalism restores our agency within the private sphere, whereas populism empowers us in the public/political sphere, i.e. in our role as citizens. (The core populist thesis, as I understand it, is that we ought to have a say over the structure of our society, rather than having it imposed on us from without.)

The two are at least logically independent, though in practice they may come into tension, e.g. if mass consumer culture undermines a community’s self-conception. This then raises the question: which has priority?


  1. It seems to me that populism combined with individual responsibility would be opposite "statism." However populism, as often as not, devolves into poor understanding of politics combined with a "what's in it for me" attitude that tends to ignore the strengths of the whole.

    The obvious example would be Huey Long during the 30's who (going by memory) promised everyone a turkey and a fridge and possibly a car. One might argue that all the contradictory balot initiatives in California is also an example of the weakness of populism.

    If individuals do come together and are focused on what's best for all rather than short term benefits without a calculation of cost then I think populism can be great. I just have my doubts that it happens that often. Capitalism has similar flaws (i.e. environmental costs which can be ignore all too easily) But it seems like Capitalism by making costs typically apply in a more obvious fashion works better.

    I just tend to see populism leading to more statism rather than less.

  2. Having a say in the "structure of society" sounds a little misleading. Put in those words, I have no objection to populism understood in that way.

    But what do we mean by "structure of society"? One worry is that this phrase ultimately reduces to, "having a say in how other people live their lives." This reduction takes a few steps. "Structure of society" could reduce to saying "determining the institutions of society," and determining those institutions might have non-neutral effects on how people choose to live their lives. If we are motivated to alter the structure because of a prediction about how people will behave under the new structure, then it looks like our having the power to change the structure is our power over the behaviour of others (and ourselves, I guess).

    This isn't so bad if we use language like "our ability to control our lives through structures or institutions." But it is pretty bad if the language means, in practice, "our ability to control other people's lives through structures or institutions."

    We know that certain structures/institutions have disproportionate effects on certain people, and not on others.

    I suspect that "populism" is the right contrast to statism when the structures in question either have non-disproportionate impacts, or have disproportionate impacts but only those who are most affected have a stronger say, or some other option that does not, ultimately, mean "our say in other people's lives."

    Whether the actors who make decisions for others are politicians or bureaucrats, or some subset of us through the state does not, to me, mark much of a difference.

  3. [Update: re: "two freedoms", it was Benjamin Constant's "liberty of the ancients" that I had in mind.]

    Clark - I'm understanding "populism" as being concerned with the common good, hence precluding the sort of crass majoritarianism you describe. But labels aside, the risk of selfishness is genuine enough, and I agree that genuine populism is exceedingly rare -- and hence a somewhat risky ideal to advocate, in comparison to libertarianism.

    Jaworski - that's a fair concern, and I agree that a tyranny of the majority is no better than any other tyrant. But given that we must have some form of institutional structure, are you sure its origins don't matter at all?

    The ideal process, to my mind, would be one of public-minded deliberation that includes all affected parties. (Again, this is not mere majoritarianism, because of the demand for public reasons.) Such a process would strike me as intrinsically more legitimate than the alternatives (including self-interested majoritarianism). But perhaps this is in part because such a process should, by its very nature, guard against the sort of impositions you rightly deplore.

  4. We can agree about the following, Richard. For one, if we must make decisions about the structures of society (and we do) then some form of all of us having a say is the right way to do this. That is, procedural justice issues, or the way an institution or structure comes about, matters.

    Given two identical structures, that one was chosen through deliberative procedures, or through at least some acceptable version of democracy, while the other is chosen, say, autocratically, is sufficient grounds to prefer the former to the latter. So I agree that the origins matter.

    Perhaps one way to get closer to agreement is to restrict the scope of which structures we should pick by what process. Basic, foundational structures, for instance, might be chosen deliberatively, and more particular structures can be chosen in a decentralized way, restricting the number of participants according to its impact (or something like that). Alternatively, we might think that the basic structure should be chosen by a select few (like, in the U.S., the "founding fathers" and the constitution), while the rest is determined deliberatively, or some other option.

    I'm uncomfortable about the idea of determining what I will have for lunch by appeal to deliberative procedures, for instance (I realize that this is hardly what anyone has in mind, but there are analogues to this that people, I am certain, do have in mind).

    At any rate, I am not opposed to determining structures of society on the basis of some kind of populist method. Not in principle, anyways. But I'd like to hear more about what "structures of society" means, in practice. What structures are we talking about?

  5. The basic legal framework, I guess. The constitution, for sure, but perhaps also more specific and contingent frameworks, like local government regulations, tax and welfare systems, etc.


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