Hoppe-ing Mad, Part 2: Electric Boogaloo

Recently, I wrote that “The notion that a monarchy would be more moderate is false on its face…governments which do not face electoral accountability  are more exploitative, more oppressive, and more willing to sacrifice long-term benefits for short-term gain.”


Picture Unrelated.

There’s an easy rebuttal to this, of course. If my assertion is that democracy is more desirable than monarchy and results in better outcomes, then how do I explain America’s outrageous wealth inequality? How do I explain our criminally unjust health care policies,  or our broken criminal justice system?

Easy: America is not an example of the failures of democracy, because America is not a democracy.

In the last piece in this I wrote, I quoted Amartya Sen, who said that “No famine has ever taken place in the history of the world in a functioning democracy.”[1] My contention is that every failure, every injustice, every indignity, every oppression, and every exploitation is the result of insufficient democracy, not its excess. Over and over again, what we see in this country is how a lack of representation leads to an incalculable human cost.

Our Representative Democracy Isn’t

The worst injustices are visited on the least represented. Look at the makeup of Congress–overwhelmingly white, male, old, and rich. This isn’t some appeal to “identity politics,” whatever that even means. Rather, it means that the majority of representatives will never suffer any consequences from defunding Planned Parenthood; it means that they will never face the burden of crushing debt caused by unleashed payday lenders; it means they will never sit in a jail cell for breaking the laws they have written.

In a truly representative democracy, we might expect our elected representatives to match the population of the electorate, both in terms of mindset and demographics. Women make up 50.8% of the American population; African-Americans, 13.3%; Hispanics and Latinx, 17.6%. Yet women are only 20% of the House of Representatives. African-Americans are only 11%. Only 9% of Congressmen are Hispanic or Latinx. It is clear that Congress, which is meant to be an accountable and representative body, does not reflect the makeup of the country as a whole. [2]

I am not suggesting that a more diverse group of lawmakers would automatically solve America’s problems. As Ryan Cooper showed for the People’s Policy Project, America’s first black president oversaw the worst loss of wealth in black communities in history. But in the same way that a good system does not guarantee good outcomes, a bad system guarantees bad outcomes.

And our outcomes are pretty bad. Numbers:

According to the Pew Research Center, 53% of Americans support legalizing marijuana; 74% of Americans support the “no-fly/no-buy policy” (a policy by which people on the “no-fly” list are barred from purchasing firearms); 80% of Americans say that undocumented immigrants should be allowed to stay in the United States; 69% of Americans say maintaining current levels of entitlement spending is more important than managing the deficit; and 61% of Americans say abortion should be legalized. Yet marijuana is not only still illegal, but the current Attorney General is seeking to roll back statewide efforts to chart a path towards legalization; no gun-control legislation has been enacted even after one madman shot 400 people in Las Vegas ans another shot a Congressman; ICE has gone full Gestapo with its targeted deportations; Congress blew a $1.5 trillion hole in the deficit to pay for a tax cut for millionaires; and politicians are attempting to reverse Roe v. Wade, either through legislation or the courts. [3]

I could go on, describing the voter-suppression efforts, the gerrymandering, the uncontested races, or any of the other authoritarian measures all members of the political class use to stay in power, but I hope it will suffice to say that if we were to see another country with this kind of skewed representation and this kind of divide between the people and the lawmakers, we would rightly say that something is very wrong.

And something is.

Consider Flint

Lead is very bad for you. 

What happened in Flint was an ecological catastrophe. What you might not know is that it was also a failure of government on virtually every level.

At the time of the decision to change the source of drinking water for the residents of Flint, the city had no elected executive. Indeed, administration of the city was overseen by an unelected emergency manager. If there is any doubt that breakdowns of democracy are never far from the scene of humanitarian crises, it is worth noting that the law under which Governor Rick Snyder appointed an emergency manager in the first place— Public Act 48—was repealed by voters, only to be re-enacted, in a slightly different form, as Public Act 436. In an almost perverse twist, the rewritten law could not be repealed by voters by popular referendum. [4]

My contention, in case it is not clear, is that a democratically-elected leader–or a democratically-run community council of some kind–would never have made the decision to switch water sources. Undemocratic leaders are insulated from the consequences of their actions in a way democratic ones are not; not merely in the way they might be held electorally accountable, but because they have to live in the community.

Making others bear the burden of your deciions–whether it is the oldest Congress in history forcing the next generation to suffer the oncoming climate crisis or insatiable consumers demanding a new phone that leads to the death and exploitation of sweatshop workers–is demonstably unfair. Being unfair, it is unjust.

But now we have to talk a little bit about what Justice means.

Democracy Is Just

It’s not enough, I think, to assert that America isn’t a democracy. After all, the earlier article I wrote was pushing back on the notion that democracy isn’t the ideal political system. So I want to, briefly, try and rebut that specific claim.

I have a preoccupation with justice, despite the fact that I have only a clumsy, flimsy understanding of the concept [5]. That said, my currect working definition says that Justice is a state or condition that accords with an a priori vision of what the world should be. Justice, from justificiation–to make the crooked ay straight, as it were. I say a priori because Justice implies that there is a “right” way for the world to be. More formally, I ay that Justice is: 

The condition or state in which redistribution or correction has occurred such that there are no imbalances of power.

For now, I hope it’s enough for me to assert that power imbalances are A Bad Thing, and that correcting for them is a worthy pursuit on its on. Obviously, if you think differently (if, say, you subscribe to mainstream Western understandings of meritocracy), you won’t consider this goal quite as attractive, but for now, I ask that you put that aside.

It’s helpful to think of Justice as the destination; Justice is the goal. To achieve your goal, you need a method of conveyance, a way to get you where you want to go. In my case, I defer to John Rawls, whose writings I understand but little. [6] I tried to grapple with his writings back in the dim, dark days of 2017, when I said that “[F]airness is a major component of justice…by ‘fair’, I mean mutually acceptable to both parties were their situations reversed.”

Rawls writes a lot about the “Original Position”and the “Veil of Ignorance,” all of which is confusing. Not as confusing is Ben Spielberg over at 34 Justice, who, when writing about the execution of Mike Brown, wrote that “the veil of ignorance, by forcing us to consider the possibility that we will be anyone in society, focuses us on fairness and equality of opportunity.  Especially given human beings’ risk aversion, rational people behind the veil of ignorance would seek to minimize imbalances of power.”

Basically, the “Veil of Ignorance” is a thought experiment used to analyze whether or not a given policy or idea is Fair or not. In its simplest terms, it asks “If you didn’t know how this law/policy/idea would affect you, would you support it?” It’s easy to make a law, say, making it illegal to have blonde hair if you know you have brown hair; but if you didn’t know your hair color, you wouldn’t make a law like that. That’s overly reductive, but that’s what you need to know. If it helps, the Golden Rule is essentially a description of the Veil of Ignorance, but restated: “Don’t do to anyone anything you wouldn’t want them doing to you.”

I consider Fairness part of my larger Ethic, which I think of as primarily Relational.. The mental and emotional structure I have built to help me intersect with the world (what you could call a heuristic, or what Thomas Merton might call “conscience” [7]), or my Ethic, is arranged mainly around relationships–how I interact with other people and with the world. Fairness is one of the chief bits of scaffolding in my Ethical construction. [8]

So, follow me here: Fairness is a way to achieve Justice. Therefore, if a situation is unfair, it cannot be Just. Simple enough.

Also simple: undemocratic political systems are not fair, and therefore not just.

No rational actor operating under the veil of ignorance would build a system like the one we have now. If you looked at the facts–the massive disparities in representation, the vastly disproportional number of minorities in poverty and prison–you would never accept it.

Rather, if you had no idea about your position in the world, if you had no idea if you were white or black, male or female, queer or straight, if you were ignorant of everything about your own existence except for the fact of its existence, you would pick democracy. You would pick, as quickly as you could, freedom, the ability for your voice to be heard. And most importantly, you would limit the ability for any one person, or any group, to exercise their will over anyone else, because you would have no idea which group you’d be in. Self-preservation, if nothing else, would demand you create the most egalitarian and equitable society possible.

But that’s not what we have. That’s because America isn’t just, it isn’t fair, and it isn’t a democracy.

[1] Amartya Sen. Development As Freedom, 1999. Page 16.

[2] This passage is exerpted from Georgia Votes, a voting-rights manifesto I wrote and distributed to lawmakers in Georgia.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] It’s incumbent on me to offer this disclaimer: I have no idea what I’m talking about, and you’ll probably come to a more sound philosophical understanding of the world by listening to, say, a wild-eyed feral child.

[6] Seriously. Feral child. Think Road Warrior.

[7] See, for example, Merton in No Man Is An Island, where he writes that “I cannot make good choices unless I develop a mature and prudent conscience that gives me an accurate account of my motives, my intentions, and my moral acts…Conscience is the light by which we interpret the will of God in our own lives.” (Pages 27-30)

[8] My crippling fear is that somebody’s gonna read this and think I’m that guy–the guy who thinks he’s the one who’s finally figured out philosophy, and the internet is just lucky to serve as his medium. I assure you, this isn’t the case, and in case you think I’m getting a little bit full of myself, remember that for over 20 years, I thought the expression “Soup to nuts” referred to serving soup to crazy people, so I’m never going to be able to pretend I’m the next Aristotle, or even the next Moldbug.

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