Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Protests and political theory - a dialogue

This is an imaginary dialogue inspired by the recent student protests against increases in tuition fees. Whilst it focuses on the student protests issue in particular, it also covers a good deal of background political philosophy that is of more general interest.

Mary awoke, slightly disorientated, and it took her a few seconds to remember that the sleeping bags around her contained the fellow protesting occupiers of one of the university common rooms. She was about to close her eyes and go back to sleep again when she heard a voice. She looked to her side and saw a heavy-set, bearded, and bald man whom she recognised vaguely to be a professor from the Philosophy Department.

Professor: “Hello Mary. How is the occupation going?” he said.

Mary: “Uh…very well. Thanks.”

Professor: “And what are the goals of the occupation? What are you hoping to achieve?”

Mary: “Well, we want the University to agree to our demands – including opposing any increase in student tuition fees, fighting against any cuts to education and other public services, and fighting for free education for all. Once it agrees to these demands then we will end the occupation. This is just a small part of a much larger campaign of direct action across the country against university fee increases.”

Professor: : “Interesting, but I have some concerns about the occupation in terms of both strategy and principle. From a strategic point of view, if you want to achieve your goals, as you rationally should, do you think that the approach that you have taken is the one most likely to succeed? And, in terms of principle, do you believe that your actions can be justified morally, particularly if we bear in mind that they are probably illegal? Of course, morality and legality are not entirely coincident, and nor should they be. The law ought not in general to legislate against all immoral actions, such as lying; nor to enshrine some religious code of morality - as happens in theocracies. And, conversely, the law that stipulates on which side of the road we are to drive, for example, does not reflect some underlying moral truth of the matter. Nevertheless, the decision to wilfully and forcefully occupy somebody else's property should require proper justification. That Locke's justifications of private property rights (including his labour-mixing one) ultimately fail does not mean that no other good justifications are available. In fact, a societal agreement, enshrined in law, to allow and respect legitimate private property ownership is something that we all ought rationally to consent to, as it is generally in our own long-term self-interest to do so as long as others reciprocate. And, if the state does rationally formulate such laws, then we are entitled to use them to protect ourselves and our property against those who would choose to reject such laws. Furthermore, those who do reject such laws are required to make their case for change by means of proper reasoned argument, rather than by mere force.

In terms of strategy, if the university management is broadly sympathetic to your goals, do you not think that this occupation will be more likely to alienate the very people with whom you could otherwise have worked constructively in pursuit of these goals - thus making it irrational and self-defeating? And, in terms of principle, if the university management broadly disagrees with your goals, do you not think that attempting to coerce them into acquiescence is morally wrong? In either case, don’t you think that reasoned and civil debate and discussion with the university management prior to and instead of any occupation would have been the more rational and just course of action, as opposed to demanding that they negotiate with you only after you have already taken occupation of the room? Moreover, if the education cuts do go ahead as planned then the University could hardly be blamed for choosing to increase its tuition fees, as it would have little choice but to replace the lost revenue stream somehow if it is to remain a financially viable entity. So, on that basis it would probably be irrational for them to oppose tuition fee increases on principle, as you would probably like them to do.”

Mary: “Well, some forms of direct action, including this occupation, may possibly be legally wrong, but they are morally right - as we are just exercising our right to free speech and peaceful protest, and anyway the ends are a vital good that justifies the means. Furthermore, we are not using violence or destroying property – although these might be acceptable in some other cases of direct action. I’m sure the university will agree in the end that we’re right, and we’re prepared to wait as long as it takes for them to see sense and negotiate with us.”

Professor: “Do you believe that a right to free speech entails a duty upon others to provide you with a particular platform, other than those platforms that are already open to members of society in general? And do you believe that a right to peaceful protest entails a duty upon others to allow you to occupy their property? If so, do you have sound justification for those beliefs? Apart from considerations of justice, isn’t human nature such that these methods will tend to turn the University management against you, even if they might initially have been sympathetic to your cause? If so, then wouldn’t you be acting irrationally? And isn’t it just begging the question to say that the ends are so good that they justify the means, as whether the ends are such is a large part of what is disagreed upon here? Don’t you first have to demonstrate this by means of sound argument based upon evidence and reason, rather than just assuming it? And if the ends weren’t the good that you assume, then wouldn’t direct action be unjust? Following your logic, wouldn’t other groups – say the BNP or the EDL, or even anyone who decided to fight for fee increases – be equally justified if they chose to use direct action in order to force a change in law or policy? And if they were allowed to succeed, wouldn't your actions set a dangerous precedent that could be emulated by such groups, and thus irrationally encourage anarchy over civil society?”

Mary: “They wouldn’t be justified, where we are, because our ends are right and theirs are wrong.”

Professor: “So you say, but I’m sure they would equally passionately insist that they are right wouldn’t they? But in the absence of good supporting arguments, your and their cases would be equally little more than mere assertion, so how can I as a dispassionate observer know that you and your ends are right, where others would be wrong? You haven’t demonstrated it to be so, have you?”

Mary: “Well…I do have some good arguments that I can give to you that will show we’re right. Do you want to hear them?”

Professor: “So, you do believe then that good arguments are required in order to show that you are in fact right - that you can’t just assume it?”

Mary: “Yes, I would say that. And I do have some, so I’m not just assuming that I’m right.”

Professor: “If you have good arguments, as you suggest, then why are you and others choosing direct action instead of putting all of your efforts and energies into perfecting these arguments and communicating them as effectively as possible to the University, the government, and to the general public so that they can recognise and agree with the rightness of your case and that of the student protesters in general?”

Mary: “We’ve done some of that, but direct action is so much more effective at getting our message into the media and in forcing government to change policy and law. It’s worked before, and it can work again. By contrast, peaceful protest has little effect - look at what happened with the demonstrations against the war in Iraq.”

Professor: “But don’t you think that direct action, whilst certainly getting your message out and getting backing from those who already sympathetic to such means, will tend in general to alienate political and public sentiment, and therefore be self-defeating and irrational? After all, why should they be sympathetic to your case if they haven’t agreed with or perhaps even heard these supposedly strong arguments of yours? Maybe you’re not communicating them widely or effectively enough, or maybe they’re just weak or unsound arguments. In this latter case, how would you even know yourself that you are right? And, moreover, even if direct action is effective in forcing changes in policy and law, do you think that law and policy should be made and changed this way in a democracy such as ours? Do you think those who can muster the greatest force or numbers should determine policy and law by those means alone, or should they not instead be based upon deliberation using the best evidence and the strongest arguments?

You mentioned that the large-scale marches in London and elsewhere in Europe against the involvement in the Iraq War that failed to bring about a change in policy. However, even on a majoritarian view, if a million people marched against the invasion, then many more millions didn’t. And, in fact, polls at the time showed a majority of people in Britain in favour of our troops taking part in the invasion – notwithstanding the presence of the marches against this. However, more fundamentally than this, laws and policy in general should be based upon deliberation, evidence, and reason in an attempt to gain general assent and to best determine moral and political truth, not upon mere force of numbers holding the respective views.”

Mary: “Well, I suppose it might alienate some people. And I agree that we could probably put more effort into getting our arguments right and communicating them effectively. But in the meantime I don’t see why we shouldn’t use direct action to try to get what we want. We know we’re right, so direct action is justified. What we need is mass civil disobedience - it worked with Gandhi, it worked with Martin Luther King, it worked with Nelson Mandela, and it can work with us.”

Professor: “We live in a democracy – even though it is one that contains many flaws. As such, there are legitimate legal means available to people to attempt to change law and policy, and these have been shown to work in the past – for example, political lobbying, public debate, peaceful protest and, ultimately, how we use our electoral vote. In such circumstances, isn’t direct action just irrationally choosing anarchy over civil society? If one lives in an autocratic or totalitarian regime, or is part of some permanently disenfranchised minority, and one can thus play no legitimate part in the political process in one’s country, then civil disobedience and direct action can certainly be justified – as in the cases that you mentioned. And if the regime is sufficiently tyrannical and corrupt, then even revolution might be justified and rational. But do you honestly believe that you are being excluded from playing any legitimate part in the political process, and that mass civil disobedience and direct action is justified in your case?”

Mary: “I don’t think that I’m exactly being excluded in that way, but the means for changing policy and law that you mention are so slow and inefficient. If we want things to be changed, which they must be, then direct action and civil disobedience are the best ways of doing it.”

Professor: “You may think you’re right, but you have so far failed to convince a majority of our political representatives of this (and even this wouldn’t prove that you’re right, just that you have got general agreement, which is not necessarily the same thing, but is at least what is required in a democracy), and your direct actions may in fact do more harm than good to your cause in this regard. For example, there is some evidence that the general public is indeed alienated by violent or destructive direct action, so it is plausible to suppose that this would be reflected amongst political representatives too. Whilst you should be entitled in a democratic civil society to voice your opinions and arguments freely in public, so long as they are not direct incitements to violence and harm, and to seek agreement from others in order to effect changes in law and political policy, don’t you agree that if you fail to convince people by these means then you should not be entitled to then coerce them into agreement instead? That’s part of what it means to live in a democracy. You can’t just impose your will upon others in society without first achieving some sort of democratic political agreement. To do so would be to act as tyrants by using force to get what you want. And if you could do it, then so could anyone else. Do you think that you would be right to seek to impose your will like that, and to thus reject civil society in favour of anarchy?”

Mary: “Well, what’s so great about democracy and the way that law is made and changed in it? And what do you mean about anarchy, and why would that be such a bad thing anyway?”

Professor: “Changes in significant law and policy should, in general, be carefully considered and debated and overall agreement from the people or their political representatives should be sought. Moreover, any such changes should be based upon evidence and reason, as these are the best ways in general of converging upon political and moral truths (and truth in general). And given the facts about human psychology and the world in general, incorporating the evaluative premises that the most essential moral and political goals ought to be happiness and flourishing, and realising that there are empirically better and worse ways of achieving these goals, then I believe such moral and political truths do in fact exist. If people know that there is a way for them to influence and change the law, however slow and flawed in might be, then they can agree to live by some laws that they don’t agree with, whilst seeking legitimately to change them. That is, as John Rawls argued, in a democracy where all people have a voice the strains of social commitment will be minimal. And if changes in law are based upon evidence and reason, then they are more likely to be right, truth will be more likely to prevail, and society will be more likely to progress. Certainly, such high ideals are often not met in practice, but this is not reason to at least aspire to and try our best to achieve them.

To base changes in law instead upon mere force would be anarchy, and to base them upon mere numbers would be majoritarianism. The former is an irrational rejection of civil society, and the latter would practically guarantee that minorities would be ignored and perhaps oppressed. We all might find ourselves in a minority position on some issues, and we would hope that the majority would not just ride roughshod over us, but would instead consider our views, and be swayed by them if they are rationally persuasive enough. Therefore, it is rational that we should accord others the same consideration. Moreover, such a method will be more likely to be truth-seeking. In fact, if people are to be truly free, then they must be given liberties that allow them to go against the will of the majority, constrained only by being compatible with those same liberties for others.

Yes, it’s, slow, flawed, open to abuse, and almost certainly not the best possible system of government, but liberal democracy - probably representative rather than direct - is the best general system of government yet devised by humanity in terms of realizing individual human happiness and flourishing, as it gives citizens extensive freedoms and rights, and gives them all a say in who shall rule and what laws shall be made. Of course, those who choose not to participate will have their political decisions made for them by others. Moreover, giving government just the power that it requires to maintain a civil society, rather than being able to impose some moral view or other, allows it to devote more time to solving real problems, and reduces the opportunities for abuse of power and oppression of its citizens by the current or any future government.

Plato argued for a system of benevolent dictatorship by those selected and trained to be the wisest and most knowledgeable, instead of by the citizens in general (which he thought of as mob rule, and likened to allowing drunken passengers instead of the captain to navigate a ship), but human nature and frailty are such that it would lack the necessary omniscience, would be too prone to corruption and self-interest, and would then be difficult to remove if the citizens found that it was not in fact acting in their best interests. Even apart from this, the strains of social commitment would tend to be greater in a society in which those being ruled have no political say, even if the manner of that rule actually is in their own long-term best interests, and it would thus ultimately be a less stable and flourishing society. And autocratic and totalitarian regimes of all stripes have always promoted human misery by their often brutal restrictions upon personal and public freedom, their personality cults, and by their misguided beliefs about human nature and the world in general.”

Professor: “And you asked why anarchy would be a bad thing. Well, notwithstanding the ingenious arguments devised by those who support it, the overwhelming evidence shows that in the absence of a functioning state with a legitimate monopoly on violence people (more often men) will compete violently over precious resources, including mates, seeing others as mere obstacles standing in their way; they will employ pre-emptive aggression against neighbouring groups as they fear that if they don’t then they will be attacked first – known as a Hobbesian trap; and they will act violently to protect their honour, or else they fear that others will perceive them as weak and attempt to exploit or kill them. Pre-state tribal societies and those where the state is out of reach or has disintegrated almost always have vastly higher levels of violence than in ours – in fact, tens or hundreds of times higher. Anthropologists, historians, and social scientists have given us ample actual facts that demonstrate Rousseau, amongst others - with his belief of peaceful and selfless pre-state humans, and the corrupting influences of civilisation leading to violence and greed - to be dead wrong."

Mary: “But aren’t humans naturally altruistic and cooperative, and isn’t there even lots of evidence of cooperation in the animal world, as Kropotkin said? Maybe humans are naturally good and it is society that has corrupted them, and political anarchism would then create a less violent society?”

Professor: “Reciprocal altruism, compassion, group loyalty, and empathy are parts of human nature, as they were evolutionary adaptive behaviours in certain circumstances, and they are at the root of our intrinsic moral sense. However, the so-called noble savage is an enduringly popular myth - violent, aggressive, xenophobic, and ruthlessly selfish tendencies are also evolved parts of our human nature, and the evidence strongly shows that in the absence of a state, these latter tendencies will tend to predominate when dealing with those outside of our moral circle of family and immediate group, and that this would probably be in our best interests anyway, as others will probably be acting that way towards us. Cooperation requires trust, and trust of strangers would be largely non-existent in the absence of a state. Whilst iterations of Prisoner’s Dilemma scenarios show that mutual cooperation is ultimately in the best collective interest of people generally, without the existence of a state with its legitimate monopoly on the use of violence to enforce laws and contracts, deter aggression, and punish wrongdoers it is almost impossible in practice to achieve this large-scale mutual cooperation as people will distrust others and tend to act only in their own short-term interests.

Almost without exception, when the state doesn’t exist or is taken away, then inter-group violence spirals; and where there is a functioning state it falls dramatically. In light of this overwhelming evidence of a correlation between functioning state and reduced violence, and vice versa - with good reasons to explain this correlation - then to maintain that anarchy would instead actually tend to lead to more happiness and less violence is highly implausible. Human nature renders the anarchists’ dream of unregulated mutual harmony as utopian self-delusion. Therefore, it is in all of our best interests in general to have a civil and democratic state, and there is every reason to believe that political anarchy would entail anarchy in the colloquial sense, and so it would be irrational for us to encourage it. What we need to decide is exactly how to organise the state for all our best interests, not whether one is necessary at all. Don’t you agree?”

Mary: “Perhaps, but why would our actions tend to encourage anarchy at the expense of civil society?”

Professor: “Because by using such direct means as occupations, destruction of property, and, in certain circumstances, violence in order to get your way you are attempting to force a change in the law by coercion in the absence of democratic political agreement. However, if you do this and it is successful then you are setting an example to others of how to shortcut the democratic political process in order to get the law and policy changes that they want by force. Thus, by this dangerous precedent, would the seeds of destruction for the democratic state be sown.

Mary: “Perhaps, but why should I agree to obey the laws of the state, when I never agreed to those laws, or even to the existence of the state in the first place?”

Professor: “In a nutshell, because it’s in your long-term best interests to do so, as the alternatives would be far worse for you. Read Hobbes’ Leviathan. His solution of an absolute ruler – whether a monarch or otherwise - is a bad one that would most probably entail unacceptable consequences in terms of freedom and autonomy. However, his arguments about the ‘state of nature’ and why we should aim to avoid it are still powerful today. And, the argument to the best explanation based upon the evidence we have is that political anarchy would in reality converge upon something akin to this Hobbesian state of nature - even if the way that it was cited by Hobbes was actually a historical fiction. Actual facts about human nature and the world dictate that the types of freedoms and liberties worth having require a state and its enforcement of democratically agreed laws.

So, if we knew all of the relevant facts, and reasoned correctly based upon these facts, then we would probably freely and rationally choose to agree to live under a democratic and liberal state, and to generally obey its laws, whilst as the same time seeking to improve them where evidence and reason dictates this, as there is every reason to believe that this is the type of political arrangement out of any that we know that is most likely to enable us to lead a happy and flourishing life. This is not the same as the utilitarian justification for the state - that we should agree to it because it is the solution that maximises the happiness or preferences of the population as a whole. Nor is it the same as the contract justification for the state - that we have all tacitly agreed to it already, or at least would do so hypothetically. If we all desire to lead happy, contented, and flourishing lives - as we rationally ought to do - then, given the facts that we know about human psychology and the world in general, we can all probably best achieve this goal by living under the general framework of a liberal and democratic state, and by generally following its laws [and this accords with my view of morality, discussed here, with politics being the subset of moral behaviour that relates to power and government]. Of course, some people might still mistakenly believe that a state is not justified, and so will refuse to live by any of its laws that conflict with their short-term interests - even whilst perhaps benefiting from its protection and so on. However, we, the majority, would then be justified in using in self-defence the state's legitimate monopoly on violence in order to restrain such people if necessary.

Whilst even a democratic and civil state will inevitably place some restrictions upon our liberty to act as we please when this would harm others, these restrictions ought not be too onerous, as the power of the state should be limited to only that which is needed to maintain a civil society, and not to impose some moral order upon the population - as totalitarian states attempt to do. Nor should it otherwise needlessly restrict our freedom by, for example, limiting free speech or assembly, stopping us from voting or running for political office, forbidding purely self-directed harm, preventing ‘experiments in living’, or being otherwise oppressively paternalistic. So long as the state maintains a universal set of political liberties for all, including autonomy, equality, and justice, then people should in general be free to live as they wish within that framework, limited only by them causing direct harm to others. As John Rawls said, “each person is to have an equal right to the most extensive scheme of equal basic liberties compatible with a similar scheme of liberties for others.” We ought to agree to the authority a state that necessarily reduces some of our freedoms, because it is in our rational self-interest to do so, whilst working by rational deliberation of actual evidence of what works and what doesn't in order to make our actual state more closely approximate the ideal above."

Professor: “So, moving on, if we can agree that your case should be based upon reason and evidence, rather than upon force or mere numbers, then please tell me some of your good arguments for why you think you are right.”

Mary: “Well, firstly Nick Clegg and the other Liberal Democrats made a pre-election promise that they would oppose and fight against any fee increases. They have now broken this promise, which is wrong. Secondly, university education should be a right for all. Thirdly, university education should be free, and should not be treated as an economic transaction. And, lastly, those arguing for fee increases themselves had free university education, so they are hypocrites.”

Professor: “Firstly, making promises that one knows that one cannot or will not keep, or breaking them out of self-interest alone is probably morally wrong in general. As such, it may be that Nick Clegg and co should be made an example of if they acted in this way. However, breaking promises cannot always be opposed on principle alone. They probably did make that promise based upon the condition that they formed a government, as opposed to merely being a minor partner in a coalition, where they have only limited influence over policy. Also, Nick Clegg and Vince Cable might have evidence that they didn’t have when they made that promise, or have re-evaluated their arguments against fee increases and corrected them where they erred, and now honestly believe that the proposed fee increases are generally in the public’s best interest. Or, perhaps they had no ability to stop the education cuts, and saw the tuition fee increases as being the fairest way forward given that precondition. Or maybe they believe that there is ultimately greater instrumental value in conceding this particular fight, as by doing so the coalition can remain viable and its more minor Liberal Democrat component can continue to influence government policy by softening the Conservative line and winning concessions from them. If they were right in this, then breaking their promise would probably be the lesser evil, at least from a utilitarian point of view. I wonder if you and the other protesters would similarly object on principle to broken promises if the Conservatives decided to scrap the proposed fee increases?

As I said earlier, law and policy should be based upon evidence and reason, and if these pointed to the fee increases being more to the public good, then they would probably be justified. The fault would then be in having made the promise originally, not in having broken it. And, ultimately, it does look as if that keeping that promise was untenable, and it therefore should never have been made. Don’t you agree? I’m not stating that this is in fact the case, but that its hypothetical possibility renders your argument unsound.”

Professor: “Secondly, you say that university education is a right. I’m not sure if by this you are implying that university places should be available to all students who want them, regardless of merit or cost? In any case, I would ask where this so-called right come from? It seems somewhat mysterious to me as its existence is not self-evident, and you haven’t demonstrated it. The onus should be on you to do so, don’t you think? If it is a right, as you insist, then this entails a duty upon others to provide it, which amounts to a form of forced labour as people would be required to serve others in order to supply this right. Don’t you agree? There would therefore be a heavy burden of proof that you would need to meet before it would be justified.”

Professor: “Thirdly, when the politicians who now call for fee increases were at university the proportion of university students was much smaller than it is today, and the nation’s financial situation was probably far less dire. Yes, it smacks of hypocrisy, but decisions should be based upon the current real-world circumstances, and not upon delusion or facts that were once true but are no longer so. And if that means that it is rational for some previously existing state funding to now be withdrawn then so be it.”

Professor: “And, lastly, I think we come to one of the core issues in this debate. University education most certainly isn’t free, as somebody must pay for the necessary resources in terms of people, buildings, materials, and so on. At the moment this is paid for partly by the state (i.e. the taxpayers, amongst other sources), partly by the students, and partly by the universities themselves (where there is a shortfall from the other two sources of funding). As such, it most certainly is an economic transaction, and to suggest otherwise is a form of economic naivety. Since university education isn’t free, its continued existence entails that somebody will have to pay for it – the question, and at the crux of the whole issue here – is who will pay?”

Professor: “So Mary, who do you think should pay, and why?”

Mary: “I think that the students themselves certainly shouldn’t pay, as this would put off certain students from going to university, and leave those who do go with huge debts. I think the government should partly pay, as it is quite happy to pay for other far more expensive and less valuable things, such the Trident nuclear missile replacement. I think that corporations and banks should also contribute, as it is their greed that has led us to being in this situation in the first place.”

Professor: “Firstly, you haven’t demonstrated that students probably would be put off from applying to university by the prospect of a higher debt, as this prospect didn’t appear to stop people from getting big mortgages for property, for example, and their education can also be seen as an investment; or why putting off some students from applying would be an intrinsically bad thing anyway. Furthermore, you haven’t shown why those who will be the primary beneficiaries of this education should not be expected to pay, as they will have to do so for their houses in later life, for example. As it stands, these are unsubstantiated assertions."

Mary: “Well, the prospective students say that they would be put off, so why shouldn’t we believe them? And to ask students to pay large fees for their education and end up in so much debt isn’t fair.”

Professor: “People think and say a lot of things that are wrong, for all sorts of reasons. And as Niels Bohr once said, prediction is difficult, especially about the future. We need a more reliable predictive measure then just what people say they will or won’t do, or else it becomes highly speculative and open to error. And fairness is a very slippery word. Most people would say they want what is fair, but it’s just that people disagree vehemently about what acting fairly and justly actually means. For example, when it comes to distributing income and wealth, power, duties, rights, and honours should society be trying to maximise overall welfare, to respect freedom, or to encourage virtue? Each of these approaches might give a different answer as to whether the proposed fee increases and their likely implications for students are fair and just or not. I’m not saying that it is fair that students should pay more – only that you haven’t yet demonstrated the opposite, and it can’t just be assumed, as this would be to beg a very big question.

Professor: “Secondly, you haven’t justified why the state should consider university education to be as worthy a recipient of state funding as some other things, such as the Trident replacement that you mention. It may, for example, have good reasons to consider it to be significantly less valuable to society than things that it does currently fund; or, alternatively, consider that it is as valuable, but believe that the money to pay for it ought to come primarily from non-state sources.”

Mary: “But what about the banks and corporations paying? Don’t you think that they should do this as a form of punishment or recompensement?”

Professor: “As for banks and corporations contributing as some sort of punishment, the situation is not clear cut in the way that some believe. Many of us benefited from economic boom times that the banks and corporations were at least partly responsible for creating, but we didn’t suggest giving any money back to them then in gratitude, and weren’t much objecting then to any supposed ‘greed’ on their part. In fact, it was a ‘win-win’ situation then, showing that self-interest need not be inherently bad and that zero-sum isn’t the only game in town. They were certainly trying to make money, but this is part of their raison d’ĂȘtre in a market economy, so why shouldn’t they do so – especially at it was benefiting society in general in terms of economic prosperity?

Mary: “But don’t you think they’re morally responsible for causing the Credit Crunch?”

Professor: “Well, the banks and other financial companies that were using the elaborate financial instruments that are implicated in the eventual Credit Crunch (e.g. credit default swaps) were largely basing their decisions upon accepted economic theory of rational investors – which turned out to be flawed, as investors are often irrational, herd instincts often predominate, and fraud is sometimes a temptation. In hindsight, markets in capital and assets should have been better regulated (as opposed to markets in goods and services, which shouldn’t), and government policy shouldn’t have been encouraging bad lending risks. However, at the time virtually none of the economic models in use at the banks or elsewhere was predicting a bust, and neither were most governments, so the banks cannot really be held morally responsible as they have a good excuse for their actions. As such, a punishment would be difficult to justify since moral blame would be difficult to prove. Incompetence is a charge that could more reasonably be levelled, but the net would then have to be cast so widely across financial institutions, economists, regulatory bodies, governments, and even, dare I say it, consumers who borrowed irresponsibly, so I would argue that pragmatism and fairness demand not a punishment but that economic theories are corrected based upon the new evidence, that oversight and regulation are increased in appropriate areas, that governments and individual people do not borrow excessively, and that the recovery be managed prudently and rationally.

It’s possible that a case can be made for banks and corporations to make more of a general contribution to government funds, as they benefit from the existence of a civil society, but it should not be an irrational retributive punishment.

Mary: “The bigger problem is with capitalism in general, which produces large inequalities and boom and bust cycles.”

Professor: “I think that we should be careful about demonising capitalism in general here. One can make a good case based upon the evidence that a modified liberal free-market economy, with justified regulation and protection for the poorest in society (as opposed to pure laissez-faire capitalism), is the economic model from those tried that is most likely to promote human prosperity, happiness, and flourishing. By contrast, all large-scale attempts at top-down planned economies (such as those in communist countries) failed due to a lack of the necessary omniscience and omnipotence on the part of the state in attempting to determine supply, demand, and pricing in the absence of market signals; a lack of incentive for people to work hard or at all if this will not bring them any additional reward; a lack of competitiveness, with its consequent negative effects upon price and quality of goods; burgeoning black markets; and the brutal restrictions upon freedom required to forbid any type of capitalist transaction and to prevent any naturally arising differences of income or assets. Whilst a planned economy may seem in theory to be more rational and to give more opportunity for its citizens to lead happy and flourishing lives, the real-world experimental results falsify this theory. It might be counterintuitive to believe that a fundamentally chaotic and self-interested thing such as a free market can be in people’s best interests generally, but because it works in harmony with a self-interested human nature, as Adam Smith noted, and allows supply, demand, and pricing to be determined by what people actually want, it works much more efficiently than any planned economy ever has and brings people greater prosperity in general. And because people’s freedom is not severely restricted in a misguided attempt to conform to some ideologically-driven social theory, they have more opportunity to flourish.

The Marxist-Leninist economic theories are based upon false beliefs about human nature - for example that people are born blank slates and that they are not fundamentally self-interested - and the world in general, and inexorably lead to brutal oppression in order to enforce collectivist property laws, and then stagnate into poverty anyway. As E O Wilson, a biologist and expert on ants, said about communism, "Great idea, wrong species." Furthermore, there is no good reason to believe that such mass restrictions in freedom would ultimately produce more freedom, because people don’t know what their real interests are and need to be 'forced to be free' and to become their true and higher selves through some process of self-realisation. Government power in such matters should be limited to promoting civil society, and not imposing some sort of moral worldview upon its citizens, as there is too much scope for this worldview to be wrong, and the resulting loss of freedom is antithetical to a happy and flourishing society anyway.  Even with boom and bust cycles, modified capitalism creates far more prosperity and flourishing than Marxist-Leninist policies ever have, and restricts freedom far less. Even if people were to choose from behind a veil of ignorance, there is good reason to believe that some sort of liberal democratic society based upon modified capitalist lines is what they would tend to choose.”

Mary: “But what about the huge wealth inequalities produced by capitalism? That can’t be fair?”

Professor: “One can actually make a case, as Robert Nozick did, that large inequalities in wealth are just, so long as they arise from a starting position that was initially just (however you wish to define that), and were brought about by free exchange amongst consenting adults. Under such circumstances, it would then arguably be unjust for goods to be taken from those who had earned them this way in order to give them to others in an effort to create a more equal wealth distribution or one based upon need (however we define that). Voluntary donations to charity might be encouraged, but forced redistribution would be viewed as an unwarranted infringement of people’s freedom. Whilst one can certainly argue against this position, one cannot just assume that wealth inequalities are inherently unjust.

If a society’s wealth and resources were, in the words of Nozick, like ‘manna from Heaven’, or if the government had a centralised pot from which all resources were distributed to the citizens, then we might decide that an equal distribution, or one based upon need, might be the most just. However, it’s not like that in reality. Rather, in a free market people and companies buy from and sell or give to each other, including people selling their own labour to their employers, and people thus acquire and expend resources accordingly. As such, if we wanted to adhere to some patterned distribution of wealth, then we would either need to control or forbid the free exchange of goods and labour, and forbid people from saving wealth or passing it to others; or else confiscate some of the acquired goods to pass them to others (in the form of taxes). In the former case, which is more akin to the way things worked under communism, such restrictions on freedom would be hugely detrimental to societal happiness, as well as largely unworkable in practice, and any mooted good arising from having a more equal distribution would be vastly outweighed by the harm in attempting to maintain it. In the latter case it is not at all clear why the state would be justified in taking people’s legitimately obtained goods and distributing them to others, even if others do need them more.

And, as far as slogans such as "from each according his means, to each according to his needs" are concerned, the same principle if followed strictly would entail that I have a duty to donate one of my kidneys, for example, to somebody who would die without a kidney transplant. Most of us would balk at the existence of any such duty, however. One could try to salvage the slogan by modifying it to only entail a redistribution duty so long as it is not too onerous, but not only does this then become a more complex and ambiguous principle, but it could still be argued against based upon it requiring an element of forced labour upon those who must discharge this duty. Again, there are more arguments that can be made - on both sides - both what one cannot do is to just assume that one side is self-evidently true.

And in response to the argument that a meritocratic market society distributes economic goods and opportunities according to morally arbitrary factors (such as some innate ability or other that just happens to be economically valuable in a particular society), we might say that this is not necessarily unjust. If the properly informed and autonomous members of that society freely agree to a form of this arrangement, then there is a contractual argument for considering it just. Of course, in reality there is always going to be disagreement within that society on this, and some would not agree to such a contract - particularly those who would end up at the bottom. However, if the members of that society would, if entirely rational and fully informed of all of the relevant facts, choose some form of that arrangement because it gives the best chance for them to realize their own happiness and flourishing within that society (wherever they happen to find themselves within the society), then they ought to agree to it - whether they might actually think so or not. It then becomes normatively and objectively true that such an arrangement would be 'just' in the sense that we are using the word. Rawls' Difference Principle might superficially appear to be more just in this sense, but it might actually be that a society run along such lines would, due to facts of human psychology, amongst others, be a less happy and flourishing (economically and otherwise) one than a society that is run as a meritocratic market one, but has a safety net in place to ensure that everyone has a sufficient social minimum to give an acceptable standard of life. This is to a large extent an empirical question (that social scientists might address, for example), and not one that can be answered purely from the armchair.

There is also a good utilitarian argument based upon much empirical evidence to show that capitalism generally raises overall prosperity within a society, and that the poorest benefit from this too due to a trickle-down effect and because the overall wealth pie is larger. Because of people’s innately different abilities and inclinations, some valued more highly by a society than others, a free-market will inevitably create more inequality of outcome – which some would argue is an evil in itself – but the empirical evidence from the 20th century attempts at planned economies run along Marxist-Leninist lines shows that whilst they may have produced something closer to equality for their citizens (with the notable exception of the Party leaders), this equality was one of grinding poverty and very little freedom. Those people who had a viable opportunity to choose between these totalitarian systems and the alternative more capitalist systems tended to vote with their feet e.g. in Germany after the fall of the Berlin Wall. And having a capitalist system does not entail that it has to be a purely laissez faire one. If we do incorporate some sort of sufficient welfare provision for those unable to provide for themselves, and introduce the concept of public goods that all citizens contribute to, then we significantly improve the chances of creating a flourishing society. In terms of equality, what is more important here is a minimum provision of equality of opportunity, together with all citizens being treated equally before the law and having equal citizenship."

Professor: "In general, I think it's important that we don't fall into the trap of just blindly subscribing to some package deal of ideas from either the political left or the right, as both sides have their share of bad  as well as good ideas. Rather, we should use evidence and reason to build up a consistent and moderate political worldview that pulls together just the good ideas from all sides of the political spectrum. That is the most rational approach."

Professor: “So, overall your suggestions appear to have some potentially serious failings, wouldn’t you agree?”

Mary: “Maybe – but I haven’t heard any better suggestions from you Professor! Who do you think should pay?”

Professor: “Well, now we come to the $64,000 dollar question, so to speak. I would contend that there is actually a rational, evidentially-based, and justifiable answer to the question of who should pay for university education. As I said earlier, I believe that some form of democracy is probably the best form of government yet devised. It has instrumental value (with intrinsic value being merely a disguised redux of some other instrumental value), in that it can tend to make better decisions than a dictator, monarchy, or autocracy; and it gives its citizens more autonomy, equality, and fairness than other systems. People will be more likely to agree to abide by laws they disagree with if they have been given an equal vote in deciding what these laws will be - albeit indirectly through election of political representatives. And, at least in theory, a representative democracy should tend to be instrumentally better than a direct one, as those making the day to day policy decisions should have the relevent facts to hand, and should deliberate in order to reach the most reasonable and evidentially supported solution. Of course, the practice can be significantly at odds with this ideal, but it is still probably instrumentally better than putting each and every policy decision in the hands of a somewhat ignorant and uninterested populace.

In fact, there might be a good case for an instrumental improvement by instead selecting suitably qualified (by some agreed criteria) representatives from the general public using a lottery, in the way that happened in ancient Athens. This would help to counter the tendency of political representatives putting themselves up for election for mainly venal and self-interested reasons, and would give a more proportional representation of minorities.

By definition, whether a representative or more direct type of democracy, a government of the people, by the people, and for the people gives the people a large say in what policies and laws are made. And, with reference to the instrumental value of democracy that I mentioned earleir, an ignorant, uncritical, and irrational populace will tend to make poor decisions, based upon no or poor evidence, and using faulty arguments. They will tend to choose representatives and policies based upon irrelevant factors and for largely selfish motives. As such, truth and wisdom will not generally tend to prevail, and the society will be unstable, less productive, and less happy and flourishing. Taken to its limits, an extremely ignorant, misguided, or uncritical populace might freely choose to vote to have all of its freedom and liberty taken away if given the chance. This is more than a theoretical possibility in some societies that are given a democratic vote after living for many years under an unenlightened dictatorial regime. Such socieites might actually be better off going through a transition period with a benign dictator, if such a thing was possible.

The way to resolve this is not to legislate some general will from the top down, as Rousseau suggested, because this is not a truth-selecting method for generating reliable knowledge, it takes away personal autonomy and freedom, and is overly paternalistic. Of course, taking into account people's preferences must be part of the process of government in a democracy, and a good democracy requires such public participation. However, in this case, if a significant proportion of the populace is ignorant and uncritical, then a democracy will probably tend to make bad decisions. So, if we are going to stay with a democracy, as I believe we rationally should, then what can be done about this? One way to help to ameliorate the problems of an ignorant and irrational populace is to better educate them. A better educated populace should be more capable of making better decisions, as in general they will know or have access to more of the true and relevant facts of the matter - be they scientific, statistical, economic, psychological, or historical - and be better at thinking critically and making reasoned decisions. Furthermore, a better educated populace should be less guided by short-term self-interest in their political decision making, as they will be aware that it is generally in their long-term interests to act less selfishly.

And, finally, a better educated populace should boost the economy – from which everyone gains.

If we want facts and truth to prevail, people to cooperate and make wise decisions, and thus to have a more stable, productive, happy and flourishing society, then education is a key factor. If public decision making could be made sufficiently reliable by these means, then society could benefit from Condorcet’s theorem by greater public involvement in some aspects of decision making, as their will would then be more accurately represented, and better overall decisions would be possible. Of course, to help achieve these aims, school education would need to change focus too, so that it includes the methods as well as the facts of basic science, statistics, economics, law, critical history and its methods, philosophy and critical thinking. Though less vital, the arts would have a place too, as they teach us about other humans and their lives and emotions, and add to the pleasure in being alive.

Mary: “So, how does that tell us who should pay for university education?”

Professor: “This analysis helps us with the answer to who should actually pay for university education. I believe that there is a good case for university education being a public good, for the reasons that I gave earlier, and this gives a proper justification for why the state should contribute towards it. Based upon this, I believe that a strong and rational case can be made for the state contributing up to say 50 – 75% of the costs for university education - to the extent that it will ultimately benefit society in terms of producing informed, rational, and economically valuable and useful citizens (decided by some criteria matrix to be determined). The student would pay for the portion not paid for by the state, probably by repaying some sort of government loan once their salary reaches an agreed threshold so they can afford to do so. There would be appropriate measure in place to try to ensure that suitably able students from poor backgrounds are not disproportionally deterred from going to university based upon cost grounds, as them reaching their educational potential and helping to promote a prosperous and stable society is just as important as with those who come from more wealthy backgrounds.

Why would the state not pay for 100% of the costs? For two reasons. Firstly, although I am arguing that university education should be regarded as a public good, in that everyone in society benefits from having an informed and critical populace, this is nevertheless a public good that some benefit from more than others. Although everyone gets the overall societal benefits, some are excluded from going to university as they are not academically strong enough. Accordingly, I believe that it is fair that those who are able to and do go should pay an additional premium for this privilege. Secondly, human psychology is such that asking students to still make some contribution to their education would encourage them to value it more, and thus to probably work harder – which is ultimately in their and society’s interests. Humans don’t tend to value things given to them for free. The actual percentage that the state would contribute to each student’s university education would then depend at least in part upon how valuable that course of study will tend be to society in general. Students who wish to study subjects that are more valuable to society for economic, social, and cultural reasons would ultimately pay less, as the state contribution would be higher, and vice versa.

Mary: “So, how would you decide how much the state would contribute to each type of subject area?”

Professor: “It would be based upon what would tend to be more valuable to society. And what would be more valuable to society? Firstly, subjects that produce employable and economically valuable citizens are good, as it is not in the interests of society to have a large proportion who are out of work. Furthermore, overall economic prosperity tends to be good for people in general, helping to produce a happier and more progressive society. A non-exhaustive list of these subjects might be engineering, economics, law, science, business, foreign languages, and some vocational subjects.

Secondly, subjects that equip people with knowledge and techniques to better understand society, the political process, history, ideas, and critical thinking in general allow them to play a more informed and active part in shaping how society should evolve and structure itself, and in the political process in general. They should thus help to promote a better and more stable society, which is in almost everyone’s interest. Examples of these subjects might be sociology, history, philosophy, psychology, law, economics, and politics.

Thirdly, certain subjects have great instrumentally social value to society. Medicine would be a prime example of this.

And, lastly, cultural subjects have value in teaching us about other human lives, helping us to explore our emotions and creativity, and in just appreciating beauty and making us happy. Examples of this might be English literature, art, and music.

In order to then calculate the state contribution to the cost of the university course, an overall value for the course would be calculated by some matrix that includes all of the above criteria, with some agreed weightings. How this would be put into practice would of course need to be worked out in some details, but these are at least the basic principles.

With this way of thinking, we now have the rational justification that was lacking before for who should pay for university education, and we can say why the state (and thus the taxpayers) should pay some or most of these costs – i.e. it is ultimately in its and their best interests to do so. There is also a rational justification for how we might decide (in principle at least) to what extent the state would pay for this education. People should be able to choose to study what they want from what is available, but it is fair for the state to only be expected to contribute to the costs of such courses of study to the extent that they will have instrumental value to society in general.

Of course, there would still be many practical and logistical problems and decisions to deal with and make here, but I am merely laying out at this stage the overall principles of what I believe to be right and justified in this matter.”


Professor: “What do you think of that Mary?”

Mary: “I’ll get back to you!”


In answer to the comment about the reasons why an independent and largely privately-funded university system might achieve my goal more efficaciously, here are a few notes:

In the last section of my previous post I was attempting to show that there actually does exist a strong argument that can be used to justify the state funding a significant proportion of university education. This argument is based upon the instrumental value to democratic and civil society of having an informed and critical populace and, because university education in general and certain subjects in particular can help to promote this, it deems university education to be a public good that should be subsidized by government funding to the extent that it benefits society in general. If we accept the principle of state funded public goods at all, then I believe that this argument is sound.

I won’t look at the question of how we might justify state funded public goods in general (the typical answer being that state funding is the best way to ensure that free riders don’t avoid paying for things that everyone benefits from, thus leaving others to pay more or possibly rendering the good in question unviable), but will look at higher education in particular. Why not have a system of privately funded and independent universities instead of a state funded one (or some sort of hybrid)? This would have a couple of notable benefits in particular. Firstly, it would enable universities to charge a market rate for their services, allowing them to be better resourced and thus to improve services and compete more equitably with private universities elsewhere (particularly, in some case, with the Ivy League universities in the States). Secondly, it would remove, or at least minimize, government interference in their internal policies. This latter benefit is the one that the commenter mentioned in his response to my post.

However, each of the aforementioned advantages has a corresponding disadvantage. Based upon empirical evidence of the state of affairs with private universities and colleges in the US, and of market dynamics in general, it is plausible to suppose that an entirely private and independent university system would result in university fees being higher right across the board (as there would no longer be any state subsidy, and the institutions would need to make a profit in order to remain financially viable), and that fees would be significantly higher for the best universities (e.g. Oxbridge, Imperial College, UCL etc.) and for certain courses. In general, fees in all cases would tend to be as high as the market will bear. And without any government loans (in order for the system to be truly private and independent), students would either have to pay for these fees up front or else take out a commercial loan for them. The best universities and courses would then probably become financially out of reach of any students from more modest backgrounds. So, such prospective students would tend to either not go to university at all, or else go to any institutions that they could afford, which would likely be of poor quality since they would need to keep outgoings down to a minimum in order to charge low fees (which is a fair representation in general of the cheap private colleges in the US).

With regard to independence from government policy, whether this would be beneficial or not obviously depends to some extent upon whether the government policies in question are just and reasonable or not. Some government policies towards higher education have clearly been misguided, incoherent, or inconsistent, and so universities would probably be better off without them. However, other policies – specifically to remove unjustifiable discrimination in the selection of students and to improve access to people from poorer backgrounds are probably justified both instrumentally and inherently. In the absence of such laws, there would be nothing stopping universities during the application procedure from blatantly discriminating against female applicants or those from minority ethnic backgrounds; or of favouring the children of the rich, friends, or alumni over other more academically qualified and promising candidates, for example.

As an aside, what I would argue would not be justified would be to positively discriminate in favour of minorities in order to encourage ethnic diversity, a more equal balance of the sexes across all subjects, or to remedy past wrongs. I would argue that the telos, or purpose, of higher education establishments ought to be to promote scholarly excellence, rather than some sort of civic duty to promote such things as diversity. At the very least, their essential nature is to do with education, so they should not be free to define their mission exactly as they or government pleases. Therefore, they should select based upon academic merit and promise, to the extent that they have places available, rather than upon some form of affirmative action that is not directly related to promoting scholarly excellence.

I believe that one can justify some amount of positive discrimination in favour of students from poor backgrounds who go to modest state schools, as one could reasonably expect such students to achieve lower A-level exam grades than students of equal ability and promise who are from more affluent backgrounds and go to better schools. However, I would contend that positive discrimination with the aim of achieving ethnic or other diversity, an equal balance of the sexes across all subjects, or remedying past injustices is wrong. Universities should be selecting students based upon academic merit and promise, regardless of their ethnic background, sex etc.

In order to justify positive discrimination to achieve more ethnic diversity, one would need to demonstrate firstly why diversity per se is inherently or instrumentally valuable, how this value outweighs the injustice done by discriminating against those who are not from this ethnic background (and of course who had no choice about their own background), and why discriminating on non-academic grounds can be fair at all when this ought not to be related to a university’s purpose, and so ought to be irrelevant in the selection process.

Trying to achieve an equal balance of sexes has the same problems as above, with the additional one that there is good empirical evidence from biological and psychological research to suggest that the sexes are not equally interested in all areas of study, and so one would reasonably expect certain subjects to get a far higher proportion of applicants of one sex - as is in fact the case. Moreover, based upon the evidence, the most plausible and parsimonious explanation for this variation in interests is that it is primarily due to biological rather than environmental factors (and this is perfectly compatible with equity feminism, which is itself based upon reason and evidence, but not with gender feminism, which isn't). Therefore, to get an equal balance of the sexes studying mechanical engineering, for example, one would probably have to reject large numbers of suitably qualified male applicants in order to select from the relatively few suitably qualified female applicants. In order to justify this, one would be required to show why artificially creating an equal proportion of male and female students in each subject area would be intrinsically desirable, given that males and females are not in general equally interested in these areas, and how this justifies the necessary discrimination against suitable male applicants (when being male or female should in general be irrelevant to the selection process, and is obviously something that people are not responsible for).

Positive discrimination in favour of people from groups that have been discriminated against in the past (through slavery, for example) suffers from the same problems of discriminating against people based upon things that they are not responsible for (e.g. being white), and that should be irrelevant anyway, given the purpose of universities. Moreover, the people who would be discriminated for and against are also probably not the same individuals who were wronged in the past or those responsible for these wrongs respectively.

A radical libertarian might argue that freedom dictates that universities should be able to select whoever they want, even if it does involve blatant discrimination on non-academic grounds. However, I believe that this would tend to reduce the happiness and flourishing in society, and as such a restriction upon the freedom of universities in such cases is probably justifiable.

So, based upon the foregoing, I would argue that, on balance, a system of privately funded universities that are entirely independent of government interference would probably be a bad thing rather than a good one. It is an empirical question, and we don’t have enough evidence to make a definitive judgement, but I think that the probable result would be far fewer people going to university, and of those that do go many would go to poorer quality ones. The result would then be a less critical and informed populace than could be achieved through the state funded option that I described in my post, and so I believe that my proposed option better achieves my goal. I believe that the benefits from the state funded option would outweigh the benefits from the independent private one, and vice versa. Having said that, there is a good case for avoiding any unwarranted government interference in the way that universities operate, along with an attempt to ensure that they are run as efficiently as possible so that public money is not wasted.