The Will of the People


In the previous post, I suggested that there is some truth in populism.   I proposed that it specifies a certain end for government, namely, that the well being of the people ought to be the ‘supreme law’ (as Cicero put it).  A number of correspondents remind me–correctly–that Cicero was not all that keen on the populists of his day.   Others write to ask how a liberal like me could possibly endorse such a view (forgetting, I suppose, that Locke chose Cicero’s tag as the epigraph for the Two Treatises).

It is unlikely that any general purpose or aim will suffice to pin down a specific political theory or, if you prefer, ideology.   Utilitarians can subscribe to the populist aim, under a certain interpretation of ‘well being’.   So can rights-based liberals, under a certain theory about rights and a theory about the division of labour among states.   Is this worrying?

I think that when we are trying to understand populism as a possible–and possibly attractive–political view we need to add to its characteristic end at least one other feature, a claim not about proper ends but about legitimate means.   Populists think (or should think) that the most fundamental political choices facing a state ought to be subject to the will of the people, in the sense that they should be responsible to the people.  Again, this is an ideal, not a description of our current mess.  (And that’s another reason that the journalists’ pejorative ‘populism’ is a such poor guide for constitutional theory.  The pejorative use just sweeps the messes into one big heap, then tells us to bin the lot.)

But now populism is starting to sound a lot like democracy.   Well, it is something like democracy;  we might say, populism is democracy for les jusqu’au-boutistes.  The point about the proper ends of government applies also to its proper means.   A democrat, regardless of how much popular input he favours, is bound to stand firm at one  point.  It is not for the people to undo or restrict democracy (in the specified form).  If, in a free and fair referendum, the people vote by a clear majority to establish a theocracy, then the populist I have in mind will hold that that is how the constitution should run.  It is not for the losing minority, or the economic elite, or powerful secular states, to prevent that people from living under the sort of constitution they chose.  Of course, opponents of theocracy are still entitled to denounce what the people have chosen, to argue against it, and so forth.  Nonetheless, at the end of the day the people are to be sovereign.  A people can be sovereign without governing, and they can govern without being sovereign.  That is why a commitment to popular sovereignty sits uneasily with a commitment to democracy.  Only under certain conditions are they mutually supporting, and those conditions are not guaranteed (and, historically, are not all that common).

I have said that a populist thinks that the most fundamental political choices should be made by means responsible to the people.  This allows for bolt-ons.  We need to have a separate argument about whether choices that are morally fundamental –say, policies about abortion or punishment–ought to be subject to popular control, or whether popular sovereignty applies only to choices that are procedurally or institutionally ‘fundamental’ (e.g., voting systems, constitutions and their amendment procedures, etc.).  But the need for bolt-ons is not an objection to a theory.  Just the contrary: we should be wary of anyone who purports to ‘derive’ everything in political morality–from the ends of government, to the limits of private property, right down to the role of judicial review– from a couple of diaphanous ideas like ‘reason’ or ‘freedom’.  We should expect to see different sorts of populism, just as we see different sorts of conservatism, and different sorts of libertarianism.  And should expect to come to different views about their cogency, according to our views about the bolt-ons.  That is how serious political philosophy works.

The idea that fundamental political choices ought to be subject to the control of people–the very same people whose well being figures in specifying the aim of a populist government–is thus flexible.  But it is far from empty.   Plato would have hated it for the same reason he hated democracy:  what do the untrained ‘people’ know about anything?   Bad enough that, say, a bricklayer should get to vote on which experts should determine monetary policy; but a populist is willing to let him vote also on the voting system, and even on constitutional rules!  Some liberals will hate it, for they will see that by letting the people shape the constitution we will inevitably be letting them shape, not only what rights we have, but how we determine and enforce what rights we have.   And some conservatives will hate it.   Like Dicey, they will say that the only ‘will of the people’ the courts can recognize are Acts of Parliament; or that populist politics are likely to be turbulent, and nothing frightens a million pounds as much as uncertainty.

That so many find so much to object to in populism as I’ve defined it is good evidence that is far from being an empty doctrine.   How it measures up against its competitors is a matter for later posts.

The Truth in Populism

The Guardian is doing terrific work on the spread of far-right, xenophobic, racist, and mercantilist politics in Europe and the US.   It is doing it, however, under the misleading label of ‘the new populism’.  That is lazy.   If we explored the nature and sources of the grotesque inequality and greed in capitalist societies under the heading of a ‘new’ (or even ‘classical’) ‘liberalism’, examining only the ideas and followers of Herbert Spencer, Milton Friedman or (for a laugh) Ayn Rand, we would quickly sense that something had gone awry.  Sure, those writers do  mention ‘liberty’.  But that is no better reason for thinking they are ‘liberals’ than it is to think that, because they mention ‘conservation,’ the Friends of the Earth are conservatives.   It is long past time for people who can read and write to ‘use their words’.  Let’s call things what they are.

This isn’t just a quibble.  ‘Populism’ sanitizes what is, in much of Eastern Europe, neo-fascism, and, in large swathes the the US, anti-black and anti-Latino racism.  It homogenizes phenomena that differ, historically and morally.  Yet it isn’t hard to find serious paradigms of populist thought and politics:  Rousseau, Marx, the Chartists, the People’s Party, and so forth.  Admittedly, they expressed other ideologies as well:  romanticism, determinism, democracy, agrarianism etc.  But if you want to know what populism is, or what its appeal it might be–or for that matter, what its risks are–then this is where you need to look.

Actually, you could start earlier.  One reasonable definition of populism is Cicero’s: ‘Salus populi suprema lex esto’: The well-being of the people ought to be the supreme law.  Here is how I think we should best understand that:

(1)  Populism is a claim about what ought to be supreme law.  We can think of ‘supreme law’ as something like the constitution, or –better– the fundamental order underlying the constitution.  It is not a claim about tariffs, trade, or immigration except to the extent that these bear on the supreme principle.   Populism casts doubt on the idea that our supreme law ought to be the will of our ancestors, or our technocratic rulers, or our TV stars.  Populism respects democracy–but only to the extent that democracy is a system that serves the well being of the people.  (If everyone votes for a theocracy, the democrat is bound to reject their unanimous view; the populist may try to live with it.)

(2)  Populism is a political doctrine that has at its centre well-beingThis idea is capacious.  It means human welfare, flourishing;  perhaps even the perfection of human capacities and capabilities.  Maybe that sounds banal.  Doesn’t everyone think politics is about human welfare?  Readers of contemporary political philosophy know that it is not banal.  Some think the leading ideal for law and government shouldn’t be human well being, but something more pure and abstract, something that may or may not make anyone better off, for example: respecting the will of the gods, realizing ‘the right’, embodying ‘legality’ and so on.  So many words.   Yet they share one destructive idea:  the actual well being of actual people is of significance only to the extent that it serves some other ideal.  Do people have safe homes? A job?  Decent health care? Education?  A private place to shit or piss?  The anti-populist thinks of such things as of ‘merely contingent’, ‘conditional’, value.  What matters to him is something higher–or anyway different—than the plain reality of ordinary people’s lives.

(3)  Populism takes as its ‘supreme’ law the well being of the people.  It is at this point that the radical edge of populism is often dulled by lazy theorists or motivated ideologues.  Here, I can only be dogmatic : (3a)  ‘The people’ means all the people in a political jurisdiction, or at any rate all the people who normally make their lives there.  It is thus an anti-racist and anti-nationalist doctrine.  (3b) ‘The people’ does not itself explain or justify the boundaries of a political jurisdiction.  Nor it does not pretend to.  (3c) To affirm the supremacy of the well being of the people is not to disallow or negate the idea that the well being of people in other jurisdictions–foreigners–is morally important.  Just the contrary: a government should serve the well being of foreigners at least when doing so will (indirectly) serve the interests of its people.  In a complex, interconnected world, governments concerned to advance the well being of their (own) people ought to be very anxiously concerned about the well being of other peoples.  Moreover, the existence of a supreme principle (eg ‘parents ought to secure the welfare of their own children’) is compatible with, and may require, the existence of other, demanding, subordinate principles (eg ‘when the interests of your own children aren’t at stake, you should work strenuously to secure the interests of other people’s children’).

These remarks are nothing like an adequate defense of populism.  They are hardly a beginning  (I will offer some more later. ) But, unlike much of the journalistic and academic chatter in which we are drowning, it identifies populism with an intelligible ideal rather than an abusive epithet.   Moreover, it is an ideal that has serious antecedents in political philosophy and is not obviously, or absurdly, wrong.   In fact, I think that the sort of populism I have in mind  here is is not only defensible; I think it is more attractive than many of its competitors, including democracy.  But more on that later.