In this post, my aim is to identify political philosophy’s fundamental question. Yes, I want to attempt this in a blog post, so my answer will undoubtedly be radically incomplete. But I believe I can sketch a brief case for why the social contract theorists got it right. If we understand why, I believe a compelling defense of classical liberalism will come into view.
I. Why Not “What is Justice?”
If most philosophers over the course of history had been asked to articulate political philosophy’s fundamental question, most have followed Plato: “What is Justice?”
Modern political philosophy’s great discovery is that well-meaning, intelligent individuals reasoning freely will answer this question differently. The most prominent strand of modern political philosophy, the social contract tradition of Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Kant and Rawls explicitly grapples with this fact of disagreement. The very point of the social contract is to provide a set of principles and institutions by which we can resolve our disputes about what morality and justice require. In this way, their theories of justice are reflexive. Determining what justice requires must begin with the recognition that we will never fully agree about what justice requires.
If we accept the fact of reasonable disagreement as basic, we can grasp the social contract theorist’s temptation to “go meta.” We do not answer “What Is Justice?” simply by identifying what maximizes welfare or what brings about the common good. Those are matters of dispute. Unless we can first agree to set aside some of our differences, we cannot generate a stable or a free society, for a society that attempts to institutionalize one answer to “Why Is Justice?” must coerce those who disagree with the dominant group’s sectarian vision.
II. The Social Contract Theorists’ Question
Of course, the great social contract theorists gave different formulations of their fundamental question, but I believe a common idea can be drawn out of their work. Here is Jerry Gaus‘s formulation of the question:
Can the authority of social morality be reconciled with our status as free and equal moral persons in a world characterized by deep and pervasive yet reasonable disagreements about the standards by which to evaluate the justifiability of claims to moral authority? (xv)
All of the great social contract theorists recognized three facts, one moral and two empirical: (i) that persons are naturally free and equal, (ii) that they significantly and persistently disagree about what morality requires of them and of others and (iii) that it is in the interest of all to have some set of commonly accepted rules by which our disputes can be resolved, social cooperation protected and our lives made better-off.
But these three facts present a deep puzzle. If people disagree about what morality requires but they recognize the need to resolve (at least some) of their disputes in a public manner, then who gets to resolve disputes? That is, who’s the boss? If people are naturally free and equal, any claim to authority must somehow be validated by those subject to it. But if they disagree about morality then they will surely disagree about who they think should resolve those disagreements. The tragedy: rational and reasonable people cannot satisfy their common interest in social cooperation and dispute resolution because they are free and disagree.
The social contract theorists identified the three most salient moral and empirical features of modern political life beyond the circumstance of justice themselves: we are free and disagree but we need each other still. That is why I think they correctly identified modern political philosophy’s fundamental question.
III. The Political Economists’ Question
Many political philosophers do not think that political economy provides its own version of political philosophy’s fundamental question. After all, political economy is purely descriptive; how could political economists have anything to say about how institutions should work? To understand why this attitude is confused, remember that the great political economists were political philosophers.
In my view, the great political economists (Hume, Smith, Mill, Hayek and Buchanan, among others) were trying to answer much the same question as the social contract theorists. This is not clear at first, as political economy is so often identified with the utilitarian tradition. Their question: “What is best for humans?” Their answer: institutions that maximize welfare.
But let’s go deeper for a moment. After all, what did the great political economists spend most of their time doing? Describing the conditions under which ordinary, largely equal human beings actually learned to cooperate despite their disagreements.
Hume and Smith were economists and historians as well as moral philosophers. They developed complex theories of how human beings learned to live together despite their differing interests, tastes and judgments. John Stuart Mill wrote The Principles of Political Economy, one of the greatest works of political economy in the 19th century. Hayek and Buchanan were political philosophers whose greatest achievements were advancing our understanding of how diverse individuals cooperate in an extended social order.
The great political economists were in this way preoccupied with much the same problem as the social contract theorists.
It is true that the two sides have not gotten along. The great political economists have usually been roundly skeptical of the social contract as a ground for the social order, and the great social contract theorists have often not recognized that the great political economists were addressing their question because they believed the political economist’s project was descriptive rather than prescriptive.
Yet we mustn’t draw this contrast too sharply. Obviously Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Kant and Rawls were deeply interested in how real institutions function. None of them believed you could determine which institutions were just without institutional analysis. All relied on political science, history and economics in their own way. And I think one can make a strong argument that in the end Hume and Smith were contractarians of an evolutionary sort (Smith’s impartial spectator can be interpreted as a contractor). Buchanan explicitly embraces the contractarian label.
So I see the great political philosophers and political economists as involved in a loosely united endeavor: to explain the authority of the restraints of political life in a world of free and equal persons who deeply disagree with one another about what is true, right and just.
IV. Why One Question?
A natural reply suggests itself: why think that political philosophy has a fundamental question? Surely it has many questions that, while related to one another, are not the same.
Perhaps. But I see political philosophy’s fundamental question as a kind of methodological orientation. It guides the projects we pursue and the problems we explore. The fact that so many great thinkers were preoccupied with the same basic concern means that we contemporary political philosophers could do worse than to follow them.
But even if you do not think the social contract question is the most basic, I hope you can agree that we can evaluate political theories by how well they answer it. If a political theory can explain how free and equal people can cooperate on fair terms, then that is an excellent reason to believe it is true. One core reason I reject self-ownership and utilitarian approaches to political philosophy is that I became convinced that they cannot adequately answer the question posed to us by the social contract theorists.
In any case, the social contract question is my question and it is the question by which I evaluate different political theories and research projects. I am a classical liberal (a Strong BHL, if you like) because I believe that classical liberal institutions provide the best answer. We will see why.