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Posted by on Jan 25, 2013 in Debate, Politics | 4 comments

Popularism, public policy, democratic participation

Over at Smilodon’s Retreat, the eponymous Smilodon is hosting a discussion of when public policy should be driven by the popularity (or otherwise) of certain proposals. This is all in the context of the US debate over restrictions on gun ownership – something that I’ve said enough about for now. As to the merits of that issue, I am happy with the laws in Australia, which are far more restrictive than anything that is likely to be introduced in the US. That doesn’t mean, however, that they would be realistic proposals within the US political culture.

Smilodon mainly seems to be condemning people who would respond with violence to laws restricting their right to do certain things that they find pleasurable and meaningful. I’m generally against violence (though far from being a total pacificist). On this issue, I am in agreement.

But the post and the subsequent thread appear to raise wider isssues about when we can argue for a policy on the basis that it is electorally popular, or against a policy on the basis that it is electorally unpopular. Are these sorts of arguments ever legitimate? Are there circumstances when we should cease arguing for a policy – or engaging in political activism in its favour – on the ground that the electorate is massively opposed to it, and in that sense has “settled” the issue?

I’m tempted to respond simply by stating that the merits of a policy have nothing to do with its electoral popularity. Many meritorious policies are, at the time and in the place concerned, deeply unpopular. Many very bad policies are, again at the time and in the place concerned, wildly popular. End of story. We should advocate policies on the basis of their substantive merits – will such and such an economic policy really reduce unemployment? will such a such a restriction on our conduct really cover no more than is needed for some urgent social purpose? – rather than asking people to get with the strength.

In the end, I think that’s right. But there are some qualifications. If a particular policy approach is deeply unpopular, and there is no immediate prospect of its obtaining widespread acceptance, that might well be a pragmatic reason to shelve it for now. If a particular policy is currently very popular (as well as being merited), that might well be a pragmatic reason to give it priority right now, perhaps ahead of other meritorious policies. The operation of actual party politics is very much about achieving what you can, and not pursuing change at a rate that is unrealistic.

Nonetheless, the fact that a policy is unpopular – say, state recognition of same-sex marriage in a jurisdiction where most of the electorate is opposed – does not take away the arguments in its favour. It may mean that we can’t realistically expect politicians to give it a high priority right now, and that might affect how we judge the characters of certain politicians who choose to be pragmatic, but it does not mean that we should stop putting the arguments. It may, in fact, make it all the more urgent that we put our arguments to the electorate, trying to get people to shift their positions, so that the policy we favour becomes more realistic at the level of party platforms, votes in legislatures, etc.

Likewise, what if a government wishes to introduce an oppressive law that has overwhelming electoral support? If there are solid substantive arguments against this law (for example, that it could not be justified under the Millian harm principle, or it violates ordinary concepts of freedom of speech), then we should go on putting them. If the law is open to challenge in the courts, we have every reason to mount a challenge. It would presumably take something very extreme before we embarked on a campaign of civil disobedience, let alone one of violent resistance, but I can imagine extreme scenarios that could justify any of these things.

This does mean that we don’t get to tell others to back off on those occasions when electoral sentiment is strongly with us. Nor do our opponents get to tell us to back off when electoral sentiment is strongly against us. Or, rather, we can tell each other… but it will be a futile action, and one that has no real support from, say, political philosophy. In the end, we have to make our own judgments about the merits of issues, and the popularity or unpopularity of those judgments with the electorate doesn’t have a lot to do with it. If we find ourselves holding unpopular positions, one approach is to keep quiet for the sake of a quiet life. But where the issue is sufficiently important we have all the more reason to make our voices and our arguments heard.

  • SmilodonsRetreat

    Thank you for expressing this.

    I’ve been having a bit of a time in dealing with a topic in which I am massively torn. I grew up around firearms, own several, and have a parent who is deeply into gun culture. However, I am terribly sadden by the gun violence that has been occurring in the US.

    What I have noticed in my own recent experience and in the culture of the US is a very subtle shift in societal thoughts. One hundred years ago, there almost was no movement for minority or women’s rights. Now, we have women in combat and have made strides towards equality in all areas (not perfect, but we’re working on it). In my own life, I’ve just noticed an increasing irrelevance in my desire to use and keep my firearms. They just aren’t as important as they once where (and never were all that important to me).

    One thing that this has inspired me to do is look a lot more closely at my own preconceptions and biases. I can’t just chuck them away, but I can at least recognize that they are there and try to examine them in a critical light.

  • DrewHardies

    I agree with you when you say that policies should be considered on the merit of their likely consequences. I also think it’s entirely legitimate to oppose or support a political action based on polling.

    This works because political backlash is among the possible consequences of unpopular actions.

    The example I have in mind would be a meritous but wildly unpopular policy proposal like, “Elementary schools should teach a history of religion class that explicitly points out how many key elements of Christianity are derived from older religions.”

    If I were King of the US (and unconcerned with political capital or re-election), I’d support this policy on the merits of its direct consequences. However, were I a member of a school-board, I’d actively vote against such a proposal in anticipation of future costs,

  • RussellBlackford

    I think that’s fair enough, at least up to point. I know that some otherwise-meritorious policy would cause havoc because of popular resistance to it, so that’s maybe a reason to oppose the policy. But the reistance needn’t come from over 50 per cent of the people. If even a much smaller percentage than that will be really put out, that might be one reason why the policy could be unrealistic and, on balance, harmful.
    I think this is about the realism of policies, rather than about “the electoral majority has spoken”, and it should be presented in that way. And there might be countervailing factors that make you want to pursue even an unrealistic policy – e.g. the abolition of slavery was probably unrealistic in the relevant sense, but the great evil being addressed justified the consequences. And if a policy is unrealistic, though otherwise meritorious, you might still try to introduce what you realistically can, while working long-term to persuade people to accept the values underlying the policy as a whole.
    So, sure, I certainly accept that the realism of a policy is one factor to take into account, and that popularity is part of that.

  • Ian Reide

    There is merit for legislation following popular opinion, but opinion shaped by debate, discussion, and time. Any such legislation should be constrained by human rights.

    As for firearms, I am reminded of something Michael Moore wrote a few weeks back. It is not guns as such, other countries have guns, but the hard and inhuman culture present in the USA that compels people to turn to violence. Compare the USA with Switzerland (where I believe T. Turner is emigrating to).