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Last time I discussed how the medieval debate between intellectualism and voluntarism remains around today in the distinction between natural and positive law. But there’s another way it remains around, which I think is more fundamental.

The key question between intellectualism and voluntarism is: what is more fundamental to ethics and politics, the intellect or the will? In the Middle Ages, of course, the intellect and will in question were God’s. Between natural law and positive law, the intellect and will are those of the lawmaker: is law whatever the lawmaker wills it to be, or is there a true law that the lawmaker should be able to discern intellectually from reality and base her decisions on?

Few would want to vest authority in just any lawmaker. In modern politics, especially but not only in the West, we typically place a very high value on the idea of democracy, rule by the people. If we are not sympathetic to the slogan vox populi, vox dei – the voice of the people is the voice of God – it is often because we do not believe in God, and see the voice of the people as higher than God’s.

But if the people should rule, what aspect of the people should rule? Their intellect, or their will?

The phrasing of intellect and will sounds archaic, and I think that’s why the point I’m making here is not obvious. But what the phrasing refers to is very much a live question, at the heart of contemporary political debates. What authority do the people of a democracy have? Do the people have the authority as a trusted judge of what is best – do we expect them to think, reflect from their experience, and thereby reason to the right decisions? Or is it simply that whatever the people say goes, that a democratic decision is right because it is democratic? And this is to ask: is democratic authority vested in the people’s intellect or the people’s will?

This question has been a burning one right this year, in the United States of America though not only here. In the 2016 election the US has been engaged in multiple political battles, including the conventional one of left against right. But some sort of left-right battle has animated every American election, to at least some extent, for decades. This one is notable because alongside the left-right debate has been the battle of technocracy against populism, what the Thais would call Yellow Shirts and Red Shirts. Should the government be based on a trusted, competent élite authority that the people put their trust in to make the most appropriate decisions – or on what the people most want, for whatever reason? (The recent UK referendum has pushed this question to the forefront there as well.)

The answer that one gives to this question will depend at least in part on one’s reasons for believing that democracy is a good thing (assuming that one does). As is the case with rights, the goodness of democracy is often asserted more than it is argued. But reasons there must be. Those reasons will make a difference not only to the way we think government should govern, but also the way democracy itself should work.

Consider in this regard the Iowa caucuses, typically considered one of the most important events in deciding the presidential nominee for the two major American political parties. Unlike most states’ “primary” elections, where residents simply cast a vote by secret ballot as they do in the general election, caucuses require voters to meet with each other directly, talk to each other about their choices, and express their choice publicly, often changing it as a result of the conversation. Is this a good or a bad thing?

In the midst of their liveblog of this year’s caucuses, the number-crunchers of the popular statistics website FiveThirtyEight had a brief but fascinating and telling discussion of the nature of the caucus process. Jody Avirgan kicked it off by asking: “does anyone else feel as icky about this version of democracy as I do?” There were important practical questions raised about how the caucus is more difficult to attend than a simple ballot, but the philosophically interesting questions had to do with the principles behind the process. David Firestone objected:

If you believe that voting is an essentially private, individual affair — one that should not be influenced by the peer pressure of the moment or the fear of losing a friend over a political choice — then, yes, it’s OK to be appalled by the extremely public nature of the Iowa caucuses.

Julia Azari replied to Firestone:

I get the questions about mobility and other attendance questions — but I think citizens engaging each other, even if it’s not always highbrow argumentation, is great democracy! I think face-to-face citizen interaction is generally higher quality democracy than being persuaded by a political ad and then going off to vote alone.

Firestone’s and Azari’s positions seem to me wonderfully succinct statements of two deeply distinct views of the nature of democracy. Azari’s view of democracy is intellectualist: it is “higher quality democracy” when people talk together and think together. Firestone’s is voluntarist: my vote is mine alone, “an essentially private, individual affair”, an act of pure will that can and should be as arbitrary as I want it to be, one that I should not have to justify to anyone. Which view is better? That’s a longer discussion, of course. But the debate between Azari and Firestone, between reasoning and will, turns out to be a very old one. The argument about God’s nature and authority has become an argument about the democratic voter’s.