The Causes of Human Rights Violations (17): Private Interests and the General Interest

What kind of state do we desire? What kind of education for our children and for the children of the future? What kind of health care, not just for ourselves but for all citizens? How will we leave the environment for future generations? These questions and many others concern us all, no matter which private interests we have and which interest groups we belong to.

Unfortunately, it looks like the first objective of politics today is not to serve the general interest but to serve a variety of private interests expressed by pressure groups whose support the government must buy by way of special benefits, simply because it cannot retain its supporters when it refuses to give them something it has the power to give, in the words of Friedrich A. Hayek.

But not only governments and legislators are forced into this. Groups in society quickly understand that the best they can do is to play the game and try to win as many benefits as possible, otherwise they end up paying for the benefits of the rest of the population. We find ourselves in a vicious circle in which

  • politicians are forced to grant interest groups special benefits, simply because they can and because they would lose voters if they refused
  • interest groups are forced to ask for special benefits if they don’t want to end up as the only suckers paying for the benefits of others
  • different interest groups are out-asking each other because otherwise they end up paying more than they get
  • politicians are forced to give more because people ask more, but also have to tax more because the money has to come from somewhere
  • interest groups are forced to ask more to compensate for the heavier taxes
  • etc.

Of course, this is a libertarian dystopia which fortunately doesn’t quite work out the same way in reality. But it serves the purpose of highlighting the risks of interest group politics.

Given these risks, it’s unfortunate that politics in most democratic countries is so much focused on private interests. The majorities that do exist are not inspired by a general interest or by a common will to achieve something that will benefit society as a whole. They are no more than collections of different pressure groups which have all been promised benefits in exchange for their votes. These pressure groups can be certain states or provinces, whose representative will only vote for a proposal when he or she gets something in return which benefits the locals. Or they can be a certain profession, a religious group or whatever.

As a result, people do not see themselves as a community that can identify with the state and with politics. They only identify themselves with a particular interest group (or with several different interest groups, depending on the types of private interests that they want to see protected), and they see politics as an instrument to fulfill their interests or as a warehouse of advantages ready to be looted by whoever comes first.

This makes effective common actions and actions that serve the general interest very difficult if not impossible. Any vote on something that is of general interest – e.g. healthcare reform – can only pass if a series of private interests are satisfied at the same time. And again we have a vicious circle here. If the state cannot prove itself as a vehicle for common action and for the general interest, then people will not be encouraged to fall back on their private interests. Only successful common action can enable people to transcend fragmentation, to escape decomposition, to identify with the political community and to think of the state as something else than a loot. On the other hand, if the meaning of this political community is diluted, then it is very difficult to mobilize people for a common action, in the words of Charles Taylor.

This focus on private interests and sub-communities is completely different from the way in which the Ancient Greeks for example reflected on politics. In the Greek city states, the inhabitants of border regions were not allowed to participate in a vote concerning a declaration of war with neighboring countries. It was assumed that these inhabitants were unable to vote in accordance with the general interest. Their immediate private interest would inhibit a reasonable reflection on the general interest. In this case, some legitimate private interest where neglected. But today we seem to have gone from one extreme to the other.

Of course, there ‘s nothing wrong with self-interest as such. A conception of the general interest that is established without the cooperation of everybody or that is incompatible with the interests of a majority is likely to cause resistance. And also the interests of the minority are important. The basic interests of the minority are expressed in human rights which can’t be overridden by a democratic majority. We have to start from self-interest, but we do not have to end there. A general interest is always a reformulation of self-interest. And it’s this reformulation through political debate that is often missing, and politics tends to be  a mere sum of or a compromise between private interests.

However, the other extreme is also a risk. Exaggerating the importance of the general interest can be very dangerous as well. Those who have witnessed nazism or communism—or both—can testify to this. The general interest — whatever it is — can justify oppression because it can require the sacrifice of “small” private interests which hinder the development of the community, of the race etc.

Plato, Democracy, and “Human Rights” (2): Theoretical and Political Life

(please read part 1 first)

Theoretical life, the most elevated way of life and the only life which leads to the knowledge of truth, is incompatible with political life according to Plato. Contemplating the truth with the eye of the mind – this is theoretical life – is impossible as long as one is dominated by appearances, or in other words as long as one follows desires, participates in political deliberation or uses one’s human rights. Democratic politics and human rights are all about appearances, exposure, communication, and persuasion. Plato’s world is a solitary one, where the mind is engaged only with itself.

However, after contemplating the truth the philosopher has to return to earth, or to the darkness of the cave in Plato’s words. He is morally obliged to use his superior knowledge of the good life, acquired in the course of his solitary theoretical life, in order to improve the lives of his fellow-citizens. And the best instrument to do this is politics, but a kind of politics quite different from democratic politics. As a result of his philosophical activity, or his theoretical life, he has knowledge, not only about the good life but also about politics and the organization of society. He has the moral obligation to organize or make his society according to a plan that he knows is best and that he has obtained from his reflections. This plan is a matter of knowledge. Hence, it is the best and only plan. He will have to eliminate opposition and reaction because opposition and reaction to his plan is by definition stupid. It does not result from knowledge or from theoretical life.

This plan, according to Plato, is the roadmap to a generalized theoretical life. The theoretical life of the individual philosopher is the model for society. Everybody, or at least as many people as possible, must be given access to theoretical life through the political organization of society. Only then will there be general wellbeing because theoretical life is the only good and happy life, especially when compared to the life of the senses and of consumption. Theoretical life becomes the goal of politics, the only goal. Instead of the institutionalization of the game of action and reaction around different goals (as in democracy), politics becomes the organization of coordinated action with a single goal.

The philosopher has to become king and has to shape his society in his image, even though in principle theoretical life is far better than political life and should be chosen above political life. However, he has knowledge and the responsibilities that knowledge entails. He knows what theoretical life is, and so he knows how to lead or even force others in the direction of such a life and how to organize society in such a way that theoretical life becomes a general fact.

The philosopher-king, a dictatorial concept later translated into concepts such as the enlightened sovereign, the technocrat etc., results from the logic of fabrication. The expert maker, the one with the best knowledge of the goal or the plan, should be the leader of the construction process, construction in this case not of a product but of society and of the people in society.

Only those with sufficient knowledge of the good life, the goal of politics according to Plato, should be political leaders, otherwise politics will not be aimed at the good life. This knowledge is not primarily political expertise, knowledge of the art of rhetoric or negotiation etc., but knowledge of the way in which to lead a theoretical life. Only those who already lead it know how to guide others along the way.

We should rely on those persons who have acquired knowledge of the good life. This is true in every field of knowledge. If we want to build a ship, we rely on those who know how to build a ship. Everybody else must be polite enough to shut up. The ordinary people, people without knowledge of the good life, should remain silent when it comes to politics, just as they rightly remain silent when a ship has to be build.

Democracy is therefore undesirable. The experts of the good life, and hence the rulers, are by definition a minority. The ordinary people are ruled by their desires and have to be assisted and forced in their development towards a higher way of life. If they rule, politics will necessarily be focused on desires, on quantity rather than quality. Only those who can rule themselves must be allowed to rule others, and to rule others for their own good. That is why Socrates can say to his judges that they should cherish someone like him instead of condemning him. He does not defend himself but the entire city. The city would suffer most from his death, much more than he himself.

The philosopher-king acts in the interest of the good life of his society and not in his self-interest. The latter would be better served by a theoretical life and by avoiding politics. The fact that philosophers take over power reluctantly insulates them from abuses of power (for example, the use of power in their self-interest). They are forced to take over power for two reasons:

  • their moral obligation to improve their society, and
  • the fact that they otherwise would have to follow orders from people who are less wise than they.

Because they are forced they will rule not in their own interest but in the general interest.

A democracy can never rule in the general interest, because democratic politicians always listen to the people, always take over the claims of the people, and these claims are always materialistic and incompatible with the good life. Hence the goal of their rule is always the fulfillment of desires. Automatically, they will start to see power as well as an object of desire and use it in order to serve their own personal desires rather than those of the people.

The material appetites of the common people are not the only reason why democracy, according to Plato, is based on the senses, on appearances rather than underlying, eternal truths. The democratic style of politics is basically sense-oriented. It is about discussion, communication, deliberation. It’s policies change, are refined, repealed etc. Plato’s style of politics is different. It starts with solitary thinking, contemplation of eternal truths, which are then implemented top-down by politics.

Parts 1, 3 and 4