By In Ideas, Political Philosophy Comments (3)

Relational Egalitarianism and Politics

This is the second installment of PEA Soup’s partnership with Bleeding Heart Libertarians. In this series folks from BHL share their thoughts with Soup readers. This post is by Jessica Flanigan (University of Richmond).

Relational egalitarians argue that people should relate to one another as equals. They focus on the wrongfulness of hierarchy, oppression, domination, and subordination. Relational egalitarians generally support democratic institutions that enforce policies to ensure that people relate to each other as equals, such as redistributive taxation and workplace regulations. But does relational egalitarianism require governmental solutions? Or is government just another threat to the equal status of all people?

Nico Kolodny argues that an ideal of equal social relations would require political institutions that gave all citizens equal opportunities to influence political decisions. If so, then either a democracy or a stateless society could also meet this standard. Democratic institutions give everyone equal influence though democratic procedures whereas Anarchic institutions give everyone equal influence by limiting the amount of influence to be had. Relational egalitarians tend to support democratic institutions as a way to achieve social equality. But in principle and in practice, I think relational egalitarians should support stateless societies and limited government instead.

One principled reason that relational egalitarians favor democracy over anarchism is that they aim to reduce the hierarchies that develop between citizens. The idea is that democratically selected public officials can enact policies that achieve an ideal of equal social relations without introducing objectionable hierarchies between citizens and officials, as long as everyone has an equal opportunity for influence through voting. This is sometimes called the person-office distinction—hierarchy between persons is objectionable, unless a person’s power to subordinate others is confined to the narrow mission of her official role in a well-functioning democracy.

Anarchists deny that public officials may permissibly subordinate citizens even if they do occupy an official role. If anything, the hierarchy between citizens and public officials is worse because people do not consent to be in a subordinating relationship. But for this reason, anarchists have fewer acceptable means to prohibit hierarchical or oppressive voluntary associations as long as participants are not forced or tricked into joining them. Anarchists claim that it would be a worse form of oppression if public officials coercively interfered with voluntary private hierarchies. On their view, democracy does not give each citizen an equal opportunity to influence political decisions but even if it did, it would be better if those decisions weren’t made at all.

In principle, an advantage of the relational egalitarian case for anarchism is that it shares in democratic egalitarians’ moral commitment to avoiding force and coercion in private relationships but it does not empower public officials to commit the same moral mistake by subordinating all citizens to the will of a democratic majority. Even in a democracy people do not consent to public officials’ authority, so their relationships with democratically elected public officials are a form of non-voluntary subordination, which is worse than private relationships that may be unequal.

Democratic egalitarians could accept this principled case for a stateless society but nevertheless reject it on the grounds that it is infeasible and that people are unlikely to comply with the core principle of anarchism, which is nonviolence. Anderson writes that the anarchic institutional approach never caught on because anarchists “repudiated parliamentary politics, favoring revolution by violent insurrection without consulting the people.” And Kolodny suggests that anarchism is incompatible with the “factual assumption that more substantial political decisions will be made” than the range of political decisions that anarchism would allow.

So proponents of democracy object to anarchism because it is historically violent and infeasible in practice. But anarchists might raise the same concerns against democracy. The fundamental moral commitment of most form of anarchism is non-violence, that anarchists in the past used violence is no more a strike against the principled case for a stateless society than the fact that democratic revolutionaries excluded most people from political enfranchisement (and also used violence). Similarly, the suggestion that social-egalitarian anarchism is infeasible could also be said of social-egalitarian democracy, (especially in light of recent events!) So if both institutional ideals are compatible with an ideal of relational equality in principle but neither is feasible in practice, why do relational egalitarians favor democracy?

In my view, political principles that are advanced at the level of ideal theory should be those that specify which values should inform policy. For relational egalitarians, the value of voluntariness is fundamental, and stateless societies are more voluntary in this sense. At the level of non-ideal theory, we should begin with the political status quo and consider which institutional reforms would promote our values, in this case, social equality. Non-ideal concerns about the feasibility of improvement and peoples’ potential non-compliance with principles of justice should apply with equal force to both kinds of reform. Given where we are today, which threat is more urgent- the threat of public officials who are empowered by democratic majorities or the threat that private inequalities will emerge in the absence of public policy?

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3 Responses to Relational Egalitarianism and Politics

  1. Stefan Sciaraffa says:

    Thanks for this interesting post!

    Let me hazard the following alternative to your characterization of relational egalitarian that I hope is both in the spirit of relational egalitarianism and plausible. The gist is that this alternative would concede nothing to the anarchist, or so I hope. Here, I sketch five elements of this alternative characterization to get across the basic idea.

    First, this alternative presupposes groups for which the following circumstances of politics obtain: moderate scarcity, inescapable proximity, mutual interdependence, diversity of moral viewpoints, and fallibility. In these circumstances, there will be many disputes about the allocation of resources and how to treat one another that bear on the disputants’ fundamental interests (momentous disputes).

    Second, there is no question of whether these momentous disputes will get settled. The resources will get divvied up in some way, and people will treat each other in various ways.

    Third, there is a question of how these momentous disputes will get settled.

    Fourth, settlement of these momentous disputes by way of mutual voluntary consent is not a coherent option, for in that case there would be no dispute to settle.

    Fifth, one possibility is that these disputes will be settled by way of one camp’s imposition of force against its rivals, and another is that they will be settled by way of negotiation between camps that is framed by a backdrop of the relative ability of the rival camps to impose a settlement by force (a modus vivendi). The latter yields a kind of acquiescence, but not voluntary consent.

    Sixth, the relational egalitarian holds that these momentous disputes ought not to be settled in a way that relies on the relative ability of rival camps to impose a resolution by force; rather, on this view, such disputes ought to be settled prospectively on the basis of rule-like general terms of interaction, each member of the group should have an equal say with respect to the contours of those rules, and any forcible imposition of the settlement should conform to these democratically enacted rules.

    The key difference between this alternative and your characterization is that the alternative characterization of relational egalitarianism does not concede to the anarchist the possibility of settling momentous disputes about terms of interaction by way of mutual voluntary consent. On this alternative view, force must play a role in settling the momentous disputes endemic to the circumstances of politics. Moreover, on this view, democracy is unique in its ability to remove the sting of subordination from such inevitable forcible impositions, for democracy allows each to have an equal say with respect to the shape that these impositions take.

    Alright, I hope that was reasonably clear and useful in some way. Thanks again for the interesting post.

  2. Thanks for commenting Stefan! I think it is a promising democratic response to claim that some force is inevitable and that democracy is a way of, as you nicely put it, ‘removing the sting of subordination.’ In some ways this view is very friendly to the anarchist point about ideal and nonideal theory, which is that a voluntary society would be best and that perhaps we ought to try to approximate a more voluntary society given where we are. But I think you are right to point out that there is a different level of analysis where democracy could be justified as a way of trading off the badness of private acts of subordination between people against the harm of subordination to government. I’m also not sure this is true. It is not clear to me that democratic subordination stings any less, especially to the extent that a democratic outcome can be less just than an alternative outcome. And even holding the justice of a policy outcome, it could go either way. Imagine an unjust policy is upheld by the expert officials or passed by voters through a referendum. One might reasonably feel that the democratically passed unjust policy is a greater imposition or act of subordination than the same policy would be if passed by bureaucrats or judges.

  3. Stefan Sciaraffa says:

    Hi Jessica. Thanks for the response. If your post here is the germ of an article, I look forward to reading the fully worked out version.

    Three quick points to clarify that the view I have in mind seeks to maintain yet a harder line against anarchism than your response suggests:

    First, the idea of democracy removing the sting of subordination is ambiguous. On one reading, it anesthetizes the pain of subordination. But, what I had in mind was a more robust kind of removal. Namely, democracy fully cures the sting. On this view, there is no subordination when each has an equal say in defining the terms of interaction that are then coercively enforced. By contrast, there is subordination when the content of terms of interaction are determined by parties’ relative power to impose those terms.

    Second, I’d want to distinguish between the imposition of injustice and the disvalue of subordination. These strike me as two distinct evils. The non-democratic judicial imposition of perfectly just terms of interaction would still subordinate those who did not consent to them. By contrast, democratically decided terms might be highly unjust, but their imposition might not subordinate anyone. Metaphorically put, democracy removes the sting of subordination, but at best it only soothes the sting of injustice.

    Third (paralleling the second point), anarchy could in principle yield highly just terms of interaction. However, on the present view, those terms would necessarily be coercively imposed and this imposition would entail subordination—given the circumstances of politics.

    In sum, it might be worth pausing to consider whether there is a distinction between arguments that would support anarchy’s ability to secure just terms of interaction and arguments that would support anarchy’s ability to secure subordination free relations. I’ve voiced doubts above about the latter. Correlatively, the relational egalitarian I have in mind cites democracy’s unique ability to secure subordination-free relations rather than to secure just terms of interaction.