The rationality of politics

In his paper “Frog’s legs, shared ends, and the rationality of politics” (PDF), Anthony de Jasay discusses the role of rationality in political philosophy. He writes that “much of the old confusion we deplore in political theory, and much of the fresh confusion we spread when trying to get rid of what has been spread, springs from false notions of what rationality is and what it does.” Not controversial is rationality as an attribute of thought that conforms to logic or grammar, or to express hypothetical imperatives in which the rationality of the means is evaluated to achieve a goal (what Max Weber calls “Zweckrationalität,” or instrumental rationality). But can we push the use of rationality beyond this? Can we ascribe rationality to ends (values)? De Jasay argues that “justificationism” or “foundationalism” is not possible:

Any finite regress of ends is ended by a final end or value, about which it is futile to ask to what else it leads, what comes after it, for what reason we pursue it. If the question were not futile, the end would not be final, non-instrumental. Since not every reason can have a further reason, the scope of rationality in choosing actions is strictly limited.

Where does this leave political philosophy? Can we say that one political arrangement is more rational than others? This does not seem possible because at some point down the line we will end up with a statement that is not a hypothetical imperative but a value judgment.  But “to each his own value” is problematic in cases where values are of such a nature that they can only be realized if everyone complies. An example of such a value statement is that there should be an equal distribution of wealth. At this point, de Jasay argues that when pressed to justify the rationality of such an end, we invariably end up with some form of the “common good” of which he says that “the content and drift of political philosophy depends to no small extent on whether it admits the concept of the common good, or rules it out as gobbledygook.”

De Jasay reviews three different versions of the common good (mystical, communitarian, and  as  an aggregate of the good of individuals members) and finds them all lacking in logical and/or empirical content. “Any political decision that, by invoking the common good, overrides the will and wishes of some to satisfy others, is the execution of a value judgment about individual wills and wishes.” Although these value judgments are not disreputable at such, it is disreputable to dress them up as facts or products of rational thought.

Although de Jasay’s argument that value judgments that require compliance of all will have to invoke an argument involving the common good could benefit from more elaboration, his point about the limited role that rationality can play in political philosophy is well taken. De Jasay’s oeuvre  is part of a small, but persuasive, tradition in which skepticism, instead of fanatical moralism, undermines most, if not all, reasons for engaging in politics.

A good deal, however, is left to be said about what is not to be done, and said, and why. Nine parts of practical politics is the making of non-unanimous decisions by some, that hurt others. Do we really want such decisions imposed as rational means to ends that are ultimately neither rational nor irrational, and must be posited by brazen assertion, mystical communion with the good, or occult value-comparisons between persons? Pareto-optimal outcomes offer a minimal morally legitimate space for a minimal state, and no more. Surely, it tells something about the ontology of politics that logic, morality, or both lend themselves so much better to condemning political action than to defending its legitimacy.