Interests, ideas and idealism

In a recent post Terry Bouricius argued that democratic politics is all about establishing a ‘congruity of interests’ between representatives and the represented. This has been an oft-repeated trope on this blog, for example Yoram’s affirmation of Terry’s post:

representatives who naturally, without external incentives, seek to represent the interests of constituents because they are congruous with their own . . . [=] alignment of interests

Since Marx’s inversion of Hegelian idealism (aided and abetted by Freudian psychology and neo-Darwinist biology), it has been fashionable to reduce ideation to (economic) interests, unconscious mental processes and ‘selfish’ genes. Beliefs and other ideational factors are all just so much epiphenomenal froth, that can be adequately explained in terms of interests alone. This is particularly true in the field of politics, where elected representatives only represent the interests of the rich and powerful; ideologies are just the systematic aggregation of interests and the notion that politicians might even be motivated by ideals (changing society for the better, irrespective of their own interests) is just plain naive. The existence of an autonomous field of enquiry called ‘political theory’ is equally laughable. Or so the story goes.

This has prompted me to make a post outlining a different (and distinctly old-fashioned) perspective on politics. The notion that ideas cannot be reduced to a material base and that (shock, horror) they might even play a causal role in human affairs survived slightly longer in the UK than elsewhere. R.G. Collingwood published his last book, The New Leviathan, in 1942 and Michael Oakeshott, another thinker from the British Hegelian school, kept the idealist flag flying as late as 1975 (On Human Conduct). Unfortunately the candle of British Idealism is pretty close to being snuffed out — our journal Collingwood and British Idealism Studies now only has a handful of subscribers.

I’m not a political scientist and I have no practical experience of the political systems of any other country, but my understanding of UK politics is very different from the cynical views expressed on this blog. I would wager (forgive the archaic term) that most UK politicians are drawn to public service because they think they can help to improve the lives of their fellow citizens. This is true across the political spectrum for, notwithstanding the notion of the post-war (social democratic) consensus and the post-Thatcher (neoliberal) consensus, there are still two competing groups of ideology, one focusing on equality and solidarity and the other focusing on liberty and prosperity. Members of both groups sincerely believe in their ideals, and that their own ideology is the best way of attaining it. However, in order to do so they have to win elections and this involves all sorts of compromise, both with other politicians whose views they only partially share and with a cynical and apathetic electorate who (for entirely rational reasons) doesn’t take the considerable time and effort needed to judge their competing offerings in an intelligent manner. This is why I think sortition is a necessary part of a functioning democratic system, not because I think that life is all about interests and that the interests of the elite and the masses are essentially different (whatever Russell Brand may like to believe). Politics in the UK is badly paid and politicians work very hard and are held in low esteem, so it’s difficult to understand why any sensible person would choose a life of public service in order to pursue her own interests. Note that is not denying the claim that epistemic factors can prevent politicians (or anyone else for that matter) from understanding and/or empathising with the interests of people different from themselves — this is all part of the reason why political decisions should be taken by statistically-representative juries. But it’s entirely possible for a politician (or any other human agent) to act in the interests of another person, even if the interests of both parties are orthogonal (Griffiths and Wollheim, 1960).

I could provide examples of why I believe (UK) politicians of all persuasions are driven more by idealism than interests if anyone would find that helpful. This is not because I think they are any more virtuous than politicians in other country, I just don’t feel qualified to comment on anything I don’t have direct experience of.


Griffiths, A. P., & Wollheim, R. (1960). How can one person represent another? Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, Supplementary Volumes, 34, 187-224.

15 Responses

  1. Very well explained, Keith. Yes, there is idealism, but it seems to be systematically snuffed out by the on-rush of ‘economism’ — the belief that everyone is greedy and self-interested. In this dog-eat-dog world, how can space be made for higher motives to thrive?


  2. Conall,

    That’s true, but we should remember that a theory of societal good with a long pedigree was constructed on the basis of self-interest. Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments cannot be reduced to simple ‘economism’, but still revolves around his claim that “it is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest”. Mandeville’s Fable of the Bees is even more explicit about the positive link between private vices and public virtues. The reason that I claim this is a moral theory is because advocates for this tradition argue that it’s better to proceed on the basis of a realistic appraisal of human nature as opposed to a description of how people ought to behave in an ideal world. Thatcherism can be viewed as dog-eat-dog or alternatively as Methodism in action.

    The point I was trying to make is that politicians who base their policies on such theories (whatever you may think of their validity) do so because they genuinely believe they are the best way of allowing as many people as possible to maximise their eudaimonia, not because they are just pursuing their own self-interests. The best judge of which policies are most likely to achieve this goal (equality & community or liberty & markets) is a representative sample of the whole polis.


  3. As usual, Keith, your posts contain a liberal dose of falsehoods, dubious claims and non-sequiturs.

    But how can we even expect to have a meaningful discussion when you are either so forgetful or deceitful that you repeatedly misrepresent the positions of others? Not only have I quite recently explicitly described “interests” in ideological, non-economic terms, but I have highlighted this description in a following exchange we had. Whatever is the reason for your carelessness with the facts, as long as it persists there is really no point in responding to your arguments with anything but out-of-hand dismissal.


  4. Most UK politicians are drawn to public service because they think they can help to improve the lives of their fellow citizens

    I think this is quite a strong statement, but I would agree with the weaker assertion that very few politicians start out with the implicit goal of merely and selfishly improving their personal conditions. This however does not disprove the notion that the electoral process might somehow create a governing class which tends to overly further the interests of a selected few, to the loss of most others. Which is in my opinion the biggest problem that sortition might be able to counter.

    I do agree that there is often some idealistic drive behind politicians starting their career, although often mixed with love for being in charge and for the political game. But this idealism could also mean being arrogant, having strong opinions about how the world should be, and wanting to change it to ones own image (perhaps you even agree with me partially on this point? correct me if I’m wrong). Furthermore ideals can change, sometimes subtly, to avoid being an obstacle to ones own interests. People have great capacity of rationalizing to make ones actions fit ones own ideals.

    But then there is also, I believe, a selection process at work where only politicians that have ideals compatible with the status quo are allowed the rise to power. I think it was Chomsky who once wrote about journalists that they might indeed be perfectly free to write their opinions, but if they hadn’t had the tendency of having the right opinons they wouldn’t have been hired in the first place. Now of course politicians are not hired, instead they are voted into power through free elections, but I still believe that standing of the toes of powerful people doesn’t exactly help the chances of getting elected. For example in the UK I don’t believe it very likely for a politicians to get elected if not by being accepted by one of the major parties first.

    I don’t know that much about the specific political landscape of the UK, but by observing the world it seems that in most places power is in the hands of an elite which naturally will tend to favour themselves over the rest of the population in their decisions, and in their pressures towards and against change. I don’t think elections does enough to counter these tendencies that human societies seem to have. That is where my hopes lie in sortition.


  5. Fela,

    Yes I do agree with you that people drawn to politics are often blinded by their own strong opinions, and this is why the judgment as to which opinions and ideologies should be taken up should be in the hands of a randomly-selected microcosm. But this is a supplement, rather than an alternative, to election. Election is the only way we have whereby opinions and ideologies are offered up for public choice and those who offer sub-optimal opinions and ideologies are subsequently punished (at the next election). As I pointed out recently in another thread, election is the modern equivalent of the 4th century political trial — an essential component of Athenian democracy.

    The challenge of course is to make the market in ideas and policy options as free and open as possible, rather than overwhelmed by Big Party, Big Money, Big Media etc. That’s one reason why I argue that the electoral process should be supplemented by direct-democratic initiative. Given that the winning party in an election would only have the right to have its manifesto proposals considered by the allotted jury (it would not be forming a government), the party structure would be a lot more fluid than at present — one would anticipate successful popular initiatives morphing into political parties. Those who’s policies turn out to be in the public interest will earn the confidence of the public for future elections, in a quasi-Bayesian manner. Given the assault on media monopolies via the internet the break-up of Big Media would already appear to have started. The best way to address the problem of Big Money is strict limits on campaign funding and electoral advertising.

    I appreciate that this is a more conservative approach than that favoured by most active posters on this forum (a small subset of its 178 followers plus unknown number of casual browsers). I make the assumption that most people who do not choose to pursue a political career have no strong opinion on most political topics and certainly have no ideology. This (comparatively) disinterested perspective makes them the ideal judge of the output of the political class, for all the reasons that Madison described in his argument for the extended republic. It also privileges those with ideologies closer to the status quo and would suggest that small incremental progress is better than revolutionary upheaval. But that’s probably always been the case (see, for example, Tocqueville’s book on the French Revolution). But I wouldn’t expect Noam Chomsky to be very sympathetic to this argument.

    >This however does not disprove the notion that the electoral process might somehow create a governing class which tends to overly further the interests of a selected few, to the loss of most others.

    As far as UK politics is concerned I think this underestimates the degree to which politicians of all persuasions have their hands tied by a combination of (1) public opinion, (2) transnational corporate power and (as Denis Healey put it), (3) the laws of arithmetic. I don’t think there is any good reason to think that sortition could do very much about (2) and (3); by definition it would ensure that (1) is better informed than at present.


    I’ll be happy to debate this with you if you could move the discussion into real time, as opposed to citing old words (an approach normally favoured by conservative evangelical Christians). That’s how knowledge moves forward. I certainly didn’t intend to misrepresent your position, I just don’t understand it — that’s why I repeatedly ask to you explain what you mean when you use the word “representation”, as it appears to be different from everybody else. It looks like you need now to do the same thing with the word “interests”.


  6. Yoram,

    >I quite recently explicitly described “interests” in ideological, non-economic terms.

    Other than in the everyday sense of “I’m interested in politics, cricket, stamp-collecting etc”, this really is an abuse of language. The political theory literature draws a distinction between interests and ideation; they only dissolve when theorists like Marx seek to reduce the latter to the former. If we are going to have a productive conversation we really all need to use words in the same way — if you want to talk about (irreducible) “ideological interests” then you need to coin a new term to refer to this strange hybrid creature. It’s true of course that an individual may have cognitive interests in preserving the integrity of her ideology, but that’s a debate for psychologists to pursue; similarly the interests of groups in preserving the integrity of their defining ideology is a proper subject for sociologist to debate. But both groups of scholars are, again, seeking to explain ideology in terms of infrastructure (psychological or sociological needs).

    Your use of the term “representation” is also one that I, for one, simply don’t understand. The standard text on representation in political theory is Pitkin’s book so, for the sake of mutual understanding, we need to take the distinctions she makes as the common denominator in the debate. By all means take issue with her distinctions — if you wish make the case that standing for and acting for are the same thing — but language is a system of public tokens and we need to use it in a conventional way, or else we are going to continue to talk past each other and make allegations that our intellectual opponents are being disingenuous, dishonest, careless etc. Scientific concepts are always subject to agreed definition and the same thing is true for political theory.


  7. Keith,

    Nobody (but you) is arguing that elected legislators aren’t (or necessarily are) sincerely seeking to pursue what they believe to be in the general public interest. My point is that how “good policy” is interpreted is influenced by underlying interests. Policies that would help me and my friends FEEL good and fair, so I will unconsciously serve my own interests while intending to advance the common good. Perhaps it will help explain my notion of interests by excerpting a bit from the book I am writing. In this section I am talking about how I came to understand the need for descriptively representative legislatures while serving as a legislator myself…

    “My epiphany came while dealing with a bill affecting the rights and responsibilities of tenants and landlords in an eviction situation….During a break between witnesses, one committee member regaled a few of us with a story about how a landlord friend of his had had an apartment trashed by a renter. The story had vivid details about damage to the carpeting and walls. While not directly relevant to the bill under consideration, the story did create a frame with a clear perpetrator and victim. Nobody offered a counter-story in which a tenant had been abused by a bad landlord. While discussing the eviction bill during committee “mark-up” (when committee members propose amendments, etc.) I realized that committee members were relying more on anecdotal information from their own circle of contacts and those of their fellow committee members, than any statistical reports or formal testimony from scheduled witnesses. They also naturally interpreted any testimony through the filters of their own life-experience, giving extra credence to information that corresponded with their pre-conceived ideas, and re-interpreting or discounting testimony that didn’t fit their world view. Testimony on behalf of tenants seemed to be especially discounted. With hindsight, I recognize that I did the same thing. … I saw that the experiences and beliefs of legislators shape legislation far more than facts.

    I conducted an informal survey to find out how many of my colleagues on the committee were tenants, vs. home-owners or landlords. Roughly one third of Vermonters were renters, but not one of the committee members was a renter. So I expanded my informal survey to the entire House, and as far as I was able to determine, only one out of 150 members was a tenant (no it wasn’t me, my wife and I had recently purchased a house). It was readily apparent that the interests of tenants were disadvantaged in the House, and the resulting statutes reflected that fact. I thought that if the House were genuinely representative of the population and one third of the legislators had been renters, that the nature of the debate, and possibly the outcome, could have been very different. While research indicates mere diversity of opinion within a group does not necessarily mean a melding of views (the method of deliberation is key, as will be discussed in chapter 8), one might hope that the debate would have been more robust, with questionable assumptions actually being questioned.

    After that experience, I frequently commented that any 150 Vermonters pulled from the phone book would be more representative than the elected House membership.


  8. Terry,

    Thanks for the clarification, I now understand that when you use the word “interests” you are in fact referring to epistemic biases (the notion of cognitive and ideological interests being oxymoronic). When you were debating the housing issue you weren’t acting on the basis of subliminal interests (you were neither a landlord nor a tenant) but you and your colleagues’ understanding of the issues involved was framed by the epistemic biases created by your broadly similar lifestyles, socio-economic backgrounds and circle of friends and acquaintances. The Griffiths article that I referenced makes a similar point when it cites John Stuart Mill’s plea for the presence of the working classes in parliament:

    “On the question of strikes, for instance, it is doubtful if there is so much as one among the leading members of the House who is not firmly convinced that the reason of the matter is unqualifiedly on the side of the masters, and that the men’s view of it is simply absurd. Those who have studied the question know well how far this is from being the case; and in how different, and how infinitely less superficial a manner the point would have to be argued, if the classes who strike were able to make themselves heard in Parliament” (Mill, 1991, pp. 246-247).

    As Mill’s book was published in 1861, the language he used was not corrupted by the Marxist project, so was expressed in purely cognitive terms. Nowhere does Mill suggest that MPs are operating on the basis of subliminal interests, only that they are suffering from epistemic bias. I agree with you that epistemic biases can only be addressed via the aggregate judgment of a descriptively-representative sample of the whole population. The representation of interests, however, is another matter, and I would encourage you to read the Griffiths article as it demonstrates clearly how statistical representation cannot possibly be a candidate to “act for” the interests of others.

    In order to prevent any future misunderstandings I suggest that we use phrases like “epistemic bias” as opposed to “interests” to refer to cognitive problems like this and also desist from posting references to cod-Marxist idiots like Russell Brand, who only serve to deepen the confusion. And, while we’re at it, also desist from using incorrect terms like “delegate” in the context of descriptive representation and that those who are choosing to use the word “representation” in a non-standard way should to tell us exactly what they are referring to.

    Until we can agree on the use of words, we will all continue to talk past each other. Perhaps a glossary would help, but that would be a little odd, given that all the terms referenced above are part of the regular political theory lexicon. But I think everyone who is writing in the field needs to familiarise themselves with the standard use of these terms.


  9. Keith,

    I do agree that often confusion about words can create apparent disagreements that do in fact not exist. Or allow for argument that sound good, but have in fact not much meaning. So it’s important to define words, or at least try to disambiguate whenever the context alone doesn’t make meaning clear.

    It would probably be helpful if you had defined what you mean by interests and epistemic biases. Probably the definitions are very obvious to you, they aren’t to me.

    However, couldn’t the two concepts be closely related? Having certain interests makes you have certain epistemic biases (but also ideological biases?), which makes you take decisions that help those interests?


  10. Fela,

    Yes I agree that the two very often overlap in practice, but they are conceptually distinct. In both Terry’s and Mill’s example it would be perfectly possible for the decision makers (if better informed) to understand the position of the renters and the strikers (and even to persuaded by it) and still decide that it is not in the interest of the decision-makers (or those of their associates) to decide in their favour. Such a decision would be morally reprehensible and they may seek to conceal it by pretending that they are deciding on some other “disinterested” basis.

    Conversely (and this is the case that both Terry and Mill are outlining) if the decision-makers were better informed from the perspective of the renters and the strikers they may well decide against their own interests and the interests of their associates. Taking a decision on the basis of epistemically-biased information is not morally reprehensible, it’s just ignorant.

    The reason that I hold Marx out to be the bogeyman is because he collapsed the latter into the former and this has led to a tendency to state everything in terms of interests, as opposed to epistemic factors. It also leads to the crude caricatures that we have witnessed from time to time on this blog (most recently in the references to Russell Brand’s views) whereby politicians are portrayed as venal, self-interested and/or only pursuing the interests of the rich and powerful. The fact is that many, or even most, politicians in democratic regimes are simply trying to do the best they can to pursue the national interest (or the interests of their constituents) as they see them. They may well be spectacularly badly informed, but this does not mean that they are in hoc to nefarious interest groups — puppets with their strings being pulled by their rich and powerful masters.

    I agree that epistemic bias and interests do in practice often overlap, that’s why the begriffsgeschichte approach to clusters of terms and expressions is better than single definitions of the sort of concepts that are used in the political theory literature. Adopting this approach, interests are generally economic in nature, determined, unconscious, emotionally-charged and selfish. Epistemic bias is cognitive, conscious, disinterested, undetermined and autonomous with respect to non-cognitive domains.

    I’m sorry if it looks as if I’m just pursuing arguments that “sound good”. I am defending my own discipline (political theory) and making the claim that anyone who wants to make a serious contribution to this field does need, at minimum, to use words in the same way that everyone else does. Persons selected by lot are not “delegates” and anyone discussing the use of the term “representation” should at least try understand its existing meaning in the political theory literature. Otherwise we will all just talk past each other. I wouldn’t dream of wading into a debate in a field of scholarship that I hadn’t studied without doing the necessary homework — and I don’t see why just because the subject matter of this blog is more quotidian than (say) statistical theory this means that we should behave otherwise.


  11. There’s another good reason for keeping the discourse on interests and epistemic bias separate. The discussion on this blog has centred around the notion that sortition will represent the interests and preferences of the wider political community “automatically” and, given a political sociology based on the notion of the interests of the “masses”, this is allied with a sense of homogeneity within the interests and preferences of the 99%. Preference formation is not entirely open to conscious control — if I prefer tea to coffee, no amount of discursive input is likely to change this very much, irrespective of the rhetorical skills of the persuader. Hence the relaxed attitude over the huge differences in the knowledge and persuasive skills of who gets to speak — so long as most members are drawn from the 99% (which they will be) they all share the same fundamental interests.

    Not so with epistemic domains like knowledge, beliefs and attitudes. With the possible exception of meta-beliefs such as religious conviction, all cognitive domains are open to discursive influence. This is why if the information and advocacy functions are within the remit of a randomly-selected sample then any change of attitudes will be down to entirely random factors — ie which members of the allotted group happened to be blessed with the necessary rhetorical skills to promote their own brand of knowledge and their own attitudes. If there are many samples, then these factors will vary randomly between samples and there is no way of deciding which sample is the “representative” one. The DP is an epistemic exercise (its full name being deliberative opinion poll), hence Fishkin’s reliance on exogenous sources of balanced information and advocacy, trained moderators etc.

    Those who are proposing an allotted sample with full active powers (Terry, Yoram etc) will be predisposed to an interest-based discourse (even to the extent of inventing oxymorons like “ideological interests”), but this ignores the essentially random (and therefore unrepresentative) distribution of information, attitudes, perceived status and persuasive skills in the sample. Hence my concern to keep interests and epistemic bias separate (rather than just pursuing arguments that “sound good” but are of little practical consequence).


  12. This is an important discussion.

    Keith, what you’re getting at is crucial both for discussion among sortinistas and for taking the ideas into a broader sphere. But it seems you use an expansive definition of “epistemic bias” while others were using an expansive notion of “interests.” Is there a better term?

    I recently came across “group-based miscognition” to refer to how “interests” can effect not only conscious beliefs and attitudes but perception itself. This means that people of different “lived experience” and backgrounds actually see and hear different things. The context there was subtle or unconscious racism.

    Would “world view” be better and accessible to a wider audience?


  13. Ahmed,

    Thanks, that’s very helpful. Clearly there is considerable overlap between cognition and its “background”, but I think we need to maintain some clear blue water at the level of the conceptual ideal type. Too much focus on economic and similar determinants paints a picture of human agents as unconscious interest-bearers, whereas too much focus on cognition generates the unattached Cartesian subject. My preference would be to keep both ideal types but to acknowledge that there is a meeting of both in empirical human agents (roughly according to the thinking/feeling dichotomy).

    And this isn’t just some academic distinction (arguments that “sound good”), it makes a difference for the design of deliberative institutions — my claim being that oxymorons like “cognitive interests” give rise to a model of sortive selection that I’ve consistently argued breaches the statistical representation mandate. As you know I’m very suspicious of deliberative democrats when they argue that democracy is “any kind of effective and formalized control by citizens over leaders and policies” (Elster, 1998, p.98, my emphasis) without specifying which citizens. Deliberative democrats just assume random selection will generate “average” individuals (with broadly similar interests, produced largely by their similar stake in the economic infrastructure) and this strikes me as a by-product of the Marxist background of thinkers like Habermas and Elster. Terry and Yoram both seem to be working within this paradigm, although I’m not making the claim that this anything other than a reflection of a “group-based miscognition” introduced by the Marxian project.

    >I recently came across “group-based miscognition” to refer to how “interests” can affect not only conscious beliefs and attitudes but perception itself.

    This is clearly true but I think we need to make the Cartesian assumption that people are “free” to change their attitudes as a consequence of balanced discursive input. And we can also rely on the claim that random samples made at the level of the extended republic will help cancel out this kind of miscognition (other than cognitive biases that affect the whole polis). The very term “group-based miscognition” accords with the Sunstein literature on groupthink and is a salient warning against the group pursuing anything further than a silent deliberation/voting agenda. In this respect they are an aggregate of individuals, rather than a group.


    Elster, Jon (1998), Deliberative Domocracy, Cambridge UP.


  14. Firstly, I asked about “world view” because I’m skeptical about its usefulness, but equally unsure that epistemic bias gets at everything.

    Yes, clearly it isn’t academic; it has to do with why sortition in the first place. Something Rousseau said is relevant. I paraphrase. (It is most difficult if not impossible to act according to duty when duty is in conflict with one’s interests, inclinations, and passions. Therefore, if I want to act according to duty, I must avoid situations where duty conflicts with interests.)

    That said, even an allotted body will have to work for “the common good” or in accordance with “general will.” And that’s another point of controversy on this forum. Would it remain as much an issue for an allotted body as in an elected one? Is there that institutional design to make deciding for the common good more likely?


  15. Ahmed

    You express the dilemma well. Rousseau was in accord with Madison in his search for a disinterested perspective and this is in direct conflict with the approach recently advocated on this forum (the need to establish a “congruity of interests” between the microcosm and the target population.

    An allotted body would decide for the common good, assuming a utilitarian perspective (the greatest good of the greatest number), but that presupposes (IMHO) that the body is well informed, as there is no particular reason to believe that people will have a natural intuition as to what is in their own good. If you take a more expansive view of the common good (to include the needs of the unborn) it becomes even more problematic. The institutional design that would work best would also harness the wisdom of past generations to transcend the immediate needs of the present, along with other constitutional safeguards, but it is a deeply non-trivial design problem. Appointing a representative sample and leaving it up to them would be unlikely to rise to the challenge.


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