We Are All Consequentialists Now
Monday Notes
We Are All Consequentialists Now
Is democracy only good as long as it delivers the results we like?
Published on: Sep 12, 2022  |  

I don’t know if this—like a growing number of things in this odd moment in which we live—will manage to be both vaguely self-evident and incredibly unfashionable. Actually, it almost certainly will. You have been warned.

I’ve been a critic of how moderns (i.e. me, you, and everyone we know) view the democratic idea. I don’t have a great sense of how bad the problem is, since a lot of the survey research doesn’t do a great job of disaggregating the possible meanings of democracy. But it’s probably bad enough. My primary concern has to do with a certain kind of instrumentalism or consequentialism of democracy. In other words, if we value democracy only insofar as it produces other substantive outcomes that we favor, then we are instrumentalizing democracy. It must give us other things for us to want it or appreciate it. The reason I’m against this is simple: democracy doesn’t necessarily give us the things we want it to give.

In a recent op ed, The New York Times’ Jamelle Bouie writes that:

It is not that Trump and the Republican Party are opposed to voting and elected office in and of themselves; it’s that they are opposed to a more equitable distribution of wealth and status, which a robust democracy—and only a robust democracy—makes possible. They are opposed to anything that might undermine the domination over others by people like themselves.

There are a couple issues here. The first is that this charge could easily be leveled at non-Republicans—or pretty much any group of human beings: Cultural liberals are also “opposed to anything that might undermine the domination over others by people like themselves.” They are also “opposed to a more equitable distribution of status.” The hoarding of status, after all, is one of the major preoccupations of liberal elites today.

But there isn’t anything particularly original or innovative about recognizing human nature for what it is. In contexts of existential competition, no group wants the other group to dominate it, and so instead it must preemptively seek domination on its own terms. If domination is inevitable, it seems only logical to want your own side to be the one doing the dominating.

What’s more interesting to me, though, is that in criticizing Republicans for being instrumentalists, Bouie reifies the instrumentalist premise but just in the other direction. It’s not so much that Republicans are against the mere act of voting, he says; they are against what voting leads to—the more equitable distribution of wealth and status. In other words, if democracy reduces economic inequality, and Republicans are opposed to reducing economic inequality, ergo Republicans will not be in favor of democracy.

There are a few assumptions baked into this. Does democracy actually lead to the reduction of income or wealth inequality? As an empirical matter, democracy can do this, but it can also do the opposite. If one wishes to argue that the United States only became an actual democracy in the 1960s (an argument that I’m sympathetic to), then one would have to account for how this period of true, full democracy coincided with a massive increase in the wealth gap between rich and poor. This is not to say that democracy caused this ever increasing gap; it’s just to say that democracy alone does not make for “a more equitable distribution.”

And why would it? If democracy is fundamentally about reflecting the preferences of a given electorate at a given time—and if that electorate, for whatever reason, doesn’t prioritize redistribution—then it’s unclear why democratically elected governments would prioritize redistribution.

The flip side of this is that in arguing that democracy and the redistribution of wealth and status are intrinsically linked, we make our support of democracy contingent on something it may very well be incapable of producing. This is the trap of democratic consequentialism. To avoid this trap, we must be willing and able to support democracy, as a set of procedural commitments, even if it consistently produces “bad” outcomes that make economic inequality even worse than it currently is.