Thursday, January 21, 2021

Funky Leibnizian Calculating Machine

Richard Marshall has an interview with Walter Horn at 3:16 on 'democratic theory' in philosophy. In light of politics being on everybody's mind, I was interested in this portion:

The U.S. Constitution may have been a model for government systems a hundred years ago, but now it’s more like a funky Leibnizian calculating machine that nobody sensible has any interest in except as a historical oddity. I say that it’s too much because it has silly, imaginary “rights” bandied about in it as if they were real, but that it’s also too little because the things that do require absolute protection, like freedom of political speech and association, are guaranteed only against encroachments by the U.S. government. Corporations, for example, are not required by anything in our Constitution to allow free political speech or association. I think the document may even be consistent with companies forbidding their employees from voting. And, as can be seen from the circus going on here over the past year, it doesn’t have nearly enough in it about how elections must be conducted.

Even allowing for hyperbole, this is unfortunately a good example of the looney-tunes kookery that too often passes for political philosophy.  Anyone who said such a thing outside of academia would be regarded as a crackpot and fringe extremist; this is the political philosophy equivalent of the tinfoil hat. To say that "nobody sensible has any interest in" the Constitution "except as a historical oddity" is not just false but obviously absurd; to imply that the Constitution, whatever defects you may think it to have, is not in fact often taken a model for constitutions even today is obviously false. The rights in the Constitution are not imaginary -- it's not as if the Founders were just brainstorming ideas. Every right in the US Constitution is there to address a practical problem or set of problems with which people had actually wrestled. None of them are made up (which you do occasionally find in constitutions that are more aspirational); they are real practical solutions to real practical problems of governance. (This is arguably one of the reasons for its durability relative to other constitutions.) You can argue that there are much better solutions to the same general problems than the ones given, but imaginary they are not.  (And it's worth noting that except for the copyright and patent right, which are said by it to be due  to statute, all the rights explicitly mentioned as such in the Constitution are in the Amendments, and include things like various rights to vote or rights that were already recognized prior to the Constitution's ratification. Which of these are "silly" and "imaginary"?) That we don't take corporations to have a responsibility to allow free speech or association is in fact a relatively recent notion; it's obvious that the fact that we don't is a matter of the statutory and judicial interpretations we've come to accept, not of anything the Constitution itself requires. There are obvious reasons why corporations -- which are created by statute and effectively governed by judicial interpretations in such a way that their nature changes over time -- should be held responsible for these things at the level of statute and judicial interpretation, not directly at the level of a constitution, which would write them into a status as constitutionally recognized entities. The US Constitution doesn't say much about elections for the obvious reason that elections are governed by the states, so if there are constitutions that need more work with respect to elections, it's obviously the state constitutions. And it is very notable that the process laid out in the US Constitution is, if anything, the one part of our election process that has in recent times consistently worked the way it is supposed to work.