“On our first trip I tried so hard to rearrange your mind
But after a while I realized you were disarranging mine.” –Mick Jagger/Keith Richards
Anyone that studies political science at all eventually must take a course or two in political philosophy. One of the more fascinating concepts that came out of that was Jean Jacque Rousseau’s “general will.” The idea behind the general will is that it would govern whatever representatives do on behalf of the people. Apparently, he was under the impression that there were certain ideas and principles that the vast majority of the population agreed with.
This was all part of his book “The Social Contract” which was one of the inspirations for the Declaration of Independence and constitution. The concept of a general will has always been fascinating to me. Society seems to be so divided that it’s hard to imagine many things that we would all agree on.
Of course, I’m not really sure how divided we really are. There are market forces on both sides of the political spectrum that make a whole lot of hay by subdividing us into stratified groups. The proof (if you need any) is to look at how moderates are labeled by both sides. It’s almost become a dirty word to be labeled reasonable.
The trick behind the general will is to focus on the first word. One of the ways that partisan hacks get us is they focus on the minutia. For instance, Tucker Carlson honed in on Merrick Garland’s confirmation hearing testimony where he said some of the insurrectionists at the Capital were white supremacists. This is a documented fact. Some of them openly admitted to being white supremacists. Yet, he got into a diatribe about how Garland called all of the people that stormed the capital white supremacists.
So, then the back and forth machine gets moving. We go into a huge debate over what percentage of the crowd are racist. Then, we extrapolate that to the overall population and we are getting into an argument over exactly who is deplorable and who isn’t.
A few days (and a whole news cycle) later we are no closer to anything of substance than we were before. The question for Garland is what he thinks should be done about those who participated. Is he going to continue to pursue those that haven’t been charged yet? What kind of resources will he allocate to this end? Will he stop at just those that actually participated in the physical attack or will he go after those in the past administration that helped plan it? Whether a quarter, half, or most of those that stormed the capital were racists is immaterial to any of those questions.
In a similar way, the debate over government involvement in the economy and our lives is a necessary one, but we often skip a few steps. If you asked most people, they would agree that there should be some government regulation of the economy. I often call these public and private goods. Public goods are those goods either provided by the state or heavily regulated. Private goods are considerably freer and less prone to regulation.
Obviously, the disagreement comes in the specifics. The way I interpret the general will is that the vast majority of people agree on general principles. There are a few that think the government should control nothing. There are a few that think the government should control everything. We leave those people in the wilderness and let the adults make grown up decisions.
The term Democrat and Republican, liberal and conservative, progressive and reactionary are rarely helpful. The definition of each one is fluid and no one fits perfectly into any box. Instead of arguing over generic points of view, it is much more productive to find places of agreement. For instance, both parties want infrastructure updates and expansion. Let’s do it.
When we get together with friends we don’t dwell on those things we disagree on. What is the fun in that? We talk about fun times we’ve had and try to do things we all enjoy doing. Excessive arguing over issues we know we don’t agree on is only productive for those that want to divide. They make plenty of money and garner undue power by doing that.