What Do We Mean When We Say Something Is Political? — Recommended Readings

Berlin, Isaiah. Liberty. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.

Cahoone, Lawrence. The Modern Political Tradition: Hobbes to Habermas. Chantilly, VA: The Great Courses, 2014.

Fukuyama, Francis. State-Building: Governance and World Order in the 21st Century. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2004.

Keltner, Dacher. The Power Paradox: How We Gain and Lose Influence. New York: Penguin Books, 2016.

Leys, Wayne A. R. Ethics for Policy Decisions: The Art of Asking Deliberative Questions. New York: Prentice-Hall, 1952.

Rawls, John. A Theory of Justice. Revised ed. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 2003.

Smith, Steven B. Political Philosophy. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2012.

Woodward, Orrin. Resolved: 13 Resolutions for Life. Flint, MI: Obstacles Press, 2011.

We participate in political systems, when we vote, and when we talk about our favorite politicians and about our least favorite.  We say that decisions that we don’t like were made politically.  What do we mean by this term “political”?

The word comes from the Greek polis, which means city, state, people.  Interesting that people, city, and state come from the same word.  Aristotle used the word as the title of his book Politics, where he describes the decision making process for the principles, standards, rules, and actions of a people.  Political then just means “who decides.”  Who decides how to allocate resources and how to enforce those decisions.  Who has the power to make those decisions, who gives them that power, and what backs up that power?  Big questions.  Ranging from philosophical to practical, theoretical to empirical, valuing freedom, equality, or solidarity, these eight authors provide different avenues into these questions.

Evolution of Political Frameworks

What we mean by a political process varies greatly over spacetime.  Over space, every culture has a different perspective on who decides and enforces, and how they should do it, with practically every individual everywhere holding different views on the particulars of how it is applied within their specific culture.  Over time, every culture’s political process has evolved, dramatically, often experimenting with political systems based on royalty, church, military, individuals, small groups, large groups.  None are exactly the same, over time and space.  Interestingly, most of us seem to assume that our system is the right one, now and for everyone, extending our current system infinitely over time and space, though our own grandparents might have disagreed vociferously, as they lived in a different space and time.

Political scientist Steven B. Smith and philosopher Lawrence Cahoone map out large swaths of time in the development of western political systems, ranging from the Greeks with Sophocoles around 441BC, Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, to the Christian bible in the early 100sAD, the Italian Machiavelli in the early 16th century AD, the English Hobbes and Locke in the mid to late 17th century AD, and the Genevan Rousseau, the German Kant, and the French Montesquieu and Tocqueville in the late 18th and early 19th century AD, coming to today with modern political philosophers.  A broad sweep, showing the dramatic changes in western political philosophy over the past 25 centuries.  Professor Smith frames the evolution of political philosophy, “The proper subject of political philosophy is political action.  All action aims at either preservation or change…[A]ll action presupposes some judgment of better and worse…The oldest, the most fundamental, of all questions of political life is ‘What is the best regime?…Every regime shapes a distinctive human character with distinctive human traits and qualities'” (p5-6).  Political systems change, according to the context of their own here (space) and now (time) because there is always a “tension between the best regime and any actual regime…[the] zone of indeterminacy between the Is and the Ought, between the actual and the ideal” (p9).  People have always ended up giving the decision and enforcement power to someone, because cooperation and agreement are required to establish predictable order, and people seem generally incapable of doing it themselves, reliably (p11).  Hobbes, in the mid-1600s, brings in to the design of political systems the question of what the human being is like in a state of nature.  Were it not for this state of nature, humanity would not need to be governed, to have decisions made and enforced for them.  This logic runs through to the middle of the 20th century.  Professor Cahoone shows how each new political philosopher borrowed and built on earlier philosophers, carrying some elements forward, disregarding others, and adding some new ones.

Modern Frames

Philosopher Isaiah Berlin brought focus to the language we use and how it confuses our understanding of what we are supporting.  Two different people can both say they support freedom, and mean contrasting things.  “Almost every moralist in human history has praised freedom.  Like happiness and goodness, like nature and reality, it is a term whose meaning is so porous that there is little interpenetration that it seems able to resist” (p168). In this set of lectures, he distinguishes between negative liberty and positive liberty, where the negative is the freedom from and the positive is the freedom to.  Freedom from the interference of others in an individual’s decisions.  Freedom to pursue one’s own potential.  Freedom from what limits what we can do, the freedoms we must lay down, to not interfere in another’s freedom.  “I am normally said to be free to the degree to which no man or body of men interferes with my activity” (p169). Freedom to describes what we are allowed to do.  “I wish to be the instrument of my own, not of other men’s, acts of will” (p178). Very different decision making and enforcement processes emerge, based on which definition of liberty one uses.

Philosopher John Rawls framed a different path by exploring a different inquiry.  He explored “‘justice as fairness.’  The central ideas and aims of this conception I see as those of a philosophical conception for a constitutional democracy…a reasonably systematic alternative to utilitarianism, which in one form or another has long dominated the Anglo-Saxon tradition of political thought…I do not believe that utilitarianism can provide a satisfactory account of the basic rights and liberties of citizens as free and equal persons, a requirement of absolutely first importance for an account of democratic institutions” (pp xi-xii).  Professor Rawls sets up that “the primary subject of justice is the basic structure of society, or more exactly, the way in which the major social institutions distribute fundamental rights and duties and determine the division of advantages from social cooperation” (p6).

Building Political Systems

Political scientist Francis Fukuyama maps the terrain of “the state,” what it means, what dimensions are missing in weak states, and how state weakness influences the international system  The role of the state is contested, with some wanting to give more power to the state and others wanting to reduce the power of the state.  “The essence of stateness is..enforcement: the ultimate ability to send someone with a uniform and a gun to force people to comply with the state’s laws” (p6).  Professor Fukuyama’s assessment of states distinguishes “between the scope of state activities, which refers to the different functions and goals taken on by governments, and the strength of state power, or the ability of states to plan and execute policies and to enforce laws cleanly and transparently…We can array the scope of state activities along a continuum..from necessary and important to merely desirable to optional, and in certain cases counterproductive or even destructive…Strength..includes..the ability to formulate and carry out policies and enact laws, to administrate efficiently and with a minimum of bureaucracy; to control graft, corruption, and bribery; to maintain a high level of transparency and accountability in government institutions; and, more important, to enforce laws” (pp7-9).

Philosopher Wayne A.R. Leys explored the ethics of policy making.  Within the framework developed above that politics is the arena of decision making and enforcement, Professor Leys finds that, “The study of standards of decision making is the part of philosophy that has been called ethics” (p4).  He maps the development of ethical frameworks with their practical tools, from the Greeks to modern times, for good judgment, utilitarian, morals, state of nature, precedents, consistency, and policies as means or ends.

Psychologist Dacher Keltner explores what power is, what it does, where it comes from, how it is given, how it is abused, and how to develop it.  “Power [is] the capacity to make a difference in the world, in particular by stirring others in our social networks…Power is the medium through which we relate to one another” (pp3-4).  With power comes the power paradox, “we rise in power and make a difference in the world due to what is best about human nature, but we fall from power due to what is worst.  We gain a capacity to make a difference in the world by enhancing the lives of others, but the very experience of having power and privilege leads us to behave, in our worst moments, like impulsive, out-of-control sociopaths.  How we handle the power paradox guides our personal and work lives and determines, ultimately, how happy we and the power we care about will be” (pp1-2).  “The experience of power destroys the skills that gained us power in the first place” (p100).  “Power makes us blind to our own moral missteps but outrages at the same missteps taken by others (0131). “People resort to coercive force when their power is actually slipping” (p21).  Professor Keltner’s fivefold path to power is: (1) be aware of your feelings of power; (2) practice humility; (3) stay focused on others, and give; (4) practice respect; and (5) change the psychological context of powerlessness.

Author Orrin Woodward takes us to the workshop, looking across the ages for wise tools for developing a healthy process for deciding and enforcing in our daily lives.  These tools group around the development of one’s character,  wisdom, and humility.  The human being “is a wonderful creature..[it] is mind..heart..and..will.  Those are the three main constituents of [the human being]…Transforming one’s life, then, requires the whole person to be involved..mind..heart..and..will must be engaged in the process.  True change isn’t just a mental (mind) assent, isn’t just a emotional (heart) experience, and is more than just regimented (will) learning…It’s only with a mind that understands, a heart that generates passion, and a disciplined will to follow through that change inside a person is generated” (pp22-23).

“We the people” are the polis, the people.  We are the decision making and enforcement process.  In all of its forms, in all of its contexts, over all of space and time, it is a human endeavor.  That makes it an agreement, whether we unconsciously accept it or consciously choose it.  Our participation in political systems is our choice.

You Cannot Rule Resilience — It’s The Principle of the Thing

We want our efforts to have an impact.  If we invest a lot of effort, we want the impact to last longer.  The impact we want is the result of effort we put into a system: our family, our kid’s school, our church, our work, the local community, a regional initiative, a global change effort.  A sustained impact requires that the system we are putting our efforts into be resilient.

And, life happens. As life happens, things in the system change.  People get older.  New people are born.  People change jobs.  Local perspectives or conditions change.  New politicians are elected.  New products arrive in the market.  As all of these things continuously change, they change the system they interact in.  To sustain the impact of our efforts, the systems we put those efforts into need to be resilient to these changes.  Resilience, in this context, means the ability to adjust to changes (from the Latin resiliens, to jump back), to absorb these changes without collapsing into a qualitatively different form with a different set of processes.

Impact resilience, sustained impact from the co-investment of our efforts, requires that we rethink how we design, lead, and administer our systems. Many of the words we use to describe the design, leadership, and administration of human systems come from the same PIE root *reg- “move in a straight line.”  To rule, to reign, to regulate, and all of their derivatives, such as sovereignty, regimen, regulation, orient our designs, leadership, and administration towards directing in a straight line, towards stability, towards sameness.  And, life happens, which moves  us and the systems we interact in away from sameness and stability.  Impact resilience is about working with the changes, not against them.  The changes will happen, all of the time, in every system, so our efforts are more resilient when we work with the fact of changes.

One way to be more resilient is to shift from thinking about rules to standards and principles.  John Rawls, a moral and political philosopher, highlighted in his book, A Theory of Justice, the differences amongst the terms rules, standards, and principles.

Rules are straight lines, asking yes/no questions, looking for triggering conditions that something is changing, seeking predictability and certainty.  Ex ante, the thinking is that this rule should and will provide this stability.  Put it in place, and let it work.

Standards are balancing feedback systems, with a gap between a stated goal and the actual state driving action that changes the actual state, like a thermostat.  This system looks for balancing factors in a set of relevant considerations and options, providing a range of choices.  Ex post, this thinking asks whether this standard maintained the behavior within a desired range.

Principles are systems to be considered, providing guardrails for the feedback loops–standards–to include, and how the choices made in actions might be interpreted.  In reflection, this thinking asks whether the system of standards and rules under consideration increases resilience of the desired impact.

By working with principles, we are designing the systems we put our efforts into to embrace the changes that will happen continuously, constantly adjusting, asking the questions and considering the choices in actions that can be taken to continue to meet the standards we set.

There is nothing wrong with rules and standards.  Impact resilience comes from organizing our efforts in systems based on principles, where the standards and rules play their part in increasing the ability of the system to jump back, to be resilient to changes.  Low resilience often comes from focusing only on the rules, and not being clear about the implicit standards and guiding principles in the system.

This requires that we rethink all of the terms and processes based primarily on ruling, regulating and reigning, reframing them as principle-based systems that embrace the changes that will happen, because the system is alive.  We want our efforts to have impact, resilient impact: that is the principle of the thing.