Politics, Claims and Scope Conditions
I’ve been talking here about a twin set of concepts, democratic efficiency and oligarchic inevitability. In short, ‘democratic efficiency’ involves the assumption that public opinion automatically translates into policy (or at least does generally absent some distortion), while ‘oligarchic inevitability’ is the notion that elites necessarily win out regardless of what the public does. It occurred to me recently that I ought to connect these concepts with something else I’ve been discussing here–the idea of politics as a contest of claims making.
I’ve been less clear on how I think about these two concepts. Both are usefully understood as claims. Sometimes they are made directly–people insist that an outcome must be supported by the public because we are a democracy. Other times they are made indirectly–where people make statements that assume one or the other concepts. Direct claims are always based on some set of assumptions that are themselves indirect claims. Another way of saying this is that we need to attend to both manifest and latent content.
One of the key things to remember about claims is that they are observable, intersubjective things, unlike beliefs (which are internal states and not observable, and generally understood as subjective). It may be that the actor who makes the claim believes it, but this isn’t necessarily true nor relevant. A claim can be made successfully without being believed, by either the speaker or the audience. This also means demonstrating that a claim isn’t true is irrelevant to whether it matters. Some statements can never be facts, but will always remain claims–for example, when they involve essentially contested concepts or when they depend on claims about motives or beliefs. In political science, there is a tendency to dismiss claims as “talk” as opposed to “action”, despite that fact that many of the “actions” studied are themselves talk, such as a veto or the filing of a lawsuit. Scientific claims can be substantiated or not, and to different degrees, but often can never be facts–something that can be considered simply true or false.
Another thing that is important to notice is that claims are often made in universal terms, but much of the time they are not universal. What I mean by this is that we might see a universal-type claim made in certain contexts but not others. So, ‘everyone must work’ is a fairly common claim, but we can see it is made in limited contexts. What separates liberals from conservatives is not the claim, which they both make, but when it’s made. Liberals are more likely to avoid making it when it comes to the disabled, children, or the elderly, while conservatives increasingly raise questions about whether those groups should be working. Those on the left might point out that neither liberals or conservatives object to those who inherit money or gain income from owning things, even though this creates an obvious disincentive to work. Paying attention to the scope conditions in when these claims are made is essential to understanding them. One key scope condition involves types of people–for example, the rich versus everyone else. Another involves the politics-economics split–for example, people are equal and therefore democracy is the best way to settle things doesn’t apply to the work place or “the economy” more generally. Scope conditions have a tendency to re-occur.
Because we often don’t attend to scope conditions, it’s easy to see that the speaker doesn’t apply the claim universally and come to the conclusion that they don’t believe it at all, that’s it’s just a smokescreen for self-interested preferences, for example. But as I argued, it’s not clear that this matters at all, even if it could be proven, which is notoriously difficult. Instead, it’s better to understand them as scope-bound non-universal claims where the scope conditions likely haven’t been defended. This creates clarity both from a normative perspective, and from an empirical one.
So back to these claims about our polity. Once we realize that people deploy claims when they are useful (as opposed to thinking about people expressing ideas they believe) we see one reason why democratic efficiency and oligarchic inevitability can co-exist. Whether one is trying to justify a particular course of action, or lack of action, or the status quo more generally, both of these claims are useful. The important thing to ask is what are they useful for and what they are not. I think they are quite useful, especially when paired, at opposing significant change, channeling energies into institutional channels, and keeping people from making utopian demands. I think they are not useful for understanding how best to bring about significant change. For that, we need different ways of understanding how politics work, preferably ones that highlight the significant barriers to change and the real possibilities to overcome them. A big part of that is paying attention to non-institutional channels and disruptive forms of political action.