Fairness and Majority Rule

Professor Gaus’s contributions of February 21 and 22 to the debate do not seek to answer my charge that his explanation of political outcomes via a holdall “utility function” (whose principal variables are moral sentiments) is both unverifiable and unfalsifiable. He does, however, make a variety of other assertions that do not seem to be conducive to close reasoning. Hence this re-rejoinder to his reaction to my rejoinder.

The controversy is best kept manageable by reducing it to its bare bones: is interest or the desire of fairness for others the dominant variable in motivating political outcomes?

For Gaus, “…the welfare state is not based on a power grab based on the pursuit of interests but on the majority’s sense of fairness.” Fairness is desired for others no less than for oneself. It is the chief variable in the “utility function.”

If this were true of everyone, better-off and worse-off alike, any collective choice rule would produce the “fair” result. Minority rule would generate much the same welfare state as majority rule. (The reason is that conflict over distribution would not exist).

Why, then, does Gaus need majority rule? The sole necessary reason I can see is that while a majority can be found “for” fairness, a minority will be against it. There will be distributional conflict. Government will buy “fairness” for some or all in the majority with the money of some or all in the minority.

Since rich-to-poor redistribution can always trump (has a greater potential “yield”) than poor-to-rich redistribution, a bid offering “fairness” to the worse-off will beat a rival bid offering “unfairness” to the better-off. Hence the worse-off and the middle will form the majority and the better-off the minority.

This stylized result is obtained by using the fairness motive as represented by Gaus. Precisely the same result has been obtained long ago by using the interest motive. It is puzzling to find Gaus arguing passionately that one is right and the other wrong.

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • Reprising the topic of his 1989 essay, “Is Limited Government Possible?” political theorist Anthony de Jasay continues to express limited skepticism. According to de Jasay, the incentive of political actors is to gain power by putting together winning coalitions, and to stay in power by rewarding their supporters at the expense of their opponents. If constitutional limits stand in their way, they will eventually be reinterpreted, undermined, or otherwise worked around. Governments are more delayed than limited by constitutional rules, like a lady with the key to her own chastity belt. If governments are effectively limited, de Jasay argues, then it is by means of the structure of campaign finance, the practical limits on tax rates, and public panic at the prospect of economic ruin. De Jasay admits conventional cultural and moral norms may limit government, but doubts these are strong enough to fully check the interests that drive politics.

Response Essays

  • In his reply essay, Gerald Gaus, the James E. Rogers Professor of Philosophy at the University of Arizona, argues that Anthony de Jasay has overlooked the importance of distinctively moral rules in regulating behavior. Drawing on recent work in psychology, Gaus distinguishes between conventional rules, which may be changed by the relevant authority without complaint, and moral rules, which may not. If constitutional limits on government fail, it is because these are seen as merely conventional rules out of sync with biologically and culturally evolved moral rules. “The welfare state reigns supreme not because the state and it allies have tricked the rest of us in a power grab,” Gaus argues. “It reigns supreme because in the eyes of most citizens it conforms to the egalitarian fairness norms that have evolved with humans.”

  • In his reply, Duke University political scientist Michael Munger agrees with de Jasay’s discussion of “the frontier between the ‘zones’ of individual and collective choice,” and provides a novel illustration. However, Munger disagrees that the problem with the “incentive-compatibility” of limits on power has been overlooked. He offers a classic historical example of incentive-compatible constraints and discusses the value of building conflicts of interest into political institutions through the separation of powers. “The last thing you want is an efficient government. Our only choices are a truly weak, but efficient, limited government, or else a powerful government prevented by strong ties from using most of its powers, most of the time.”

  • Randy Barnett, the Carmack Waterhouse Professor of Legal Theory at Georgetown University Law Center, notes that limited government is possible because it is actual, but acknowledges that “given that some limits on power clearly remain, these constraints failed to hold the line the Framers were attempting to draw.” Barnett argues that the mechanisms of limited power embodied in the Constitution — reciprocity, checks and balances, and the power of exit — would be more successfully realized in a “polycentric constitutional order in which one would subscribe to a legal system of one’s choice as today one subscribes to cell phone service, health and auto insurance, or private security providers.” Understanding why this would be an improvement “can help us appreciate why restoring the characteristics of the original Constitution as amended by the Fourteenth Amendment … would be far preferable to the constitutional status quo,” Barnett writes.