Liberal Education as Problem Identification: The Case of Elections

One argument against liberal education is that it’s irrelevant.  That objection is typically raised by people engaged in careers in business and allied techno-fields.  Ask a typical business leader—especially one puffed up by entrepreneurial pride—what you want students to learn in college, and the answer often is:  Identifying problems. 


But it turns out that liberal education is great for identifying problems.  Take political philosophy, for example.  It ‘s almost nothing but identifying problems, problems that admit of no easy or complete solutions.  There are, for example, the problems of democracy, which are basically downsides that go with the democratic territory that can only be mitigated.  And how to mitigate them is actually rather counterintuitive to those who don’t know a lot about and really reflected on the various democracies that have existed.  The medicine for what ails democracy, for example, is hardly ever more democracy. 

One feature of democracy that we’re thinking a lot about these days is elections.  The giants of political philosophy don’t agree on how to think about elections,  but they tend to agree that they are both beneficial and dangerous to democracy.  But with all their problems, we democrats these days could hardly do without elections.

Harvey Mansfield, quite the relevant political philosopher, gives us a quick primer on how a freshman reading list in political philosophy can get anyone up to speed on the various identifiable features of the problem of elections.  You’ll have to read his whole (brief) article to really learn something.  But for those whose learning style is PowerPoint or TED lecture or blog post, I will reduce each of the six philosophers to a single proposition (also known as bullet point).

  • Aristotle:  Election is always partly democratic and partly aristocratic.  Every bozo gets to vote.  But when the bozos do vote, they pride themselves in choosing the best man or woman—or not a bozo such as him- or herself. Aristocracy, after all, means rule by the best. 
  • Machiavelli:  Elections are pretty much about a resentful people turning out the old boss.  But it usually turns out that the new boss isn’t much different.   So the choice between Romney and Obama is hardly a real choice.
  • Locke:  It’s harder than Machiavelli thinks to fool the people, because they can, properly enlightened, understand enough to vote effectively to protect their rights.  They may get fooled.  But they won’t get fooled again when the incumbent comes up for re-election (or so Romney hopes).
  • Rousseau:  Elections “are a sellout of freedom and justice.”  The people should rule themselves—make their own laws—in direct democracies and not inauthentically surrender their power and their community responsibilities to elected representatives.  A democracy that lives by elections results in the death of citizens.
  • The Federalist:  Elections protect our liberty better than direct democracy because laws made by our representatives are likely to be more competent and less distorted by redneck animosity than those the people would make for themselves.  But representatives are also dangerous because their ambition points in direction of tyranny.  That’s why elections have to be supplanted by constitutional controls on the elected.
  • Tocqueville:  Elections actually keep people from wallowing in their personal interests and lead them to think of themselves as citizens.  The ambition to be elected gives me the incentive to take an interest in my fellow citizens.  If I pretend to care about them long enough, I actually end up caring about them.  And they me!  That’s why Tocqueville was so big on local elections, on processes of democratic freedom and responsibility that energize the local citizenry.
  • If you think about it , these six insights—which, of course, contradict each other in important ways—are indispensable for thinking about the election that’s about to come upon us.  If you think even more, you notice that all the “wisdom” dispensed by our experts and analysts turns out to be dumbed down and otherwise distorted versions of one of these insights. 

    So, as Mansfield points out, a freshman reading list properly understood can make anyone with eyes to see a master identifier of problems.

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    17th August 1973: An American tattoo artist working on a client's shoulder. (Photo by F. Roy Kemp/BIPs/Getty Images)
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    Image from the study.

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    Image by authors of the study.

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