How should institutions be designed so that the votes of the people reflect the general will and not the corporate will of the politically powerful? This paper shows that Rousseau identified two mutually exclusive solutions to the problems caused by factions. The first is the more typically discussed Sparta model where an encompassing public education system eliminates pluralism through social engineering. The second is the overlooked Roman model for managing pluralism by organizing the population into multiple overlapping divisions and balancing the power of various interest groups.
Unconstrained majoritarian democracy is often bitterly partisan, economically inefficient, and subject to rent-seeking by powerful interest groups. Can we improve upon these outcomes without abandoning popular democratic institutions such as decisions by simple majority rule? In Politics by Principle, not Interest, Buchanan and Congleton (1998) argue that we can. They propose a generality principle that would constitutionally prohibit majorities from favoring members of dominant coalitions or special interest groups. This paper argues that generality-constrained democratic politics does not necessarily outperform the unconstrained version. By modeling two-party majoritarian democracy as a type of trust game, one can identify circumstances where generality-constrained democracy results in less efficient outcomes than the unconstrained version. At the same time, generality constraints can reduce incentives for political participation and collective action by ordinary citizens in ways that may erode democratic institutions such as popular elections and political parties. This paper therefore urges caution and further investigation before implementing such constitutional constraints.
Compassion’s More Dangerous Allies: Fear, Anxiety, and Amour-Propre
What kind of moral and sentimental education should we pursue under non-ideal circumstances? In states characterized by high inequality and imperfect political institutions, scholars have increasingly turned their attention to the ethics of care (Tronto 2013; Held 2005; Kittay 1999) and the politics of compassion (Nussbaum 1996; 2001; 2013; 2014; Whitebrook 2002; 2014; Porter 2006). In response, critics have been concerned that compassion is too weak to serve politically salutary goals. Drawing on the moral and political psychology of Emile, this paper shows that Rousseau relied on fear, anxiety, and amour-propre to extend compassion across class lines. Rousseau’s account suggests that the proper development of compassion cannot do without these more “dangerous” allies, at least not in societies characterized by socio-economic inequality. In addition to its contribution to Rousseau scholarship, the paper adds to the contemporary literature on moral sentiments by highlighting three psychologically plausible and previously unacknowledged strategies for extending compassion: fear of downward social mobility, religious anxiety and pride.
Papers Under Review:
1. Inadequate for Democracy: How (Not) to Distribute Primary Education
There is widespread agreement among philosophers and legal scholars that the current distribution of educational resources in the US is unjust, but very little agreement about why. An increasingly prominent view posits an adequacy standard based on the requirements of democratic citizenship (Gutmann 1989; Liu 2006; Satz 2007, 2008; Anderson 2004, 2007). According to this view, inequalities in educational resources or opportunities above the threshold required for democratic citizenship are morally unobjectionable if and only if all children are provided with an education sufficient to meet those demands. In the paper, I argue that this view (i.e. democratic sufficientarianism) is stuck between an antidemocratic rock and an antisufficientarian hard place. Either the philosopher specifies a precise and demanding threshold with antidemocratic implications or she insists upon democratic equality irrespective of educational achievements, thereby undercutting the sufficientarian search for anything but a minimal threshold. Instead, I defend an alternative sufficientarian standard that is education-specific and democracy-compatible that avoids the problems of previous democratic sufficientarian views.
2. Adam Smith on Political Judgement: Revisiting the Politics of the Wealth of Nations
How should the ordinary citizens of a commercial society navigate an increasingly complex political landscape characterized by global markets, specialization, and manipulation by special interests? I argue that Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations provides an answer. This paper reconstructs Smith’s theory of political judgment as bridging liberal and republican concerns. Smith argued that the transition to commercial society creates unprecedented problems of political judgment for which he provided a number of promising and under-appreciated solutions, including not only public support for education and improved working conditions for the laboring poor to reduce the opportunity cost of children’s education, but also methods to reduce the cognitive burdens of political judgment such as simplifying the multidimensional political space and creating alternatives to partisan cues in public deliberation. Smith’s second set of solutions are particularly relevant for the modern political context in democracies and non-democracies alike.
Working Papers (Selection):
1. Counterproductive Altruism: The Other Heavy Tail (with Daniel Kokotajlo)
One of the core premises of effective altruism (henceforth, EA) is that the distribution of causes, charities, and interventions by effectiveness has a heavy tail. In other words, EA proponents claim that giving to the most effective charities produces “exponentially” more good than giving to charities that are moderately effective. We contend that EA should also attend to the other end of the distribution. For example, contributing to some projects can intentionally or unintentionally cause exponentially more harm than would otherwise occur in the status-quo. Identifying and preventing such projects should therefore also feature on the EA agenda. In this paper, we argue that incorporating the other tail of the distribution has important implications for EA cause prioritization, for the methodology of the EA meta-charities, and for the assessment of different types of charitable activity. The more complex picture of altruistic interventions that emerges the heavy tails hypothesis also suggests new EA responses to prominent institutional critiques.
2. Defending Education: A Democratic Role for Courts in Education Policy
What should be the role of courts when it comes to defending education rights in democratic communities? Drawing on decades of education litigation concerning integration, school finance, and special education, this paper provides a democratic theory of court involvement in education policy. Courts have a key democratic role in defending minority rights, particularly under non-ideal circumstances where political power is unequally distributed. However, over-reliance on courts in education policy can have important democratic costs. This paper discusses four such costs worth considering from a democratic perspective: (1) policy effectiveness costs, (2) standardization costs, (3) democratic education costs; and (4) special interest costs. In constructing a democratic theory of courts, the paper therefore argues for legal strategies that minimize the relevant costs while protecting minority rights. Such an approach favors bottom-up approaches that focus on specific harms to individuals and groups without aiming directly at controlling the legislative agenda.
3. Partial Politics: The Democratic Roles of Parties and Party Systems
The recent attention to political parties in the normative literature has produced a divide between minimal conceptions of the democratic role of political parties that emphasize commitment to regulated rivalry and a renunciation of violence (Muirhead 2006; 2010; 2014; 2019; Rosenblum 2008; 2010) and maximal conceptions that emphasize commitments to justification accessible and/or acceptable to all (Ypi and White 2010; 2011; 2016; Ypi 2016). In this paper, I argue that properly distinguishing between individual parties and party systems reveals that scholars have been talking past each other. The virtues of partisanship described by Ypi and White are virtues of the party system as a whole. One cannot, should not, and need not expect individual parties following the electoral incentives of either majoritarian or proportional representation systems to appeal to the whole political community in the way that Ypi and White suggest. Instead the paper recommends focusing on the normative implication of electoral rules as a better target for obtaining the results sought by deliberative democrats and public reason liberals.
The Politics of Public Education
By investigating the legitimate educational roles of local and state governments, teachers’ unions, parents’ associations, law courts, and school administrators, I aim to build an empirically-informed normative theory of public education appropriate for a liberal and democratic political community.
Children or Citizens: Civic Education in Liberal Political Thought
My contention is that the history of liberal political thought contains two models of children’s political status. The first model, which I refer to as “the apolitical child”, emerged out of the social contract tradition, particularly the Second Treatise of John Locke. In making political obligations voluntary, this tradition justified exclusive parental authority over children’s education. The second model, which I refer to as “the child as citizen”, develops out of a later liberal tradition concerned with preserving liberal regimes against the growing threats of illiberal populism, religious fanaticism and political violence. By identifying children as already subject to political power, this tradition focused on incorporating checks and balances and separation of powers into the design of institutions for public education.