Fila Sophia

applied philosophy, deep democracy, sustainability / by A.R.Teleb

Structure Not Policy: Why We Need More Institutional Political Theory

For too long, I’ve been repeating the self-styled slogan “structure not policy, tomorrow not today” to express the idea that has haunted me since I began studying law. Nearly every discussion of “politics” in the media, among ordinary people, and among “experts” in the social sciences, revolves around at best, particular policies, at worst, the behavior of particular groups–usually to demonize a party one does not agree with. “If only we raised/lowered taxes!” “If we just made education free.” “If we just voted those SOB’s out of power!” “It’s those damned neocons again!” This appears to be a universal, not just an American, phenomenon.

What has struck me since 2003, when the run up to the Second US-Iraqi War made it clear how crucial a functional political system is, is the absence of discussions of political structures and institutions. How could we make our “deliberative bodies” actually deliberate? How could we make our “representative” institutions more representative? How could we make our “democratic” mechanisms indeed democratic and inclusive? But even our heroes and public intellectuals seem oblivious or distracted. Even figures like Martin Luther King Jr. mostly made passionate appeals for better policies or a more righteous social order.

This an excerpt from a political and legal philosopher, with whom I do not agree on many issues, making a plea for the study of structures over policies. Jeremy Waldron called for a Political Political Theory.

This paper was given as an “Inaugural Lecture” for the Chichele Professorship of Social and Political Theory” at Oxford University on May 3, 2012. Political theorists study (1) political virtue, (2) political processes and institutions, and (3) political ideals (like justice, liberty, and equality). Since the time of Hume, Madison, and Kant, it has been thought that (2) is more important than (1), because maybe we can set up institutions that work for the general good whatever the state of virtue of the people who administer them. But in the revival of political philosophy heralded by John Rawls’s book in 1971, there has been great emphasis on (3) and not nearly enough emphasis on (2). This is particularly true in the UK. Previous holders of the Chichele chair (G.A. Cohen and Isaiah Berlin) focused almost exclusively on (3) — with Berlin going so far as to announce that political philosophy was really just the study of “the ends of life.” The lecture argues that this way of conceiving the subject-matter of the Chichele chair is at best one-sided.
It is time to lay my own cards on the table. I think political institutions are massively important. Exactly because we disagree in our ideals and policy aims, we need to inquire into the structures that are to house and refine our disputes and the processes that are to regulate the way we resolve them, how we (in our millions) resolve disagreements over disparate aims that we severally regard as fundamentally important—without degenerating into fighting driven either by self-interest or worse still by the militias of self-righteousness.

First and foremost we need to understand the foundations of democracy, but not just democracy in a crude undifferentiated sense: we need to understand democratic representation, electoral competition, and democratic political parties.32 We need to understand the different ways in which the institutions of a modern political system are democratic and to theorize the difference between a representative legislature, an administration headed by a directly or indirectly elected government, and courts in a democracy. We need to appreciate the difference between different sorts of democratically elected officials: an elected president, elected law-makers, and even, in some American states, an elected judiciary.
But this does not preclude the reflective interest of political theory. Institutions are theoretical matters too. And not just for what is sometimes called “positive” political theory.40 The study that I am envisaging is emphatically normative. For we have choices to make about our institutions and processes. (Look at the agenda for political and constitutional reform in the UK right now: the referendum about independence for Scotland; the reform of the House of Lords; and Britain’s relation to the European Union and also to the European Court of Human Rights.) We bring to those choices reasons of various kinds and the reasons in turn implicate values and principles that are also the basis for our assessment of existing institutions—parliament, the monarchy, the courts, the administration, the political parties, the country’s division into nations with devolved legislatures, our international laws and institutions.

2 comments on “Structure Not Policy: Why We Need More Institutional Political Theory

  1. Matt Ray

    I suspect part of the problem is communicating the value of something that defies ordinary narrative form. Institutions really aren’t dramatic in either sense of the word. When you’re dealing with a group agent that measures success in probabilities and coping or a framework that is designed to channel conflict instead of resolving it, it is bound to look strange to someone expecting definitive answers, immediate action, and resolution. Most of us will experience the democratic norms (and the structures that embody and enforce them) that constrain debate as an impediment, if we ever notice it at all. If you want to see the benefit you have to take a third person standpoint and think about the effects of proposals interacting instead of thinking like an advocate for a particular proposal. But in most circumstances we don’t care about the nexus of causes in society at large, because we have some specific irritant in mind. We care about this one choice that would totally solve everything, you guys, if not for those damn bureaucrats holding us back. The trick is finding a way to make that removed, “mechanisms not solutions” view and communicate it in a way that remains true, while also being intuitive.

    • Ahmed R Teleb

      I think you’re on to something Matt; I would add that the way politics is taught, rather inculcated, in America (as well as many other places) involves the mythologizing of “founding fathers” — usually said in a low, grave voice — who’ve found the “perfect form of government” that protects liberty and prosperity, etc.. If Civics was taught we an open, critical & constructive tone rather than a quasi-religious one, perhaps that would make a difference. But would do I know.

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