Arnold Kling  

Political Pluralism

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Nicholas Lemann discusses a book by Arthur Fisher Bentley on political theory that came out one hundred years ago.


Under Bentley’s rules, you can’t talk about public opinion, because there is no such thing as “the public” (there are only groups) and opinions don’t matter, only actions do. Abstractions like “the people” and “popular will” have no real content, either. “The public interest” is a useless concept, he says, because “there is nothing which is best literally for the whole people.”

I always thought that this was standard political theory. It was what my father taught me. Once, when I used the word "public interest" in one of my essays, he chided me that there is no such thing. It was his way of saying, "Lose the 'we.'"

A pluralist does not credit any single political view as having absolute moral clarity. As Lemann points out, pluralism was most popular in the two decades following the second World War, when absolutist ideologies were in lowest repute.

Thanks toRoss Douthat for the pointer.


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CATEGORIES: Political Economy



COMMENTS (3 to date)
Stephen Meli writes:

Mr Kling,

I agree with your points except for one caveat. If there is no such thing as "public interest," then how can anyone claim that the free market benefits everyone and is basically in everyone's interest? I suppose one can argue that a free market is not in the interest of protectionists and monopolists, but the ideological support for free markets are that it is ultimately beneficial to all citizens. Is it not?

-Stephen Meli

Ted writes:

But it is not in my self interest to have free market. I want a benefit. I want my politician to make me special.

Les writes:

Stephen Meli wrote: "If there is no such thing as "public interest," then how can anyone claim that the free market benefits everyone and is basically in everyone's interest?"

Stephen, free markets benefit everyone and are basically in everyone's interest because we all value different things or the same things differently. In every transaction, the buyer values the goods or services more than the money price, and the seller prefers the money to the goods or services. Otherwise the transaction would not be consummated. So markets accomodate differences in values, not consensus.

What absence of a united public interest does discredit is government, because government is coercive, and forces people into actions they do not necessarily wish to take.

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