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The Will of the People Meets the Man in the Moon

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by Pierre Lemieux

The basic reason why there is no such thing as "the will of the people" is that there is no people to have a will.

man in the moon.jpg
I don't know enough about the Middle East and foreign policy to take a position on the propriety of moving the United States embassy to Jerusalem. I now admit that, contrary to what I once thought, foreign policy - relations with foreign Leviathans - is a distinct and justifiable field of analysis and government action.

I am still seduced by Lysander Spooner's stirring words on this general topic, but I don't think they are the final word. Yet, if the Supreme Court, in District of Columbia v. Heller, could cite Spooner on slavery and the right to keep and bear arms, I must be allowed to quote him on foreign affairs:

On general principles of law and reason, the treaties, so called, which purport to be entered into with other nations, by certain persons calling themselves ambassadors, secretaries, presidents, and senators of the United States, in the name, and on behalf, of "the people of the United States," are of no validity. These so-called ambassadors, secretaries, presidents, and senators, who claim to be the agents of "the people of the United States," for making these treaties, can show no open, written, or other authentic evidence that either the whole "people of the United States," or any other open, avowed, responsible body of men, calling themselves by that name, ever authorized these pretended ambassadors and others to make treaties in the name of, or binding upon anyone of, "the people of the United States." Neither can they show any open, written, or other authentic evidence that either the whole "people of the United States," or any other open, avowed, responsible body of men, calling themselves by that name, ever authorized these pretended ambassadors, secretaries, and others, in their name and behalf, to recognize certain other persons, calling themselves emperors, kings, queens, and the like, as the rightful rulers, sovereigns, masters, or representatives of the different peoples whom they assume to govern, to represent, and to bind. The "nations," as they are called, with whom our pretended ambassadors, secretaries, presidents and senators profess to make treaties, are as much myths as our own. ... Our pretended treaties, then, being made with no legitimate or bona fide nations, or representatives of nations, and being made, on our part, by persons who have no legitimate authority to act for us, have intrinsically no more validity than a pretended treaty made by the Man in the Moon with the king of the Pleiades.

As an economist and a student of politics, however, I can say something about the "will of the people" that Ambassador Nikki Haley invoked in her United Nations speech on the embassy decision. She said:

President Trump finally made the decision to no longer deny the will of the American people.

She made other statements conveying the idea that "the people" has an easily ascertainable meaning:


  • The Jewish people are a patient people.

  • The American people are less patient.

  • The American people have overwhelmingly supported that position...

This last statement and the plural verb in all three suggest that "the people" may perhaps be conceived in an individualist, as opposed to collectivist, way; I know Americans who are patient, others who are not. But "the will of the people," an expression that has proved a convenient excuse for despotic revolutionaries, is pushing the envelope too far. Even Jean-Jacques Rousseau used "the general will" (la volonté générale) more often than "the will of the people."

The basic reason why there is no such thing as "the will of the people" is that there is no people to have a will. The people is made of separate individuals who each has his own individual will. Indeed, Americans are divided on Middle East policy. And there is no way to aggregate these individual wills into a single social will except if all individuals are identical or if (as is the case in reality) some impose their wills on others or vote results cycle in an inconsistent way. Regarding inconsistency, opinion polls found that 81% of Americans think that the U.S government should keep or expand its commitment to Israel, while 39% think that it should decrease its military presence in, or completely withdraw from, the Middle East, and 64% that military aid to Israel should be decreased or stopped altogether.

A second reason is that the individuals who make up "the people" have precious little idea of what they are supposed to "have overwhelmingly supported." A voter has no incentive to learn about complex issues because his single vote can have no influence. A March 2016 Gallup poll asked Americans about the proposal to "recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv." Twenty-four percent agreed, 20% disagreed, and a full 56% admitted they "didn't know enough to say." The general lack of knowledge on international issues is well-known.

Two recent books, one by political scientists Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels, and the other one by philosopher Jason Brennan, provide data and perspective on voters' ignorance and their behavior as "the people." For example, Achen and Bartels provide statistical evidence that in 1916, voters punished Woodrow Wilson (the incumbent presidential candidate) in the New Jersey beach counties where shark attacks had recently occurred. Similarly, evidence shows that voters regularly punish incumbents for recent droughts or floods.

Finally, consider that when at most two-thirds of citizens participate in an election (it was 61.4% in the 2016 presidential election) and split their votes roughly equally, the winner incarnating "the will of the people" is supported by one-third of the electorate.

There are good arguments for democracy, provided that its power is limited. But democracy does not represent or create anything like a "will of the people."


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COMMENTS (13 to date)
Brian writes:

"The basic reason why there is no such thing as "the will of the people" is that there is no people to have a will. The people is made of separate individuals who each has his own individual will."

Pierre,

I have no objection to the claim that there is no will of the people, but what makes you so sure that individuals have a will? I don't mean this question in the sense of denying free will. I am asking it in the sense of how one knows that the individual is the fundamental unit of will enactment. Couldn't we similarly say that there is no individual, but only a collection of neurons firing, each with its own "will," and what we perceive as "individual will" is really just the aggregated result of many neurons competing for attention and trying to impose their will?

I ask this because it's not clear to me that the aggregation of individual wills that we perform in society to create a will of the people is in any way different or less valid than the aggregation that necessarily happens inside each of our heads. Is there a fundamental basis for distinguishing these two examples of aggregation?

Philo writes:

@ Brian:

I would say that positing a will is almost always useful for anticipating and even for explaining individual behavior. We know that what's really going on is the firing of neurons, but that's not so useful for prediction and explanation. (There are a few individuals whose psyches are so poorly integrated that explanation/prediction in terms of will doesn't work for them, but they are exceptional.) On the other hand, positing a national will is less useful for understanding and predicting political events, while relying on individuals' motivations and consequent actions as our bases for explanation works pretty well.

James Pass writes:

This seems like a semantic discussion over an idiom. Mr. Lemieux nearly hit the nail on the head when he wrote "Americans are divided on Middle East policy." There you have it: On controversial, complex issues that have strong camps on multiple opposing sides, there doesn't appear to be a clear consensus.

On the other hand, when an issue has a clear consensus - for example, proscriptions against murdering innocent people - it can be said, idiomatically, that it is the will of the people.


You can take any idiom and twist it out of shape and overanalyze it. Idioms aren't meant to be perfect in all cases. If used properly they can add some color to language.

Of course, when politicians (and despots) speak about the will of the people, you take it with a large grain of salt. Other political pet peeves are terms like "mandates" and "landslides." And a new favorite is Trump's frequent references to "many people."

Alex writes:

I agree with James. "the will of the people" is to be interpreted as "the will of the majority of the population of a certain geographical location at a certain moment".

The good thing of a democracy is that a politician is not able to go well outside the will of the majority of the population for a very long time.

Den writes:

"the will of the people" isn't the will of everyone separately.

Den writes:

I've just found out that Jason Brennan actually had something to do with politics. Wasn't he the author of Those Who Live (3 parts of the trilogy that were never published)?
Judy Terrence cited him in her work on research papers on Philosophy not once.

Jon Murphy writes:

@James and Alex:

The issue with your explanations is that they don't fit with the terminology. "The will of the people" necessarily implies agency to something that does not have agency, in this case, "the people." Whether that is everyone, some majority, or even some consensus, no collective has agency, and thus can have no will.

Don Boudreaux writes:

Commenter Alex writes:

I agree with James. "the will of the people" is to be interpreted as "the will of the majority of the population of a certain geographical location at a certain moment".

Even here, though, there is nothing that can plausibly be described as "will of the people." Apart from Jon Murphy's (and Pierre's) valid points, Kenneth Arrow and others have shown that every outcome of any system of collective decision-making - including majority-rule voting - is in part the result of arbitrary factors that have nothing to do with the will of the voters. Put differently, the typical majority-rule outcome is simply a majority-rule outcome and cannot be sensibly interpreted to be even the will of the majority of those voters, and much less can it be interpreted to be the will of the people.

James Pass writes:

Jon Murphy and Don Boudreaux have obligingly demonstrated my point: They are taking an idiom too literally and overanalyzing it. "The will of the people" simply refers to a majority consensus that has been put into effect.

For example, laws against murdering innocent people are a consequence of a majority consensus on the matter. It can be said, idiomatically, that such laws are the will of the people.

By definition, idioms are not meant to be taken literally. When someone says it's raining cats and dogs, we'll thank Jon and Don for pointing out that it's not really raining cats and dogs.

Part of the problem here is that the idiom "the will of the people" is often misused and overused. That's why I mentioned terms like "mandates," "landslides" and "many people." Political idioms are particularly susceptible to misuse and overuse.

Jon Murphy writes:

@James Pass:

The problem is the idiom doesn't make any sense, even as an idiom for the reasons Don and I laid out.

Brian writes:

Don,

You say "every outcome of any system of collective decision-making - including majority-rule voting - is in part the result of arbitrary factors that have nothing to do with the will of the voters."

But I think it's reasonable to paraphrase it this way:

"Every outcome of individual decision-making... is in part the result of arbitrary factors that have nothing to do with the will of the person."

Do you agree with this paraphrase? If not, why not? If so, wouldn't that imply, by your logic, that individual will doesn't exist either?

Pierre Lemieux writes:

@Brian: Thanks your your interesting comments, but it seems to me that Philo already answered this objection. Perhaps at the elementary-particle level, everything is random and ultimately determines the more or less random firing of neutrons and the similarly random individual choices. But rational-choice theories have certainly proven better at forecasting human behavior. (And it is these individual choices that cannot be aggregated except under Arrow's very restrictive conditions.) If prediction is not sufficient for explanation, then as Hayek and Mises argued, we -- each individual -- know something about choices because we make them. I would add that we are not totally sure anyway that conscience is only a matter of electron firing.

Pierre Lemieux writes:

Chapter 7 of Hayek's The Fatal Conceit, titled "Our Poisoned Language," explains the danger of using words and expressions "ascribing to [society] a will, an intention, or a design" (p. 113).

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