This is the second installment of PEA Soup’s partnership with Bleeding Heart Libertarians. In this series folks from BHL share their thoughts with Soup readers. This post is by Jessica Flanigan (University of Richmond).
Relational egalitarians argue that people should relate to one another as equals. They focus on the wrongfulness of hierarchy, oppression, domination, and subordination. Relational egalitarians generally support democratic institutions that enforce policies to ensure that people relate to each other as equals, such as redistributive taxation and workplace regulations. But does relational egalitarianism require governmental solutions? Or is government just another threat to the equal status of all people?
Nico Kolodny argues that an ideal of equal social relations would require political institutions that gave all citizens equal opportunities to influence political decisions. If so, then either a democracy or a stateless society could also meet this standard. Democratic institutions give everyone equal influence though democratic procedures whereas Anarchic institutions give everyone equal influence by limiting the amount of influence to be had. Relational egalitarians tend to support democratic institutions as a way to achieve social equality. But in principle and in practice, I think relational egalitarians should support stateless societies and limited government instead.
One principled reason that relational egalitarians favor democracy over anarchism is that they aim to reduce the hierarchies that develop between citizens. The idea is that democratically selected public officials can enact policies that achieve an ideal of equal social relations without introducing objectionable hierarchies between citizens and officials, as long as everyone has an equal opportunity for influence through voting. This is sometimes called the person-office distinction—hierarchy between persons is objectionable, unless a person’s power to subordinate others is confined to the narrow mission of her official role in a well-functioning democracy.
Anarchists deny that public officials may permissibly subordinate citizens even if they do occupy an official role. If anything, the hierarchy between citizens and public officials is worse because people do not consent to be in a subordinating relationship. But for this reason, anarchists have fewer acceptable means to prohibit hierarchical or oppressive voluntary associations as long as participants are not forced or tricked into joining them. Anarchists claim that it would be a worse form of oppression if public officials coercively interfered with voluntary private hierarchies. On their view, democracy does not give each citizen an equal opportunity to influence political decisions but even if it did, it would be better if those decisions weren’t made at all.
In principle, an advantage of the relational egalitarian case for anarchism is that it shares in democratic egalitarians’ moral commitment to avoiding force and coercion in private relationships but it does not empower public officials to commit the same moral mistake by subordinating all citizens to the will of a democratic majority. Even in a democracy people do not consent to public officials’ authority, so their relationships with democratically elected public officials are a form of non-voluntary subordination, which is worse than private relationships that may be unequal.
Democratic egalitarians could accept this principled case for a stateless society but nevertheless reject it on the grounds that it is infeasible and that people are unlikely to comply with the core principle of anarchism, which is nonviolence. Anderson writes that the anarchic institutional approach never caught on because anarchists “repudiated parliamentary politics, favoring revolution by violent insurrection without consulting the people.” And Kolodny suggests that anarchism is incompatible with the “factual assumption that more substantial political decisions will be made” than the range of political decisions that anarchism would allow.
So proponents of democracy object to anarchism because it is historically violent and infeasible in practice. But anarchists might raise the same concerns against democracy. The fundamental moral commitment of most form of anarchism is non-violence, that anarchists in the past used violence is no more a strike against the principled case for a stateless society than the fact that democratic revolutionaries excluded most people from political enfranchisement (and also used violence). Similarly, the suggestion that social-egalitarian anarchism is infeasible could also be said of social-egalitarian democracy, (especially in light of recent events!) So if both institutional ideals are compatible with an ideal of relational equality in principle but neither is feasible in practice, why do relational egalitarians favor democracy?
In my view, political principles that are advanced at the level of ideal theory should be those that specify which values should inform policy. For relational egalitarians, the value of voluntariness is fundamental, and stateless societies are more voluntary in this sense. At the level of non-ideal theory, we should begin with the political status quo and consider which institutional reforms would promote our values, in this case, social equality. Non-ideal concerns about the feasibility of improvement and peoples’ potential non-compliance with principles of justice should apply with equal force to both kinds of reform. Given where we are today, which threat is more urgent- the threat of public officials who are empowered by democratic majorities or the threat that private inequalities will emerge in the absence of public policy?