Why not philosopher-kings?

One can be forgiven for thinking that some politicians don’t care which laws are passed as long as they get to make speeches and attract headlines.

This should not surprise us. To a large degree democratic politics just is a popularity contest. We should expect it to attract the vain and the ambitious.

But governing well – making good laws, and working out which social problems are pressing and what solutions might work – is not easy. It is an open question whether those attracted to politics can do this well.

Why should philosophers rule?

Plato thought that philosophers – or lovers of wisdom – should rule. Like most philosophers, he also thought that while opinion is common, knowledge is rare. Things are complex and coming to know anything is a laborious process.

Underpinning this is a distinction between appearance and reality. Is the world really as it appears to us? Does common sense reliably identify real political problems or just imaginary ones (like Reds under the bed or the EU as the source of all our troubles)?

Plato was also sceptical that the desire for worldly success is a reliable guide to knowledge. One of his major criticisms of  the Sophists – a group of peripatetic educators in ancient Greece – was precisely that their teaching focused on the skills that brought worldly success. What a caddish bunch!

Still, Plato was on to something. The desire for worldly success can bias us in favour of conclusions that please those who have rewards to dispense.

Like most philosophers, Plato also employed a sharp distinction between rhetoric and good argument. A good argument withstands patient and fair-minded criticism over time.

Rhetoric is windy verbiage with no depth that is designed to influence the barely-listening or simple-minded. (This might be a tendentious definition.)

On the other hand, good arguments can be tedious to work through and can take forever to understand. Rhetoric is much more pleasing to the ear and can be enjoyed over a glass of wine.

Why philosophers shouldn’t rule

A love of wisdom, of rigorous argument and complexity are not sufficient qualifications for ruling. Perhaps they are dis-qualifications. Jonathan Wolff has noted that, while acting as a jury member, others ‘seemed much better at judging people, and whether they were telling the truth’ than he – a professional philosopher – was.

Lovers of wisdom have no need to be good at this; they do not take others’ word for things. They check them for themselves. But this is not feasible for politicians. They are simply too busy.

The philosopher’s commitment to complexity also makes for an unhappy marriage with democratic politics. Democracies give ultimate political authority to the people. Happily, most of ‘the people’ have day jobs and cannot spend much time establishing whether immigration really is a significant problem. They rely on common sense and trusted sources.

Things get worse. The contemporary lover of wisdom – the academic – is a specialist in only one field. If offering policy advice involves going beyond their specialism, contemporary lovers of wisdom often refuse: it’s not their ‘area’. But politics does not respect academic divisions so, reasonably enough, politicians find this reticence annoying.

Finally, politics is about exercising power. One needs to know when to negotiate, when to be bold, and when to retreat. Lovers of wisdom have no expertise in this at all.

Let’s face it, the philosopher-king is a bad idea. But kings who are more like philosophers is an awfully good idea.

The case for philosophical-kings

The advanced democracies have solved most easy problems. Generally, people don’t starve or die of easily curable illnesses. The complex problems remain.

In England there is a ‘long-tail of under-achievement‘ in schools. Since about 1945, between 15-20% of school-leavers have suffered from functional illiteracy or innumeracy. This problem has survived many policy changes.

Windy rhetoric aside (see here or here), we really don’t know what causes this problem, and even less what we might do to address it.

If many social problems are similar, some philosophical virtues may help. But what might we do? There are at least two different approaches. One focuses on improving the intellectual virtues of politicians and policy-makers. We will put this option aside.

A second focuses on creating institutions that can change behaviour. An example is the UK Statistics Authority which is licensed to publicly correct politicians when they make mis-leading statistical statements. Over time, this should alter politicians’ behaviour.

With a little fancy we might imagine a ‘Good Argument Authority’ that is licensed to publicly correct politicians’ non-sequiturs, contradictory claims, or point out the irrelevant arguments sometimes invoked to make the case for policies.

One example is the common appeals to recent findings of science – often neuro-science – to support education policies. Such appeals can be effective, not to say seductive. But, mostly, they are irrelevant.

There is a large gap between scientific findings and their policy implications. If there weren’t, the same policies would work everywhere.

More institutions like the Statistics Authority may not solve social problems any quicker. But they may nip some of the sillier ideas in the bud. This will save time and money.

Plato was wrong about philosopher-kings. But attempts to solve complex social problems without the help of lovers of wisdom will almost certainly be wasteful and may well makes things worse.

Fat, freedom and less advantaged citizens

If freedom is to be understood ‘negatively’ as the absence of external interference, we can think about distributive or social justice in terms of answering the following question: in which  circumstances is it permissible to limit some people’s freedom for others’ benefit?

Does justice require that we tax people to provide education for those who, otherwise, would go un-schooled? Is justice compatible with limiting people’s sexual freedoms because others think their practices intrinsically bad?

The answers to these questions are (in turn) yes and no. But where is the dividing line? Let’s start by looking at ‘lifestyle’ health problems caused by alcohol, food, and tobacco.

In the attempt to reduce costs and prioritize spending, lifestyle illnesses attract obvious attention; they seem avoidable and are expensive. For instance, under new UK NHS guidelines if all those eligible opted for weight-loss surgery, the cost would be £12billion. Alcohol use is ranked as the 6th highest disease risk factor.

One possible remedy is to refuse free treatment for lifestyle illnesses. But, while this would reduce costs, it may not affect the numbers. We are not fully-rational and we can be weak-willed or, as Aristotle put it, ‘incontinent‘. How many glasses of wine did you have over Christmas and how many do you wish you’d had?

Another solution is to ban the offending items. Some think this is the best approach to tobacco and others recommend it for fatty foods. But bans limit people’s freedom.

One response might be that bans don’t work anyway – witness prohibition. But this is too quick. Some bans do work – smoking bans in public places work. We should also differentiate between two separate questions.

‘Would a ban be morally permissible or desirable?’ is the philosophically interesting question. ‘If a ban were morally permissible or desirable, would it work?’ is a wholly different question.

You might think that if we know that a ban would not work we can ignore the philosophical question. But, as noted, some bans do work. Equally, if any ban were morally impermissible whether it would work or not is irrelevant. If we want to save effort, it may be best to focus on the philosophical question.

In which circumstances it is permissible to limit people’s freedom?

Here are two general claims which apply to lifestyle problems:

Greater freedom claim: greater freedom of choice only benefits individuals whose capacities are sufficiently developed so that they use those choices sufficiently wisely, i.e., without harming themselves. Examples of harm include addiction, ill health, gambling debts etc.

Crooked timber claim*: Modern societies will always include a non-trivial number of weak-willed people (possibly a large minority).

You might think that the greater freedom and crooked timber claims are false. But we will stipulate that they are true and see what follows.

If the two claims are true then, whenever we expand the range of people’s choices, we can predict that some people will develop addictions, have poorer health etc., who otherwise would not. These problems may be expensive to treat and will reduce the sufferers’ well-being.

You might think that free choice is so important that we cannot justify limiting it. Your freedoms are rights, and as Ronald Dworkin states, rights ‘trump‘ other goods. But is this correct? If freedom is the absence of external interference, it is clearly not the only valuable thing. Only hermits prioritize being left alone over everything else.

More generally, for any liberal who thinks that social justice requires that the interests of poorer or less able citizens should receive some kind of priority, the greater freedom and crooked timber claims are worrying.

One common response is that we should adopt policies that make the crooked timber claim false. We should educate people so that their wills are not weak and so that they make choices that don’t have damaging and expensive effects.

The philosophical response here is to stipulate some more. Let’s imagine that we know of no effective way of making the crooked timber claim false.

Alternatively, the practically-minded person might appeal to some evidence. In the UK a lot of money has been spent on education for a decently long period of time. But lifestyle problems seem to be getting worse. Death rates from liver disease have increased 400% since 1970.

What if we cannot stiffen people’s wills through education?

If the interests of poorer or less able citizens should receive some kind of priority, we may have to countenance limiting everyone’s freedom. The loss of freedom to able or ‘continent’ citizens (Aristotle again) might be off-set by the benefits to less able citizens.

These limits would never go as far as limiting anyone’s sexual freedoms but they may be very annoying. One of my favourite examples is the degree to which cash machines can make life harder for people who struggle with their finances.

When you could only access cash by speaking to a bank-cashier, over-spending required returning to the bank and asking a real person – who might know you and your finances well – for more money. Now it can be done without any human interaction.

Should we only allow people to withdraw money from a cash machine once a week? (If anyone needs more money they can speak to a cashier.) Inevitably, this would be tiresome for many people. But, if it helps the weak-willed, would limiting people’s freedom in this way be unjust? To put it another way, is this a case in which it is permissible to limit some people’s freedom for others’ benefit?

Frankly, I don’t know. But if the choice were between no help for the weak-willed and banning everyone from, say, crisps, over-use of cash machines, or fizzy drinks, there is a case for a ban. Whether, on any particular occasion, a ban would work is a question for another day.

* This is a translation of part a quote from Immanuel Kant. See.

To level down or not to level down – that is … actually quite a difficult question

Levelling down – making some people worse-off and no-one else better-off – is not looked upon favourably. And how could you prefer others being worse-off if you remain exactly as you were before? Let me try to persuade you that things are more complex than they appear.

You might think that it is intrinsically important that we have similar kinds of lives such that if one person experiences a set-back so should others. We will call this the Musketeers’ Principle (‘one for all, and all for one’). Here is an example: 

The game: your children are squabbling about who is to go first at some game. You have no coins etc. so you have to choose one of your children or abandon the game. As you can think of no fair way to do this, you abandon the game.

If the children would rather to play the game – even those who don’t go first – you have made them all worse-off rather than make one of them feel they are your favourite. You are levelling down.

Thick moral relationships

The game involves a family. Idealizing a little, the family involves a set of long-term and very meaningful (or ‘thick’) moral relationships that are justified in terms of the interests of the children and parents. Within this context, fair treatment is very important so levelling down can be acceptable.

But should we concede that the Musketeers’ Principle applies within the family but deny that it is relevant to our politics (which, after all, is where levelling down is most controversial).

Is politics about thick moral relationships? 

Let’s imagine two extremes: at one end is an idealized family – the Waltons perhaps. At the other is a group of self-sufficient hermits who interact only when it is unavoidable. At which point between these two extremes should we locate a modern political society?

Your answer here will affect when (if ever) you think levelling down is desirable. Your answer will be informed by your other political and moral commitments. The more important you think shared ‘social glue’ is, the more prepared you will be to countenance levelling down. If you think social glue is irrelevant, or harmful, you will take a different view.

Political disagreement is the norm in modern societies so we should not expect any consensus here. But from this we should not infer that anyone who favours levelling down must be an envious reprobate. We should expect some people to recommend levelling down when we think it is inappropriate.

Things that look like levelling down but aren’t

Apart from what might be a small class of cases in which levelling down is acceptable, there are situations that look a lot like levelling down but are not. Remember, for something to count as levelling down some people must end up worse off and no-one else better-off.

Table 1 lists five alternative situations for three different people (John, Mary and Joseph). We will start by focusing on S1-S3 (we bring in S1* and S3* below). Which of S1-S3 is better or worse? This might help us decide:

BadEffects: Over-time the significant inequality in S3 causes Joseph to come to see John as somehow inferior. John is talentless, or feckless; or just insufficiently like Joseph to warrant the same kind of respect. This becomes public knowledge and John loses friends and becomes socially isolated; his well-being falls.

TABLE 1 John Mary Joseph
Situation 1 (S1) 8 8 8
Situation 2 (S2) 8 12 16
Situation 3 (S3) 8 12 50
Situation 3* (S3*) 6 12 52
Situation 1* (S1*) 13 13 13

If we should not choose S3 because of BadEffects this is because S3 will lead to something like S3*. In S3* the worst-off person (John) is worse-off than in any of S1 to S3.

You may reject S3 for this reason but levelling down has nothing to do with it. You might just think that the worst-off get some kind of priority. They should not be made worse-off. But if S3 leads to S3* then in choosing S3 you are making John worse-off.

We are left with S2 and S1. You might choose S2. But you can choose S1 and find levelling down repugnant. You may think GoodEffects is true:

GoodEffects: where everyone is equally well-off a positive ethos is created. Over-time, this increases the psychic well-being, and so welfare, of everyone.

If GoodEffects is true you may choose S1 over S2 because S1 leads to S1*. This is not levelling down either: in S1* someone (Joseph) is worse-off (compared to S2-S4) but both Mary and John are better-off than in all other situations.

Some people may still opt for S3. They may think BadEffects or GoodEffects won’t happen. But – and this is the key point – their views on the acceptability of levelling down are neither here nor there.

Is it ever acceptable for politicians to level down?

As Bad and GoodEffects show, politicians may recommend something that looks like levelling down but is in fact something else. They may think that equality will increase everyone’s well-being (or just some people’s). They may be wrong about this but they are not levelling down.

At other times, politicians may think society’s thick moral relationships – its social glue – requires the application of the Musketeers’ Principle. They might be wrong here too but they are not obviously wrong. It’s time to give levelling down a fair hearing.

Are you talented? Well, how like soccer is your profession?

Sport, in particular soccer in England, can shed some light on how important individual talent is to success in different careers.

For more than a generation the England soccer team has been ethnically mixed. Some of the best players we have produced are non-white. But the ethnic mix of coaches and managers is less impressive.

Currently, there are three black managers in professional football in England. This is 3% of the total and is broadly typical of the last 20-30 years. About 20-25% of professional footballers are black; and this has been the case for about 20 years.

Racism may well explain this anomaly but, if so, another problem arises: if soccer is racist why are there so many black players? Here is one speculative account: talent operates at the level of players but not, or at least significantly less so, at the level of managers. Let me explain.

It is relatively easy for non-experts (or ‘fans’) to determine whether individual players are competent. While many players do ‘unseen’ work, you don’t need to be an expert to differentiate between Ronaldo and Ricky Lambert.

To put the point more starkly: the chairman of your soccer club could hide his talentless son on the Board and no-one may be any the wiser. But if the manager were forced to put him in the team, within one or two minutes several thousand people would have a fairly accurate view of Chinless Wonder’s abilities. And they would happily express their findings.

Second, there is a lot at stake: managers get sacked often. Since about 2002 the average tenure of any professional manager has been below 2 years. In 2012 it was about 1.5 years.

A manager would have to be a complete idiot to refuse to pick non-white players. Frankly, some managers would consider picking a fan-eating alien if it shored-up the defence.

Third, the competition is fierce and there are few barriers to entry. A lot of people want to be professional footballers; it is a global game and it is cheap. Poor kids are just as able to develop the skills as rich kids.

But it is a lot less clear what a good manager is or does. We can point to exemplars – Alex Ferguson or Jose Mourinho. But all we know is that they have been successful. It is very hard to establish why. It is even harder to determine who, given the opportunity, will be successful or who will be successful in a different context. The turn-over of managers is evidence of this.

In the appointment of managers, then, there is a lot more room for hunch, gut instinct, bias or just straight-forward prejudice.

Does your profession fit the management or playing model?

One common argument in favour of high-reward careers like banking is that, like soccer players, bankers have rare talents and operate in a competitive market.

But, whatever happens in the future, it will not turn out that Ronaldo could not play soccer – that somehow all those free-kicks flew into the net because of ‘favorable external conditions’. But, as it did turn out, (formerly Sir) Fred Godwin was an abysmal banker. And no-one seems to have known this in real time.

Equally, compare investment banking’s barriers to entry to soccer’s. A potential investment banker from a favela can fall by the wayside at any level of education simply because the school system is poor – not because of his latent ability. If he does get to a university he needs to hope that it is one from which investment banks recruit – and the probability is against this.

Banking does not operate with anywhere near the same competitive pressures as soccer. But let us not indulge banker-bashing.

How might we tell whether a profession operates on the basis of soccer-style talent?

The mix test: one test has already been alluded to: what is the ethnic mix? To this we can the gender mix and socio-economic mix. If a profession is full of white middle-class men with the same backgrounds, we have reason to believe that hunch, gut instinct and bias determines appointments, not individual talent. For instance, only 19% of FTSE 100 board-members are female.

The inheritance test: if you watch the soccer scores live on a Saturday afternoon the sheer profusion of new and different names is amazing. While there have been Churchills in parliament for over 140 years there have been very few Berahino’s in professional soccer. It is hard to hand on the relevant talent and, as noted, the market is competitive.

Let’s add a second test then: the higher the proportion of second- or third-generation individuals in a profession the less likely it is that individual talent determines success. Connections or cultural fit may be doing significant work.

Politics is one profession that seems to do relatively badly by these metrics. In the UK most legislators are white middle-class men and quite a few are the descendants of legislators. In The Son also Rises: surnames and the history of social mobility Gregory Clark claims that until

‘1800 Norman surnames were eight times more likely than the typical surnames to appear among MPs.'(254-5)
‘[E]ven in the twentieth century, Norman surnames remained over-represented among English and Welsh MPs.'(255)

It does not follow that legislators are selected for reasons other than talent. Perhaps soccer’s conception of talent is inapt in politics. But we are owed an account that explains why.

If talent is decisive for politicians how is this ‘talent’ compatible with failing the inheritance and mix tests? Why, for instance, does it seem difficult to hand on soccer-talent but easier to hand on politics-talent?

There may well be good answers to these questions. I would certainly like to hear them.

We are all political philosophers

Political philosophy is an attempt to get a deeper understanding about political and moral principles and the relationship between them.  For instance, is ‘freedom’ a single idea or are there different freedoms that can clash? If they do clash on what principled basis can clashes be resolved? Do some freedoms trump others?

People seem to think so. While some object that taxation limits their freedom they also think making homosexuality illegal or banning certain religions would limit freedom much more severely.

Political philosophy is taught as part of the ‘theory of value’ the other main element of which is moral philosophy or ethics. A simple way to grasp the difference is that moral philosophy is about the principles that should guide our conduct towards other individuals – is it, for instance, ever OK to lie?

Political philosophy is about the principles of public institutions. There are two main aspects. What should be the principles that should shape and regulate public institutions? Should our laws protect free speech? Should our tax system re-distribute from rich to poor?

The second element is about the principles that politicians and public officials should adhere to in their individual conduct. You might think you should never lie to a friend or to your spouse. But you may think that sometimes politicians should lie to other world-leaders or even to the electorate. Sometimes this is called the problem of ‘dirty hands’; it is often associated with Machiavelli.

You might be very un-Machiavellian and believe that no-one should ever lie. But, if so, you are offering the same answer to two different questions. Private and public moralities are different.

Who does political philosophy?

Political philosophy is not the sole domain of professional political philosophers. We all do it. Children are especially good. When they claim that the toy tiger is theirs they are making quite a complex claim that they have certain entitlements over Tiger, one of which is the permission to exclude others from touching, using etc. Tiger.

In a democracy it is also part of a citizen’s duty to engage with political ideas, and so political philosophy. One topical example is immigration. Before we can decide to limit non-EU immigration we must think about some philosophical questions.

  1. What are our own duties to people from poor African countries or towards refugees?
  2. If we don’t want to discharge our duties (whatever they are) by allowing potential migrants into the UK, are other things permissible?
  3. Is financial aid an adequate replacement? (If so, how much?)

Engaging with philosophical ideas is also common in people’s professional lives. Take ‘big data’. While this sounds dry and technical, the most difficult issues it creates are moral: what permits private companies and governments to use citizens’ personal data? Must citizens consent? Can they ever be said to fully understand what they are consenting to? Can we replace actual consent with some idea of ‘hypothetical’ consent? To what use of their data would citizens agree if they were fully-informed and fully rational?

For several centuries political philosophers in the social contract tradition have wondered whether we can justify the state and the obligations it creates along similar lines. Philosophers’ arguments are relevant to the big data debate.

Is political philosophy mere opinion?

John thinks that capitalism makes people free while Ruby thinks capitalism im-miserizes workers. Is one right and the other wrong? One response is that right and wrong are inapt here: John and Ruby just have different opinions.

In the background is some dis-analogy with science. It would be odd to say ‘in my opinion, gravity doesn’t exist’. There are, what can be called, mind-independent facts about gravity. Your opinion is irrelevant. More importantly, in order to be ‘successful’ you need to respect these mind-independent facts. The world has a way of sifting-out people who refuse to accept gravity.

In contrast, you can treat people abysmally and not suffer at all. Indeed, you may get everything you ever wanted. And while gravity will operate in an unpeopled universe, it makes no sense to say that capitalism can be good or bad in a similar situation.

While these are important differences, they do not imply that disagreements about political ideas are the same as disagreements about pronunciations of ‘tomato’. And we should be glad of this. If political ideas were merely opinions, then, when someone said that homosexuality is an abomination, they would be open to no more criticism than if they had expressed a liking for lager.

We can test claims about political ideas

Is Ruby correct that capitalism im-miserizes workers? To answer this question first we must bring some precision to ‘im-miserization’: we can say that someone is im-miserized if they cannot satisfy their basic needs or if they are made appallingly subservient to other people. Then we can (i) see whether certain features of capitalism will always, or generally, lead to im-miserization; or (ii) look at actual capitalist societies and see whether workers can satisfy their basic needs.

The correct conclusion (I suspect) is that workers can be im-miserized in both capitalist and non-capitalist societies, and that changes to capitalism over the years (principally the addition of a welfare state) have significantly reduced workers’ misery. But whatever conclusions we ultimately draw, we can intelligently discuss, debate and test political ideas. And, perhaps like Ruby, we may find that our views are incorrect.

In short, we are all political philosophers. Our only choice is to engage with political ideas well or badly, better or worse. If, in the face of criticism of our deeply-held values, we retreat to the seemingly-safe realm of ‘opinion’ we must also accept that opening this particular door may invite in all sorts of unwelcome guests.

What’s wrong with political lobbying?

Many people think that lobbying is unhealthy. Can political philosophy help to make sense of this sentiment?

The political realm is special

Our public laws are supposed to be based on the general or common good. I might find taxation annoying. But to persuade others to change the law, I need to invoke something slightly more general than my personal feelings. I need to explain how others might benefit from any change. For instance, with lower taxes I might be more productive or give more money to worthy causes.

Another important feature of politics is that it should be insulated from the effects of economic inequality. People who are perfectly happy with the general ‘ripping’ of markets don’t think that vote-buying is acceptable or that those with the deepest pockets should get their political way.

In addition, every eligible citizen is entitled to one, and only one, vote, no matter how esteemed, wealthy or indeed stupid or poor they are. And we only give people votes. We don’t think ‘interests’ (like the City) or institutions (like the universities) should have representatives in parliament.


In short, politics is about the common good, based on the idea of people’s fundamental equality, and should be insulated from economic inequalities. By these standards how does lobbying fare? Frankly, not well.

With some simplification, we can understand lobbying as follows: some private company (X) hires lobby firm We-Can-Fix-It to influence etc. minister Y to make decision Z because Z favours X’s own interests.

What seems wrong here? First, X’s private interests may not coincide with the common good. Second, lobbyists charge and not everyone can afford their fees. Third, is secrecy. We-Can-Fix-It is unlikely to publish the content of its meetings with minister Y. And even if it wanted to, the minister would probably not let it. The citizens, then, may never know that any lobbying has occurred.


While this might seem like an open-and-shut case against lobbying we should not be so quick. Private companies may lobby for their own advantage, but many are experts in their field. Take banking reform. Banks’ input is vital here to test what might, and what will not, work.

In short, lobbying enables expertize to be heard and so can improve political decisions. But a problem remains. Banking illustrates it well. The aim of banking reforms is to make the sector work better for customers and society at large. The aim of Barclays or Santander is to increase its own profits. These difference may unconsciously bias a bank’s disinterested expertise. We should remember that after a generation of banks lobbying for self-regulation we had the largest economic crisis for over 60 years.

One way to reduce experts’ bias, and correct their errors, is through publicity and transparency. This implies the prompt publication of details (with minutes) of lobbyists’ meetings with ministers and other decision-makers.

A right to lobby

For some, expertize has got nothing to do with the permissibility of lobbying. Like voters, businesses have a right to lobby. We might understand this right as follows: individuals club together and transfer their democratic rights to some group such as We-Can-Fix-It to exercise their rights for them.

In reply, two points: as you can only transfer a right that already exists only voters can have this right to lobby. Non-voters, and this probably includes the heads of many major businesses, are excluded. Second, remember democracies represent people. Institutions – whether they are run by voters or not – are not people and so don’t have any democratic rights which can be transferred.

So, should the head of Barclays be able to meet the PM? Her or she is certainly entitled to the respectful reading of a well-crafted (open) letter. But if there is a meeting, minutes must be kept and published promptly. Of course none of this will happen. But it is important that someone explain why it shouldn’t happen – and we need to remember that any such explanation must be couched in terms of our common good and compatible with our political equality.

English votes for English laws?

The September 2014 vote on Scottish independence put a spotlight on the UK’s untidy constitution. Most attention has focused on the so-called West Lothian Question and its companion idea that only MPs who represent people in England should vote on matters that only affect people in England.

The idea that only those who are affected by a law should have a say in making that law has sound philosophical credentials. Artlessly, it is often called ‘the affectedness principle’ but it makes sense. A traffic-calming measure in Dumfries does not affect my life, so on what basis could I claim a right to a say in the matter?

Of course, philosophers like to complicate things. What, after all, does it mean to be ‘affected’ by something? Is a virgin monk affected by an abortion law? Not in any personal sense but Catholics do feel their voice should be heard in this debate. Or let’s take climate change. This definitely affects everyone, and as traffic calming measures increase emissions (due to speeding up and slowing down), perhaps I should have a say in the Dumfries matter.

Putting these difficulties aside, we will focus on the substance: is ‘English votes for English laws’ the best way to realize the affectedness principle and so address our constitutional problem? Table 1 can help us here.

Table 1: Percentage of votes and seats (in parentheses) in the 2010 general election

Labour Conservative Lib Dem Nationalist
England 28.1% (191) 39.6% (298) 24.2% (43) N/A
Scotland 42% (41) 16.7% (1) 18.9% (11) 19.9% (6)
Wales 36.2% (26) 26.1% (8) 20.1% (3) 11.3% (3)
Source: BBC news website. Northern Ireland is excluded because it has no MPs from any of the major parties.

The table shows why the Labour Party is wary of English votes for English laws. The Conservative Party has a massive majority of England’s MPs.

But a closer look tells us something else. The Labour Party has by far the most MPs in Scotland (41 versus 18). Why aren’t they in control of Scotland’s parliament? One answer is that if you ask people a different question, they will give you a different answer. When electing people to Scotland’s Parliament voters were asked who should make Scotland-only laws? But in a general election they were asked something like who should make UK-wide laws? For Scotland-only laws the Scots prefer the SNP, for UK-wide laws they prefer Labour.

By analogy, just because voters in England elected a majority of Conservative MPs at a general election, it does not follow they would do the same if they were asked who should make England-only laws. Of course, they might but, to find out, we would have to ask them. In short, while some laws only affect people in England, it does not follow that England’s MPs are the people best-qualified to make those laws.

One objection is that ‘English votes for English laws’ is a less bureaucratic and more efficient solution than, say, creating an English parliament. But this won’t wash. If it is not clear that an English parliament would return a Conservative majority, the fact that Conservative rule would be more efficient is no argument. Efficiently governing in ways that don’t represent the people’s views is worse than representing the people inefficiently.


An English Parliament?

None of this is an argument for an English parliament but it is relevant to the constitutional problems the UK faces. Jeremy Waldron (Chichele Professor of Social and Political Theory at Oxford University) describes the general problem here as the problem of authority: who should make the law? And, why should they make the law rather than some other group of people?

Waldron notes that we profoundly disagree about what the law should be and who should make it. We live, as he says, in the ‘circumstances of politics’. In Waldron’s view, this implies that we cannot legitimately appeal to partisan considerations when addressing constitutional problems like the UK’s.

Several points follow. First, the circumstances of politics implies that no political party should address our constitution problems through solutions that just happen to make it more likely that they will get the laws they want.

Second, any constitutional changes must stand the test of time and adequately address problems that have not yet arisen or been imagined (Donald Rumsfeld’s ‘unknown unknowns’). This is one of the remarkable features of the US constitution; it is still going strong after more than 225 years whereas Scottish devolution is fraying after a little over 15. In large part this is because, up until now, the anomalies which Scottish devolution created have been ignored.

Finally, ‘English votes for English laws’ is not the only democratic problem in the UK. For instance, many local councillors are of low quality and most council officials are yet to accept the principle of public accountability. We should take this constitutional opportunity to reform our democracy more systematically and thoroughly.

This will take time and (in my view) implies that politicians who have to keep supporters onside, and worry about the next election, are best excluded from the process. There is little chance of this happening and as we lack a Madison, Jefferson or Franklin, we are in a little trouble. Where does this leave us? To quote the proverbial local when asked for directions ‘if I were you, I wouldn’t start from here …’