2.2 Disagreements About Governance

People vary so much in their personalities and ideas that disagreements about governance are inevitable.

People often have different viewpoints on important issues.  One such difference comes from alternative ways of looking at the relationship between people and the society they live in.  People can use the words ‘freedom’ and ‘fairness’ quite differently, which results in different political philosophies:

●  Society can be seen as a number of separate individuals, referred to here as ‘individualists’, who each want as much freedom as possible.  They want liberty from interference, and they see fairness as a right to keep what they have earned.  This focus leads to a desire for a limited State, lower taxes, a rejection of the idea that others can make claims on them, and an emphasis on individual responsibility.

●  Alternatively, society can be seen as a body composed of interdependent people who want to ensure that everyone is looked after – a viewpoint which is termed ‘collectivist’ in this book. Collectivists see freedom as the opportunity or “capability” to pursue a fulfilling life;[1] they see fairness as the apportionment of shared costs – of public goods and services, and support of the needy – with some recognition of people’s ability to pay: usually through taxation.

The resulting differences in attitudes to governance are examined in more detail in later chapters.  The purpose of introducing them at this stage is to illustrate the fundamental nature of such disagreements in a society.  In this book it is argued that there is merit in both these philosophies – the collective needs of a society and the perspective of the individual should both be considered – and most people’s views encompass aspects of both.  For analysis purposes, though, it is easier to treat them as opposing viewpoints so that the tensions between them can be clearly understood.

Different cultural backgrounds, for example religious beliefs, also account for variation in people’s attitudes and values.  And individuals vary in their tolerance of change and their openness to new ideas and experiences.  Human beings are so complex, and there are so many sources of difference, that there will never be uniformity in people’s views – so negotiation is essential.

People don’t always try, or they find it difficult, to imagine how things appear from another person’s point of view.  This aspect of human nature leads to the erroneous belief that their own values would be right for everybody, but no system of governance can be legitimate without reciprocity – rules must apply equally to everyone – so no one can be allowed to foist their own opinions onto other people.  Sadly, people’s failure to respect each other as equals is all too common: in economics, it takes the form of exploiting the less wealthy; it permeates morality, in reducing people’s acceptance of others from different cultural backgrounds; it crops up in the law, as legislation on morally controversial issues; it is widespread in politics, for example in neoconservatism and aggressive nationalism; and it can result in hostile acts against other countries – as explored in subsequent chapters of this book.

The difficulties arising from people’s inherent diversity are increased by the careless use of broad labels to oversimplify complex subjects: ‘synecdoche’.  The labels ‘Conservative’ and ‘Liberal’, for example, each include a wide range of views – so it would be foolish to dislike a person on the basis of such affiliations, and there might be more important aspects of a person’s character.  And Israeli government policies are not supported by all Jews, for example.  Failure to choose words carefully, looking beneath the labels, can lead to unnecessary disagreements about governance.

Despite people’s differences, there are many widely shared values in any society which help to bind it together.  There is widespread agreement upon what is acceptable behaviour between one person and another.  Almost everyone prefers law and order to be maintained (although there is scope for disagreement about the enforcement of moral codes).  A collectivist has no more reason than an individualist to welcome unnecessary State interference; they would disagree, though, about the necessity of some State involvement.  This book highlights areas where disagreement is inevitable and where problems arise from people who try to impose their views on others rather than reach a compromise.


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This page is intended to form part of Edition 4 of the Patterns of Power series of books.  An archived copy of it is held at https://www.patternsofpower.org/edition04/22b.htm

[1] Amartya Sen defined “capability”, in chapter 11 of his book The Idea of Justice, as “the opportunity to fulfil ends and the substantive freedom to achieve those reasoned ends” – where the term “ends” means whatever is important to a person (the quotation is from p.  234).  In the footnotes to that chapter he refers to several other books on what he describes as “the capability approach”.