Sunday, August 7, 2011

Voice, exit and virtue

Political scientist Xavier Marquez has proposed a suggestive political triad building on Albert O. Hirschmann’s analysis of exit, voice and loyalty.

Marquez suggests that right-liberals (including libertarians) focus on exit as their preferred response to problems of domination, that left-liberals focus on voice while serious conservatives focus on ensuring any existing domination is a legitimate one.

So, right-liberals favour market solutions:
in great part because they think that whenever such markets work well, they enable some people to escape from particular relations of potential domination: to leave jobs, or to switch products, or to escape oppressive social conditions, etc. The competitive market functions here as an ideal of exit, even if actually existing markets do not always work as advertised. … Domination, from this point of view, is captivity, and freedom is primarily understood as the ability to exit a relationship.
Analyses of the power of competitive jurisdictions fit within this pattern.

left-liberals (and other people on the left, though not all) are often far more enamoured of democracy than the dinghy realities of actually-existing democracies would seem to warrant, with their refractory electorates, poor quality deliberations, capture by organized minorities, etc. This is not necessarily because they are blind to their failings, but because their default solution to the problem of domination is to increase voice – more consultation, more deliberation, more organized representation, and the like. They find voice itself desirable, and understand freedom partly in such terms: to be dominated is to have no means of affecting the direction of a relationship, to be voiceless, and to be free is to have input into the relationship, to have a say, which in turn legitimates a relationship. … Democracy is the normative ideal of voice, just as competitive markets are the normative ideal of exit.
Marquez notes that, as unrestricted exit tends to undermine voice, the partisans of voice are typically sceptical of exit solutions. Exit tends to undermine voice by undermining the incentive to use or organise for voice as well as the resources available to do so: particularly if the more articulate and better-resourced are disproportionately those who leave.

If folk on the left are partisans of voice, this helps explain why "left-liberals" often end up being so concerned to regulate speech either formally (anti-hate speech laws, speech codes, etc) or informally (denunciation): if "voice" is your preferred mechanism to change social outcomes, then it is a precious resource to be husbanded and used with maximum effect. It also likely, as Xavier Marquez suggests, to lead to strong concern about who has access to the mechanisms of voice and how it is used. This notion of the normative importance and power of voice can be taken further and become a view that changing the language can itself fundamentally transform human and social relations.

Either way, elevation of the power of voice segues into a demand that certain voices (or at least certain uses of voice) be ostracised or blocked. Voice-as-mechanism comes to trump voice-as-manifestation-of-autonomy. Reaction to such outlooks generates the various critiques attacking the intolerance of the ostentatiously tolerant and the ad hominem abusiveness of the conspicuously compassionate: the tendency to accusation parading as argument familiar from so many comment threads. (Charles Krauthammer amusingly characterised this tension as "conservatives think liberals are stupid, liberals think conservatives are evil". A nice example of criticising Keynesian economics being taken as a failure of moral character is cited here.)

Modernism, post-modernism
A tendency towards ad hominem abusiveness attacking the motives and moral character of those who disagree flows from further steps in the process of elevation of voice. Voice is a manifestation of belief: one typically uses voice in accord with one’s beliefs. So good and proper beliefs lead to “correct” uses of voice, those that promote social harmony (or whatever the designated goal is). Harmful or wrongful beliefs lead to "incorrect" or "wrongful" uses of voice, those that inhibit the designated goal or goals.

[Read the rest at Critical Thinking Applied.]

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