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Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Tuesday, July 06, 2010

Liberal Democracy’s Constant Tension: The Openness of Debate

During debate over the recent health insurance reform that eventually passed both chambers of Congress, and was signed into law by President Barack Obama, minority Republicans often charged that Obama and the majority Democrats were “ramming” the legislation down the throats of Americans.
Republicans buttressed such rhetoric by arguing that most Americans did not support the legislation, and therefore its passage – and, to some degree, the Democrats' use of the reconciliation procedure, which would require only 51 votes instead of 60 to pass the bill – was undemocratic. Polling data and common sense the Republican argument seems rather disingenuous considering their past use and support of such measures makes this claim dubious. However, it feeds into a broader Republican charge, that Democrats were not opening debate fully to the views of the rest of America, who wanted different or no reform. Democrats, said the Republicans, were dogmatically adhering to their plan without listening to others (1).
Yet this line of thinking is odd if one considers that many liberals were actually enraged with Obama and leading Democratic lawmakers not for trying to "ram" through the bill, but for courting Republican ideas on the matter. This situation provides a shining example of a constant tension faced by the citizens of a liberal democracy (2). Why were liberals, torchbearers of the idea that any decent society allows open debate and unfettered inquiry, calling for a limit to debate? Isn’t that rather un-liberal of them?
These questions essentially get at the issue of openness of debate. Openness includes at least two aspects, which are inevitably closely related, indeed hard to separate: who (or, whose ideas) can enter the debate; and how long should debate last before it ends (and people move to the next topic, or act on conclusions from the past debate).
The first issue would seem an easy one: no person, nor any person’s ideas, can be barred from debate. Indeed, Republicans might have referenced such a passage as the following from John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty, which is a cornerstone work of the modern liberal society: “If all mankind minus one were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person, than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind. … To refuse a hearing to an opinion, because they are sure that it is false, is to assume that their certainty is the same thing as absolutely certainty. All silencing of discussion is an assumption of infallibility. …” (Mill, 23, 28). Indeed, Mill went on to write that even the Roman Catholic Church hears a "devil's advocate" during the canonization process of a saint. As Mill wrote: “Mankind ought to have a rational assurance that all objections have been satisfactorily answered, and how are they to be answered if that which requires to be answered is not spoken? Or, how can the answer be known to be satisfactory, if the objectors have no opportunity of showing that it is unsatisfactory?” (Mill, 45). The point is that debate is the healthiest possible thing for ideas, or more specifically here, legislation, especially if those ideas or laws will so heavily impact society. Everyone's opinion should, at the least, be heard before being dismissed.

But there is an important difference to parsed here. It is one of allowing people to enter debate – an essential part of a liberal democracy – and actually courting people to a debate. For instance, as mentioned, Obama was continually criticized by people on the left side of the political aisle for trying to include Republicans in the health insurance reform discussion. It would have been one thing for Republicans to put their arguments out there for the public to consume, as they would normally do, and did. But it is another for Obama to patiently ask for and await Republicans’ opinions, especially given the recent Republican penchant during the debate to, well, provide few constructive opinions.
One argument in support of Obama’s constant attempt to cross the political aisle is that, at the least, he gave the appearance of trying to work together. Americans would see this, notice that Republicans were merely being obstructionists, and support the Democrats. Others would counter that Obama and the Democrats were given something of a mandate when Americans gave them power over the presidency, Senate, and House. And so, any attempt to court Republicans was a waste of time – Americans told lawmakers what they wanted, and they wanted it done. In a sense, then, the Democrats in power did not gain support, but lost it, because they disappointed those who voted them in to pass the legislation. To be sure, one other legitimate argument liberals made against Obama and the Dems was about how quickly they folded on the public option.
So, how long should political liberals have let debate last? Here we reach another issue to parse, that of dividing the spheres of discourse of politics and society.
The political sphere includes lawmakers, who have their name for a reason: they make laws. They cannot sit around and debate endlessly. They must, at some point, push legislation through (which is at the center of the debate over filibuster reform). Republicans who opposed the passage of health care insurance reform on the basis of debate being too limited then might take note of another passage from Mill: “It is the duty of governments, and of individuals, to form the truest opinions they can; to form them carefully, and never impose them on others unless they are quite sure of being right. But when they are sure … it is not conscientiousness but cowardice to shrink from acting on their opinions. ... Men, and governments, must act to the best of their ability. There is no such thing as absolute certainty, but there is assurance sufficient for the purposes of human life." (Mill, 25-26, emphasis added). So, Obama and Democratic lawmakers should have gone to every length imaginable to ensure their ideas, their legislation, was sound, and all objections had been heard. But it would seem they did. The health care debate started when Obama took office in January 2009, and the bill wasn’t finally handed to him until March 2010. One could even argue that the debate over health care reform has been actually ongoing for decades, making passage of reform (assuming it is of quality) all the more necessary.

Yet our division of spheres of discourse means passage of a bill – or even defeat – does not mark the end of debate. Indeed, many Americans continued to discuss the merits of the legislation, with some even filing lawsuits arguing it was unconstitutional (I think these stand little chance of going anywhere). American society at large can and will continue to have the conversation about health insurance reform. Then, in the next election, they will bring their beliefs to the polls. They will expect those voted in to act. And then, the conversation will continue.
Politics is a continuous process. By dividing up spheres of discourse into political and societal, we see that debate never really ends – it’s just that sometimes lawmakers need to get on with their job, and leave debate to the public.

1. Of course, many Republicans rejected the legislation purely on intrinsic grounds. Perhaps even all of them did, you might argue. But they still complained often about the Democrats' monopoly of what went into the bill, which strikes one as somewhat odd considering that 161 Republican amendments were added to the legislation.

2. "Liberals" here refers to the political group of Democrats and other left-leaning people, whereas the term "liberal democracy" refers more broadly to our system of governance and its foundational ideas of liberty, free speech, free conscience, representation, and more.


  1. Interesting post. I am reassured to hear our republic called a "liberal democracy," which has become an oddly taboo phrase for both the far right and left. The Right, for some reason I can't fully understand, insists that "democracy" appears nowhere in the constitution so we must call it a republic. (If only they did the same for the word "Christ".) Other than the similarity with "Republican" I don't get how they reconcile this nit picking with the populism of the Tea Party and their appeals to polls supposedly showing the majority opposed to health care reform. For its part, the far left wants to remind us that we are far from "liberal" and don't even have a democracy, rather a corporatocracy, or kleptocracy.

    What I think is behind these attempts at renaming is a deep frustration on the part of true believers who, realizing they can never win the game, are attempting to, if not completely change the rules, at least brand the game rigged and unfair. You see, if we do have a liberal democracy and Sarah Palin can't win an election, then that means America is not interested in her brand of tea. Similarly to the left's chagrin, it may be the case that Americans don't really want a public option. I think Liberal Democracy is, ultimately, a way of maximizing frustration for the greater minimal good.

  2. Michael seems to be optimistic about the possibility of a real public political debate. I wish I could share his view but I must say the tone and quality of the current political discourse leaves me doubtful. To use Michael's example, I watched with interest (and sometimes horror and unbelief) the debate about health care but way too much of it was just about gaining political points instead of being about the substance.

    Of course, reasonable persons can have between themselves a reasonable and honest debate about anything. And, certainly, intellectuals on all sides of the health care issue had between themselves productive exchanges. But what real impact did this have on the political discourse? It may be common place, but nevertheless also true, that politically-slanted news programs, the very short news cycle, activist blogs and so on lead more to a polarization of the public than to a search for the common ground necessary to achieve progress in a democracy.

    Overall, while we benefit from many new powerful tools that could, in principle, enhance the public debate, there are also many forces working to make it more difficult and I fear the result is far from clear. I hope I am completely wrong about this and that Michael's apparent optimism can be justified - but it does not look good to me.

  3. I'd like to echo JP's comment to an extent and hopefully extend it a little further but I'd also like to put forward certain doubts about how Michael has phrased the Liberal case here.

    I basically agree with JP that in some sense we need to ask questions about the terms of the debate and whether there are factors that mean debate isn't actually possible. It seems that JP has highlighted at least one: everyone at the table has to be committed to being convinced and without that basic commitment there's no real reason having the debate. I'd argue that this is the reasoning that drives many liberal commentators to say that there was no need to seek compromise, the fact that there was no compromise to be won.

    There is however at least one other factor that needs to be accounted for however and it's this that has led me to be sceptical more generally of democracy. Lets say we assume we've managed to get together a group of people to be legislators and we've proven they're motivated in the right way to honestly strive to make legislation using the best available reason, we still have the fundamental problem of whether or not they are in fact competent to make the decisions. I'm not here going on some childish harp about how "politicians are all in it for themselves" but it seems to me reasonable that when setting up a body to make decisions about the public interest, that that body is actually capable of making those kinds of decisions. More to the point, we're not making a mistake when we say for example that we're going to ignore the libertarians, who still don't seem to understand what freedom actually means, or, so that I can hopefully win the full spectrum of hate mail here, creationists who at best can be said to not understand evidence; both of these groups really ought to be excluded from any discussion where their lack of competence is going to hinder the debate in much the same way peer review and journals more generally, are supposed to exclude people who just aren't competent to engage in the debate. Yes this is elitist, but is that a problem if those involved are actually relevantly competent? More importantly is it reasonable to think that there will be anything we could call discussion if we don't?

  4. OnedayMore,

    I must say I'm not a fan of labeling the U.S. as merely a "democracy" and prefer using the term "republic" or "liberal democracy." The Founders understood democracy according to the classical definition, that being simply "rule by the majority." Of course, the U.S. is not governed by the majority in such a broad way. Each individual (legally, at least) possesses rights that cannot be violated by majority rule. Thus while we have democratic institutions like voting, our ability to vote for people and policies is constrained by our institutionalized liberalism.

  5. Mr Montag, As a libertarian, you have once again proved to me why elitism is a disease of the self appointed intellectual.
    The good news for you is that because of this health care bill, people are shifting to the Libertarian way of thinking in masses. I suppose in your line of thinking that somehow forcing people to buy health insurance does not make a nation any less free than it was when it was free to choose if they wanted health care or not. (you can spare me the details, it would just open a larger debate, yeah yeah, health care is a right and everyone would choose it if they had the means, yadda yadda). My larger point is: its good news for me to know that the elitists of our nation would like to refuse the fastest growing movement from the debate. That will just help our cause.


    The polling data of people that would like to see reform is not a reflection of people that wanted to see the nation adopt a Massachusetts style version of national health care. People wanted to see something done about the price of health care to make it more affordable. They didnt want a redistributive plan. And if you dont think it is going to be redistributive better look at Donald Berwicks quotes on what this plan must do. Obama didnt put him in charge of Medicare for nothing.

    Your post could have at a better time since your telling us how gracious Obama is with letting everyone in on the debate and now he smashes through Mr Berwick while the senate is on recess. Keep preaching how open and ready for debate Obama is Michael. He did this to save himself the public embarrassment of Berwicks socialist ideas. Yeah, Obama is all about open debate. Why dont you write another post telling us that Obama did this intentionally to give the senate time to think things over being the just and thoughtful man he is.

  6. While I personally would prefer the U.S. to be much more like the social democracies in Europe (the Netherlands, Sweden or Norway, are the countries foremost in my mind), I don't get involved in politics for essentially what JP said about gaining political points. Thucydides, Epicurus, and Machiavelli have poisoned me against politics. I like to quip "Out of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight politician was ever made."

    I am not at all optimistic about the influence political debate has on policy in this country, or the possibility of reforming our political system so that more informed debate takes place, and the results of that informed debate influence policy decisions.

  7. The debate lasted a very long time, led to more confusion and uneasiness than enlightenment amongst the general population, and resulted in a bill that was thought about more by everyone but was way harder to pass because since it took so long to get to a vote it lost popular support. Because of this the end result ended up being more ideologically moderate and involving more corrupt deals than would otherwise have been the case.

    I would argue that the fact that every other industrialized nation in the world has universal health care means that we can be pretty objective about how the different systems work and what their strengths and pitfalls can be. A key failure of the health care debate with the general public was that it didn't provide a clear, impartial, and systematic picture of foreign health care systems. All other rich countries pay a lot less per person/per capita. Many of them have better quality treatment, more frequent treatment, and shorter waiting times than we do. Nearly all of them (sole exception being Portugal) have longer life expectancies than we do-though the difference is mild, just a few years at most.

    Now obviously the US has an especially unhealthy average lifestyle. We also have to pay medical personnel a lot more than other countries do because we already do so and still have big personnel shortages. For both of these reasons, even if we had everything worked out to a T, it would be reasonable to expect we would still be paying more per person/capita than all or most other countries do. But nevertheless, the best way to tackle the problem, I believe, would involve heavy impartial emphasis on empirical analysis of foreign systems coupled with thorough theoretical pondering on what would interact best with the relatively viscous characteristics the US.

    This didn't happen because of the undemocratic and corrupt power of our insurance and pharmaceutical industries. It isn't also didn't happen because the US is more conservative than the other rich countries. Their means of government interference (single-payer systems, price controls [it surprised me that those work well in many countries], etc) were untenable in a largely corrupt senate that requires 60 votes to pass everything. Or at least this was the case once the far right had the chance to pander to the ignorant general populace for months and make it nervous.

    So, in effect, for dumb ideological reasons, we had to come up with a third way bill. Which makes the bill we passed is a stab in the dark because it involves a large amount of superfluous innovation to avoid the beaten paths. So what's going to happen is unpredictable next, more so than it should be...

    Regarding Mill's raging idealism, obviously he was wrong about the health care debate. Very few Americans got well-informed, they just got nervous. They don't vote with their brains because their too ignorant to. They vote with their gut. So as a result of having a long protracted debate that got everyone spooked, stressed out, and hyper-polarized, we procured an unreliable bill spoiled by levels of corruption than could otherwise have been avoided.

    Like most thinkers of his ilk, Mill overestimates the virtue of mankind. I think Montag may be on the right track with his technocratic leanings, but there are potential problems with that as well. You can't trust most people to be intelligent and wise about politics, but you can't trust anyone to be incorruptible.

  8. Oh goodie, I so wanted to see a Libertarian take the bait.

    Dear Mr Fisher. The point I made is that there is no point in including people such as yourself in the debate for the very simple fact that you don't understand the terms of the debate. As evidence I point to your comment. The simple argument which is thrown again and again at libertarians and which they persistently either choose not to grasp or are incapable of grasping, is that it is literally meaningless to talk about freedom as if all it is about is whether or not someone is explicitly limiting your ability to choose. Surely before we can even contemplate questions of enforced limits on freedom, people must in fact be in a position to exercise that freedom. It is precisely the desire that only a persons choices should matter that the liberal minded person does what they can to minimise the impacts of those things which people cannot choose such as say illness or the social status of a person's parents.

    Because I'm fair minded, and consistent when I can be, all you need to do right now Mr Fisher is show me that you have at least the competence to explain to me how you don't need a thorough going principle of equality in order to even engage with questions of freedom and I'll have no problems including you on the debate. As the Libertarians have failed in this regard I see no reason to give them

  9. @Jim,

    "Your post could have at a better time since your telling us how gracious Obama is with letting everyone in on the debate and now he smashes through Mr Berwick while the senate is on recess. Keep preaching how open and ready for debate Obama is Michael. He did this to save himself the public embarrassment of Berwicks socialist ideas. Yeah, Obama is all about open debate. Why dont you write another post telling us that Obama did this intentionally to give the senate time to think things over being the just and thoughtful man he is."

    I find this reaction a bit odd considering that in my essay I mentioned the issue of filibuster reform. The filibuster is the exact reason why Obama was forced to make a recess appointment (of which he has not made more than his predecessors, despite a gridlocked Senate: Obama has 18 so far, compared to 171 total by Bush and 139 total by Clinton). Further, the position Berwick is filling has been vacant since 2006; and because his appointment bypassed the Senate, it is temporary and will expire at the end of the Senate's next session. So, start the debate now if you please.

    Good coverage follows:


  10. Guy,
    One of the reasons I am libertarian (and I would think that most libertarians are) is not just about freedom or the ability to choose (although that is obviously a major part of it), but yet it is the effects that "freedom to choose" has on a society. As everyone keeps saying we need to look at other socialist democracys health care systems. I say we need to look at those small segments of health care in the U.S. that are untouched by insurance companies and government regulation (for the most part) such as laser eye surgery or even some common plastic surgery's. These industries that are basically left to the free market have significantly less cost to the consumer than its heavily regulated and/or insured counterparts. That is even despite that it must coincide with the costly effects of counterparts (meaning they still must purchase their surgical instruments in the same industry and still must buy their drugs in the same industry, etc etc...) yet despite their coexsisting in the same industry with its heavily regulated/insured counterparts, they have figured out how to drive the costs down drastically. Imagine how cheap these industries would be if they exsisted in a vacuum without their counterparts. So my point is that if this was how all healthcare was run, in a highly unregulated/insured industry. Health care would be very inexpensive relative to todays standard. Also in a "free to choose" (or highly unregulated) society the lowest standard of living is relatively high compared to a socialist society. So your point to me is completely invalid. The libertarian view is that in a free society the most people can afford excellent health care. So in this system you are increasing the peoples ability to choose not just becasue they are actually choosing, but because you are increasing their ability to choose through better health care for more people etc etc...Milton Friedman gave the evidence clearly to less regulated societys having higher per capita wealth and much less poverty, so how is it that you have a valid point?

    you have a valid point. Perhaps filibuster reform is needed. but the administration will not even comment on if they agree with Berwicks statements, Gibbs was ready for the question and just relected it trying convince the press that they were Republicans words? That is not very open and honest if you ask me.

  11. Micheal,
    This recess appointment does indeed show Obama's lack of wanting fair debate. Yes you have a valid point of recess appoinment for avoiding fillibuster. This appointment goes beyond that. Berwick will not answer written questions from even democrats. There has been zero discussion. This is historic on how little debate or discussion even for a recess appointment.

    Please read this article


    This man is not to the left. This man is completely socialist. Not socialist democracy type socialist, I mean socialist. Just read his words. You referred earlier to preferring to call America a Republic or Liberal Democracy. Although the two terms have different meaning, I know what you mean. Obama's appointment of Berwick completely illustrates his views of what America should be. And it is neither "Republic" or "Liberal Democracy". This man will be in charge of spending more of the peoples money than any other man alive. He has an outright socialist view of government. This is not what the people want. This is not how a Republic is run. This is not going to be a health care system where the people govern themselves and their health care.
    As a Libertarian, it is obvious how I feel. The answer in affordable healthcare is to figure out how to apply Adam Smiths principles back to health care. Not to keep going further in the opposite direction. Command economics has never worked in fixing a broken system. Now we have a man that revels in command economics in charge of the largest health care budget in the world.
    If you want to write posts on how Republics are being disingenuous because the people really want this, I am sorry, you are wrong. It is disingenuous to use that polling data as 50/50 support for this bill. 50% of the people wanted reform, not socialism (I realize this plan is not socalism, but that is the road he is taking us down, it is however massive regulation and huge burden on freedom)
    I can make a prediction that I hope you will remember some day : If we do not repeal this health care bill and get Berwick out of control before too much damage is done, the price of health care will absolutly rise or the quality will suffer greatly. Most likey it will be a combination of both. People keep saying look at the other health car systems that are social. Where did MOST great advances in health care come from? Social Democracys? When Great Britian went universal in the 60's, they had not one new hospital for the next 20 years. 24% increase in staff for the next 20 years. Served less patients in that same 20 years than the previous 20. And had an average of 600,000 waiting for beds during that same time.
    Adam Smiths invisible hand is real. It works in the health care system as it does in any other system driven by money. The idea that we must redistribute to the poor has hurt the poor more than any other class. That lesson has been repeated over and over, and despite the evidence, we will now subject the poor to the removal of the tiny bit of the invisible hand that was left.
    Please define Republic. Is that what we still are? Do you not believe in our constitution? Do you think it is constitutional for this health care plan to be administered by the federal government? Do you not believe in the Road to Serfdom? Do you think we'll be the first to achieve massive central government without serfdom? There is so much proof of Smiths hand being responsible of higher standard of living that it is science, yet our intellectuals insists on going in the opposite direction. Why is that?


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