Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Virtue-Preserving Federalism

A couple of my recent posts have left an important question unasked: whence virtue? It's great to say that there are natural limits on the exercise of justice, but how do individuals know what justice even is? Is it just out there in the air, something we breathe without noticing? Do we rinse off in justice after bathing in the milk of human kindness, maybe pat dry with the towel of humility and put on the night cream of generosity? Or is virtue transmitted like any other idea: passing from mind to mind, from clan to clan, from country to country, carried on the back of rhetoric, supported by the same natural propensity to truck, barter, and exchange that is self-evident in the marketplace for material goods and services.

I'm not exactly convinced that we're able to conclusively isolate the origin of morality, but I think morality's murky genesis is of much less practical interest than how it is supported and propagated. When I read rationalist constructions of morality (Kant especially, but especially Descartes), I'm struck by how tendentious they are. I am reminded of many of my friends who say, "I don't know if I'm a libertarian or not, but I'm not 'that' kind of libertarian." Well, I don't know if I'm a deontological moralist or not, but I don't quite believe that moral reasoning from a few context-free first principles gets you a virtuous life. Or a virtuous society, for that matter.

Pulpit-pounding aside, I invite you to consider for a moment that virtue is a learned heuristic. It neither descends like manna from heaven, surrounding us in vapor, nor does it spill forth fully armed from the foreheads of philosophers. Aristotle didn't invent virtue, he just described it. Ditto Anselm. Ditto Epicurus, ditto Aquinas. Virtue is an emergent order, created by human action, but not by human design. The Areatic Turn (think heel-face turn, but for moral philosophy) was just Hayek's analysis of emergent order in markets applied to moral theory. And just as market orders extend beyond the single bazaar, moral orders extend beyond the single congregation. How do I reconcile this with my recent claims?

Thankfully, Riker (1964) and Weingast (1995) have already given us some pretty good guidelines on an institutional form that supports euvoluntary exchange: market-preserving federalism.

Ordinary federalism is Riker's part, and it has two components:
  1. A hierarchy of governments, where at least "two levels of government rule the same land and people."
  2. "The autonomy of each government is institutionalized in a manner that makes federalism's restrictions self-enforcing." (emphasis in original) Sounds familiar, doesn't it?
Weingast added the following conditions to elevate federalism to the market-preserving type (all emphasis in original unless otherwise noted):
  1. "Subnational governments have primary regulatory responsibility over the economy."
  2. "a common market is ensured", meaning that jurisdictions can't raise trade barriers against each other.
  3. Importantly, "the lower governments face a hard budget constraint," meaning that fiscal and monetary sovereignty is not available to subnational governments. 
That last point is an interesting one for cryptocurrency wonks. If the state of Virginia were to come up with its own version of Bitcoin, it would threaten the market-preserving attributes of American federalism. But that's a topic for another post.

If you buy Aristotle's claim that practical justice is naturally limited in scope, and if accept the proposition that a virtuous society is better than the alternatives, some form of virtue federalism should appeal to you. If it helps, imagine that one of the functions of a Church hierarchy is to a) define and b) administer virtue to congregants. 

What would virtue-preserving federalism resemble? Well, pretty much the same thing:
  1. A hierarchy of organizations, where at least two levels of moral authority guide the same people.
  2. The autonomy of each organization is institutionalized in a manner that makes the organizational restrictions self-enforcing.
  3. Subordinate organizations have primary moral authority over their constituents.
  4. A common moral identity is ensured, meaning that everyone, and I do mean everyone, is due the same default prior moral consideration.
  5. And sub-organizations can't just up and rewrite moral foundations on a whim.
Jeepers. If those are the guidelines, then Mennonite communities seem to be pretty good examples of virtue-preserving federal organizations. 

Is virtue-preserving federalism euvoluntary? Why or why not?

For a fun exercise, compare and contrast other morality-supporting institutions using these guidelines. Is the Catholic Church of 2014 a virtue-preserving federal system? How about the Catholic Church of 1300? How about Confucianism? Islam? Judaism? Buddhism? Tao? 

Anyway, it's something to think about. I don't know if it perfectly reconciles my worries about Aristotelian justice, but I think it helps. And it gives me and Tony something to talk about on the ride to Fairfax today.

Riker, William H. Federalism: Origin, Operation, and Significance. (1964) Boston: Little Brown

Weingast, Barry R. "Economic Role of Political Institutions: Market-Preserving Federalism and Economic Development, The." JL Econ. & Org. 11 (1995): 1. available here.

1 comment:

  1. Good grief. Please do attend my lecture next Monday. I address exactly this.


Do you have suggestions on where we could find more examples of this phenomenon?