A Kantian Response to Populism: Institutions as Ends

If there’s any credence to horseshoe theory (there isn’t), look no further than a pervasive dissatisfaction with institutional government. The populist fringes of the left and right share a consensus view that current political issues have less to do with who’s in office and more to do with the legal and political institutions of government themselves.

On the left for example, you don’t have to do much digging to find calls for abolishing the Senate or electoral college, institutions derided as outmoded and undemocratic. And on the right — though it might be sufficient to simply point out that the Trump administration appointed a climate change-denier to the EPA — it’s worth noting that the guiding principle of populist conservatism since the 60’s has been a mission to radically restructure the way the government functions and to change its fundamental nature as an institution.

The populist left and right share the sentiment that government institutions are means in the service of certain moral ends, and if an institution should fail to serve those ends: then it should be abolished.

Enter Kant.

Kant vs. Utilitarianism and Lockean “natural rights”

Immanuel Kant’s political philosophy differs significantly from anything we might today recognize as partisan political ideology. Far from seeing government as a mere tool to moral ends, Kant argues that it is only within the context of public legal institutions that man can enter a “rightful condition,” where, as Law professor Arthur Ripstein describes, “each person’s entitlement to be his or her own master is consistent with the entitlements of others.” In Kant’s view, legal and political institutions exist not to attain certain ends, but as ends in themselves.

How might Kant’s philosophy compare to modern day partisan ideology?

Jeremy Bentham, whose utilitarian philosophy went on to shape a great deal of political thinking on the modern left, saw government institutions as a tool for increasing equality: the greatest good for the greatest number. As Arthur Ripstein describes in Force and Freedom:

He [Bentham] argues that the purpose of legal and political institutions, and indeed even the purpose of general rules in morality, is to approximate a moral result — the greatest happiness of the greatest number-which could in principle be specified without any reference to institutions…Many contemporary egalitarian theories have a similar structure: society should be arranged so as to bring about an equal distribution.

Anyone attuned to political debate will recognize the similarities between Bentham’s line of reasoning and arguments put forth by the modern left. Political and legal institutions exist to put checks on the powerful and level the playing field, protecting the will of the many vs the interests of the few.

Sitting opposite Bentham’s utilitarianism is Lockean “natural rights” theory. Like utilitarianism, Lockean “natural rights” theory and other forms of deontological philosophy see institutional government as means to achieving moral ends, in this case: the preservation of “natural rights.” As Ripstein describes:

Lockean “natural rights” theories that claim that person have fully formed moral rights in a state of nature, and that the only legitimate purpose of legal institutions is to solve problems of self-preference or insufficient knowledge in the application of those rights to particulars.

Again, anyone attuned to political debate will immediately recognize elements of this argument espoused by different factions on the right. Lockean “natural rights” theory is a bedrock of populist conservative and libertarian thought. Knee-jerk, anti-government (“Don’t-tread- on-me!”) arguments pull heavily from the idea that the only legitimate function of government is the preservation of the natural rights innate to man.

So what do Lockeans and utilitarians both have in common? They both believe in a set of values that, in an ideal world, could be practiced without political and legal institutions. The most ideologically motivated members of the left and right evaluate institutions based on how effectively they further their personal moral goals. Per Ripstein:

For both the utilitarian/egalitarian and the Lockean or deontologists, public legal rules are justified by the likelihood that they will bring about better results than could be achieved in their absence, where success is measured in terms of tracking the preinstitutional values…On these views, rules are appropriate because reliable, but imperfect, tools for producing morally desirable outcomes. The only basis for setting up legal institutions is that they are likely to produce the right results, as identified by external criteria, more often than they get the wrong ones

How does Kant respond? “A pox on both your houses!” Rather than seeing government institutions as impediments to moral results, Kant sees government institutions as indispensable for achieving them. This is most easily demonstrated in terms of private property.

A Lockean libertarian sees private property as a self-evident right and believes that government should function only in working through the particulars of individual cases.

A utilitarian sees no fundamental right to private property and would instead argue that the government should act to further equality through the distribution of physical objects between individuals

To the utilitarian, Kant replies that private property is no more than boundaries set on the conduct of others to preserve each individual’s ability to set their own purposes (in other words, “freedom”); Private property is innate to a “rightful condition.” To the Lockean libertarian, Kant says, per Ripstein, “Outside of legal institutions, property cannot be acquired conclusively, property rights cannot be enforced coercively, and disputes about them have no resolution consistent with the equal freedom of the parties.” In other words, there’s no moral justification (or practical implementation) for the idea of private property outside the context of institutional government.

Kant believes that the only innate right is that of “freedom,” that is, “independence from being constrained by another’s choice.” In Kant’s view, “freedom” can only exist for every individual in a society through public legal institutions.

Institutions as Ends

How should we interpret Kant’s political philosophy in considering current political issues?

First, we need a commitment to preserving institutions. Any potential political reforms we make should contain the express purpose of maintaining current legal and political institutions that ensure we operate in a “rightful condition,” institutions such as: separate branches of government, civil liberties, representative government, and a fair judicial system.

Second, we should judge government institutions according to their function in preserving a “rightful condition,” rather than to their alignment with our personal moral goals. Do we seek to abolish the Senate because it no longer functions as a representative body or because it does not conform well enough to our preinstitutional ideas of equality?

And finally, we need to acknowledge that much of the anti-institutionalism stemming from the populist right and left has its origins in the failure of our institutions to function in the way they were intended. The recent ideological battles waged over government have their roots in the fact that many of our institutions have already been co-opted for ideological purposes and no longer obey public will.

Institutions are moral ends in themselves, but the definition of what comprises a legitimate institution is narrowed under Kant. A public institution must be beholden to the will of the people. It must not exist to enrich certain individuals, propagate an ideology, or restrict the rights of others outside of necessary circumstances. Easier said than done.

A legitimate institution is a precise target: one which necessitates precise aim.

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