Hunk 2 Political Theory
There are two kinds of political theory.
theory examines how to justify or evaluate
political institutions and policies (e.g., What kind of government should
theory seeks to explain and predict political behavior, policies, and institutions (e.g., Why do
we have the kind of government that we do?). In this class we are concerned more with
positive theory, with explanation. The distinction is not razor sharp. Sometimes one
“rationale” is a plausible justification and
explanation of an institution, practice, or policy.
Example: Most of us prefer protection from theft to the chance to steal, and that plausibly
explains why we have laws against theft.
Why have government?
One can approach this question either normatively or positively.
One can ask why do we have it or why should we have it.
Plato, in The Republic
, briefly entertains two answers. The book shows Socrates conversing
with other characters about justice, and the two answers come from two of those characters.
is simply the
will of the stronger
, hence that
there is no transcendent standard of justice. The underlying assumption is that
governments are put in place to serve the interests of the rulers - - who are few
compared with their subjects.
The second answer, offered by Glaucon
, is that government helps people achieve
by protecting them from each other and also from foreign invaders: you are
a net loser if you can prey on others but they in turn can prey on you, so you prefer
protection from predators (murderers, rapists, thieves, frauds) to the chance to prey (to
murder, rape, steal, defraud). More generally,
government fosters mutual advantage
. That both justifies government and explains its existence.
This raises a problem: Government coerces. It limits our liberty. It stops us from doing things
we want to do. How can one benefit
by being stopped
from doing what one wants
to do? The
answer: Everyone benefits from having his liberties limited, provided everyone else has his
liberties likewise limited. This way everyone is protected. Strictly speaking, what benefits
you is not the limit on your own liberty but the limits on everyone else’s
We may see this idea at work in a famous example, called the prisoner’s dilemma
Suppose Prof. Chalkdust suspects two students of cheating but cannot prove it without a
confession. So he offers each the following deal: If both of you confess, then both of you will
fail the course. If one of you confesses and other does not, then the one who confesses will
get an A, while the other will be expelled. If neither of you confesses, then (sad to say) you