Thursday, August 05, 2010

Education, Selection, Discipline

Consider the problem of virtuous leadership in politics. It would seem to be pretty uncontroversial to say that a government is better the more its leaders are virtuous individuals, and that a regime is better the higher the probability that virtuous leaders will be consistently selected to lead it over time. If our political leaders were just and courageous, fair and wise, that would seem to be a good thing, right? To be sure, there are important disagreements about what counts as virtuous leadership and what counts as a political virtue, and at any rate virtuous leadership is not the only thing that matters in politics, but let us put these questions aside for the moment and consider a different question: assuming a certain conception of virtue, what are the possible institutional solutions to the problem of ensuring the rule of virtue, or a close enough approximation? What possible institutions either increase the chances of virtuous leadership, or reduce its need? 

It seems to me that there are basically three solutions to this problem, which we can call selection institutions, disciplinary institutions, and educational institutions.

“Selection” institutions more or less efficiently select the virtuous as rulers and leaders (via properly structured elections, for example), taking the distribution of character and virtue in society as given, or else efficiently select good policies directly by institutional mechanisms that amplify the good qualities of citizens and dampen their bad qualities (via deliberative or aggregative mechanisms, for example). Theories of “epistemic” democracy from Rousseau and Condorcet onwards tend to emphasize these solutions, but the basic idea is quite old. For example, Plato, Aristotle, and Cicero, none of whom were “democrats” in any important sense of the word, all suggested that though regular people are not individually virtuous, collectively they may yet be good judges of character, especially in small communities where everyone knows everyone else, so that properly structured elections under the right conditions (and there is a lot riding on the qualifications) can result in a relatively good chance of selecting virtuous leadership. The same logic can be applied to the direct selection of policy: if virtuous leadership cannot be ensured, perhaps specific institutions can be created (e.g., referenda or other forms of “direct democracy”) that amplify and aggregate the good qualities of citizens (their private information and local knowledge, for example) so that the kinds of policies that a virtuous leader would implement tend to be selected (I hasten to add that the justification of referenda and other direct democratic institutions is not simply or solely that they tend to result in policies that would have been chosen by ideally virtuous rulers; typically they are justified by the values of participation, autonomy, and the like).

“Disciplinary” institutions more or less efficiently discipline rulers and leaders to act in virtuous ways even if they are not virtuous, taking the outcomes of selection as given. This is the focus of the many theories of political regimes that prescribe separation of power and other such mechanisms; public choice normative theories are an obvious contemporary example, though the basic idea, again, is quite old. So, for example, the theory of the mixed constitution in antiquity is in part a theory of how to induce behaviour that is approximately virtuous by diminishing the incentives towards arrogance and hubris among those who are powerful; it assumes that people who are overly wealthy or overly secure in their power will tend to act in ways that are not beneficial to the community, and hence that other parts of the community need to be given the tools to act as counterweights.

“Educational” institutions, finally, attempt to increase the supply of virtuous individuals in society (who can then be selected into positions of power and responsibility). Many classical writers certainly emphasized such solutions, but one can find examples in contemporary calls for civic education. Educational institutions may aim to directly increase the supply of potential leaders, or may aim to increase the overall level of virtue in the population so that selection institutions will work more efficiently (because more virtuous citizens will be more likely to select leaders properly, perhaps). They may also work directly (e.g., through laws or explicit curricula and in formal settings) or indirectly (as a by-product of other interactions, or as the result of interventions into the broader cultural environment). But the basic point is in both cases to construct institutions, or to shape the cultural environment, in ways that increase the supply of virtue, whether at the citizen level or at the level of candidates for leadership.

It is worth stressing that particular institutions may serve more than one of these purposes. For example, selection institutions such as competitive elections also serve as disciplinary institutions (they are typically selective ex ante and disciplinary ex post). And deliberative mechanisms are typically both selective (of policy) and educational (of participants). But the general analytical distinction between selection, discipline, and education is still, I think, generally useful, as the power of particular effects in any given institutional setting will vary: so elections may, for example, be more efficient at disciplining politicians (i.e., making them behave in ways that approximate virtuous behaviour) under some conditions than at selecting virtuous leaders ex ante.

At any rate, the relationships between these institutions are complex, both within a static context and in the longer run dynamics of a particular system of institutions. From a static perspective, the appropriate balance between selective, disciplinary, and educational institutions (or between the selective, disciplinary, and educational effects of institutions) will depend in great part on a judgment about the relative “efficiency” of institutions for the production and selection of virtuous leaders or the disciplining of non-virtuous leaders. It seems to me, for example, that the greater emphasis on education characteristic of classical thought reflects in part a greater confidence in the effectiveness of the educational technology available to smaller face to face societies; educational institutions for virtue do not seem to scale well in modern, large-scale societies. Similarly, it may be that in modern mass-mediated societies it is increasingly hard to select virtuous leaders ex ante (the noise to signal ratio about their characters is too high, and too susceptible to manipulation or distortion), so that elections need to be reconceived more and more as disciplinary institutions, a thought that most classical thinkers did not seem to consider. For them, elections were primarily selection institutions, and hence did not need to be especially competitive; discipline was produced through the use of the court system or specialized quasi-judicial institutions like the audit (euthuna) and short terms of office, not induced by the regularization of competition common today (note also the prevalence of “term limits” in ancient elections). The parts of the institutional context that appear to be immutable also matter; in an age of monarchy (like the middle ages), where selection institutions (hereditary succession, basically, which is equivalent to more or less random selection) and disciplinary institutions (local noble assemblies, basically) are limited in their effectiveness, it is inevitable that educational solutions would be stressed (hence the many “mirrors of princes” we find, and the relative neglect of discussions of disciplinary and selection institutions).

A potentially more interesting but also more difficult set of questions concern the longer-run dynamics of these systems of institutions. I can imagine, for example, that even though from a static perspective all three solutions are equivalent (so that we could in principle substitute a highly efficient disciplinary system for a highly efficient educational or selection system: consider Kant’s famous comment about the possibility of designing a good constitution for a “race of devils”), from a dynamic perspective things might look quite different. Perhaps an over-reliance on disciplinary institutions would tend to induce a downward shift in the supply of virtue, since all disciplinary procedures can catch people who are actually virtuous, so that potentially virtuous candidates for leadership would be discouraged; or perhaps excessive reliance on selection institutions would increase the risk of really bad outcomes (as on occasion a really bad leader or a really bad policy would slip through). Ancient writers accordingly stressed a relatively balanced mixture of discipline, education, and selection as a solution to the problem of good leadership; but perhaps the appropriate balance will always depend on the actual efficacy of the respective organizational technologies and on material and cultural conditions (so that perhaps we are today right to more or less disregard proposals for extensive civic education as unlikely to lead to significant changes in the virtue of leaders).

What am I missing? Are there other possibilities, other than education, selection, and discipline? 

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