Of Politics And Polyads

Bill Vallicella, the Maverick Philosopher, wrote a sharp little post a couple of days ago about the divergent philosophical assumptions that inspirit the political struggle between liberals and conservatives. The problem, he argues, can be represented as an aporetic tetrad:

In illustration of my thesis, consider the the values of individual liberty and material (as opposed to formal) equality. I will assume that both are indeed values to which all of us accord respect. Even so, value conflict can arise in the form of a conflict of prioritizations. I value liberty over equality, while Peter, say, values equality over liberty. That difference suffices to put us at serious odds despite the fact that we both value liberty and equality. The conflict over prioritization — our difference as to which trumps which — makes the following aporetic tetrad objectively irresolvable:

1. Justice demands redistribution of wealth from the richer to the poorer. A just society is a fair society, one in which there is a fair distribution of the available social and economic goods.

2. Wealth redistribution requires an agency of redistribution which forces, via the coercive power of government, the better off to pay higher taxes, forego benefits, or in some other way compensate the worse off so that greater material equality is brought about.

3. Coercive redistribution violates the liberty of the individual.

4. It is wrong to violate the liberty of the individual in the way that redistribution requires.

It is easy to see that the limbs of this tetrad, despite the plausibility of each, cannot all be true: the first three, entail the negation of the fourth. Indeed, any three of them entails the negation of the remaining one. To solve the inconsistency problem, one of the propositions must be rejected. But which one? (2) and (3) are uncontroversial and so not candidates for rejection. This leaves (1) and (4).

The conservative/libertarian will reject (1) while the liberal/leftist will reject (4). Each will thus solve the problem — from his own point of view. But surely neither amounts to an objective solution to the problem since the solutions are logically incompatible and both are equally rational and equally consistent with all relevant empirical facts.

…I conjecture that all of the fundamental political problems are like this. All are at bottom philosophical problems representable by an aporetic polyad consisting of propositions which are individually plausible but not jointly consistent. If so, a certain political pessimism is the upshot. We cannot resolve our political differences by appeal to empirical facts or by abstract reasoning or by the two together. We are stuck with irreconcilable differences rooted in ultimately divergent values.

This is an excellent piece of work, I think, in fine Vallicella style: it frames the issues simply and clearly, and serves as a good starting-point for reflection and discussion. We should note that what Bill has limned here are of course the limiting cases, the poles at opposite ends of the political spectrum; we all know, however, that practical solutions to real-world problems are always some sort of trade-off, and I think it’s safe to say that none of us imagines the ideal society as occupying either extreme. (It is also not a new idea that enforcing radical equality of outcomes necessarily entails radical inequalities of power.) But the post nails down exactly what must be traded against what, and makes clear that at the heart of the matter lies a basic logical incompatibility between values that, taken by themselves, all would endorse.

A good comment-thread ensues. Read the post here.

(P.S. As I went to press with this just now, I saw that Bill had since published an update, here, which I originally overlooked: this update addresses squarely the ineliminable nature of inequality, mentioned parenthetically above.)

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  1. bob koepp says

    “To solve the inconsistency problem, one of the propositions must be rejected. But which one? (2) and (3) are uncontroversial and so not candidates for rejection. This leaves (1) and (4).

    Except… to this anarchist, (2) is very, very controversial. I look around me and see people freely giving of what they have to those with less. Sure, it’s just a “drop in the bucket,” but that drop is proof positive that coercion is not the only “motivator” that can effect a redistribution of material wealth. Humans are capable of good behavior, even if we usually don’t exercise that capacity.

    Posted October 28, 2010 at 9:31 am | Permalink
  2. Malcolm says

    Good point, Bob; you are focusing on the word “requires”. But as you acknowledge, in the real world voluntary redistribution is a “drop in the bucket” — so as a political axiom, item 2 remains defensible as is, I think. In practical terms, anything approaching equality of material wealth simply will not happen without coercive redistribution.

    Posted October 28, 2010 at 9:44 am | Permalink
  3. bob koepp says

    Malcolm –
    I’m a political realist, if anything. That includes acknowledging that most people are unwilling to seriously contemplate any alternative to coercion as a principle for ordering society. As far as I can tell, that only marks the degree to which they are not yet fitted for social life.

    Also, while I think it an obvious moral truth that material wealth should be fairly distributed, I think it almost as obvious that so far as material wealth is concerned, strict equality is the enemy of fairness.

    I will continue to advocate for “fellow feeling” in these matters.

    vox clamantis in deserto

    Posted October 28, 2010 at 11:00 am | Permalink
  4. Malcolm says

    I agree with you that in a world comprising only ideal citizens, in which everyone simply agrees on what ought to be done and does it, there’d be no need for government at all.

    Of course, cars that don’t need fuel, non-fattening bacon cheeseburgers, and whiskey that never gives you a hangover would be nice too.

    Posted October 28, 2010 at 12:15 pm | Permalink
  5. the one eyed man says

    If you agree with Brandeis that “we can have democracy in this country or we can have great wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we can’t have both,” then you have the opposite result: the liberty of the individual is antithetical to hugely unequal distributions of wealth.

    Posted October 28, 2010 at 12:45 pm | Permalink
  6. bob koepp says

    Malcolm – Who said anything about ideal citizens? I repeat, I am a political realist, if anything. And, since real people are demonstrably unfit to wield coercive power over their fellows (except in clearly circumscribed situations calling for defense of persons and property), well, I’m sure you agree that archists have their own problems with consistency.

    Posted October 28, 2010 at 12:57 pm | Permalink
  7. Malcolm says


    The aporetic tetrad above refers to equality vs. liberty. It seems to me you are conflating democracy and liberty, which are very different things.

    Posted October 28, 2010 at 1:23 pm | Permalink
  8. Malcolm says


    Sorry if I misunderstood your first paragraph. I thought you were lamenting the unfitness, for a non-coercive society, of people as they are.

    I’m sure that, as Bill’s post suggests, most conservatives would agree that there is far too much coercion, wielded by the manifestly unfit, under liberal regimes.

    Posted October 28, 2010 at 1:28 pm | Permalink
  9. the one eyed man says

    You are correct that democracy is not the same thing as liberty, but I don’t think you can have one without the other.

    Posted October 28, 2010 at 2:01 pm | Permalink
  10. Malcolm says

    …democracy is not the same thing as liberty, but I don’t think you can have one without the other.

    Oh, sure you can. You can have democratic societies in which all manner of liberties are restricted (look at the Geert Wilders trial!) — and an ideally well-behaved anarchy would have a great deal of liberty and no democracy at all.

    Posted October 28, 2010 at 2:16 pm | Permalink
  11. the one eyed man says

    Using Wilders as an example of how the Dutch restrict “all manner of liberties” is more than a stretch. I happen to be a free speech absolutist, and I think that even people whose views are as detestable as his ought to be able to say what they want. That’s an outlier position. Most – maybe all — societies (including ours and the British) restrict speech in at least some of its forms. On the Freedom-o-meter, with North Korea at one end and Bhutan at the other, the Dutch would be somewhere near us freedom loving Americans.

    As for a well-behaved anarchy: when one exists, tap me on the shoulder.

    Posted October 28, 2010 at 2:35 pm | Permalink
  12. Malcolm says

    It was just an example, which you are making into a digression. If the politically motivated persecution of Geert Wilders for bravely speaking his mind about Islam (and of Mark Steyn in Canada for doing the same) doesn’t seem illustrative, it is trivially easy to come up with other examples in which liberties are restricted in democracies.

    While I think we’d agree that democratic societies tend to be the freest, there is nothing about democracy in principle that makes it both necessary and sufficient for liberty. They are orthogonal concepts.

    Posted October 28, 2010 at 2:50 pm | Permalink