19 Sep

What values underly politics?

Posted By Politybooks

swift_2Politics is a confusing business. It’s hard to tell who believes in what.Sometimes it’s hard to tell whether anybody believes in anything. Politiciansconverge on the middle ground, worrying about focus groups, scared to saythings that might be spun into ammunition by their opponents. There is someserious debate about policies, but little about the values that underlie them.

When it comes to principles, we have to make do with rhetoric, thefuzzy invocation of feel-good concepts. Who is against community, democracy,justice, or liberty? This makes it look as if values are uncontroversial.Politics comes to seem a merely technical matter: politicians disagree abouthow best to achieve agreed goals and voters try to decide which of them has gotit right.

The reality is different. Beneath the surface, concealed by the vaguenessof these grand ideals, lurk crucial disagreements. Politicians who share theview that liberty matters, or that community is important, may have verydifferent ideas about what they involve.

Even where they agree about what values mean, they may weight themdifferently. These disagreements feed through into policy. What we ought to doabout tax rates, welfare, education, abortion, pornography, drugs, andeverything else depends, in part, on how and what we think about values.

Some politicians may be clear about which interpretations of which idealsguide their policy preferences, and how important each is compared to theothers. Many are not. And even where they are, that doesn’t necessarily helpthose of us whose job it is to choose between them.

To do that we need to be clear about our own principles. We need to beaware of the different interpretations of these ideals. We need to see whereclaims presented in their terms conflict and, when they conflict, we need todecide which is right. We need political philosophy.

This book does not tell the reader what to think. Its aim is clarificatoryand expository, not argumentative. It tries to present some of the moreimportant arguments developed by political philosophers in a way that will helpthe reader to understand the issues at stake and to decide for herself what shethinks about them.

It really wouldn’t bother me if, having read Political Philosophy, somebody continuedto hold all the political views that she did before she started, howevermistaken. What matters is that she should understand better why she holds them,and have considered the reasons others might have to reject them.

Adam Swift  is professor of political theory in the Department of Politics and International Studies at the University of Warwick.