Local vs Global Issues in Formal Political Systems
Feb 2, 2011

Local vs Global Issues in Formal Political Systems

I have talked previously about the merits of using increased precision and formality in discussing politics, attempting to deduce political truths in the context of formal systems.

This approach, however, hinges critically on the basic axioms one accepts. I have proposed the idea of letting these axioms be represented by values determined democratically by society. This is hard to do with precision but one can use these values as a motivation.

Conversely, I have expressed distaste at most ideological political theories that focus on a narrow but explicit set of axioms such as constitutional reductionism or libertarianism. In these and many other cases, the over dependence on a select few axioms results in political theories that are far too narrow, inflexible and fail to pass common sense tests on what seem to me to be fairly basic issues. There is a question that perhaps I have just not seen or has not been created a sufficiently robust political system based on a select number of ideological axioms; however, I am not overly hopeful this goal can be achieved.

The conflict then is between an approach demanding precision and formality with a dislike of the consequence of that approach: an axiomatic ideology.

One response is of a sort of political quietism. In this sense, one doesn't try to make positive political claims oneself but attempts to clear up ambiguities and conflicts in other peoples systems. This is something I actually do a lot as a political commentator trying to identify poor logic and the like in politics. However, by necessity politics is meant to make positive statements about what policy should be. We thus must be able to make normative statements about policy.

The partial answer I believe is to not aim for a global axiomatic theory, but a locally axiomatic theory. By this I mean that when one is considering a specific policy we can accept (perhaps implicitly, perhaps explicitly) certain assumptions about our objectives based on context and then deduce the validity of the proposal at that level. Someone can then reject, if they will, the local assumptions but are forced to accept the logical conclusion if they accept the assumptions. This approach gives the benefits of working in a precise, formal way without the difficulties of a comprehensive, all encompassing axiomatic system.

For example, one interesting claim is that it turns out that dollar for dollar the most effective way to create jobs in a recession is to fund unemployment benefits. One can thus propose a local assumption such as "we want to spend money as effectively as possible to create jobs" which if one accepts this then the economic arguments can be brought to bear that demonstrate convincingly that this policy should be supported. This assumption certainly never could be a general axiom, but it is a reasonable one that many people would accept. This is the context whereby our formal system construct can be useful at making normative claims even if it has global difficulties.

1) Politics as a Formal System
2) On the Necessity of Semantics

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