The residents of Lewiston at the meeting I attended argued that there are crucial moral, aesthetic, and political differences between the risks they take, for example, by smoking or by driving, and the risks imposed on them, for example, by a nearby but hidden depository for nuclear wastes. There is an ethical difference between jumping and being pushed - even if the risks and benefits are the same. Many risks are acceptable because they are accepted; they are familiar, voluntary, part of everyday life. Some risks are unacceptable because they have not been accepted: They are unknown, insidious, out of one's own hands. What is important to the residents of Lewiston is not necessarily the magnitude of the risk, about which they know experts will disagree, but its meaning, that is, what it suggests about their relationship with their government and about their ability to participate in the decisions, public and private, that affect their lives.
The officials at the other side of the table found much of this anxiety "irrational," given the trade-offs the residents were willing to make, as a rule, between safety and other goods and services. What the residents saw, fundamentally, as a political problem involving the maintenance and functioning of our democratic institutions the officials understood as a matter of making allocation efficient and of balancing benefits and costs.
One official from a large chemical company dumping wastes in the area told the residents, in reply, that corporations were people and that people could talk to people about their feelings, interests, and needs. This sent a shiver through the audience. Like Joseph K. in Franz Kafka's The Trial, the residents of Lewiston asked for an explanation, justice, and truth, and they were told that their wants would be taken care of. They demanded to know the reasons for what was continually happening to them. They were offered a personalized response instead.
This response, that corporations are "just people serving people," is consistent with a particular view of power. This is the view that identifies power with the ability to get what one wants as an individual, that is, to satisfy one's personal preferences. When people in official positions in corporations or in the government put aside their personal interests, it would follow that they put aside their power as well. Their neutrality then justifies their directing the resources of society in the ways they determine to be best. This managerial role is legitimate, they believe, because it serves their clients' interests and not their own.
Behind this managerial role, as William Simon observes of the lawyer-client relationship, lies a theory of value that personalizes power. "It resists understanding power as a product of class, property, or institutions and collapses power into the personal needs and dispositions of the individuals who command and obey."41 Once economists, therapists, or lawyers abjure their own interests and act wholly on behalf of client individuals, they appear to have no power of their own and thus justifiably control everything. "From this perspective it becomes difficult to distinguish the powerful from the powerless. In every case, both the exercise of power and submission to it are portrayed as a matter of personal accommodation and adjustment."42
Once the affective, that is, the welfare-economic, self becomes the source of all value, the public self becomes merely "apparent" and cannot participate in the exercise of power. Power, indeed, appears to be entirely private; it is the power to satisfy one's personal preferences. It ceases to be the power to join with others in effective political action to define and pursue collective values and shared aspirations. As Philip Rieff remarks, the public world is constituted as one vast stranger who appears at inconvenient times and makes demands viewed as purely external and therefore with no power to elicit a moral response. There is no way to distinguish tyranny from the legitimate authority that public law and public values create.43
The key to the emotive or interest theory of value, as one commentator has said, is "the fact that emotivism entails the obliteration of the distinction between manipulative and non-manipulative social relations."44 When we accept the idea that values are subjective, that they are just "wants," we must also accept the idea that managers - whether therapists, lawyers, or cost-benefit analysts - are in the best position to handle them for us. We must also accept the idea that we all want the same thing, namely, the satisfaction of as many preferences as possible, taking their intensity into account. We consent hypothetically, counterfactually, or implicitly, therefore, to policies experts say promote efficiency and maximize utility. Not just socialism but also this kind of economic analysis takes us into an untenable collectivist fiction about the unity of society. In welfare economics, the Marxist dream is realized: the triumph of science over polity, administration over government - and thus the final withering away of the state.45
"At the rate of progress since 1000," Henry Adams speculates in his Education, "every American who lived into the year 2000 would know how to control unlimited power."46 Adams thought that the Dynamo would organize and release as much energy as the Virgin. Yet the citizens of Lewiston, surrounded by dynamos, high-tension lines, and nuclear wastes, are powerless. They do not know how to criticize power, resist power, or justify power - for to do so depends on making distinctions between good and evil, right and wrong, innocence and guilt, justice and injustice, truth and lies.
Distinctions such as these have no significance within an emotive or psychological theory of value. To adopt such a theory is to imagine society as a system of exchange in which individuals represent only their arbitrary and subjective preferences. No individual, no belief, no faith has authority over them. To have power to act as a nation, however, we must be able to act, at least at times, on a public philosophy, conviction, or faith. We cannot permit welfare economics to replace the moral function of public law. The antinomianism of cost-benefit analysis is not enough.
Was this article helpful?