I recently posted how a passage from David Schmidtz’s Living Together: Inventing Moral Science reminded me of a line from a decades old essay written by Theodore Dalrymple. But that was far from the only time a passage in his book triggered a long dormant memory. In another case, David Schmidtz outlines an idea for evaluating politics I learned many years ago from my father. 

My dad held a wide spectrum of views over his life. He described himself in his younger years as a ponytailed hippie – definitely not a persona that made one popular in those days in Texas. By the time I was becoming aware of and interested in politics, he had shifted towards being largely Republican in his political orientations, with some libertarian leanings thrown in for good measure. Those leanings led him to cast his vote for the Libertarian candidate in the 2016 and 2020 elections – he couldn’t accept the idea of voting for Trump, whom he saw as antithetical to everything conservatives and Republicans should support. But the lesson I’m referring to came up in a discussion we had in the early 2000s. 

In those days, the PATRIOT Act was being hotly debated. Like so many issues, supporting or opposing it seemed to sort very neatly into party lines. One day, I asked my dad what he thought about the PATRIOT Act. The standard response from most Republicans in those days was to offer their support for it – after all, it was passed under a Republican administration, and in response to a massive terrorist attack. It also seemed to line up with standard Republican points about the importance of a strong defense against foreign threats. But that was not the response I got. Instead, he told me that he opposed the PATRIOT Act – and when I asked why, he told me because it failed what he called the “Hillary test.” 

What was this test? Simple. He just asked himself if he would be okay with the federal government wielding the kind of powers granted to it by the PATRIOT Act if that government had Hillary Clinton as its chief executive. And he didn’t like the idea of that – so he didn’t support the PATRIOT Act. After all, there is no guarantee that the government will always be headed by trustworthy people with good values. Government shouldn’t have the level of power that would best enable good work to be done by wise and trustworthy public servants – government should only have as much power as you would be comfortable being held by someone who is your worst political nightmare. Because, one day, someone that nightmarish will actually get elected, and they will gladly pick up any of the tools made available to them. 

Republicans should ask themselves what’s the most power they would want the government to wield, if that government was headed by people like Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. And Democrats should ask themselves how much power they would want the government to wield if that government was headed by people like Ted Cruz, Ron DeSantis, or Donald Trump. (Insert your own personal political boogeyman as needed.) Odds are, you wouldn’t want the government in those hands to wield too much power – and if your response to this conundrum is to say the government should wield greater powers anyway and just make sure only good people get elected to wield it, you’re playing a very dangerous game that history shows you cannot win. 

David Schmidtz makes this same point in his book, charging much of what passes as “ideal theory” in political science as asking fundamentally the wrong question. As Schmidtz put it:

Officials not only enforce rules, but also interpret, amend, and so forth. Smith saw this and perceived a further chronically tragic reality: this power to oversee markets is what crony capitalists are buying and selling. 

Smith’s observation changes everything. Imagine concentrated power in the hands of the worst ruler you can remember. Now, assume what you know to be true: concentrated power has a history of falling into hands like that. As a preliminary, then, when theorizing about what is politically ideal, we can ask two questions. (1) “Ideally, how much power would be wielded by people like that?” or (2) “Ideally, how much power would be wielded by ideal rulers?”

Which of these two versions of ideal theory is a real question? Can political philosophy answer the one that truly needs answering? 

Why isn’t it trying?