No "Will of the People" in the Election
Writing about the final (with some luck) fireworks of the Trump presidency, Wall Street Journal columnist Holman Jenkins proposes many interesting or challenging insights, up to and including a final contradiction (“Don’t Expect Police to Shoot at Crowds,” January 8, 2021). The penultimate sentence states a deep and science-based idea that you don’t meet often in the press, even the serious press. Writes Jenkins:
Elections should strive to be above reproach in accuracy and lawfulness but they can’t manifest the “will of the people” when there is no unambiguous will to manifest.
I have tried to explain this idea in a few Econlog posts and, along the same lines, I have a forthcoming, more elaborate article in The Independent Review, titled “The Impossibility of Populism.” In short, there is no ambiguous “will of the people” to manifest because “the people” does not exist as a superindividual mind and because there is no way to aggregate individual wills into a social or political will that is not either dictatorial or logically incoherent.
The sentence that follows and closes Jenkins’s column, however, seems to contradict what the author has just said:
This problem will only be solved by Americans reaching a greater consensus among themselves about what kind of society they want to be.
What can be the meaning of Americans deciding “what kind of society they want to be”? As Jenkins otherwise suggests, individuals have different preferences and values and each entertains a different—sometimes widely different—idea of the society he wants (see “The Vacuity of the Political ‘We’,” Econlib, October 6, 2014).
The solution to this contradiction is to implicitly agree to live and let live. Perhaps one can formulate this solution in terms of a social contract à la Buchanan, but a presumed unanimous agreement can only be on very general and abstract rules close to the live-and-let-live principle.