Habermas, Ostrom, Gandhi (II)

(Santa Monica, CA) On Monday, I posted an argument that three traditions of theory and practice provide what we need for a civic theory, which is a theory of what we should do. It is different from a political theory that asks what should be done or how things should be.

I can elaborate by suggesting what it would mean to put the three traditions together, using each to compensate for the limitations of the others.

We might begin with a classic situation for the Bloomington School: a group of people is trying to manage a common-pool resource, which may be as traditional and tangible as a fishery or as current and abstract as protocols for the Internet. They should consider the whole list of design principles enumerated by Elinor Ostrom and her colleagues, including clear boundaries, graduated sanctions, shared monitoring, rules congruent with the context, and efficient mechanisms for conflict-resolution.

However, inspired by Habermas, we will elevate one design principle above the rest–participation–and will define it to be basically synonymous with public deliberation. People should deliberate about which of the other principles to employ, and how. This is because deliberation is our best mechanism for deciding what is right and wrong. Further, talking and listening with other people about public matters is an important aspect of the good life for human beings; it enriches our inner lives. While deliberating, people should strive for an ideal speech situation, one that is devoid of coercion and constraint, so that the only power is the power of the best argument.

Now the theory is beginning to sound fully Habermasian, but the Bloomington School puts deliberation in an essential context. After all, it is easier not to attend a discussion in the first place and let others do the work of governance. Thus the very existence of a discussion implies at least a partial prior solution to a free-rider problem. What’s more, the fact that the group has something to manage implies that they have already done some work together. To be sure, they may have taken the resource that they govern from others or exploited others’ labor. The founders of the United States, for example, governed a commonwealth that had been seized from indigenous nations and enriched by enslaved people’s labor. This was fundamentally unjust and evil. Nevertheless, it had taken common action to achieve this dominance; the colonists had to form local governments, create and enroll in militias, and sustain the Continental Army that wrested control from the British Crown. The general point is that a group that is in a position to govern a resource has usually managed to coordinate its members’ work already. Discussion rarely precedes governance; it is more typically a moment in an ongoing process of governance.

Moreover, the norms that allow groups to approach an ideal speech situation–norms like civility, reasonable trust, and openness–are fragile common resources that groups must build and sustain. Almost all real discussions are imperfect, by these criteria: some people are missing because they chose to free-ride, some participants undermine civility and trust in the way they talk, and time usually runs out before consensus can be reached, necessitating a vote. Thus the degree to which groups meet the Habermasian ideal of reasonable discourse depends on how well they have addressed core collective-action problems.

And not everything can be thrown open to discussion. The Bloomington School advises that boundaries must be clear and rules must be congruent with local circumstances and traditions in order for people to coordinate. In theory, boundaries and traditions could be freely discussed. Citizens could deliberate about who should be included in the group and what norms they should hold dear. But since a discussion already requires a reasonably functional group, and forming a group requires boundaries and congruence with local traditions, it is not literally possible to start from a neutral place. Instead, a group with some kind of boundary and set of traditions can consider modifying them in the interests of justice or practicality. They can rebuild their ship at sea, but they cannot start from scratch. The group comes first; then the discussion.

Although moments of explicit deliberation have special normative value, they need not be frequent. Ostrom analyzes a water management regime near Valencia, Spain, that was last deliberated almost six centuries ago and still functions today. Discourse should not be allowed to overshadow other kinds of contribution to the commons; people also contribute with their emotions, their labor, and their bodies.

In this combination of Habermas plus Ostrom, we have the nucleus of a satisfactory theory, but it doesn’t tell us what to do when some other group feels itself fundamentally different and sees no obligation to join a deliberation or share resources fairly. That is when we need the distinctive contributions of nonviolent social movements.They can force changes in the underlying rules and norms that govern a situation. They can force people to deliberate and to cooperate.

However, nonviolent social movements need insights from the schools of Habermas and of Ostrom, for three important reasons.

First, not every nonviolent social movement has desirable or worthy ends. The only way for human beings to test and reconsider whether their own values are worthy is to deliberate with people who do not agree with them (see Habermas).

Second a successful social movement requires people to coordinate their sacrifices, and that happens only when they already belong to, or can create, functional self-governing entities (see Ostrom).

Finally, a social movement cannot move forever. It must pursue a relatively stable or even permanent outcome as its objective. Participants in the Civil Rights Movement did not imagine that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 would remove racism from the United States, but they pursued that legislation as a meaningful target during the early 1960s. An objective such as the Civil Rights Act should incorporate good institutional design (see Ostrom) and should allow or even require ongoing deliberation (see Habermas).

This does not mean that citizens are only fully active and responsible when they’re participating in a nonviolent social movement that urges a reform like the Voting Rights Act. But that example does bring out the main dimensions of citizenship, which can be combined in many other ways.

About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.
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