It's time we thought more seriously about the role that preferences should play in politics.
I'm prompted to say this in part by Yasmin Alibhai Brown's claim that many Muslim women are "brainwashed" into wearing the veil. It is improbable that it is only Muslim women who have subconciously adapted their preferences to acquiesce in their oppression and inequality. Experimental and ethnographic evidence supports Amartya Sen's view that this is true of the poor generally:
The deprived people tend to come to terms with their deprivation because of the sheer necessity of survival, and they may, as a result, lack the courage to demand any radical change, and may even adjust their desires and expectations to what they unambitiously see as feasible. (Development as Freedom, p63)
The question is: what political implication does this have?
At one utilitarian extreme, we might claim none. We should regard preferences as we regard sausages or land ownership, and not inquire too closely how they arise. If people's preferences are met, they'll be happy. Why worry if they are rational? To invert John Stuart Mill, better a fool satisfied than Socrates dissatisfied.
What lends this view credence is that it is hard to tell how a preference has arisen. All are endogenous in the sense of being a product of our culture and history; this is as true for liberal ironists as for niqab-wearers. It's patronizing and arrogant to pretend that we can discriminate against some preferences.
On the other hand, though, as Daniel Hausman has argued, preferences have no moral status except insofar as they are evidence of what's good for us - and there's increasing evidence, even aside from the problem of adaptation, that this is only sometimes the case.
I'm ambivalent here. And so too is our political culture. On the one hand, great weight is put upon preferences: radio phone-ins, vox pops, opinion polls, and comments sections all elevate the status of opinion, however ill-informed.
But on the other hand, there's a tradition of limiting the role of preferences. Some laws protect us from ourselves; we can't sell ourselves into slavery, sell an organ or possess some narcotics. For Rawlsians, the basic structure of society should be determined by the ideal preferences we'd have behind a veil of ignorance rather than by actual preferences. And human rights laws, to the consternation of the trash press, limit what can be done by popular will.
The question is: when and how do we decide when preferences should determine policy and when not? When should the Burkean legislator exercise his independent "judgment" to over-ride his constituents' opinion?
One answer - and a justification for human rights - stresses the importance of vital interests. Some of our interests, such as the right to speak or to family life, are so important that they must be protected against the popular will. But I'm not sure there are bright lines here. One could argue that the poor have a vital interest in having their lot improved, even if there's little public demand to do so. If so, then justice - "the first virtue of social institutions" as Rawls called it - trumps democracy. But this puts us on a slippery slope to Leninism.
Now, I say all this because I'm confused, and I suspect many others are too. Our political culture has not yet begun to answer the questions posed by the growing evidence that our preferences don't necessarily coincide with our interests. And this, I suspect, has contributed to the problems politicians have - that they can't decide whether to be populists or technocrats and so end up being neither.