Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Yale professor talks Plato, James Madison and Detroit's emergency manager law

Posted By on Wed, Jul 30, 2014 at 2:08 PM

Detroit Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr (photo: MT file) Much has been made about Detroit Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr's decision this week to transfer authority of the city's water department to Mayor Mike Duggan. In what is the most interesting read on the situation, Jason Stanley, professor of philosophy at Yale, pens an analysis on Michigan's novel emergency manager law on the New York Times Opinionator blog. Stanley deconstructs Michigan's grand experiment in governance by addressing two questions: Has the EM law resulted in policy that maximally serves the public good? And, is the law consistent with basic principles of democracy? Stanley ties in examples of Plato, James Madison's Federalist Papers, and Nazi political theorist Carl Schmitt. A short excerpt:
Plato was a harsh critic of democracy, a position that derived from the fact that his chief value for a society was social efficiency. In Plato’s view, most people are not capable of employing their autonomy to make the right choices, that is, choices that maximize overall efficiency. Michigan is following Plato’s recommendation to handle the problems raised by elections. Though there are many different senses of “liberty” and “autonomy,” none mean the same thing as “efficiency.” Singapore is a state that values efficiency above all. But by no stretch of the imagination is Singapore a democratic state. A society ruled by technocrats who make decisions on behalf of the masses is, since Plato’s time, regarded as a system that is opposed to democracy, rather than one exemplifying it. [snip]

The Nazi political theorist Carl Schmitt was a fierce critic of liberal democracy. He argued that liberal democracy was incoherent because of what he called the problem of the exception. In emergency situations, there is not enough time to act democratically. In an emergency, someone would have to declare an exception to suspend the normal democratic process and handle the emergency. Schmitt argued that whoever had the power to declare an emergency situation and override the democratic process would be tempted to overuse that power, and declare nonemergency situations to be states of exception. This person would be in effect the sovereign.

The language of the emergency manager laws is that of exception. Calling the situation an “emergency,” and the undemocratically selected financial manager an “emergency manager” is nothing other than a declaration of the anti-democratic nature of what has occurred. Detroit does not face an immediate threat from a hostile invading army. To suppose that financial exigency or advancing an agenda of privatization for corporate gain are reasons to suspend democracy is to capitulate to its worst enemies.

Curt Guyette examined Michigan's emergency law earlier this year as part of a lengthy Metro Times' cover story on Detroit's ongoing bankruptcy.

 

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