The book Het politiek belang by Herman van Erp discusses the philosophy of politics and of political economy. Your reviewer read it more than twenty years ago for the first time. At the time it seemed to be a useful book, sound and well-considered, but also rather dull and scientific. Someone who searches for an introduction in the political philosophy, can probably find a more inspiring explanation elsewhere. Moreover, Van Erp does not hesitate to amply give his opinion, which is not desirable for an introductory book. In short, Het politiek belang mainly aims at people, who already have some knowledge about the subject. The book indeed became fascinating for your reviewer only a few months ago, when he consulted it again.
The book wants to explain how politicians handle the general interest1. In the political economy this is one of the most important questions, because the right balance must be found between the individual interest and the general interest. The starting point for economics is always the social welfare function W(u1, ..., uN), where the society consists of N individuals (perhaps including future generations). The symbol un represents the individual utility function of the individual n (n=1, ..., N). Politics must find a way to transform W into the target function U(q1, ..., qM). In other words, there is a total of M goods and services on the market, and now the quantities qm (m=1, ..., M) must be determined, which are needed to satisfy the needs of the society. The target function can only be established, when the desired distribution of the good over all N individuals is also known.
The reader understands that the political transformation W → U brings with it the risk of opening the gates to hell. For, various interests of individuals and (even worse) groups conflict with each other. The conflict of interests can only be solved, when all concerned persons together succeed in finding the minimally required shared morals. This requires an open attitude2. It is this difficult endeavour, which is the subject of Het politiek belang. And although Van Erp is evidently not capable of presenting the ultimate solution, he yet travels quite a distance in the right direction. It is unavoidable, that sometimes Van Erp must make his own subjective choices. By definition, not everybody will agree with these, but in the eyes of your reviewer Van Erp has a convincing story. Therefore Het politiek belang may be called a successful book.
How does Van Erp imagine the political interest? He emphasizes the necessity of collective morals, because these alone can determine the contours and boundaries of the general interest. Most economists try to keep out morals from their theories, because they want to stick to objective science3. Therefore other social sciences (such as the philosophy and political science) must fill the economic lacuna. In the democracy the people are represented by the politicians, so that these are the bearers of the general interest. The state supplies the power apparatus, which is required to guarantee the general interest and to defend it against particular attacks. Thanks to this construction the people have the sovereign power in the last resort. And precisely because the policy must be determined by the people itself, it is essential that the citizens are autonomous. The dialectic relation between state power and autonomy resembles a paradox.
In the course of centuries the state (including the parliament) develops into the defender of social justice. It is indispensable for the effective functioning of the economy, and also makes the citizens dependent on the state. Since the state furthers the well-being, it obtains legitimacy in the eyes of the citizens. In pluralism various political groups democratically fight for the state power. Thus each political group propagates its own target function U. The state only remains governable, as long as the political groups mutually negotiate in a rational and pragmatic manner. The group morals are not questioned, because love and hate can easily derail. The groups focus on the maximal realization of their own interests, and are willing to compromise, if necessary. Thus the procedure becomes an integral part of the shared morals. In pluralism decisions must be made by the majority, so that the procedure must be respected by all.
Although politicians represent the people, they are by no means without will. On the contrary, the individual target function U bases on subjective morals. The formation of will is an individual process. In this manner politicians can truly be held responsible for their actions. Some morals are indispensable, because they prevent the society from desintegrating. For, only a community can decide to form a state, and maintain it. Van Erp believes, that consensus and unanimity in decisions are not feasible, and therefore want to restrict for instance the property rights. For, the individual autonomy is only possible thanks to the state. In this respect he takes some distance with respect to the liberal ideology.
The problem of distribution is very complex. Commonly the principle of justice of John Rawls is advocated, but this states that the socio-economic justice is of secondary importance. The ideal society of Rawls can have a large inequality4. Van Erp rigorously criticizes the insights of the libertarian Robert Nozick, who identifies property with an individual natural right. Van Erp denies this. For, rights can only emerge, as long as society accepts them. Therefore the constitution is so important. For, in this manner the sovereign obliges himself to obey to certain rules. Within the constitution the will of all (W) is replaced by the general will of the government (U). Besides, there is some separation of power, thanks to the trias politica. The legislation, the execution and the jurisdiction are mutually independent. Incidentally, a just state will hardly need to use coercion. The popular sovereignty guarantees, that everybody can participate in society.
Here Van Erp ends his argument. It is done. The conclusion will not surprise: your reviewer can warmly recommend Het politiek belang to everybody, who really wants to engage in political philosophy. Unfortunately, the books is hardly offered by second-hand bookshops, so that interested persons will have to appeal to the storehouses of the public libraries5.