Title page book Het politiek belang

Het politiek belang ---- Why the economy needs morals

Publication: Boom (1994, Amsterdam)

First insertion on Heterodox Gazette Sam de Wolff: 13 april 2015

E.A. Bakkum is a blogger for the Sociaal Consultatiekantoor. He loves to reflect on the labour movement.

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.

  1. Politics is traditionally a source of humour. Jaap van de Merwe presents in Politieke humor a collection of jokes about Dutch politics. For instance: during the fifties the third cabinet-Drees has two ministers of foreign affairs, namely Luns and Beijen (a typically political compromise). Some find this surprising, certainly for a small state like the Netherlands. Luns invents an ingenious argument: "Precisely because the Netherlands is so small, the foreign world is so large for us". Or: during the confession a catholic tells the priest, that he has set on fire the house of a socialist. The priest reacts: "Dear man, I am not here to talk about politics. Tell me, have you sinned?" Or: during the fourth cabinet-Drees the minister of finance Hofstra limits the government expenses. It is said that a direct telephone connection between The Hague and Amsterdam has been established. In order to limit the costs, in The Hague merely the mouthpiece is installed, and Amsterdam obtains the listening part. Or: at the start of the sixties the boisterous, rude Jaap Burger is the leader of the parliamentary section of the PvdA. Two socialists talk about the criticism of the journal De Telegraaf with respect to Burger. One: "Why this criticism?" The other: "Pour épater le bourgeois" (French expression: in order to to alarm the public). One: "What?" The other: "To make pastry from Burger". The joke becomes particularly salient, when one realizes, that in fact at the time the criticism of the congenial journal Het Parool had undermined the position of Burger. (back)
  2. The Flamish singer Jan de Wilde imagines in Grote ombudsman the morals like this: "I don't know if I believe in God / But I live according to his commandments, / it is like this: discretion / is the better part of valour! / The laws of the mayors / do not impress me, / but with such an authority as God / it is better to play safe. (back)
  3. Or perhaps the nature of the discipline furthers a cynical image of man. Robert Long does not trust it either, and writes in Laat ze je niet te pakken krijgen: The shrewd pious men / with their old-woman's clothes / who always have collections / in order to build a wooden church / for the poor black tribes / and there instill their belief. / First convert, learn to pray. / Learn to pray is a duty: / hands together, eyes closed. / And then moreover you can not see / how we steal your raw materials / where you stand. (back)
  4. See p.181. Van Erp does not elaborate on this theme. Modern insights from behavioural economics show that people appreciate equality, as well as a certain reciprocity. Apparently the individual well-being bases on relative differences. The principle of Rawls uses an absolute measure, and therefore is perhaps not very realistic. (back)
  5. But in 2000 an English edition of Het politiek belang has appeared at Ashgate Publishing Limited, with the title Political reason and interest. In 2017 Routledge has published an (evidently English) reprint. (back)