Surfeit of politics, dearth of friendship?

by Yule Heibel on December 31, 2006

I subscribe to OpenDemocracy, but lately I often find myself clicking through the articles without paying too much attention. Too much party line, too familiar a frame, nothing to see: move along. I guess I’m getting crotchety about politics as my age settles increasingly into that middle part. But today I clicked through to Mark Vernon’s brief article, The Politics of Friendship, and found myself thoroughly engaged, making connections. This wasn’t totally new material, but it happened to come at me in conjunction with something else I just read today, apropos of the seemingly endless discussions around homelessness in Victoria (and every other urban centre): Malcolm Gladwell‘s February 2006 New Yorker article, Million-Dollar Murray (it’s subtitled “Why problems like homelessness may be easier to solve than to manage”).

Without going into detail (’cause I’m too tired and too lazy right now, and this is after all just a blog), I found myself connecting these dots. The first, a quote by Gladwell, who writes

We also believe that the distribution of social benefits should not be arbitrary. We don’t give only to some poor mothers, or to a random handful of disabled veterans. We give to everyone who meets a formal criterion, and the moral credibility of government assistance derives, in part, from this universality. But the Denver homelessness program doesn’t help every chronically homeless person in Denver. There is a waiting list of six hundred for the supportive-housing program; it will be years before all those people get apartments, and some may never get one. There isn’t enough money to go around, and to try to help everyone a little bit—to observe the principle of universality—isn’t as cost-effective as helping a few people a lot. Being fair, in this case, means providing shelters and soup kitchens, and shelters and soup kitchens don’t solve the problem of homelessness. Our usual moral intuitions are little use, then, when it comes to a few hard cases. Power-law problems leave us with an unpleasant choice. We can be true to our principles or we can fix the problem. We cannot do both.

[a bit further down, elaborating on power-law distribution, Gladwell draws on car emissions and smog:]

We have developed institutions that move reassuringly quickly and forcefully on collective problems. Congress passes a law. The Environmental Protection Agency promulgates a regulation. The auto industry makes its cars a little cleaner, and—presto—the air gets better.


Power-law solutions have little appeal to the right, because they involve special treatment for people who do not deserve special treatment; and they have little appeal to the left, because their emphasis on efficiency over fairness suggests the cold number-crunching of Chicago-school cost-benefit analysis. [see article here]

So what does that have to do with “politics and friendship,” or more specifically, with friendship? Well, politics is like that universalist principle, the idea of justice, fairness, etc.: a universal one-size fits all solution that’s “equitable.” Friendship is about particularity, elevating one above all others. Mark Vernon wonders whether our justice-driven democratic structure hasn’t some resonance with the general perception that it’s gotten a lot colder lately, emotionally, and that loneliness or an absence of friendship is becoming systemically entrenched.

Vernon writes:

However, friendship is a more interesting test because some of democracy’s highest values are actually at odds with it. In short, friendship puts the humaneness of abstract democratic ideals on the spot.

One obvious point of tension is between the egalitarian principles of democracy and the individual partiality of friendship. Democracies treat all citizens the same: everyone is equal in the eyes of the law and has the right to one, and only one, vote. Human rights too are absolutely universal or they are worthless. Friendship cuts across this because it is not universal but is defined by its particularity. To say “you are my friend” is meaningless if it does not imply that I regard you above the rest. One would do something for a friend that one would never dream of doing for someone else; friends act for each other out of preference and loyalty not disinterest.

Democracies, therefore, have an ambivalent attitude towards friendship. It is fine in private but deeply suspect if and when it is seen to play a part in public life.


In a democracy, however, justice is an absolute good: it must be done and be seen to be done. Again, therefore, democracy can nurture a suspicion of friendship, thinking that it is a way of doing things characterised by questionable commitments and opaque affections, not the transparent, transcendent fairness of justice. The downside of idealising justice in this way is the speed with which people turn to the law when resolving personal disputes. Hence, perhaps, the fact that the most mature democracies are highly litigious. (see rest of article here)

If justice is an absolute good, it’s also an abstraction when it comes to dealing lovingly with one’s friends (and strangers or non-friends or potential friends). By moving us into the realm of the universal, it effectively re-moves us from the particular of knowing (or getting to know) particular people. Add to this the increasingly frenetic pace of a “constantly-on” life, and it’s no wonder if you feel ungrounded.

Vernon adds:

There are other points of tension between democracy and friendship. For example, democracies tend to nurture utilitarian approaches to politics, based upon trying to establish the greatest happiness for the greatest number. Friendship, though, abhors “felicific calculus”, preferring to build relationships. Might this not suggest a reason why increasingly affluent democracies become increasingly unhappy places to live?

True, egalitarianism, justice and economics-driven problem-solving are hugely valuable and underpin a very many great goods. However, that they are valued because they are impersonal is double-edged. The great paradox for democracies espousing these universal ideals is that unless their sovereignty is tempered they become dehumanising and tyrannical. And friendship, without which the good life is simply impossible according to Aristotle, suffers. [more]

Well, ok, I’m not sure he really is asking the question in the way I’m thinking about it, but it’s something I got from reading his article and then surfing over to his homepage (as well as to a transcript of a 1997 presentation by Jacques Derrida, link provided at the bottom of Vernon’s article). That bit about “democracies tend[ing] to nurture utilitarian approaches to politics, based upon trying to establish the greatest happiness for the greatest number” at any rate resonated deeply with Gladwell’s explication of seeing problems through Bell-Curve Distribution glasses when we really need Power-Law Distribution glasses. In both cases, there’s something counter-intuitive in what these articles argue (“what, justice as a universal principle and greatest happiness for the greatest number isn’t good enough? What?, you’re going to advocate putting more money to people who don’t deserve it vs giving it equally to everyone in need? What’s wrong with you?”), but at the same time there’s something insane about doing something that doesn’t work over and over again.

{ 1 comment }

maria January 1, 2007 at 4:39 pm

A Happy New Year … and here’s to friendship (in spite of Derrida?)

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