Talk May Be Cheap, but Deeds Seldom Cheat: On Political Liberalism and the Assurance Problem

The forthcoming article “Talk May Be Cheap, but Deeds Seldom Cheat: On Political Liberalism and the Assurance Problem” by Baldwin Wong and Man-Kong Li is summarized by the authors below.

Partisan polarization has recently become a pressing problem in contemporary democracies. However, according to John Rawls, political disagreement does not necessarily threaten democracy. Rawls proposed a theory of political liberalism and tried to show that, despite political disagreements, reasonable citizens can still live together in a mutually respectful way. For reasonable citizens share some basic political values, such as freedom, equality, and fairness. They trust each other and are willing to comply with the unfavorable laws made by other reasonable citizens, for they know that others are willing to make similar sacrifices.    

Nevertheless, apart from reasonable citizens, a democratic society also has some unreasonable citizens who merely want to use state power to pursue their sectarian goals. Reasonable citizens are willing to cooperate with each other, but they want to avoid being exploited by unreasonable citizens. Hence, before trusting others, reasonable citizens want to ensure that others are trustworthy. We call this the assurance problem. This problem is more serious among democratic officials who control coercive political power. In other words, in political disagreements, how can a reasonable democratic official ensure that other officials are reasonable as well? In our article, we try to show how the assurance problem can be resolved in Rawls’s political liberalism. 

Usually, Rawlsians suggested that speaking in terms of public reason can provide mutual assurance. By explaining their political decisions in terms of shared political values, officials show each other that they are reasonable citizens committed to these values. This solution, however, has recently been criticized as exaggerating the power of words. The cost of presenting one’s views in terms of public reason is too low. The meanings of political values are usually vague, and thus public reason can be used to defend vastly different policies. Even some unreasonable officials can offer public reasons to fool other reasonable officials. In brief, public reason is merely a kind of “cheap talk.” It is unable to provide any assurance among democratic officials.  

We argue that this “cheap talk critique” wrongly assumes that the discourse of public reason alone is the source of mutual assurance. Rather, mutual assurance is created by the discourse of public reason together with civic deeds. For civic deeds, It means actions that are public-spirited and answerable to others. For example, officials are frequently willing to listen to the arguments of their political opponents respectfully. Or, during the discussion, officials are eager to contribute to public discussions by improving the opponents’ arguments, even if this may strengthen their position. We further use the relationship between Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Antonin Scalia to show that, despite political disagreement, civic deeds can enable officials to ensure that each other is reasonable.  

Furthermore, the cost of performing civic deeds is high enough for reasonable officials to differentiate their fellows from unreasonable officials. It may be simple to present one’s view in terms of public reason, but it is never easy to perform civic deeds over time continuously. It takes enormous time and effort to always behave in a public-spirited and answerable way in open discussions. Sometimes people also have to give up possible gains for the sake of the common good. Hence, by observing the civic deeds of each other, reasonable officials can ensure that others will act reasonably when they do the same, and thus the assurance problem can be resolved. Talk may be cheap, but deeds seldom cheat. 

About the Authors: Baldwin Wong is an Assistant Professor of Religion and Philosophy at the Hong Kong Baptist University and Man-Kong Li is an Assistant Professor of Social Science at Hang Seng University of Hong Kong. Their research “Talk May Be Cheap, but Deeds Seldom Cheat: On Political  Liberalism and the Assurance Problem” is now available in Early View and will appear in a forthcoming issue of the American Journal of Political Science.

Speak Your Mind



The American Journal of Political Science (AJPS) is the flagship journal of the Midwest Political Science Association and is published by Wiley.

%d bloggers like this: