Friday, September 24, 2010


Pluralism is in its general sense the recognition that life is diverse.

While we might generally agree on politics, economics, and religion, complete unity of belief and action is impossible. Life is simply too complicated to allow for complete agreement on anything.

The value of pluralism is expressed mathematically by John Nash's game theory. Nash observes that an individual's success in making choices depends on the choices of others. Consensus through compromise results in optimal behavior. Compromise results in action. The reverse often produces no action. Legal contract theory implicitly recognizes this value  by noting that a contract is only formed by a willing buyer and seller. Economic and political pluralism tends to create the most efficient means of distributing capital and regulating behavior.

Politics is the process by which groups make collective decisions.  And pluralism is at the heart of modern democracy. A government which permits participation of all its citizens and safeguards the interests of minorities is pluralistic.

The Great Seal of the United States enshrines this concept with the Latin phrase, "E pluribus unum." The idea of  "From many one" is both a recognition of thirteen states forming one union, but also recognition of the diverse religious, ethnic, and political backgrounds of the citizens of this country.James Madison intuitively understood the need for compromise by first noting the need for three equal and balance departments of government. Each department, the legislative, the executive, and the judicial represented a political check on the power of the other two. A further check upon power was created by establishing two houses within the legislative branch. As any first year government student knows laws are not passed without acknowledging the political interests of a majority.

Finally, as a further check upon the power of the majority, the framers of the Constitution recognized certain fundamental rights, most of which are enumerated in the Bill of Rights. These rights can not be infringed upon by the Federal government. Later, in recognition of the abuse of citizens' rights by the States, the Constitution was amended. The Fourteenth Amendment then applied these same constitutional guarantees to citizens of states. This constitutional recognition came slowly and piecemeal through the Supreme Court's review of issues in later years.

Political unity is impossible to achieve, but legislative action can be obtained by political compromise. Negotiation is the method through which compromise is reached and compromise is best achieved by the participation of all political groups. The failure to include groups can result in situations such as Afghanistan where the Taliban refuse to participate. Their recourse is armed conflict.

Of course a government can impose its views on its citizens by coercion.And in North Korea a totalitarian ruler imposes his will upon the people, but the result is politically unstable and economically disastrous. There are other many other examples of non-pluralistic governments. Suffice it to say that history has demonstrated that pluralism as applied to political and economic institutions has proven the most successful.

Walt Whitman would have course endorsed pluralism. The celebrated title of his most famous book and its words express the value of the individual, "I believe a leaf of grass is no less than the journey-work of the stars." Pluralism recognizes that the whole is equal to or exceeded by the sum of its parts.

Nineteenth and twentieth century political action which expanded rights not only to blacks and women, but later the handicapped and then made equal access to political and economic opportunities mandatory demonstrate our continued recognition as a society that diversity of opportunity contributes to our universal well-being.