On "the will of the people"

The title of Albert Weale’s Will of the People: A Modern Myth announces its conclusion: there is no single “people” and citizens have no single “will.”

The book—a short book, written for the lay Guardian subscriber—does a fine job surveying the notion's real-world problems. Weale is at his strongest in describing its pernicious effects on Brexit:

Judge the will of the people by a popular referendum. Insist that all those who continue to oppose the result of the referendum are opposing the will of the people. Make conformity to the supposed will of the people the test of society’s democratic credentials. Keep repeating this stale formula. Be intolerant of dissent. Challenge the constitutional constraints of the courts and parliament. Allow the bully boys of the press to reinforce this message through attacks on opponents. One people; one will; one party. (112)

A better summary of the consequences has yet to be written. The popular notion of a popular will is, indeed, toxic.

Sadly Weale is mostly uninterested in the broader possibilities of the concept; Rousseau and Arrow and Condorcet make appearances but are never engaged as interlocutors. Rousseau in particular gets a strawman treatment—perhaps quite literally—since Weale concludes that we can judge the Genevan’s well-ordered society by considering “a small and isolated Swiss agricultural community called Törbel” (27). Where the contract, the Legislator, and civil religion feature in the bucolic politics of Törbel, Weale does not say.

Concede that “the will of the people” is a much-abused concept. Should we abandon it entirely? I will suggest not. For all the myriad problems with the social contract tradition, its central insight—that some common good makes government a rational choice—remains compelling. Rousseau expresses this best:

[I]f the opposition of private interests made the establishment of societies necessary, it is the agreement of these same interests that made it possible. It is what these different interests have in common that forms the social bond, and if there were not some point at which all the interests are in agreement, no society could exist. (SC 145, Collected Writings)

That last clause may be false; I’m not yet sure. But it seems correct that common interests help constitute the social bond. Whatever shared interests are present in plural societies must be exceedingly minimal—I think they extend no further than preventing harm—but they seem to exist nonetheless. And to the extent they do exist, they are expressed in a genuine will that the social bond be preserved.

One might respond that such a shared will is trivial, or meaningful but impossible to juridically define, or definable in ideal settings but not in the messy world of politics. All might be true.

But these are objections to the practical value of a popular will, not its existence. To prove that such a will cannot exist, we’ll need to look beyond the popular understanding of the concept.