“That which affects everyone ought to be dealt with by everyone.” So says the sixth century Code of Justinian in a law that managed to seep its way from its original context in establishing riparian rights for downstream parties  in preserving their rights to water to a far larger context that is far more relevant even today. Recently I was catching up on my online Hillsdale College course on the American heritage and the speaker, who appears to be very proficient in Roman law and culture and their applicability to the American founding , managed to use this expression often in discussing matters of interest to the Middle Ages, where this principle led to at least limited suffrage within the Medieval church—the voting of abbots by monks and the pope by the college of Cardinals, as well as the voting among masters of guilds in the Medieval city, and show how this principle was expanded to lead to the widespread suffrage that we are familiar with today within the United States and other contemporary Western societies.
Yet this principle is not an easy one to enact. It is, for example, in the interests of bureaucrats and other tyrannical leaders of government and other human institutions to seek to avoid having that which affects everyone being dealt with by everyone. The reasons for this are rather straightforward, and worth discussing in at least some detail. For one, it is hard to build consensus among parties where there are clear conflicts of interests. Those who wish to consider the commons as their own property for their own exploitation, without any concern for any of the repercussions of their behavior, the waste and effluent products of their processes, or the well-being of those who are downstream, are not likely to wish to restrain themselves by considering the well-being of others. Even where there are no obvious conflicts of interest to such an extent, consensus building is difficult and requires time to build trust as well as skill in communicating one’s wishes and concerns. Many people lack the interest in spending the time and effort to engage in the necessary and consistent communication that allows for either compromise or synergy to take place. Those who want “efficient” behavior among authorities are likely to want to short-circuit the painful and complicated work of building trust and consensus and force narrow or bare majorities, often of the nature of committed minorities getting their way through overhauling or steamrolling a less motivated and more diffuse majority. It is a lot easier, moreover, for authorities to act when the ordinary people do not have opinions, or do not make those opinions loudly heard, demanding to be recognized and taken into consideration, and so few authorities are likely to appreciate the involvement of those whose insight they do not trust and whose involvement is judged to be important in any decision-making process.
There are, moreover, very serious practical difficulties in ensuring that everyone is able to deal with an issue. Dealing with issues requires the expenditure of time and energy, and there are far more people who are willing to go along with a decision than to take the time and effort to acquaint themselves with the facts of the matter, to engage and communicate with others, and to work out decisions. Those who do have such inclinations easily find themselves on a track to some sort of political offices within those institutions they are concerned about, because the vast majority of people are more than willing to delegate such activities to others, even where the people do not trust the motives of their political elites or of various social institutions. We may hate our politicians and other authorities, but most of us cannot be bothered to make painful and difficult decisions or try to work out practical coalition building or a way towards a desirable future vision for our communities ourselves. Likewise, even if the election of a president of the United States of America, for example, affects everyone, there is no means by which the rest of the world can influence that decision in a legal and appropriate matter, and that is a good thing, because the political beliefs of the rest of the world are not particularly trustworthy or wise in terms of their worldviews, even by the modest standards of our own contemporary republic.
The problem of aggregating preferences and making wise choices in matters of collective importance is a problem that is in many ways entirely impossible to solve by mere technical means alone. On merely one level of this problem, Arrow’s Theroem demonstrates that it is impossible for a single decision-making process to meet the following “fairness” criteria: If every voter prefers X over Y, then the group as a whole prefers X over Y, if every voter’s preference between X and Y remains unchanged then the preference between X and Y will remain unchanged even if there are changes in the views of other pairs like X and Z, Y and Z, or Z and W, and there is no dictator who has the power to always determine the group’s preference . Resolution of this theorem requires more information is known about voters’ wishes than mere rank preference alone, and is easiest to resolve successfully when people have consistent and explicit worldviews, which is not always very common. Building such matters takes time and effort, and in a realm where the feeling of crisis and impatience seek to force decisions, few people are willing to take the time to build relationships slowly, and to work towards worthwhile conclusions by building consensus rather than through propaganda and bullying, as is the case all too often in our contemporary world .
What are we to do then? If we live in a world where the mechanisms to express preference are often lacking, where there are systemic biases to disenfranchise the responsible involvement of ordinary citizens by dictators or tyrannical bureaucracies, where people are unwilling to consider the needs and well-being of others in their own decision-making, and where others are unwilling to restrain themselves from envious appropriation of the resources and property of others to suit their own selfish whims and quixotic devotion to dubious social causes, and where there is little action taken to build consensus about anything in dispute within families or communities or other institutions, how are we to do better ourselves? How are we to set an example of fair-mindedness that we can build bridges rather than walls? How are we to find better communication with others and be people who are easy to communicate with? How are we to serve as the sort of people who can help build a better future and bring people together in meaningful and consensual and godly unity rather than tear apart families, congregations, and communities? How are we to resist the wicked spirit of our times, and be an example of a better way than is practiced by the corrupt world around us? How are we to be trustworthy and honorable people even if honor is disparaged and mocked and even if we find it extremely difficult to trust? How are we to do redeem the time in our evil age, and to be people whose lives are filled both with shrewd and practical wisdom as well as noble ideals and overflowing reservoirs of kindness and love? So many difficult questions, so few easy answers. Yet it is in wrestling with difficult, or even impossible, matters that leads us to become better people and help encourage others too, for we do not struggle alone. The struggles of our existence are common to all—they are something everyone has to deal with, after all, for they affect us all.
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