“The welfare of the people in particular has always been the alibi of tyrants, and it provides the further advantage of giving the servants of tyranny a good conscience. It would be easy, however, to destroy that good conscience by shouting to them: if you want the happiness of the people, let them speak out and tell what kind of happiness they want and what kind they don’t want!”
That’s Albert Camus on form. Without jumping up and down about the word “tyranny” there, that quotation can strike a chord with those in the US who are told by Trump that the people don’t want to see him impeached, as well as those in the UK who hear that the people just want to get Brexit done. For what it’s worth, appeals to the people are not just the stuff of populists — what middle of the road citizen doesn’t think the happiness of the people should matter?
Philosophers can get stuck into teasing out the problems lurking in talk of “the will of the people”, and not just that it’s sometimes a stepping stone to tyranny (Rousseau’s “general will” anyone?). Can the people have a will? What sense attaches to “the people” here in the first place? Go all the way back to the Greeks — would you rather have a ship governed by a captain, the one who knows best, or “the people” whose will, if obeyed, might result in a drunken pleasure cruise going nowhere fast?
Here’s the spooky thing. Look past all that and assume you can work out what the people want with polls or referendums or, as Camus has it, letting them speak. It turns out that the context, or anyway how you ask them what they want has an enormous effect on what they say they want. You can get a majority for or against your preferred kind of taxation by calling it “tax simplification” or “tax cuts for rich”. You might get a majority in favour of “exploring for energy” but lose the fight if you’re talking about “drilling for oil”. We’re sometimes swayed not by sound argument, but by well-researched language. Framing matters much more than we think.
All that can make you wonder if there’s a fact of the matter about what “the people” want. If the same people say completely different things in response to questions about the same topic worded in slightly different ways, do they have will there to be discovered — or is there a lot less to us than that?