The Myths We Live By

Peter Cave

Atlantic, £14.99

The angry conflicts in Parliament over the last couple of weeks have served as a reminder that, for all their differences, MPs on both sides of the House share fundamental principles – liberal democratic ideals which, when threatened, can unite political rivals.

But how rock-solid are they? How much scrutiny can the assumptions underpinning democracy withstand when put under the microscope by a professor of philosophy?

It should be made clear at the outset that Peter Cave is not a libertarian zealot with an axe to grind. He’s just curious about how well beliefs hold up when put to the test. “Philosophical reasoning pushes concepts to their limits, taking arguments to their conclusions, not shying away from unwelcomed outcomes,” he says, adding that the contents of this book should “lead some politicians, captains of industry, merchants of ideas and ideals, to feel at least a little guilty and possibly own up”. He may have to wait a while for that last one.

Democracy, he says, exists in a framework of agreed principles, such as the assumption that people have rights, or should be equal before the law. However, “there is a vagueness at a most fundamental level” in the relationship between a people and its government. Cave probes this vagueness in a series of arguments and thought experiments, beginning by interrogating the very essence of representational democracy and why a majority vote should be relied on to bring about governments that will do what is best for their people.

Successive chapters tackle issues surrounding immigration and nationalism, freedom of speech, human rights, neo-liberalism and how we can even know what people want from a government in the first place. He asks sensible questions: how does the concept of enlightened self-interest hold up when we know how easily people are swayed by irrational impulses? Unexpected questions: if wealth discrimination were as unacceptable as racial discrimination, how would that affect “the bonds of family life”? And questions which, on the face of it, make it sound like he’s just getting carried away: should there be a quota of short people in Parliament?

Even if Cave does his best to keep the proceedings lively and non-stuffy, this is a book of political philosophy, pitting various parties’ rights and freedoms against each other, weighing people’s best interests against violations of their autonomy and examining the distorting effects of wealth on a democratic system. His arguments require concentration, and trying to rattle through it in a couple of days isn’t advisable.

Agree with his conclusions or not, Cave forces his readers to interrogate cherished beliefs and see how many of the principles enshrined in public life are not only inconsistent but incoherent, even paradoxical.

And yet none of this dents the benign impulse behind them, to create a world that’s better for all. Furthermore, it’s a continuous, unfinished process which people like Cave will help to propel forward in its typically muddled, shambolic and very human way. After all, “The danger of pushing things too far is no good excuse for pushing things no distance at all.”