Tuesday, December 31, 2013

How To Get What You Want

You want things. I want things. That's pretty normal. That's the game of life.

But the thing you really want to know is: how do I get what I want?

Pretend that I have what you want. You really only have four options:

1. Make it yourself

2. Give me something I want in exchange for it

3. Convince me to give it to you for free

4. Take it from me

If you're strong and think you can avoid the consequences, then number four is often your easiest option. For much of history, that's been the choice of the powerful. It's got some obvious downsides, though. I won't much like it when that happens to me, so I'll be resentful and try to punish you or prevent it from happening again. And the bigger the risk that you might come and take what I made, the less likely I am to make anything in the first place.

If you're weak or manipulative, option number three might be a good way to go. Pity is a powerful human force and, used well, can achieve much. Alternatively, you can play politics and try to make friends and get me to like you and bestow favors on you. If you can't be a conqueror, become the friend of a conqueror. Great as it often is, this has some downsides, too. First, you're dependent on my favor and fortune: I could change my mind or my luck could run out. The flea can't survive without it's host. Second, and related, over time, I could start to resent you if all you do is take and never give much in return. I could change my mind and decide I don't want to keep helping you: "What have you ever done for me?" Third, others might become resentful that you're getting more than your 'fair' share. "You don't deserve it," they'd say, "what about me? why don't I get any?" They might work to undermine your position to get more for themselves.

Option number 2 is harder work. Here, if I've got what you want, you've got to convince me to give it to you in exchange for something I want, and in a way that doesn't feel like charity to me. If you can do that, you've got a much safer position. Since we both want to make the trade, it's likely a 'fair' trade, and one we both might be happy to do again. Moreover, with any luck, you'll be able to give the thing you have to others as well, so you won't be dependent on me and my favor and success. You also lessen the resentment of others because you've done something to get what you want. (You'll never be able to eliminate the resentment, since it's human nature to resent others when they get what they want and we don't.) This option also has the benefit of encouraging both of us to make more of what we can in order to be able to trade again in the future. Of course, this is much harder than options 3 and options 4, and as a result, you might not succeed. If you don't want to or are unable to give me anything I want, this method isn't going to work for you.

Option number 1 is the hardest. You avoid all the problems of all the other methods. (Though, there will still be people who resent you, since you got what you wanted.) But this is really hard work. You might not be able to make it yourself right now. The amount of effort to learn to make it is extreme and uncertain, since you don't know if you'll ever be able to succeed.

Surveying all the options, I have to recommend strongly against 4. This is a short-term, short-sighted option that might work for a few people for a short time, but everything will fall apart if everyone tries it.

Similarly, option 3 is a short-term, short-sighted strategy that will fail if everyone tries it. It's an easier option than 2, but a far riskier one. I would try to avoid it whenever possible.

Option 1 would be great, but is probably unrealistic. We have many desires and only so much time. Any dependence on others is a latent risk, so I'd suggest becoming proficient in what you can, but over-reliance on yourself and simply being unable to get what you want or need due to inability is also a risk, and often times a much bigger one. The over-specialization that can occur in option 2 is dangerous- what if no one cares about your speciality anymore? But you'll never be able to do everything you want by yourself. People are group animals; working together, cooperating, is vastly more effective.

That leaves option 2, cooperation. How do you get what you want? By giving other people what they want.

Friday, December 20, 2013

What's Wrong with Libertarianism?

Welcome to Part 1 of the Political Theory Smackdown: Libertarianism.

What's Libertarianism?

Libertarianism is the political philosophy that believes freedom (both social and economic) is the ultimate purpose of government. As such, Libertarians don't fall neatly into the the traditional 'left'/'right' split in US politics.

Like any other political theory, there are nearly as many flavors of Libertarianism as there are people. For some, the distrust of government pushes them nearly into anarchism. For others, it's primarily about economic liberty. And still others try to blend free markets and social welfare.

With this many sub-theories running around, I can't pin down a 'libertarian creed' to argue against. For any particular point I might disagree with, many will cry out that I'm fighting a strawman and that their 'true' libertarianism doesn't believe such things. It's much like punching smoke- the target keeps moving.

Instead I'll focus my criticism on the central pillar of libertarianism: individual freedom. If that's not at the heart of your flavor of libertarianism, then your flavor isn't libertarianism at all. (In my opinion.)

While individual freedom sounds great, its consequences can be unpalatable.

Four Problems with Libertarianism

1. It's Unfair

Every social system is unfair to somebody, so this isn't a shocker.

Many Libertarians insist, however, that theirs can be the only 'fair' system because it doesn't involve coercion and the results simply arise from mutual agreements. No one is forced to do anything.

I'm not going to attempt a theory of justice here, but unless everyone starts in the same place, I've got a tough time swallowing that argument.

Some people are just more attractive, persuasive, intelligent, stronger, braver, or healthier than others. You might say that we have considerable control over those and other traits, and I would probably agree. But instead of winning the argument on that point, you lose it. For then you're conceding the massive impact of education and culture, which shape our habits and choices and provide our foundation for pursuing those traits. And culture and education are far from evenly distributed. You might succeed in life with a poor education and a culture that scorns or doesn't know how to create those improvements. But the odds are really stacked against you.

Who you are is some mix of genetics, environment (culture/education), and personal choice. (And many argue that personal choice is just a function of the first two.) You've got no control over your genetics, and you've got no control over the environment you grow up in.

So, who loses in the Libertarian system? Well, it's the people who are the most disadvantaged to start out. If you've got bad genetics or a poor education, too bad- you start the race from further behind than everyone else.

[See FOOTNOTE at the end for a brief response to the social-justice-libertarians.]

2. It makes life emptier.

Libertarianism views your individual freedom as the ultimate end. But life is about far more than individual decisions. Much of life (and some of the richest parts of life) happens in social cooperation. Celebrating, sharing, conversing, working together- some of our best memories come from these interactions. Allowing your identity to mingle into the group as you cooperate together for some larger, common purpose often brings deep meaning and satisfaction.

Individual freedom has value, of course. And it can, at times, even improve social groups themselves when the lone voice spots an improvement for the group.

But far too often individual freedom quickly degenerates into a self-centered struggle to do whatever you want to do, regardless of others. This selfishness rips groups apart, prevents groups from really gelling, and creates an atomized culture.

No man is an island, but Libertarianism together with human nature makes us act as if we were.

Libertarianism feeds our natural selfishness. By cutting the cords you believe enchain you, you also sever the connections that bring us meaning.

3. It's too risky.

Libertarianism exalts your freedom. This means your life is largely of your own making: whether you stand or fall, achieve your goals or not, rests on you and on luck.

For many people, that's not an attractive proposition. They'd prefer more stability- they'd gladly take a somewhat worse but more safe and stable life to a riskier one with a chance at greatness.

Many people are sheep, happy to crowd together if it creates safety in numbers and reduces the need to think or try too hard. Putting in effort, by definition, is hard work. Most of the time, being a sheep is far more pleasant.

Libertarianism is for the sharp-eyed wolves.

4. It undermines morality.

Liberty isn't license. Just because you can do something doesn't mean you should. But people aren't necessarily wired that way. People love illicit things. They'll tend to satisfy their own desires, even if they think they shouldn't.

When you remove barriers to immorality, people slowly push the boundary until there is no longer a boundary. People will rationalize and justify their actions, so eventually they start defending behavior that would have been unconscionable earlier.

You even end up getting the backwards morality: it's good because I like it. I want to do it; therefore, I should do it.

Libertarians sometimes argue that one of the benefits of freedom is that people can search for themselves to find out what's right. Humankind can grow and progress through this process of trial and error and discover right and wrong.

But isn't that more like letting a schoolbus full of kids loose in a candy store and gravely pronouncing, "at least one of them will discover they shouldn't eat candy and that kid will teach the others. Soon, no kid will eat candy."

Final Thoughts

I don't think that any of these reasons individually (or even all of them together) are a decisive knock-out punch against Libertarianism. Political philosophies ultimately rest on belief. A true believer will look at this list and either disagree or think the items don't matter, simply because they look at life through a different lens. Libertarianism will always appeal to the free spirit, to the dissolute libertine, and to the sharp-eyed wolf.

Still, these are weighty problems. I think that if you want to be responsible, you've got to consider them seriously before jumping into Libertarianism with both feet.

Next: Utilitarianism

As noted above, some people would disagree and say something like, 'social justice is very important. Indeed, it's the reason we support libertarianism in the first place- libertarianism is the best tool we know to achieve social justice. Free markets have lifted more people out of poverty in the last 150 years than all the other efforts of humankind combined since the beginning of time.' They sometimes then support taxation as an efficient way to even the playing field: if you think some group has an unfair advantage, simply apply a tax on the group with the advantage until the playing field is fair. (You can even use the money to help the worst off, they say.)

I hate to play this card, but if your libertarianism is just a tool for the sake of social justice, are you really a libertarian? This is the sort of 'punching smoke' problem I described above- if you believe social justice is the ultimate purpose of government, and libertarianism is just a good way of achieving it, then you fail to meet the basic criteria I lay out: believing that freedom is the ultimate purpose of government. What do you do when social justice and freedom conflict? How far do you push the taxation? (And on the poverty point, it seems that happiness comes from relative wealth, not absolute wealth.)

This seems like an ill-defined position to me: you want to have your fingers in both the libertarian and the social justice pies. That might be fine, but you've got to be incredibly clear about how you're going to trade those things off against each other. You can always make another argument for some unfairness that needs to be adjusted with incentives of some sort. How far are you willing to go with this? Is it ok to take all children from their parents at birth and raise them uniformly in a centralized government compound to ensure a uniform culture and education and training that corrects for the imbalances of nature? You can set them free once they've reached the age of reason, each 'crop' of children starting out at nearly the same place.

Perhaps worse to many Libertarians is the notion of 'how's this going to be implemented?'. Many Libertarians end up in the position they hold because they're deeply suspicious about concentrated political power. And I think they rightly point out the problems of implementing such 'taxation' strategies in a way that's remotely fair. Who's gonna decide what gets taxed and how much? That process seems ripe for abuse.

But this isn't the time or the place to argue against this social-justice-libertarianism. Without firmer answers to those questions, it's not clear to me where that political philosophy stands.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Someone's gotta lose

In The Game of Life, it's pretty common for people to want to change the rules.

Most typically, the people want to change the political and social rules to be in their favor (if they can get that). It's no surprise that individuals and groups want to further themselves and their groups.

However, since everyone else is trying to do the same, tilting the rules in your favor can be very difficult.

It's far easier to try to make the game 'fair'. Rather than appearing crassly self-interested, simply appeal to 'fairness'. Who can oppose that?

But what's 'fair'?

Given that everyone is different, has different resources, and desires different prizes, there are going to be winners and losers no matter what set of rules the game has. Someone's gotta lose. Some sets of rules are better than others, but don't be fooled into thinking that we can create either 'equal outcomes' or 'equal opportunity'. Both of those are only impossible ideals.

Friday, December 13, 2013

The Game of Life

The Prizes

The prizes are all different. Wealth, Political Power, Military Force, Health, Enjoyment, Relaxation, Freedom, Religion, Peace, Glory, Love, Family. The players want this stuff (as well as other stuff).

The players are going to try to get the prizes they want as best they can.

The Players

The players are all different. They have different strengths and weaknesses. Some players are smarter or more charismatic. Some have more leadership or emotional stability. Some are healthier than others. The players are different sexes, and races, and nationalities. The players have different tolerances for risk. 

The Resources

The resources are all different. The players have themselves, and their knowledge. They have other players, and their knowledge. They have the physical environment surrounding them and it's resources. And they have the infrastructure (including the political and social systems) built by previous players. Any prizes they can get are also resources.

The Rules

The rules are all different. The political and social system provide the (semi-formal) rules of the game of life. What do you have to do to get the prizes you want? Be born into it? Convince other people to give it to you? Take it by force?

The Unbreakable Laws

The unbreakable laws are always the same. The laws of the natural and social sciences cannot be bent or circumvented by the Players or the Rules. 

Political Theory Smackdown

I've been wanting to do this for a long time.

Try as I might, I can't seem to be satisfied with most (all?) political theories. So, I'm going to start a series where I do a takedown of the various relatively common theories. What's wrong with the popular political ideologies?

In time, I'll address these 'isms':


I might throw in a few more (like 'anarchism') for good measure, too.

For now, I'm mostly gonna hold off giving my opinions on where I come out. I'm going to use this opportunity to lay out my grievances with commonly held political views. At the end, I'll probably say more about where I stand.

First up: Libertarianism

Thursday, December 12, 2013

5 Reasons Writing is Hard (and what I do about it)

Why is writing so hard?

1. "I have no Topic"

This creates one of two problems: without a topic, either you immediately get stuck without something to write about or you start writing without any sense of what you're going to say. It's hard to say which is worse- the first leaves you with a blank page, while the second leaves you with a stream-of-consciousness mess.

If you don't know what you're trying to get across when you start, woe to the reader who'll have to make heads-or-tails of you.

What do I do?
The only way I can focus is by giving myself an explicit question to answer as motivation. I find that nothing sharpens my mind like a clear prompt. I don't start writing until I've honed a fuzzy topic into a shapely question. (That way it'll also be clearer to me when I'm done, reducing the chance that I ramble.)

"That's great for you," you might say, "but I don't have explicit questions lying around."

Neither did I, until I started focusing on it. You know those people who are bubbling with ideas and always have something to say? I'm not one of them. Instead, I've got to do something different.

My topics are questions, and I come up with new questions while I'm working on other questions. I always try to start with big, hard questions that fascinate me (otherwise, why bother answering them?). Inevitably, big, hard questions get broken down into smaller questions that raise issues and other big, hard questions that I've never thought about.

I put all my questions in a list (or multiple lists). I rarely have time to stop and digress onto these new questions while I'm answering my original question. So I jot them down for later.

Lacking that, an easy way I've found to come up with a topic is to ask yourself, "do I agree with this?" after reading something or listening to someone else. The other type of topic that's really easy is simply asking, "how does it work?" when you face any social situation- you've immediately opened up all the social sciences as a possibility.

2. "I have nothing to say about my topic"
Congratulations! You've picked a topic. But what do you say about your topic? What can you possibly add to ground that been covered hundreds (or millions) of times by people far smarter than you?

You can only think of trite cliches. (But, hey- at least you've recognized that. That's certainly better than saying trite cliches and thinking them profound.)

What do I do?

This is where my topic helps me a lot. Since I've started with a pointed question, I have a clear challenge: answer the question.

There's two possible paths here: (1) start with a blank sheet of paper and just try to answer it, or (2) see what other people have said about it.

I typically do both. (though the degree varies widely depending on how important it is to get it right.) I typically start by finding other great writing on the topic. This lets me get a survey of the land so I'm at least passingly familiar with the difficult issues.

Then, I take out my blank sheet of paper and write out my explicit logic and reasoning- what are my assumptions? - what are my reasons? - how do they fit together into a conclusion? - what evidence do I have?

Finally, I compare my conclusions to the original great writing and see how we differ and whether I missed anything. Depending on how important it is, I'll show it to other people who I think will give me an honest opinion. This way, I can debate and test my ideas with the hardest opponents.

I don't really worry about whether I've come to trite cliches. I worry whether I've answered the question to the best of my ability and have good reasons/evidence to back me up.

3. "My writing is confusing and boring"
So you had something to say, but you can only say it in a boring and confused way. Other people don't understand what you're saying, think you're saying something else, or just stop reading.

What do I do?

This problem happens for lots of reasons, but I'd guess the two biggest are (1) you don't actually know what you want to say, and (2) you're trying to make your writing sound like what you think good writing 'should' sound like.

My guess is that the first of these is actually more common. Most people just start writing with a vague notion in their minds of how its going to go. That's a recipe for disaster. Know what you want to say. Then just say it. It's amazing how many times I've read a paragraph and then asked the writer what the point of the paragraph was, and they'll give a crisp one sentence description. They should have just said that.

I avoid this problem by mapping out the logic of what I want to say first (noted in the previous point). Then, I'm not worried about figuring out my point or what I want to say. It's simply a matter of mentally arranging the order I think it'll be best to present the points, and then writing them. Since I know what points I want to make, and in what order I want to make them, it's really hard to screw up.

The other problem is modeling your writing after some unclear notion of what 'good writing' is. This often results in people writing in a more formal ("professional") way than makes sense. Few people like reading formal writing. It's work to read. But writers want to be taken seriously, so they continue to do it. In my mind, the best way to get taken seriously is to write something interesting and enjoyable. Readers will forgive many flaws if you've got that. (An aside- Modeling your writing after specific writing that you like can be helpful.)

So I try to write in a concrete, less formal way. I want my best writing (which this certainly is not) to read like a conversation you'd have with a friend, if I were smarter and could avoid all the stumbles and backtracking and jumping around I do in real conversations. I want my best writing to have the ease of that cleaned up conversation.

But above all, I try to write something I'd want to read. If I write something, set it aside, and then reread with fresh eyes, I'll often find to my horror that it's not something I would to read. So, I revise it. This is hard, because when you read your own writing, you have a hard time seeing it from an external perspective. You tend to read it 'internally', viewing all the reasons we made the choices you did while you're reading it. That's why, as much as possible, it's good to get some time/space between writing and revising. With a lot of practice, I've found that I can also put myself in the mental space of someone just reading the words on the page for the first time. Reading aloud helps me with this.

4. "I'm stuck"
The writing just isn't flowing today.

What do I do?

I find that this often best solved by using my imagination and plowing ahead: I literally imagine I'm having a conversation with a specific person and then start writing. If that person were on the phone or in front of me, I wouldn't have a problem talking, so why do I have a problem writing? The result isn't always great, but the first draft of everything is always terrible, no matter how hard you try. That's what editing and revising are for.

5. "No one cares about what I write"
You've written something and posted it/published it to the world, and...silence.

This is rough. Indifference is a worse response than hatred, because indifference isn't a response at all. If you've offended people or riled people up, then at least you've had an impact (maybe a bad one, but you can learn from that).

It's very hard to learn from indifference. When your words are met by silence, where do you even begin to start improving?

What do I do about this?

I try to give my writing an honest evaluation, and try to get honest evaluations from others I know. If it passes those tests, then I simply ignore this problem and keep writing. I focus on writing excellent things and writing better things than I have in the past. Maybe I'm a sucker, but I have a deep belief that ultimately, quality wins out. I believe that people love quality, and if they find something great, they'll keep coming back and eventually show their friends. All I can do is try to make great things.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Should soldiers be able to 'opt out' of unjust conflicts?

The Boston Review has a long, but thought-provoking article on whether soldiers should be able to opt-out of conflicts they believe are unjust.

The gist of the argument goes like this:

1. Most Wars are Unjust. Both sides of a war can't be just, so every war is either a conflict between a just side and an unjust side or between two unjust sides. So, if you find yourself fighting in a war, statistically you're more likely to be fighting on the unjust side.

2. It's Wrong to Fight for an Unjust Cause. Soldiers ultimately decide whether to participate in a war, and they bear responsibility for that decision. It's not just to attack even enemy soldiers for an unjust cause, just as it would be unjust for a criminal on the run to shoot a police officer.

3. Therefore, soldiers should be able to opt-out of conflicts they believe are unjust. This is just an extension of the current rule that soldiers must disobey orders during combat that they believe are unjust.

Of course, Point Number 1 above isn't really necessary for the conclusion, but it makes the issue more pressing. Otherwise, you could simply say, 'well, this isn't important because most wars are just anyway.'

So, is Point Number 2 right?

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Should everyone at Harvard get an A?

The most common grade at Harvard is an A.

What's wrong with that? Anything?

Maybe the kids at Harvard are just smarter than the average kid and deserve the A.

What's the point of grades afterall?

Call me old-fashioned, but I believe that colleges exist to teach something to their students. Better colleges should have higher standards than worse colleges (that's part of what makes them better). Higher standards means harder classes. If the students at Harvard are smarter or more capable than the average kid, then they are capable of learning and doing more.

Grades simply reflect how well you've done in a class. Have you mastered the material presented and met the standards of the class? Then you deserve a good grade. If you haven't, then you don't. Enforced bell-curves make no sense, but if your standards are high enough, and your tests well constructed, then people often tend to naturally fall into a bell-curve pattern. If everyone gets an A, then great! (But maybe you should consider making the class harder, because that probably means that at least half the class didn't have to try very hard and didn't learn very much.)

So, yes, the Harvard kid could probably easily earn an 'A' at State U. But Harvard isn't State U. The standards and classes should be harder.

"Ahh," you might say, "you totally don't understand the point of college. The point of college isn't to learn. It's primarily a signaling mechanism for employers, and a mating/networking service for the students. Students are customers, and they want fun, contacts, and great opportunities when they graduate."

You continue, "when you graduate, all employers know is what school you went to, what you majored in, and your GPA. That's all they really need anyway- how many classes at Harvard are directly applicable to real world employment? Employers just want smart people who will work hard. Anyone who gets into Harvard has already shown that, and good grades are the icing on the cake. Who can really compare what an 'A' at Harvard means vs an 'A' at the University of Michigan? Why upset your customers (students)? Your Harvard kids will do great in the working world, so why unnecessarily handicap them with lower grades?"

You finish, "for the few areas, like engineering, or science, where what you learn is actually relevant to real world jobs, then grades and difficulty matter more, I agree. If I hire a kid from Harvard with an 'A' in mechanical engineering, and they can't do mechanical engineering, then I probably won't hire kids from Harvard again. So, it makes sense that STEM classes have higher standards and harder grades- you learn something useful and clearly measurable by others. But for the fluff stuff, the 'enriching liberal arts', who cares? So long as those kids can mate and network and get good jobs, they'll be happy donors in the future."

Is your view of higher education really so crass? Do you really think that life is all style and no substance, that it doesn't matter whether you learn and enrich yourself and make yourself better skilled? There is great depth and wisdom available in the humanities and social sciences, though almost all humanities and social science majors graduate without ever tasting it, so watered down are the courses.

Why are you afraid of letting the best kids in the hardest classes at the greatest schools distinguish themselves? By lowering the standards and helping the lazy Harvard student (was there ever a class of people less worthy of help?), you hurt the brilliant and hard-working Harvard student who can no longer distinguish themselves.

If the idea of merit makes you shudder so, then why does Harvard need grades at all? (Indeed, the grades are almost meaningless at this point anyway.) Simply make all classes publicly pass/fail and let professors offer private feedback in line with the guidelines laid out above.

The status-quo is softening the minds and weakening the wills of some of the world's best students. What a waste of talent.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Prosperity: the Deal that Underpins Democracy?

In my previous post I looked at an article that claimed "the financial crisis has eroded the deal that underpinned democracy: that voters support politicians in return for greater prosperity"

Is prosperity the deal that underpins democracy? I skated over this question quickly before, yet I think it's an interesting one.

I'm not sure what the question actually means. Here are three ways I could interpret it:

(1) Prosperity is the main reason we should support democracy. You'd argue something like: Prosperity is the purpose of government, and democracy gives us the best chance of prosperity.

(2) Democracy will collapse if we don't have prosperity. You'd argue that without economic growth, democracy is a house of cards.

(3) Historically, democracy were founded primarily to increase prosperity. You'd argue that greater prosperity was a sort of historical 'social contract'.

Reasons (2) and (3) don't have to be connected: the reasons a people support democracy today could easily be different from the reasons they founded a democracy generations ago.

Are any of these three plausible? 

I think the first is definitely wrong. (2) and (3) are murkier, but I'd guess they are also probably wrong.

Prosperity is not the purpose of government. Any discussion on this topic has to start there. In this day and age, it's easy for economist-types to blithely assume this point and move on, but that's a grave mistake. If you don't have a clear understanding of the goal of government, you're lost before you've begun.

Why should we support democracy, then? Should we support it at all? My guess is that democracy tends to increase prosperity, but there are plenty of other, probably more important reasons to support it. At their core, all political systems are just ways of distributing political power. So the question is: which political system is more likely to get you closer to achieving the goal of government? I think most political systems are simply incapable of achieving that goal; the concentration of power is too great and distracts leaders from what they should be doing. It's wonderful to fire bad leaders peacefully. All political systems have problems (because people have problems) but some form of representative democracy is probably for the best.

(2) and (3) would require a deeper study of history and psychology than I have done at the moment. I have no doubt that there are individual cases where one or both are true. From time to time, people vote themselves into dictatorships. But I don't think it's a stretch to suggest that people also like power and liberty, and democracy gives far larger servings of those than any other political system.

The connection "Democracy ---> more power and freedom to individuals" is more direct and more obvious than "Democracy ---> more power and freedom to individuals ---> ??? ---> greater prosperity". So, I'd bet that 'more power and freedom' has been and continues to be a larger real-world support to democracy than 'greater prosperity'. (And it doesn't hurt that you often get greater prosperity as a by-product.)  

Democracy Under Threat?

Philip Coggan, Buttonwood Columnist at the Economist, has an article in this year's "The World in 2014".

What's the point?

The gist of the article is that "Democracy is under threat", so "it's time to reform it". Trying to understand his argument was like trying to hold onto jello- the tighter I squeezed, the more it dissolved.

Why does he think 'democracy is under threat'?

He throws out one piece of 'evidence': (a) falling voter turnout, which he illustrates with a pretty chart.

He also makes two assertions: (b) "disillusionment with politicians and elections is running deep", and (c) "In the coming year alarming numbers of voters will flirt with political extremes". 

I'm not really sure what to make of his 'falling voter turnout' point. His pretty chart shows voter turnout in 'rich' countries falling from around 80% in the late 1960s to just under 70% today. But:

  • The decline isn't really that big: 70% is still quite high (it's averaged more like 55% in US presidential elections for more most of the last 100 years.)
  • The level has been roughly stable for the past ten years. Cover up the post 2000 years with your hand and imagine how much more alarming the picture would have looked in the year 2000.
  • In fact, much of the decline occurs during the 1990s- a period widely hailed as the triumphant years of democracy in the aftermath of the USSR.
  • A quick look at wikipedia shows a far more drastic decline happening in the US between the 1890s and 1925. The level then stabilizes around 55% (and has actually been increasing in the past 10 years)
    • Interestingly, the late 1800's through the early 1920s was the biggest period of expansion of voting rights in the US. From a long-term point of view, this would seem to suggest that increasing voting rights decreases voter participation. I don't know if this is right, but the thought is interesting, and could have many causes. (I might look at this more in future posts.) 
    • This puts his much more modest decline in perspective, and makes me seriously doubt his alarmism.

What to make of his other assertions? The disillusionment point resonates somewhat, but it's easy to forget that it seems like it's typical for voters to be disillusioned with government that is more distant and impersonal. Of course, there has been a marked increase in European disillusionment recently (see pages 73- 78), but there isn't much history in that chart.

The last point ('political extremes') is more of a prediction than an observation.

I don't really see how 'democracy is under threat'. I'm sure you could point to a handful of countries where there is real pressure, but on the whole, this seems wildly exaggerated. If anything, the Arab Spring seems to argue the opposite.

What's the underlying cause?

If democracy isn't actually under threat, what should we make of his underlying causes for that being so?

He identifies the main cause as "the financial crisis has eroded the deal that underpinned democracy: that voters support politicians in return for greater prosperity".

He also identifies three 'top-down causes': (i) 'its become distant' as a result of politicians relying more on technocrats, (ii) 'many modern problems are global', and (iii) other citizens' rights (freedom of speech, fair trial, minimum government interference) have been trampled by the war on terror.

As far as the main cause goes, it's beyond a stretch to claim that 'voters support politicians in return for greater prosperity' is the 'deal that underpinned democracy'. Abuse of power and arbitrary rule tend to drive people to govern themselves when they can. Still, I totally agree that people tend to like prosperity and tend to vote for politicians who (rightly or wrongly) promise to give them more stuff. On the whole, I think that's a problem, but it's a reality. And it's certainly true that economic disappointment can lead to radicalism- the temptation can be great to sweep someone into power who promises to deal with the problems.

But if your country has a problem (economic or otherwise), democracy (republic) is the system you want- it's the system that allows the people to flexibly change rulers who arn't doing a good job. Other systems require revolution, a far messier process.

[Now, the EU is a complicated bureaucracy the likes of which I only sort of understand, and I could easily see how the way it's currently structured could destroy many of democracy's benefits. To the average Spaniard, it might feel like an impersonal, arbitrary authority imposing the will of other countries on it. The average Greek probably wants more control over the decisions that impact them than less; more democracy, not less. This is probably worth a future post.]


I see no evidence that 'democracy is under threat' except for maybe a handful of countries currently being ground under the heel of the EU.

Problems of all kinds occur in all countries, and people are particular sensitive to economic problems. But "the financial crisis has eroded the deal that underpinned democracy" is an overly dramatic, confused and short-sighted thing to say. Economic problems stress every political system- they make people unhappy and can create extremism. But a democratic republic is able to adjust to those problems far better than most systems. People will keep throwing out politicians until politicians find a solution to the problem. Doing this peacefully is better than doing it violently. Governing is hard- democracy isn't some magical path to peace, liberty, prosperity, and justice. Overall, though, it's got a lot going for it.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

About this Blog

I'm founder of Wielding Power (WieldingPowerPublishing.com), a site dedicated to improving how we think and talk about social and political problems. 

I created this blog to share things I find interesting and to sharpen my thinking. Writing down my reflections, even if they're poorly formed, helps crystalize my thoughts.