Relaxing to think on a Sunday afternoon.
Reason TV sat down with Georgetown Law's Randy Barnett to talk about his new book "Our Republican Constitution" and a number of other issues.
Relaxing to think on a Sunday afternoon.
Reason TV sat down with Georgetown Law's Randy Barnett to talk about his new book "Our Republican Constitution" and a number of other issues.
Posted by Georg Thomas on 04/10/2016 at 09:06 AM in American Culture, Barack Obama, Books & Media, Congress, Constitution, Current Affairs, Film, Georg Thomas, History Lessons, Liberty Laid Bare, Media/Media Bias, Presidency, U.S., Pure Politics, Republicans, Social Philosophy, State/Nebraska Politics, Supreme Court, Taxes and Spending | Permalink | Comments (0)
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Watch the first part:
My score card accords the winner of each segment 3 points, the runner up 2 points, the third-place-finisher 1 point - with cumulative points behind candidates' names:
I do not necessarily agree with the candidates' views, so my judgement is a mixture of assessing reasonableness (even in a person of different opinions), coherence, communicative effectiveness, and, where applicable, concurrence.
Introduction : McAfee (3), Petersen (2), Johnson (1)
Terror., Military, Foreign Policy : Petersen (5), McAfee (5), Johnson (2)
When to go to war? : Johnson (5), Petersen (7), McAfee (6)
Dealing with Welfare State : Johnson (8), Petersen (9), McAfee (7)
Terrorism, ISIS : Johnson (11), Petersen (11), McAfee (8)
Foreign aid : Johnson (14), Petersen (13), McAfee (9)
Personal Questions : Johnson (17), Petersen (15), McAfee (10)
Appeal to Democrats : Johnson (20), Petersen (17), McAfee (11)
Abortion : McAfee (14), Johnson (22), Petersen (18)
Death Penalty : McAfee (17), Petersen (20), Johnson (23)
Gay Marriage : McAfee (20), Petersen (22), Johnson (24)
Gender Pay Gap : Petersen (25), Johnson (26), McAfee (21)
Vote For Other Pres. Candidate : Petersen (28), McAfee (23), Johnson (27)
If my counting is right, the winner by a small margin is Petersen, one point ahead of Johnson.
Nonetheless, if I had to decide who I would vote for, ultimately, Gary Johnson would have my support. McAfee strikes me as a bit of a black horse. He leaves me with the impression that some of his views are not too well thought through. Petersen is personable, a good communicator, with an aura of deep conviction, but his palpable faith comes with the downside of rather a mechanical approach to the issues. Johnson is the one who convinces me that his principles do not cut him off from reality and people with other beliefs.
Posted by Georg Thomas on 04/08/2016 at 05:34 PM in American Culture, Anti War libertarians, Books & Media, Current Affairs, Electoral Prospects, Film, Georg Thomas, Health Care, History Lessons, Media/Media Bias, National/International Affairs, Presidency, U.S., Presidential Race--Then and Later, Pure Politics, Religion, Republicans, Ron Paul, Social Philosophy | Permalink | Comments (1)
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Matthew Parris tells the story about devouring the book that made him become a Tory at the age of ten.
Older readers may remember this series. Younger readers should know that Pookie was a small winged rabbit with blue trousers, rescued in distress by a loving, poor but honest girl called Belinda, who lived alone in the wood, made Pookie a padded bed in a sort of shoebox, and helped him grow wings. The pair became the greatest friends.
One late autumn day, Winter — drawn as a scary giant with icicle fingers — arrives. There’s a great storm. Trees blow down. Burrows flood. All the animals in the wood (Pookie’s friends) are devastated; homes destroyed, food stores ruined, wings and paws wounded. Pookie and Belinda take in the casualties, warm them by the fire and feed and tend to them. But Pookie (with whom I identified) strides out into the storm in a rage and, shaking his little paw at Winter, tells him to stop being so cruel, go back to the North Pole and never return.
And to Pookie’s shock, Winter withdraws. Pookie is briefly feted. Autumn is followed by spring. Then all nature is thrown into confusion. Flowers have no time to prepare to flower again; dead leaves and branches have not been cleared, nor animals refreshed by hibernation. Now all the woodland folk protest, and Pookie becomes a figure of hate.
So, in the biggest adventure of his life, Pookie flies all the way to the North Pole, nearly perishing in the attempt. He confronts Winter a second time (this full-page picture was so frightening I kept it under my pillow to sneak glances in the night). Pookie confesses he had been wrong, apologises, and begs Winter to return. The little rabbit now realises that the seasons have a purpose, that lazy or foolish animals with ill-sited burrows or nests have to be shown their folly, and every creature given an incentive to work hard, prepare and store.
Admiring Pookie’s courage, Winter relents, agrees to return, and wafts the exhausted bunny home on a storm cloud.
Being a confirmed enemy of winter as we all know it and a believer in directing human ingenuity toward a tightening of winter to the length of one month and a radical reduction of the shortened winter event to immaculate winter wonderland conditions, I would tend to extend the lesson to be learned from the above story to approximate more of a conservative-progressive compromise: let us respect personal responsibility as a pivotal means for changing the world in unheard-of ways. Let us not just brave what is, but achieve what is not yet. And let us not be too shy to do it collectively.
Image credit - including another interesting article on Realpolitik.
The story behind the name-dropping:
The concept emerged when liberal nationalism in Germany failed during the revolutions of 1848. The domestic political challenge, writes Bew, was how to build a stable and liberal nation state in a fragile, rapidly changing environment without either violent revolution or harsh repression. Germany’s internal fragmentation, along with its vulnerability to external pressure from its lack of geographically defensive natural frontiers, set the context. Realpolitik proposed that statecraft must first identify the contending social, economic, and intellectual forces to achieve some kind of equilibrium so they would not hinder the nation state’s development. Only then could the project of liberating Germany to form a united realm succeed.
Ludwig von Rochau (1810-1873) coined the term “realpolitik” in 1853. His two-volume Foundations of Realpolitik offered a liberal response to the challenge of power politics that had swept aside constitutionalism in Germany just a few years before. Accepting power as the fundamental determinant of politics, Rochau separated natural or legal right from sovereignty, which he treated as the consequence of power. Political arrangements had to reflect the social forces within a state as harmonious balance among them minimized internal conflict while drawing more effectively upon their intrinsic strength. Ideas mattered, but less for their intrinsic virtue (or viciousness) than for the wider support they attracted.
Cynics might rate an idea’s usefulness above its truth. Rochau focused instead on the power an idea exercised. Whether right or wrong in themselves, ideas had influence that any political assessment must consider if it was to match reality. Modernity, Rochau believed, made public opinion the key factor in national politics. Statesmen had to engage rather than attempt to suppress it.
Realpolitik aimed to strip away illusions, whether grounded in sentiment, ideals, or ambition. Understanding reality made serving higher ideals possible. Critics later charged Rochau with succumbing to obstacles that blocked change, but he sought to work around barriers rather than push through them. German unity, from a realpolitik standpoint, opened the possibility of a liberal agenda of self-government, expanded political participation, and freedom of expression. Nationalism offered a unifying ideal to overcome differences stemming from religious sectarianism, region, or social class. Since neither Germany’s old order nor the conservative internationalism epitomized by Klemens von Metternich could share power with rising groups or adapt to change, Rochau believed both were doomed to fail.
Make sure the entire article.
It strikes me that Realpolitik in the sense defined by Rochau seems an indispensable aspect of modern liberty. The latter replaces the tutelage by kin, lord, or priest with vastly expanded personal latitude and responsibility. People represent themselves more than a community of rigid, anti-individualistic cohesion. Compare what I have written about modular man in Violence, Sustenance, and Faith - Civil Society and Social Cohesion (Ernest Gellner) - (4/4). In seeking accommodation with his fellows, the individual is led by different motives and strategies than the tribesman subservient to a culture that treats him as a faithful reflection, an enactor of its rites and rules. Liberty gives rights to people with varying notions of justice and other fundamental convictions. If the they are to coexist peacefully, new forms of compromise and toleration need to be instituted. Realpolitik has a role to play in that.
What a great experience: this morning, I was privileged to witness the flying visit of the Nebraska Supreme Court to US Air Force base Ramstein, Germany, expertly organised by Senator Laura Ebke. The Court was holding oral arguments at the newly inaugurated Kearnsey Poisson d'Avril Law School over here in Landstuhl, Germany, an institution founded to encourage the harmonisation of US and European law with a long-term view to a gradual replacement of US law by the musical scores of German composers.
A "poisson d'avril" (april's fish) is a joke made on April 1st. In France, children try to stick a fish picture on their friends' back. When the joke is discovered, they shout "poisson d'avril !"
Image credit. NASA Astronaut Scott Kelly celebrated his first holiday back on Earth after his #YearInSpace by sharing a photo of a bunny rabbit plush toy in space, taken inside the ISS. In the background you can see the blue marble we all call home.
In the meantime, down here we are enjoying the cheapest Easter "since Lehman".
Happy Easter to Everyone.
The late Sir George Martin [producer and arranger of The Beatles] created substantial British exports. Had the import of his music to America been banned to save the jobs of US musicians, Britain would have missed out on some revenue but the American consumer would have been the biggest loser, missing out on the music. Trade benefits the importing country: that’s why it happens.
Frankly, we might as well be living in the 17th century, so antiquated are our current debates over trade, both here over Brexit and in America over the presidential nominations. Many current assumptions about trade were debunked more than two hundred years ago and then tested to destruction in the mid-19th century.
In the 17th and 18th centuries European governments were in thrall to “mercantilism”, the belief that the purpose of trade was (roughly) to push exports on to other countries in exchange for cash and so build up a surplus of treasure with which to pay armies to fight wars. So they sought to restrain imports with tariffs and bans, while encouraging exports with monopolies and gunboats. Britain’s Navigation Acts after 1651, and the chartering of companies such as the East India Company, were part of this policy.
Along came Adam Smith and made a different argument, that mercantilism punished consumers and the poor, while rewarding producers and the rich; that imports were a good thing because they raised people’s standard of living by giving them what they wanted at lower prices. With money to spare, consumers bought more things from producers, creating jobs and generating prosperity. If bread was cheaper, people could afford more textiles. Gradually, with the help of David Ricardo and John Stuart Mill, Britain was persuaded of this and by the time Robert Peel, William Ewart Gladstone and Richard Cobden were in charge, Britain had declared unilateral free trade and dared the world to follow.
It is true that unilateral declarations of free trade, while benefiting everyone as consumers, can hurt those producers who have previously been protected from competition by tariffs and other barriers. Because the pain is more concentrated than the gain, their voice is louder, and Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders have been amplifying it. (America has never been as convinced by the free trade case as Britain: its infamous Smoot-Hawley tariffs of the 1930s worsened the depression and hastened war.)
Yet the effect of trade on jobs is no different from the effect of innovation. Just as imported Chinese goods have destroyed the jobs of British manufacturers, so threshing machines destroyed the jobs of farm labourers, washing machines destroyed jobs in laundries and Uber will destroy the jobs of taxi drivers, yet everybody was net better off.
Governments should certainly compensate people for locally destructive effects of changing trade or technology, but not by raising barriers against imports. That just punishes consumers and stifles economic growth.
Ridley denies that the
... European single market is a free trade area. It’s not: it’s a customs union — a fortress protected by an external tariff. And it’s shrinking as a share of world trade.
Ridley thinks, the UK would be better off after a Brexit:
Professor Patrick Minford of Cardiff Business School argues in a recent study that the single market distorts Britain’s economy, making us “produce more of what we are worst at and less of what we are best at, while our consumers have to pay excessive prices”. If Britain left the EU it would gain about 4 per cent of GDP as a result, he calculates.
Posted by Georg Thomas on 03/25/2016 at 07:43 AM in A Climate of Changes, American Culture, Books & Media, Current Affairs, Economics, Georg Thomas, History Lessons, Media/Media Bias, Presidency, U.S., Presidential Race--Then and Later, Pure Politics, Social Philosophy, Taxes and Spending, Technology, Internet | Permalink | Comments (0)
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The black-and-white aspect of politics also encourages people to think in black-and-white terms. Not only do political parties emerge, but their supporters become akin to sports fans, feuding families, or students at rival high schools. Nuances of differences in opinions are traded for stark dichotomies that are largely fabrications. Thus, we get the “no regulation, hate the environment, hate poor people” party and the “socialist, nanny-state, hate the rich” party—and the discussions rarely go deeper than this.
No doubt, partisanship can be exaggerated to the point of becoming dangerous and destructive. I am not going to repeat what I said above about political dichotomies being the very rationale (among other rationales) of practising politics, and the many features of a modern political order dedicated to attenuating the most detrimental effects of radical antagonisms. My purpose is not to reject out of hand the authors misgivings about politics, but to show that in their criticism they are looking at only one side of the overall story.
We tend to indulge in a rationalistic perception of politics, which is natural as we are apt to assess most political arguments in as rational a way as we are capable of. For this reason, we may not feel particularly inclined to recognise "the sense in the nonsense" that much of politics may bring about, the symbolic, ritualistic and sublimational functions of politics which help build and structure, maintain and develop multi-ideological communities.
Symbols and rites can serve the function of ordering society, i.e. keeping it in a working condition especially by preventing violence and oppression. The symbols and rites of bipartisanship may well serve the purpose of a war dance that replaces the need for outright war.
I believe, it is necessary to focus far more than is customarily done on the spontaneous order of politics and the state, which may well contain features that turn politics into a valuable part of modern civilisation without anyone intending the system to work and have effects as it does, thanks to overall results achieved by human action but not by human design.
As in the spontaneous order of the economic world, ignorance is a key challenge that needs to be met by the political order for a modern civilisation to emerge. We are hugely ignorant vis-à-vis the countless topics that tend to occupy the political mind. Some of that vacuum of ignorance can never be filled with secure knowledge. We resort to unreliable, woolly, and non-scientific ways of filling the void. Sure, we begin to tell one another stories that may be well on their way to scientific respectability, but many of them may have no hope to ever become more than just-so stories.
Politics like this is no better than arguments between rival sports fans, and often worse because politics is more morally charged. Most Americans find themselves committed to either the red team (Republicans) or the blue (Democrats) and those on the other team are not merely rivals, but represent much that is evil in the world. Politics often forces its participants into pointless internecine conflict, as they struggle with the other guy not over legitimate differences in policy opinion but in an apocalyptic battle between virtue and vice.
Again, in human communities, especially in large ones, we cannot help but face fundamental differences of some kind or other in our views and objectives. We shall hardly be able to ever get rid of that phenomenon. In fact, freedom encourages diversity of opinion and vision.
I cannot see how anyone, including us libertarians, should be able to determine for the rest of us what counts as legitimate differences in policy opinion - it is part of politics to compete over this question. Also, I cannot see that we libertarians refrain from an apocalyptic battle between virtue and vice. We are part of the symmetric pattern that is being formed by opposing discussants. Political opposition has an experimental side to it. We need to find out, what it is that we disagree about and what avenues may open up to resolve differences. Furthermore, political opposition has a ritualistic side to it (see also my remarks under section 8 above). There are a number of powerful reasons to form partisan groups (see below), and if a population is divided among two or three major, traditionally viable camps, this may be a sign of stability, especially if being part of a camp means that (a) one's strongest convictions and political feelings are powerfully represented in the political system and that (b) therefore there are overwhelming incentives to keep the competition non-violent, non-oppressive, and open for challenges and new developments. Being part of a very strong camp can be a "relaxing" experience, i.e. encouraging trust in the prospects of non-violent negotiations, alternating preeminence (in government) and compromise (on the level of the operative bureaucracies in which political fiat is ultimately hammered out).
So what matters is how we deal with antagonisms. The principles of liberty are one of the means by which we attempt to keep the level of tension reasonably low among millions of people with different and even incompatible preferences.
Why do we become partisans? A political agent that is powerful - intellectually and in the exercise of influence - can be helpful in reducing (subjectively experienced) rational ignorance and strengthen one's sense of responsibility and engagement - "alone I cannot do anything about outrage X, but as member of a larger group, I can." In that way, partisanship creates leverage that people will always seek, for better or worse. Having said that, we should expose such leverage to criticism where it malfunctions, but we should also be sensitive to instances of success, which certainly exist - a partisan community improving ones's knowledge and furthering a worthwhile cause. Also, there are natural and legitimate reasons to feel drawn to this group rather than that one, and thus there is a expansive need to manage legitimate partisan differences.
As for "politics like this is no better than arguments between rival sports fans:" I happen to support the soccer team of my hometown. I am pretty sure, had I been brought up in a different town, I would be supporting a different team than today. Social outlooks and political affiliations too are often a matter of upbringing and, in principle, no less worthy of tolerance than other core elements of a person's socialisation that - like her religious faith - appear to be largely determined by location/accident of birth.
How can this be? Republicans and Democrats hold opinions fully within the realm of acceptable political discourse, with each side’s positions having the support of roughly half our fellow citizens. If we can see around partisanship’s Manichean blinders, both sides have views about government and human nature that are at least understandable to normal people of normal disposition—understandable, that is, in the sense of “I can appreciate how someone would think that.” But, when you add politics to the mix, simple and modest differences of opinion become instead the difference between those who want to save America and those who seek to destroy it.
The authors make a distinction between two fundamentally distinct worlds:
For reasons explained above, such a complete separation of political views and the world of politics is unconvincing. However, this artificial dichotomy is rather characteristic of the libertarian view of politics, which latter is deemed to be essentially an admixture of malice and evil.
This behavior, while appalling, shouldn’t surprise us. Psychologists have shown for decades how people will gravitate to group mentalities that can make them downright hostile. They’ve shown how strong group identification creates systematic errors in thinking. Your “teammates” are held to less exacting standards of competence, while those on the other team are often presumed to be mendacious and acting from ignoble motives. This is yet another way in which politics makes us worse: it cripples our thinking critically about the choices before us.
Research shows clearly that we live in a far more peaceful world than our ancestors, and that the movement toward open access societies with their avenues for mass political participation is a movement toward less violence and more peace. The big challenge that needs to be dealt with successfully before modern civilisation can unfold are violence and trust. We need to reduce violence and increase trust to such an extent that people can become productive, immensely productive compared to most of mankind's history. We achieve this by a co-evolution of (a) economic relations and (b) conducive political structures. Politics is also a grown order, yet adapted to different tasks than the economy. It would seem to me that a presumption in favour of the civilising function of politics is a more promising hypothesis (to be challenged in a thousand ways) than the preconception that politics is the big spoiler of advances in our civilisation.
Psychologists have shown for decades how people will gravitate to group mentalities that can make them downright hostile. They’ve shown how strong group identification creates systematic errors in thinking.
That may well be. But the story does not end here. Civilisation is all about finding ways around dysfunctional kinds and levels of hostility. Civil society is one big complex set of arrangements to challenge tribal uniformity and foster individualism, pluralism, and a permanent and multi-pronged onslaught against strong group identification. Practicing group identification in a free society is a totally different exercise from what it used to be in closed access societies or tribal formations. Politics is the driver behind the dynamism that constantly challenges what shapes of group identification may be forming at a certain point in time. We are witnessing tremendous fragmentation and turn over of group identification thanks to our pluralistic political order. Group identification can succeed best in a stable world with strong taboos against or simply an absence of critical challenges, such as they are being organised by modern politics. It would seem that the great distinct paradigmatic blocks in politics are more like tectonic plates that grate one another, rather than one plate slipping over and thereby subduing the other plate.
This is yet another way in which politics makes us worse: it cripples our thinking critically about the choices before us.
Taken altogether, I have great difficulty to see how the political culture of a free society can be characterised as predominantly, even essentially crippling our thinking critically about the choices before us.
The human ability to think critically, express dissent and positive opinion, advertise one's own view and challenge adversaries, along with the means that support critical analysis (like the internet) has never been surrounded by a more friendly and conducive environment than today's pluralistic democratic political order.
The issues that politics must deal with are often extremely difficult and many can never be resolved harmoniously, but why should we feel entitled to indulge in a stabilised harmony?
What’s troubling about politics from a moral perspective is not that it encourages group mentalities, for a great many other activities encourage similar group thinking without raising significant moral concerns. Rather, it’s the way politics interacts with group mentalities, creating negative feedback leading directly to viciousness. Politics, all too often, makes us hate each other. Politics encourages us to behave toward each other in ways that, were they to occur in a different context, would repel us. No truly virtuous person ought to behave as politics so often makes us act.
It would be helpful if the authors explained more fully what they mean by politics. What I read suggests that to them politics is exhaustively described as the business of fomenting hate between human beings.
Also, it is not uncommon even for people who live or work together for long periods of time to feel strong antipathy for certain traits and habits in another person, without ending up in a radical conflict. When playing the game "being a soccer fan," I do not appreciate my brother-in-law cheering for the opposing team, but when playing a different game like "exploring the cultural treasures of Barcelona," we get on like a house on fire.
My impression is that in general people are quite capable of making a distinction between political divergence and other modes of human interaction. In fact, it is rare that people hate me for my political convictions; some of my friends think of me as a right winger and, notwitstanding that ugly wart, go on having a great time with me.
Again, I feel that our political culture tends to encourage tolerance and the avoidance of extreme and pointless confrontations, both among the broader population and among activists, the more confrontational among which being too easily mistaken for the larger numbers of reasonable participants in politics.
While we may be able to slightly alter how political decisions are made, we cannot change the essential nature of politics. We cannot conform it to the utopian vision of good policies and virtuous citizens. The problem is not bugs in the system but the nature of political decision-making itself. The only way to better both our world and ourselves—to promote good policies and virtue—is to abandon, to the greatest extent possible, politics itself.
The last two sentences have merit in that they give us an incisive summary of the wrongheaded approach to politics that is unfortunately predominant among libertarians, even defining the libertarian.
But do we really want to live in a world where politics is so important to our lives that we cannot help but be politically involved? Many, both on the left and the right, answer yes. A politically engaged citizenry will not only make more decisions democratically but also be better people for it. From communitarians to neoconservatives, there’s a sense that civic virtue is virtue—or at least that individually we cannot be fully virtuous without exercising a robust political participation. Politics, when sufficiently unconstrained by crude individualism and sufficiently embraced by an actively democratic polity, makes us better people.
If I grew up and lived a life facing no prospects of punishment and other forms of resistance constraining my behaviour, it would be rational and natural for me to steal, kill, and lie, just when it suits me, and do a lot of other things that under the real circumstances of my life I find abhorrent and would never engage in. Politics is about organising, defending, enforcing, and changing the constraints that we must observe while living with other human beings. Sure, tradition and other evolutionary processes play an important role, but man is always faced with the challenge to establish by conscious effort which values and taboos are to count as socially preeminent. People cannot take a permanent holiday from working on the normative frame by which to live.
There are no super-markets with products on their shelves like a can of "being nice to everyone" or a bottle of "total mutual agreement in America."
The forms of political participation are multifarious (especially in a civil society), they can be expected to be shaped by tendentially efficient structures such as a division of labour among more or less politically active members of the community, and, most importantly, political participation ought to be free for every citizen inclined to join the competition for political influence. It is not unreasonable to assume that an open access political order is an important prerequisite for conditions that induce and constrain people to treat each other as if by this they have become better people than in a society less concerned with the individual's desire to be represented or otherwise effective in the political world of her community.
It is mankind's lot to live in a world where politics is so important to our lives that we cannot help but be politically involved. We cannot change that condition, but we can hope that he who has a need for it will be free to get involved in politics. No less than the free market, politics is all about competition; you must get engaged and fight hard to get your objectives recognised and acted upon as intended. If you want something of a political nature to happen, there is got to be someone who cannot help but be politically involved.
Too many terms are used as if they had only one meaning, when, in fact, they can be used to point at very different situations. Political apathy is one such term. Some of the political apathy that people remark upon may indeed be regrettable, but a lot of it is to be welcomed, as it is an indication that the political system works reasonably well and that there are hard workers at it, so called politicians, that practice political participation in a way that leaves us more content than we are willing to concede. The political division of labour works - tolerably well.
It is intrinsically difficult to seek for a political system where (a) high levels of active mass political participation are not required, leaving people free to pursue other goals, AND (b) expect that politics must be free from decisions that any given non-participant among that huge majority may feel not to be representing her. In a word: you cannot have suitably low levels of mass political participation without systematic and chronic attacks on the fairness and effectiveness of the political system - which is one of the lasting imperfections in politics. More direct democracy has limits of feasibility that make themselves felt quickly as a study of the counterproductive outcomes of direct democracy in the Greek polis reveals.
Yet, there is a huge difference between both systems.
Yet the increasing scope of politics and political decisionmaking in America and other Western nations has precisely the opposite effect. It’s bad for our policies and, just as important, it’s bad for our souls. The solution is simple: when questions arise about whether the scope of politics should be broadened, we must realistically look at the effects that politics itself has on the quality of those decisions and on our own virtue.
We might need a new epithet to describe the partisan propensity to regard an instance of what appears to them an important political defect as being part of a chain reaction that inexorably leads to a dystopian state which is bad for our souls.
How about the domino illusion?
True, there are dominoes that fall, but they do not fall in a perfect and fatal cascade, some remain errect, some are being picked up again, and new ones are set up as well. In paragraph 3 above, I have already tried to convince my readers that the increasing scope of politics and political descisionmaking in America has aspects to it that no one of us would wish to miss. So this is a real option, too: politics may increase in scope and the world is getting better for it. It is not helpful to ignore this important fact. Indeed, there can be no good political theory that does not take cognizance of the full range of significant effects achieved by politics.
the effects that politics itself has on the quality of those decisions and on our own virtue
I have noted in paragraph 4:
an open access political order is an important prerequisite for conditions that induce and constrain people to treat each other as if by this they have become better people than in a society less concerned with the individual's desire to be represented or otherwise effective in the political world of her community.
Politics takes a continuum of possibilities and turns it into a small group of discrete outcomes, often just two. Either this guy gets elected, or that guy does. Either a given policy becomes law or it doesn’t. As a result, political choices matter greatly to those most affected. An electoral loss is the loss of a possibility. These black and white choices mean politics will often manufacture problems that previously didn’t exist, such as the “problem” of whether we—as a community, as a nation—will teach children creation or evolution.
I am tempted to coin another term - the ice-berg fallacy, i.e. for the full picture one must dive deeper, the top of the ice-berg is not the whole story. Politics is concerned with political scarcity, meaning: it is about coping with the socially destructive potential of mutually exclusive partisan positions. In other words, the discrete outcomes that the authors claim to be the unwarranted product of politics are often residuals of social tensions that cannot be resolved by other means, such as market transactions. I am in favour of nuclear energy. And you are not. What next?
Admittedly, politics can be used to create discrete outcomes of a deplorably reductionist kind, reducing for instance the competitive processes in the world of management to an artificial either-them-or-us-issue as in decreeing a female quota for executive boards. But then, I challenge any comer to show me, how free markets can get rid of such inordinate politicisation. Again, we need to enage in politics to keep politics within reasonable bounds. There is no escaping politics.
Also, what appear to be binary choices (either him or her, either this or that policy) are often better understood in view of the large hidden ramifications that qualify and counterbalance such either-or: Each candidate must take into consideration the multifarious views and interests of the electorate; her programme and actual politics will reflect a wider spectrum of constraints, ambitions and demands than fit into a neat dichotomy. The politician appears dishonest precisely because she must try to do justice to differing and competing positions within the electorate. Before and after being elected, the politician will have to take into account other institutions of the democratic culture (apart from the elective mandate): authorities, courts, all kinds of associations, all sorts of committees etc whose purposeit is to expose her to wider efforts at exercising influence and exerting control over the politically powerful incumbent. In a society with democratic mass participation in politics, people are influencing each other all the time through exposure to debate, changing and competing views, and practical encounters in the processes of political competition and cooperation. The truly dichotomous choices are embedded in an environment of permanent mutual control, adjustment, and compromise - everyone is free to enter the competition and seek out her opportunities to contribute to supervising, shaping the visions of and cooperatively participating in the political processes. The system creates winners and losers, but they are not always the same people; sometime this party wins, sometimes it loses; such competition certainly does not leave a gilded trail of neat solutions happily endorsed by everyone, but it does produce a trust ultimately recognisable by the public's general peaceful tolerance of the political system.
Oddly, many believe that political decisionmaking is an egalitarian way of allowing all voices to be heard. Nearly everyone can vote, after all, and because no one has more than one vote, the outcome seems fair.
But outcomes in politics are hardly ever fair. Once decisions are given over to the political process, the only citizens who can affect the outcome are those with sufficient political power. The most disenfranchised minorities become those whose opinions are too rare to register on the political radar. In an election with thousands of voters, a politician is wise to ignore the grievances of 100 people whose rights are trampled given how unlikely those 100 are to determine the outcome.
We have just seen that far more opinions and interests have been taken into consideration in a complex process that leads among other things in the end also to a number of dichotomous choices (say, abortion or pro-life).
While the very rationale for engaging in politics is to handle intransigent antagonisms, of which no society can be free, in order to do so politicians - in a resilient democracy - must of necessity be open to compromise and middle-of-the-road-positions, and much of their work before and after getting elected will be heavily constrained by the rule of law and other institutions of a democratic open access society. In fact, it will be in the interest of the politician to comply with and support such institutions, rather than undermining them all of the time. So the authors' general assertion is not true: Once decisions are given over to the political process, the only citizens who can affect the outcome are those with sufficient political power. Democracy as an entire culture of practices and institutions has evolved to protect people with highly differential degrees of political power. To make this point, I like to remind people that Mr. Obama is far from being the richest man in America, and Bundeskanzlerin Merkel is so weak - thanks to our democratic culture - she cannot even dispossess a small baker by political fiat to have her bakery-chain (if she had one) take advantage of his shop's good location and attractive clientele.
But outcomes in politics are hardly ever fair. Can there ever be a world where it is not possible or not endeavoured by any one to reproach others for being unfair?What world do the authors propose to establish, where outcomes are hardly ever unfair? Are they not really coquetting with the nirvana fallacy? "Fairness" - that is one of those infinitely stretchable words. Again, politics is called upon to manage human affairs precisely when people find it hard to achieve congruency of opinion, as when there are diverging ideas of what may count as "fair."
As for minorities, one can certainly observe very small groups achieving disproportionate political influence, while other minorities may be lacking any clout. There are countless reasons for that. By the end of the day, in an open political order, however, impact is ultimately a matter of resolve, perseverance, skill - and luck - but not primarily a function of the number of activists hoping to attain political weight.
As Chris Berg writes poignantly:
Democratic institutions ensure that if you want to alter policy, you have to convince your fellow citizens that change is desirable.
And, because any single vote will not change an election outcome, you have to convince a very large number that your cause is so important they should make an expressive, personal, "irrational" stand at the ballot box.
The futility of voting means that democracy resists sudden radical change. This is a good thing.
So many people who complain that the "system" is rigged are in truth complaining that most other citizens don't agree with them.
The reason why many minorities, and indeed, majorities, may not feel to be represented as they would wish, is not that people are being oppressed, i.e. denied the exertion of political influence, but the fact that they judge the opportunity costs of political engagement far too high to give up alternative preferences. Which, in turn, I would tend to interpret as indicative of a broad popular concurrence with the present political division of labour among population and political activists.
To be continued.
Aaron Ross Powell and Trevor Burrus, research fellows at the CATO Institute, have written an article entitled Politics Makes Us Worse. Below I shall comment on each of the thirteen paragraphs of which their article consists. Powell and Burrus are making many valid points, but they spoil their take by over-generalisation, which is the cardinal defect underlying the libertarian presumption against politics. In that way, the arguments displayed in Politics Makes Us Worse are almost a mini primer containing many of the central misconceptions of politics entertained in libertarian circles.
First, it is in order to comment on the title the authors have chosen: Politics Makes Us Worse. It can be inevitable, and in some cases even useful, to introduce phrases that come over more strongly than the wider message they are intended to support - such as, say, in a socially well-understood and accepted exaggeration (like "Americans are great people.")
Such is the case with the title of my present post - I do not believe that politics makes us better; rather I think politics can make us better, but it also can make us worse. Moreover, politics can have functions and effects that do not relate to the issue of people becoming better or worse. Hence, in the text I qualify the title's bait.
The authors do not make any such qualification whatsoever. I am therefore entitled to take the statement - politics makes us worse - as an absolute. And precisely therein lies the difficulty with their position, which is representative of the attitude maintained by a large number of libertarians. In the below text, the authors' phrasings are
indented and completely in italics,
followed underneath by my comment (without emphasis):
Increasing the sphere of politics leads to bad policy and increased vice.
By and large, the freer a country, the more likely it is to allow political engagement by any citizen interested in such activity, increasing the sphere of politics compared to a closed access society where the privilege of participating in politics is reserved to a small ruling elite. It appears that the absence (as in Mabutos's Kongo) or the retraction (as in Nazi Germany) of such freedom leads to increased vice, rather than the other way around.
An interesting special case might be provided by a class of countries that do not have a democratic political order, yet enjoy the status of favourites in the eyes of many libertarians, such as Hong Kong or Singapore. To begin with, the absence of a Western-type democratic political order does not mean that politics, with all its pluses and cons, is not happening in such countries. The relevant processes may be less familiar to the Westerner, naturally more opaque, or it may be the case that in order for the political goings-on to become more transparent to an observer, she must seek intimate and enduring participation in the social life of the respective countries.
Furthermore, I strongly suspect that Hong Kong and Singapore have benefited from other people having done politics in their stead - namely the British people, who exported practices and institutions of a modern civil society to these two places. Excellent conditions for commercial advancement (enabled by the imported model of a modern Western civil society) combined with an impoverished population eager to take advantage of the opportunities to grow materially more comfortable, the people of Hong Kong and Singapore may have had low demand for democratic politics for a number of decades. They certainly had strong governments whose political orientation and political decisions were decisive for the economic success of both places. Indubitably, politics has made Hong Kong and Singapore better (places to live in).
Even if we try to ignore it, politics influences much of our world. For those who do pay attention, politics invariably leads in newspapers and on TV news and gets discussed, or shouted about, everywhere people gather. Politics can weigh heavily in forging friendships, choosing enemies, and coloring who we respect.
What the authors want their readers to focus on is a part of politics fraught with problems and unpleasant challenges: the divisiveness in politics, the ways in which politics creates division, and enhances or exploits it.
What the authors do not see is that politics is the only way in which we can hope to deal with issues that drive us apart.
What the authors do not see is that we cannot ignore politics - understood as dealing with the inevitable fundamental disagreements that the social order of a viable community must come to grips with.
Politics communicates, resolves or attenuates strife resulting from the manifold sources of significant disagreement among human beings. Bashing politics in total is like rejecting tragedy and drama in human affairs as a needless luxury willfully created by the bored and playful.
Of course, try as we may, we cannot ignore politics - it is part of the human condition. Of course, politics influences much of our world - which is full of dissent and potential for oppression and violence that needs to be kept under control. The compromises of politics will tend to be imperfect, because the more fundamental disagreements among human beings will not go away, when our political arrangements help us to avoid the crassest, bloodiest, and especially destructive forms of battle.
It’s not difficult to understand why politics plays such a central role in our lives: political decision-making increasingly determines so much of what we do and how we’re permitted to do it. We vote on what our children will learn in school and how they will be taught. We vote on what people are allowed to drink, smoke, and eat. We vote on which people are allowed to marry those they love. In such crucial life decisions, as well as countless others, we have given politics a substantial impact on the direction of our lives. No wonder it’s so important to so many people.
Does political decision-making really increasingly determine so much of what we do and how we're permitted to do it? Can we do less and are we more regimented and patronised than in 1965, in 1912, or in 1860? By what metric?
Is it not the case that we are living in zones of reduced freedom and other zones of increased freedom, many of which may not be easily netted, if this is possible at all? I suppose, as drivers we may be considerably more regulated today than in 1912 - but is this not largely an appropriate response to mass transportation, and a large contribution to personal freedom? Have the regulations to which mass transportation has led been brutally imposed upon us by political decisionmaking, or is it not rather the case that countless institutions of a free society, from the legal world, to the media, to the many events and practices that make up our political order have allowed millions of us to exercise influence on the process by which such regulations get formed?
What do we gain in denying a role for politics in improving our lives?
To be continued.