Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Modern(ist) Political Subtlety - or Why "Majority Rule" is a Deadly Ruse

And now for something topical about the rationalizations used by those who either despise - or don't 'get" - the Enlightenment...

===Minority Veto===

This week's Senate imbroglio - featuring efforts by the majority to bypass a democratic filibuster of administration judiciary appointments - can be viewed as yet another front in the Great Big War Against Modernity.

On a purely political basis, this entire stance is simply stupid. Even George F. Will has complained that the GOP position seems to assume there will never again be a democratic president, with a democratic Senatorial majority. Under those circumstances, would not republicans wish for a way to stymie the worst, most doctrinaire and ideological court appointments? A method to force some kind of negotiation and compromise, or at least respect for the views of a large and strong-willed minority?

Either their sense of history is extremely myopic... or else they think they know something that we don't know, about the political shape of our future. (Ponder this paragraph at leisure, till that last remark makes sense. And shiver.)

But let's consider this issue at a more abstract level. In a very general sense, what we are seeing is one party - claiming justification based on a slim electoral majority - asserting that they thereupon have a sweeping mandate to rule without negotiation or compromise.

Let's break up that last sentence. One of the great, consistent patterns of human governance, seen in nearly all cultures, has been a tendency for some group to claim justification based on __________, and thereupon assert that they have a mandate to rule without negotiation or compromise.

Fill in the blank. What justifications were used by past ruling groups?

Rationalizations ranged from royal divine right to the verdict of the battlefield, all the way to some inherent, logical superiority of "philosopher kings." Often these excuses were articulated with great care and passion by clever, nerdy fellows - by priests, wizards, or court ideologues, who thereby won the privilege of hanging around real power - the big fellows who got their swords, or vast estates, or trust funds mostly the old-fashioned way. By inheritance.

This pattern was so universal that it really deserves to be noticed and discussed.

Instead we have allowed arm-waving romantic rationalizers to distract us with a myriad details and fast-talking incantations. Theologians and Marxist theoreticians. Aryan mystics and Hegelian dialecticians. Machiavelli, Confucius, Rand, Mao, Strauss and all their ilk wove verbal spells to justify the use of raw power by those who already had it - or soon intended to get it - free of any obligation to negotiate with those who might suggest alternative methodologies of statecraft.

I mean, really, were the Communist theoreticians who justified a narrow clique of Party Nomenklatura families any different from the churchmen who preached in support of the slavocracy in the Old South, or the Social Darwinists who wove excuses for robber barons in the 1890s?

This commonality keeps being obscured by a bewildering storm of particulars. Which, of course, serves the common interest of their Ideologist Guild.

Alas, we keep buying into one or another of these trips. Take the latest version: majority rule.

Now, please. Let me avow that majority rule is vastly better than any previous political oversimplification. Indeed, it began as a reform generated by the Enlightenment, won at great cost, overcoming desperate opposition by every kind of social elite. In other words, majority rule was better than minority rule. (But is there something even better still?

No quasi-mystical catch phrase ever contained more essential wisdom than the one asserting that states derive their legitimate powers from "consent of the governed."

But what does 'consent' mean? Majority rule helps guarantee against the worst kinds of tyranny - those featuring iron-fist repression by a truly narrow, unaccountable and coercive elite. Hence, if we ever do have a dictatorship, it will cover the fist with silken gloves, and suffer great lengths to convince us that "we" (the majority) voted for it.

Still, that will not protect minorities. Nor will it ensure that statecraft is performed with attention to CITOKATE. (Criticism is the only known antidote to error.) Indeed, it is quite possible for majorities to be flat out, cockeyed wrong.

Moreover, majorities can also be manipulated. Whether based on ethnic, religious, sexual, lifestyle or political differences, it is easy to create a sense of "us" and "them". Such distinctions can be leveraged through propaganda, as Hitler used his campaign against Jews, gypsies and other minorities, to mobilize large portions of Germany, both before and after the election of 1933.

Consider the statement above. "Such distinctions can be leveraged through propaganda" to manipulate majority opinion. Are we immune? And by "we" I mean even we modernists? (If you do not ever doubt or question yourself, you do not belong on this list. Go away. Now.)

Are "modernists" immune to propaganda? No! We are human and thus can be swayed. Indeed, for most of our lives we have been subjected to "pro-enlightenment propaganda" in the greatest indoctrination campaign of all time!

Some of you have heard my riff on this, many times. But it bears repeating. So, next time we will talk about Enlightenment Propaganda... how effective it has been... and why this very success may be the reason why the romantics are now fighting back so hard.

Continue to: Part II: The Propaganda of the Enlightenment

or: The Myth of Majority Rule Part III

See more: Politics for the 21st Century

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A couple of science notes that you'll find amusing, in light of some of my novels...

*Augmenting the Animal Kingdom Wired News May. 3, 2005 **James Auger in his controversial new book, Augmented Animals, envisions animals, birds, reptiles and even fish using specially engineered gadgets to help them overcome their evolutionary shortcomings. He imagines rodents zooming around with night-vision survival goggles, squirrels hoarding nuts using GPS locators and fish armed with metal...

*Chimeras on the Horizon, but Don't Expect Centaurs New York Times May 3, 2005 *** If research on human embryonic stem cells ever gets going, people will be hearing a lot more about chimeras, creatures composed of more than one kind of cell. Such creations -- of pigs with human hearts, monkeys with human larynxes -- are likely to be unsettling to...

*A journalist tracks down the source of a claim, often cited by
greenhouse denialists, that most of the glaciers in the world are
growing: This one is very important!

24 comments:

Brother Doug said...

Good points. What we need is a return to government by consensus. That used to be done with the filibuster and the conference committees but that has been blocked by the regressives. Or even better consensus of the entire nation! I think with the Internet it could work if done carefully.

I am looking forward to the next installment.

reason said...

Well I'm not sure that I necessarily agree with government by consensus. If you want that you should push for a change to proportional representation which just about forces that.

The problem is that it tends to be ultra cautious, even indecisive. Sometimes it is better to make a few mistakes and learn from them. At least that makes some of the real radicals eat their words.

What I do think you need is actually a modern bill of rights to protect minority rights with a strong constitution and a genuinely independent professional judiciary committed to protecting it. Changes should require a super majority (2/3 is best - and by referendum).

cryptochrome said...

reason makes a good point. Presidentialism and Parlimentarianism both have their strengths and weaknesses; as do proportional or plurality/majority election systems. (By the way if you've never seen it check out ElectionMethods.org.)

Proportional representation also has the troubling characteristic of requiring people to vote for party lists at a state or national scale, rather than individuals at a local scale. In fact, proportional representation is basically incompatible with our system of legislature since there are generally too few seats per state to distribute effectively among the parties. Of course it's impossible for the presidential election - there can be only one.

If electing judges required a 2/3rds majority, we wouldn't even be having this argument, since it would force those involved to compromise from the get-go. It would be good if the Senate recognized that any subject that is commonly filibustered is by definition highly threatening to the interests of the minority and probably generally politicized, and is therefore a good candidate for changing the rules to require a 2/3rds majority, thus avoiding the spectacle of future filibusters. Maybe they would put aside their partisan concerns in the interest of restoring the decorum and statesmanship that the Senate was supposed to represent. And maybe I'm a Chinese jet pilot. (I'm anti-17th amendment too).

Anyway, I'll pose a challenge for Mr. Brin, since this sort of thing is up his alley: Outline a system of government that you think would improve upon present systems. Do so without regard to the question of how to transition to that system from the present one; it must be applicable for national or world scale; make it robust; make it short (like the US constitution, not the EU one); include the purpose behind the rules.

I admit, I've got my own ideas cooking, I've just been preoccupied with other issues lately.

Frank said...

I don't think there is a watertight, fullproof system of politics. Any system can be hacked imho.

The bottomline: if you control the voters you control the system.

So, educate he voters. Enhance their understanding of the blessings and curses of diversity. Teach respect for the minority and majority. Teach them (self-)criticism, independent thought, self-education.

And above all teach them discourse.

Ambi said...

cryptochrome wrote:
Proportional representation also has the troubling characteristic of requiring people to vote for party lists at a state or national scale, rather than individuals at a local scale.

Not necessarily. You could make the areas small enough so that a party would win eg 3 seats there, and keep the list open, so that people could choose from the candidates on that party's list.

This could be done by either keeping the elections local (each district elects eg 6 representatives), or by first calculating the party's total number of seats from the national result, and then divide up the seats on the districts depending on the number of votes there.

cryptochrome wrote:
In fact, proportional representation is basically incompatible with our system of legislature since there are generally too few seats per state to distribute effectively among the parties. Of course it's impossible for the presidential election - there can be only one.

It could be done, but it would need a constitutional change. When on the Electoral College is abolished and the president is directly elected by the people, each state could get 2 additional seats as compensation.

Each state would then have at least 3 Representatives. Then states would form districts which elect at least 3 (but I prefer 5-7) Representatives with Proportional Representation.

I also have an idea about changing the primary system: each state would hold one primary, people can vote for eg 3 candidates, each candidate with support from at least 25% of the voters qualifies. (Both Bush and Kerry had at least 25% in all 50 states)

If a candidate qualifies in most states, he's on the national ballot; the number of those states could determine the order of candidates on the ballot.

This would eliminate fringe candidates and give strong candidates who are popular on both sides the chance to win (that is, if the direct election is held with IRV, Approval Voting or Condorcet, not by plurality).

Example: Bush beat McCain in the Republican primaries 2000, but in a national election he could probably have beaten Bush as well as Gore.

McCain would have easily passed the 25% requirement, while Nader would have failed to reach it.

David Ivory said...

_The Botanic Man on a Slipperly Slope_

The advancing Glacier story tweaked my memories as I recall being very disillusioned by David Bellamy many years ago.

Bellamy is an inspirational teacher and presenter. The Botanic Man TV show was one of the things that made me focus on a science course through high school, and probably the only reason I studied first year Botany at University.

The image of him swimming around naked in tannin foam in the sea on the West Coast of New Zealand was pure magic.

However in 1985 he was involved in recommending a Liquid Fertilizer made from Seaweed - a product called Maxicrop - if I remember he even did TV ads for the stuff. But New Zealand's Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries took exception to this as they had tested Maxicrop and shown it to be worthless. David Bellamy refuted this on investigative TV - in the face of pretty damning trials by MAF.

The irony of it all was that MAF was sued and subsequently they lost the court case - awarding the Maxicrop company $25,000... not for the fact that MAF got the science wrong - but that there was nothing wrong with peddling worthless fertilizer!

Google archived page - another page about the same MAF researcher.

It seems that David Bellamy used his 'priestly' status as a charismatic scientist to sell worthless junk ... and it seems is still doing so. Using charisma alone to create a career does not seem to be very sensible for a scientist - very anti-modern.

It was a lesson for me though. Be critical of scientists' teachings and make sure to understand what their peers believe. Certainly Roger Penrose is interesting to read... but is it science?

So I suggest to Mr. Brin you propose that David Bellamy be invited to the next science Fiction convention - The Botanic Man is a witty interesting speaker... just don't believe the science... utter fiction.

This scientist wears no clothes... even when he's not taking a natural foam bath in the sea.

Mark said...

Anyway, I'll pose a challenge for Mr. Brin, since this sort of thing is up his alley: Outline a system of government that you think would improve upon present systems.

I'll take a quick stab -- virtual districts. Instead of representation being based on the chunk of land you live on, it would be based on your own interests and concerns. I probably have much more in common with you than I do my next door neighbor.

Within each virtual district you vote for a representative by name, assuring that personal characteristics like honesty, character and virtue are still considered. The representative would have to be a member of that district.

I can think of a variety methods to create the districts and match them to voters, but the details don't matter too much as long as the districts are dynamic and can change over time as needed. The simplest method would be to answer a questionnaire every few years and generate groups based on maximizing similarity within each group.

While parties might still exist, such a system would be quite hostel to the party system as each district would feel like its own party.

And from this starting point... parliamentary system? Probably, but I'm not sure...

cryptochrome said...

calculating the party's total number of seats from the national result
That's tatamount to letting national votes decide local elections. People will hate that with good reason.

each state could get 2 additional seats as compensation
This would significantly disrupt proportional representation in the house, which is supposed to be as close to proportional as possible.
A better solution might be to dramatically increase the size of the house - but even then some states would still only have one rep, and it would also create many impracticalities.

the primary system
... is not controlled by the government, but by the parties themselves, who can have any system they want for choosing and fielding candidates. The inadequecy of the present primary system is a perennial issue within both parties, but you'll notice it never goes to congress. Also, what you're suggesting involves multiple elections, something which would solve a lot of issues if it weren't such a pain in the ass to implement.

Joshua O'Madadhain said...

Anyone that wants to brainstorm methods for improving systems of government should have a look at Heinlein's The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress. All sorts of fun ideas are collected there, including some of those already suggested here. Some of my favorites, not necessarily because I think they're good ideas but because they're different in interesting ways:

* A legislative body whose sole power, and duty, is to block legislation...which it can do with a one-third minority.
* Legislators who get a number of votes in their legislative body in proportion to the number of votes that they received. (Logarithmic scale might be useful here.)

A meta-level suggestion which I think is more achievable and arguably more clearly necessary would be the imposition of a requirement (legislative rather than constitutional in nature, probably) that a given piece of legislation cannot contain completely unrelated acts. IMO, a lot of useless and crappy legislation gets through because it's linked with something completely unrelated that has a lot of support. (No, I'm not bitter about REAL ID. Why? :> )

NoOne said...

I've been listening to Rush Limbaugh et al. non-stop since the last presidential election in an effort to completely internalize the worldview of the "anti-modernists." I'll summarize their reasons for the anti-filibuster

1. Liberals never achieve anything. They just sit around and endlessly talk and are always pessimistic.

2. If liberals don't like someone, they and the liberal mainstream media will simply amplify everything negative about that person, be it Bolton, Owens, Janice Brown etc. and will never present them in a fair light.

3. If we let the liberals have their way, they'll ruin our country just as they've ruined our education system - probably true.

4. The filibuster was a bad thing anyway - look at the history of the white Southern democrats who used the filibuster in the 60s against the civil rights movement.

And on and on. If you listen to Rush and company long enough, you pick up a lot of things that you can actually agree with. However, most of it is presented in a warped, bigoted, echo chamber like manner and with tremendous amount of paranoia and pseudo-underdog feel thereby negating itself. But make no mistake. There is an "Us" and a "Them" for this crowd and you and I are definitely "Them."

"Us, us, us and Them, them, them
We know which is which and who is who"

With apologies to Roger Waters

Frank said...

I'm sure you all know this but:

1. Even the fairest of election-systems will not turn us all into good citizens.

2. Making an election-system more complex - as a number of you seem to want to do - makes it less attractive to the general public. K.I.S.S.

firefall said...

(to continue Joshua's point) - it seems to me one idea worth lifting is that representatives solely represent voters who are in favour of them (the ultimate gerrymander, I suppose you'd say).

As for never doubting myself, I never do (I think..)

reason said...

As for doubting myself my take is this:

I'm pretty sure I exist but don't really puzzle about it too much (answering the more literal interpretation).

I don't believe in "belief". There are some ideas I think are definitely false, some I think unlikely, some I think are possible, some I think likely and some I think more likely still. But if somebody shows me I am wrong and has a better idea, then well, I am something distinct from my ideas and can accept that. It is the people who think they are defined by their ideas who are dangerous! A corrollory is usually that they think getting rid of people who disagree with them is a good thing. (Answering what I think was meant.)

ANFSCD (And now for something completely different) While people are throwing around constitutional ideas how about this one:

The total size of existing legislation shall have an upper limit, if someone wants to add a new law then if the limit is reached they will have to repeal or simplify an existing one.

The upper limit should be something that someone could read and understand within a few weeks.

Life is just getting too complicated, and most of the complication is just simply accumulated clutter!

cryptochrome said...

The total size of existing legislation shall have an upper limit, if someone wants to add a new law then if the limit is reached they will have to repeal or simplify an existing one.

The upper limit should be something that someone could read and understand within a few weeks.


Actually I've considered that myself - the idea being: a) it should be impossible for anyone to break a law inadvertently, and they should know the consequences; b) It hopefully severely reduces the need for lawyers. However, it creates a rather obvious opportunities for gaming the system, where good and necessary laws are kept from passing simply by padding the body of law with measures that should have been incorporated into other laws. More importantly, much of law concerns itself with practical issues, like bankruptcy and zoning and such, which are by nature detailed and dynamic. If you had a system based on a set number of laws they would become enormous and very broad. If you had a set length of text it would become obfuscated with loaded jargon and too limited for its needs.

Even so, it may be possible to use such a system. For instance, you have a set number of laws limited in size. The law has three main parts:
1) a declaration of the law, which is a brief outline of the rule. This cannot be changed without a wholesale repeal of the law.
2) a declaration of principle, describing for what purpose the law was written and what it is designed to achieve - its "spirit", explicitly stated. This not only cannot be changed, it means the law cannot be used in cases where it does not follow or violates the principle. If the law fails to satisfy its own principle, it will automatically become subject to review for repea.
3) a declaration of implementation, the nuts and bolts as to how the law is implemented, funded, and enforced. This is readily amended, although perhaps their should be limits here too. Amendments are subject to repeal on principle. The details should perhaps be automatically organized by what aspects they control - a section on taxes leveed to fund the law, etc. Judicial interpretations should also be informally attached to this section, further clarifying implementation.

So really, people should only have to know the broad word and principle of the law to avoid breaking it in their day-to-day life, with the details readily accessible. The trick would be getting a good set of laws early that would hold ground against crappy ones.

Frank said...

Reason said:
"I don't believe in "belief"."[...] "But if somebody shows me I am wrong and has a better idea, then well, I am something distinct from my ideas and can accept that."

There is usually an emotional component to a belief that makes it hard to be objective. It's that component that makes it possible for people to identify themselves with a belief, they internalise it.

Now, that's not necessarily a bad thing because that's how you create a moral intuition. But once a connection between an idea and an emotion has been established that later turns out to be impracticle or wrong, breaking that connection can be a
difficult, confusing and painful proces.

It's not simply: "Out with the old, in with the new and on we go".

reason said...

crytochrome - "If you had a set length of text it would become obfuscated with loaded jargon and too limited for its needs"

That is why I said - the existing body of law should be simplified if the set length was exceeded.

As regards your discussion of declaration, principal and implementation it is eminently sensible.

The latter part of course is an interesting issue - who should look after it? One problem we have today is that parliament doesn't read the legislation it is passing.

It certainly doesn't debate the wording like it should considering what lawyers do to it later.

reason said...

frank -

I think you are correct, at least for most people, but I personally don't think my world view works like that. As I said I don't believe in belief - I believe in shades of probabilitiy.

I keep juggling a complex jigsaw of a map in my head that has evolved over many years. If something throws part of that jigsaw into doubt then it can have repercussions everywhere so there is a massive reworking to do to integrate new information. This may of course take a while. If necessary I suspend judgement and continue working with my old map until I feel confortable I have integrated the new information. The world view evolves and like evolution it can go in fits and starts. But I don't think I'm particularly emotional about it.

I get more emotional about people not thinking about things using good thinking techniques, than I do about people coming to different conclusions than I do. To me the process is more important than the conclusion (we all die in the end anyway!) To me then the "end justifies the means" is just ludicrous - there never really is an end anyway - apart from our personal end!

Some people find that makes me difficult as they find it "hard to place me" - but that is because they think people are what they believe in, and not an active intelligence trying to understand the world. But it also means I'm difficult to con.

I think however, to some extent this aspect of life is a fault line between modernists(don't like term I prefer progressives) and romantics. Belief in "belief" is a romantic thing.

reason said...

P.S. I don't like the term modernists because of the inevitable problem of sucession. In art we already have post-modernists (what follow them?). Progressive at least gives a sense of continuity.

Anders Brink said...

reason: Good. You're not the first who thinks like that. But you are the few. One of the important things about our modern society is that those with such a clarity of thought can and will advance, and those who can't won't.

In fact, let me advance the notion that how "modern" a society is how much it promotes clarity of thought in individuals. Of course that cannot be the only barometer, but I digress.

cryptochrome said...

Progressive at least gives a sense of continuity.

It's a fine word, but it's already taken - after "liberal" was so thoroughly demonized "progressive" has become the word of choice for people of that political persuasion.

crytochrome - "If you had a set length of text it would become obfuscated with loaded jargon and too limited for its needs"

That is why I said - the existing body of law should be simplified if the set length was exceeded.


But that's not what I meant. Let me give an analogy - every now and then somebody has a perl obfuscated code contest. Perl is noteworthy as a programming langage for being able to code quite a lot into a very limited amount of space - complex code can be squeezed onto a single line. Such code, while functional, is also virtually unreadable to humans. That is what I fear for limited-length laws: jargonized terminology and stretched grammar that only a lawyer can understand, as opposed to straightforward and simple language.

I failed to mention before, laws often need exceptions, and are often given exceptions they shouldn't have. Whether these will be explicitly put in the details or could be implicitly derived from the law and principle would be an issue.

Frank said...

@Reason:

So no pet theories for you then ?

But I wonder, have you ever had to act without having enough information to determine the correct course of action ? What did you relie on then ? Was it some ingrained sense of what is right and what is wrong?

To a lot of people this sense is another definition of "belief".

Joel said...

"1) a declaration of the law, which is a brief outline of the rule. This cannot be changed without a wholesale repeal of the law.
2) a declaration of principle, describing for what purpose the law was written and what it is designed to achieve - its "spirit", explicitly stated. This not only cannot be changed, it means the law cannot be used in cases where it does not follow or violates the principle. If the law fails to satisfy its own principle, it will automatically become subject to review for repeal."

Cryptochrome has a major point here. If we strip away names, though, and just look at function, #1 sounds a lot like the constitution, and #2 like the bill of rights. And although it might make sense to make each law a microcosm of The Law, perhaps unnecessary complication and redundancy could be avoided by just forcing each new bill to refer to the larger structure and define it's place in it. In this case you'd see laws that start with "to provide for the common defense..."

reason said...

Frank -
Pet theories - well actually a few but they are toys really, not beliefs.
As for using heuristics in cases of insufficient information - well yes, but I would call making a best guess (intuition if you like) not belief.

Frank said...

@Reason:

"...I would call making a best guess (intuition if you like) not belief."

I agree. And maybe you are a better guesser than me. I (and many others) usually have some trouble predicting the effects of certain influences on a complex (chaotic) system like a human society. Especially long term effects. Take for instance the increase in surveillance by the state, or gay marriage or abortion or anything people tend to get emotional about. People are passionate about there views even though they can not know the long term consequences of their actions. Don't you ever get passionate about your views ? And can not only emotion lead to action ?