Month: May 2010
Politics and morality can become mired in ill-understood abstractions, so I’m re-evaluating my ideas in more concrete terms; what should be done? What should I do, what should we do, for any values of we that I can get a sensible answer with?
The two questions are separate. Taking the first, what should I do? Taking myself in isolation, there have been two coherent answers to that question: one is “whatever God says”, and the other is “Whatever I like”.
I prefer the second of those, but it can use some refinement. Doing what I want now could cause me problems in the future; I need to anticipate, and delay gratification to gain more in the long run.
There is a more subtle refinement too: I am not detached from the world; I can change the world, and in the process change myself. It can be easier to manage myself to be satisfied with what is, than to manage the world to satisfy myself. Dispassion is part of the mix as well.
But that’s all viewing one person in isolation – an unrealistic approach. Humans are social, and need to form groups to succeed. As well as pursuing my personal goals, I need to gain the cooperation of my neighbours. How to do that is the larger part of what is normally thought of as the sphere of morality.
The most obvious fact is that the answer varies. What will win me cooperation in one society will have me shunned in another; what works in one century (decade, sometimes) fails in the next.
All we can say is that it is necessary for me to conform to the collective expectations of the other people I interact with – to fulfill my designated role in whatever society.
For that to make sense, I have to know what my society is. In theory that’s difficult: it’s some group of people who interact with me and share expectations of each others’ behaviour. In practice, it’s usually easier to identify, but not always. I’ll come back to that.
As in the individual case, that is not the end of the story. Some societies allow their members to achieve their goals more effectively than others do. Societies change, as individuals do, and they can fail or be replaced. We can say that each person should do what is required of them by their society, and still say that one society is better than another. It might be better in that it is more useful to its members, or it might be better in a different sense in that it is less vulnerable to shocks, more able to grow in reach and strength.
These judgments on societies matter, because, while seeking our own goals and conforming to our place in society, we still may have some power to direct society in a given direction. If we have a vision of a good society, we can aim to change our society for the better.
One practical aside – the aims of improving society and being a good member of it can come into conflict, and attempts to resolve those two competing priorities are often at the centre in dram and history. Froude’s Times of Erasmus and Luther contrasts Erasmus’s desire to be a good citizen of Christendom with Luther’s defiance of his allotted role in the cause of improving Christendom. In this case Froude comes down on the side of Luther, but the question is more important than the answer.
There’s an important point missing: We can talk about what makes a society good or bad, and how a member of society can attempt to change it, but ultimately my aim is to advance my own interests, and that might be most effectively done by changing society in a way that is not better either for the society in its own right or for its members generally.
It seems reasonable to say that societies will do better, for themselves and their members, if they somehow prevent this from happening to any significant degree. That’s not a theorem – conceivably an arrangement that permits it may bring compensating benefits that outweigh the damage sustained – but they’d better be very substantial benefits.
I’m trying to keep separate two different ways in which a society can be good – it can be good for its members, or it can be good for itself, seen as a metaphorical organism: able to survive, adapt and improve. Inasmuch as a society is a way for its members to better their own lot, the first good is primary, and the second only significant in that it supports the first.
There are a few different forms that can exist to prevent a society being wrecked by selfish interests. (Again, there are two quite distinct ways of being wrecked: the society can be weakened to the degree that it is replaced, either from without or within, by a different society, or else it can remain secure, but provide less value to its members). The first defence is rigidity. If the society is very resistant to any change at all, then it is resistant to wrecking. The problem is it is unable to develop, and unable to react to changing circumstances. Some societies in the past have been successful for their members by being stable, but the rapid changes in the world and in the capabilities of people over the past few centuries have swept all of them away.
To safely accomodate flexibility, a society must preferentially encourage its members to change it in ways that benefit the society and its members.
There is a three-way trade-off: my interests, the interests of my neighbours, and the interests of the organism of society. We rely on society to allow the first trade-off, between each other, to be resolved in an efficient and non-destructive way. The second tradeoff, between a society and its members, is more difficult.
Nothing I’ve written here is new. Never mind Carlyle and Froude, quite a lot of it can be found in Aristotle. However, it’s not a set of ideas that I’ve put together before, and includes things that I explicitly rejected when I was young and arrogant.
Also, it’s not a set of ideas that provides easy answers to difficult questions. That’s always a good sanity check1. If your calculations show you can build a perpetual motion machine, or solve NP-complete problems in linear time, you’ve probably made a mistake. This framework doesn’t usually answer difficult questions, but it at least tells you why they’re difficult.
I promised to write about patriotism, and now I have set up the scenery. Froude’s comment2 on a “distinguished philosopher” seems anti-rational; and so it is, but I am prepared to be persuaded to it.
The problem that society solves is how to cooperate with my neighbours; how to achieve more together than we could in conflict, or even more than we could independently. We cannot do this without some framework that enables us to match expectations, and that framework needs to be stable enough for us to move with confidence from one interaction to the next.
The framework can be changed, for the better or the worse. As well as enabling our cooperation, therefore, it needs to be such that I can be assured of continuing to benefit from it in future. The future, though, is uncertain, and it his hard for me to know that circumstances will not arise where my neighbour can gain by destroying the assurances that I have relied on. This is the second tradeoff above, between the members of the society and the society itself. The society exists for its members, but we need to maintain it too.
There is a smaller-scale, easier parallel to this situation, which I wrote about before. When two people become a family, each is threatened by the possibility that the other will destroy or abandon what has been created. Reassurance is at hand, however, through the irrational attachments that people in that position have been bred to form towards each other, which discourages them from breaking the bonds even if it becomes objectively convenient for them to do so. The irrationa
lity is an advantage to the individual, as it enables him to make somewhat binding commitments in the absence of any external enforcement mechanism, and thereby reach more advantageous social arrangements.
My neighbours’ love of our country is what enables me to tolerate their freedom, as my wife’s love is what enables me to tolerate hers.
It is a threat to the tradeoffs if the society can be changed by individuals who are not dependent on it either practically or emotionally. That is why it is important to know who is in and who is out. This is often looked on as some kind of prehistoric handicap, but it is not. I’ve been talking about “societies”, not countries, so I have not yet closed the loop to say anything about patriotism. I admitted above that we need to identify which individuals are the ones we care about, from the point of view of succeeding personally by fulfilling our expected role in society. There are two answers, on two levels. First, those who we expect to interact with in future. Second, those who can change the expectations that we have towards the first group, and that the first group has towards us. If someone will be dealing socially with me, I need him to be within the social framework. If someone can affect the social framework itself, I want him to be constrained not to damage its effectiveness or longevity.
That’s still, on the face of it, rather imprecise. However, for most people, through most of history, it’s been very easy to work out. There’s a good reason for that: if you don’t know who is in your society and who isn’t, you are in a lot of trouble – at least your society is, and that means that, in the long run, you are too. With personal love comes jealousy, and with the patriotism that gives a society its longevity comes a certain chauvinism. That’s a necessary feature, not a bug. If someone isn’t a member of your society, they need to be kept away from it, or at least made powerless over it, lest they damage it.
Tribes work as societies on that basis. We had nation-states for a few centuries, and they worked too, more or less. Now we do not have a society where it is clear who is in and who is out, and where the members are bound to preserve and improve it. We have many compensations, and I haven’t proved we’re worse off in net, but I’ve at least shown how we could be, how, other things being equal, patriotism is a virtue.
In the end, we may go back to tribes, or as John Robb has it, to some new kind of tribe.
1 “My own conviction with respect to all great social and religious convulsions is the extremely commonplace one that much is to be said on both sides” – Froude, The Influence of the Reformation on the Scottish Character
2 “I once asked a distinguished philosopher what he thought of patriotism. He said he thought it was a compound of vanity and superstition; a bad kind of prejudice, which would die out with the growth of reason. My friend believed in the progress of humanity–he could not narrow his sympathies to so small a thing as his own country. I could but say to myself, ‘Thank God, then, we are not yet a nation of philosophers.’
“A man who takes up with philosophy like that, may write fine books, and review articles and such like, but at the bottom of him he is a poor caitiff, and there is no more to be said about him.” – Froude, Times of Erasmus and Luther
As per orders, I have been reading Froude. I read The Bow of Ulysses, and while he was obviously broadly accurate, at least in his more pessimistic outlook, I thought it was interesting that he had overestimated how bad democracy in the British West Indies would be.
A couple of days later, Kingston collapsed into civil war. Then I happened to notice that Jamaica had already had the highest murder rate in the world. It looks like this Victorian knew more about the twenty-first century than I do.
But that’s by the way. I went on to his Short Studies of Great Subjects. I’m less than a quarter through, and while I can’t point to any really new insights, I’ve suddenly found that I’m looking at a lot of things in a completely different way. The first result will be a piece on patriotism, which I’ll go onto next.
- Libertarian economics is sound. But libertarian politics is an oxymoron.
- Individualist Libertarianism and collectivist Socialism are opposites. But they came from the same roots and the first always becomes the second.
- Victimless crimes should not be prosecuted. But broken families do more damage than psychopaths.
- No-one should be born into privilege. But the alternative is to compete for power.
- Mencius Moldbug is a lone nutter. But opinion is shifting more and more against democracy.
- Global Warming is rubbish. But it might not have been, and what would have happened then?
- I have always believed that morality only makes sense in terms of the individual. But I can’t remember why.
Much more to follow, if I can find my feet again
The problem is, that really doesn’t prove what he wants it to prove.
As an aside, he shows himself in the same article to have a very shaky grasp of numbers: he says “This oddball rabble are five times bigger than the Lib Dems, despite getting only 13 per cent more support.” What he means is that the Tories got more votes than the Lib Dems by an amount of 13% of the total votes – in fact the Tories got 56% more votes than the Lib Dems did. That is the only ratio that it makes any sense to compare with the sizes of the respective parliamentary parties. He could also say that the Tories got 38% more of the seats in the Commons despite getting only 13% more of the votes in the country. Using the correct 56% number rather than the irrelevant 13% wouldn’t have weakened the reasonable point Hari was making, but it proves he is either habitually dishonest even where it doesn’t help him, or very stupid indeed.
We will reduce UK greenhouse gas emissions and increase our share of global markets for low carbon technologies.
Labour have said the right things on climate change, but these have proved little more than
warm words. Despite three White Papers, a multitude of strategies and endless new announcements, the UK now gets more of its energy from fossil fuels than it did in 1997
If 91% of the candidates who successfully ran for election under that manifesto do not believe in man-made Global Warming, what it proves is that politicians’ positions on climate change bear no relation to what they actually believe to be true.
It further proves that man-made global warming is a politically convenient position – one that politicians find it advantageous to adopt, even if they don’t believe it.
This is tremendously important, because it is the positions taken by politicians that have set the public scene. It is politicians who have set up and maintained the IPCC, set the priorities of NASA and the Met Office, and form the context for any public debate. And those politicians are under pressure to pretend to believe in man-made Global Warming, even when they don’t.
Edit 2018: Johann Hari link dead, changed to archive.org link
All through the election campaign I told myself, and my loyal readers, that it was just a game – that, out of habit, I would follow it closely, but in the spirit of a major sporting event rather than something that was actually important.
In the face of the new Conservative-LibDem government, however, I am struggling to maintain my cynicism. This government really might make a difference to the real world.
Abolishing ID cards is good. Abolishing ContactPoint is great. But abolishing Parliamentary Sovereignty – that is genius. And done with such subtlety, as a rider on fixed-term parliaments. “Oh, and by the way, Parliament will no longer be able to get rid of the government by majority vote”. Talk about balls.
Of course, the newly created system does not make sense. We could end up with a government that can’t be sacked, can’t resign, and can’t govern. What then? Then they will make it up as they go along – and probably at least some of the inconsistency will be resolved by further limiting the powers of parliament.
At the Blogger Bash, I asked the panellist how bad things would have to get before they would give up on democracy. Perry de Havilland (I think) stood up for democracy, saying that it was important that the government could be thrown out. But that is not the same thing as having the voters choose MPs and MPs choose government. You could have the Prime Minister appointed for life, and ministers too, and merely have them recallable by a popular supermajority, and that would still meet the criteria.
Most people think that the government should, in principle, be controlled by the people, but in specific cases most intelligent people come to the conclusion that reducing democratic control actually produces better outcomes. If the new contradiction between the government and the commons majority resolves itself in favour of the government (as I suspect it will), then it should be possible to demonstrate the improvements brought about by reducing democracy.
This would not have been possible even thirty years ago. What has made it possible to casually take away what were always seen as vital fundamental democratic principles is that recent democratic governments have been so bad that nobody cares any more. When I casually mention to strangers that my preferred political outcome is a military coup installing an absolute monarchy, the most common response is “well, it couldn’t be any worse.” They probably aren’t serious, and don’t realise that I am, but the reaction is almost automatic – what is the point of defending the democratic system that gave us Gordon Brown? If we do escape democracy, it may not be through violent revolution, or Mencius’ “True election”, but simply through the influence of voters being chipped away to a chorus of apathy. The electorate will, reasonably in my view, just not care.
It’s beginning to look quite likely that we could end up with the Alternative Vote (AV) system. Aficionados of electoral reform will tell you that it’s not a proportional system, which is quite true. The results it produces will be quite different from those produced by multi-member STV or d’Hont. That doesn’t mean, however, that it would not be a significant change.
Unlike the multi-member systems, AV will continue to give small parties no seats. What AV does, however, is allow much more effective signalling by voters. It is very plausible that it could help small parties, over time, become big parties.
The point of AV is that it saves the voter from having to do tactical-voting calculations. Currently, anyone who votes UKIP, or Green, or SSP, or BNP is sacrificing their (tiny) influence on the result of the election in favour of making a public statement. With AV, you can do both – vote SSP ,Labour as 1 & 2, and there is less chance that your SSP vote will let in the Lib Dems. (Not no chance – there are still circumstances in which it might turn out that you would have got a different result by voting Labour, SSP, but they’re complex and not very predictable)
2.5 million people voted UKIP last year. Only 900,000 did last week, so quite possibly the other 1.6 million didn’t vote UKIP because of the wasted vote issue. If in the next general election, the constituencies which went 8% or 9% UKIP became 25% or 30%, they probably still wouldn’t get any seats, but they’d get a lot more publicity, and they wouldn’t be far short of getting MPs.
The same logic applies to high-profile candidates who defect from their parties to stand as independents. It becomes a straight popularity contest between them and the “official” candidate, since any supporter of the party can vote rebel-1 official-2.
AV might benefit the BNP most of all, since they have most to gain by giving voters a chance to anonymously show support for them. Today, nobody knows, do the BNP get only 2% because nearly everyone hates them, or because they’re a small party and it’s a wasted vote, or because most people think nearly everyone hates them, since they only get 2%? In the last case, it would only take a few election cycles for them to look less like outcasts to those who are secretly disposed to vote for them, but put off by the opprobrium.
At the end of the day, though, a politician will still win. I’m not paying all this attention because I think it’s important, it’s just more entertaining than the Premier League. But if you do care about who wins, then while multi-member STV is still the first choice, you probably shouldn’t turn your nose up at AV.
Some disconnected thoughts:
Politics as Entertainment – election night was the most entertaining media event of the year. Possibly the most entertaining event ever for me – I sat up until 1am on Monday to watch the end of the snooker, but I was glad when Robertson won the last few frames to get it over with. I didn’t go to bed on Thursday. The only bad bits were actually listening to politicians.
Poisoned Chalice – for both major parties, there must surely be a temptation to put the other lot in to bat. Whoever forms the government will have to take over a very difficult situation, and as soon as they hit serious trouble, the government is likely to fall and they will have to fight an election on a record of chaos and failure. The opposition can make a show of being humble and helpful, and then attempt to knock the whole thing over at a time of their own choosing.
Cleggmania – Either Clegg made a big impression in the debates on people who couldn’t actually be bothered to vote, or voters were in “X-Factor” mode when answering pollsters, which is different from voter mode in the polling booths
Technical Difficulties – With 40000 polling stations, some few are bound to be affected by incompetence or unforeseen circumstances. This will no doubt be used to argue for hi-tech voting systems, which will solve the problem by making such failures so frequent they cease to be newsworthy
Lib Dems – The Lib Dems told me to vote for them because only they could stop Gordon Brown. They can now stop Gordon Brown, so what do they tell people if they don’t do it? But no doubt they told many others that only they could stop Cameron.
Esther Rantzen – was always an irrelevance, and lost her deposit. Was no more worthy of media coverage than the Monster Raving Loony William Hill party
Predictions – the results were in line with a lot of polls, if not the ones from the last couple of weeks. I don’t remember anyone addressing the possibility though of the Conservatives not having a majority, but Labour and Lib Dems together not having one either. It seems to be hitting everyone as a new idea.
Voting Systems – radicals of all types hoping for proportional representation can forget it. If anything, we would get AV+, which would help the Lib Dems but nobody else. The BNP might get a seat in the North-West, and UKIP might get one in the South-West, but Marxists, Greens, Libertarians, etc. would get nothing.
3 new leaflets this morning – one from the Labour candidate, one card from Nick Clegg, and one letter from Nick Clegg. All three carry pictures of two running horses. The Lib Dems say only they can beat Labour, but Labour say only they can beat the Conservatives. That’s the main point of all the material.
The Lib Dems seem more convincing – for one thing, unlike Labour, their illustration demonstrates that they understand that horse races involve jockeys. But of course, the authorities on horse races are still considering the Lib Dems outsiders, though at 11/2 they’ve nosed ahead of Esther Rantzen.
Only one of the three documents (the postcard from the Lib Dems) has any mention of policy, and one of the four bullet points there is “action to get our economy moving again”, which doesn’t quite qualify as a policy for me.
Anyone out there who thinks that democracy is a good thing – how can it be right that the vast bulk of the material given to me by candidates is concentrated on the question of who is more likely to win? OK, PR would change that somewhat, but really, what is the explanation?