Sometimes people come up to me at parties with a “so I hear you’re a writer of some sort”. Not actually because that is something someone does get to hear now and again. I’m way too obscure for that. I suspect most of the times this happens because the person in question has just talked to my wife and asked her about what it is exactly that I do.
So anyway, I have this standard joke when I get a “so I hear you’re a writer of some sort”. I tell the person that “yeah, in fact I’ve written more books than I’ve sold”, which does tent to produce a modest smile. And because of this lack of sales, I’m sure my poor publishers – if they’re still in business – won’t mind that I’m gonna post a few links to pdfs, for those among you who like this blog and may be tempted to read my books but are not inclined to buy them. (I’m not even sure they’re still available).
So here they are:
Some words about the epistemological status – or the truth value – of the narrative contained in this blog. I argue that all writing about human rights and democracy is a mere proposal and an attempt at truth. Whenever I say something about those topics I do not pretend to proclaim the truth. If there is any truth in the world at all, then probably not in the domain of political theory, morality and values. Perhaps there is, but we won’t know. It’s likely that all we can say about such subjects is mere opinion.
However, even if in political theory or morality we cannot prove anything or be certain about anything, this doesn’t mean that all opinions are equivalent. There can be good and bad opinions because opinions are – or should be – based on arguments and reasons, and arguments and reasons can be good or bad. If all opinions were of the same quality then no one would ever try to convince anyone.
Opinions are, by nature, non-despotic: they can’t be forced on you. The truth can. No one can escape the truth. The laws of physics for example have a despotic character. You have to accept them. Opinions can be accepted or rejected, depending on the (perceived) force of the arguments for or against, on your personal disposition, your intellectual powers of understanding etc. Another characteristic of opinions is that they are part of a contradictory world of different opinions. An opinion exists only as long as its contrary also exists. If the latter ceases to exist, then the former becomes what we may call some form of truth, at least to the extent that
- opposite opinions disappear as a result of free discussion and persuasion rather than force and coercion
- an opinion that is the object of a worldwide consensus resulting from free discussion and persuasion can reasonably be called a truth.
Truth implies consensus. Who dares to resist the truth? Only a fool or a moron. Truth eliminates debate because no one contradicts the truth. As long as someone who is neither a fool nor a moron contradicts the truth and gives good reasons for doing so, we have not yet attained the level of truth and remain in the world of opinion. This world is one of plurality and contradiction; the world of truth is one of uniformity. Only when everyone is convinced and when there remain no good reasons or arguments against a claim do we have something like the truth. Even when some opinions are predominant, they remain mere opinions as long as good arguments against them are available, or, in other words, as long as contradictory opinions based on good arguments—and not mere prejudices—are available.
As everyone who expresses an opinion, I also would like to see my opinions, expressed throughout this blog, elevated to the status of truth. But that depends on many things: the force of my arguments, the disposition of my readers etc. It’s not a result that I can determine or even predict. If I would force this elevation—on the condition that I would have the power to do so—then I wouldn’t be acting democratically and I would therefore be incoherent. Democratic politics does not take place in the world of truth or the world of uniformity and despotism. Opinions are the fabric of democracy. Democracy is the game of different and contradictory opinions, some of which become temporarily predominant because they are backed by the better arguments or the arguments that can convince a majority, on the condition that we speak about a perfect democracy unhindered by manipulation. The predominant opinions then inform government policy, but non-predominant ones continue to exist and continue to make their case in an effort to become predominant themselves. If these other opinions no longer exist, then it is not opinion but truth that informs government policy. Which can and does happen, even in the case of perfectly democratic governments. But it’s not typical of a democracy and not its essence. One can even say that the job of a democracy is finished when it happens.
For example, the fight against inflation is no longer an opinion. There are no longer good arguments for the opposite policy and everyone is convinced that it’s a good policy. Hence, there is no democratic debate for or against the fight against inflation. The policies of all governments, including democracies, are inspired by this truth, but this has nothing to do with democracy. Democracy can only enter the stage when different actors present different and contradictory opinions, for example opinions regarding the maximum or minimum amount of inflation, or opinions regarding topics such as abortion, equality, justice etc. There is intense debate about those topics. The predominance of opinions regarding those topics, and hence also government policies, shift from one side to another.
But what we see in topics such as abortion and many others, is that democracy does not only stop when an opinion is elevated to the level of truth. It also stops when contradictory opinions continue to exist but are no longer argued. Proponents and opponents of abortion have practically stopped giving reasons and arguments. They just throw citations from the Bible or general and vague claims of rights at one another. In fact, their opinions have not been elevated to the level of truth but have rather descended to the level of prejudices or “feelings” or beliefs. Democracy requires opinions, not something more or less. Opinions are based on arguments and reasons, not on evidence, proof, certainty, prejudices, feelings or beliefs. Democracy only has a function when there can be debate and there can only be debate when there are opinions, not when there is more or less, not when everything is either truth or belief. Of course, beliefs should not be excluded from democratic politics, just as truth should not be excluded. Beliefs can be a powerful force behind debates. They can inspire thinking and discussion, but they will never be the essence of democracy. If there is nothing more than beliefs, then there is no democracy.
I saw this vandalized movie poster the other day, and I tried to be funny on Twitter (something about anti-consumerist primates, about Caesar not wanting his struggle to be commodified by the movie industry).
But this got me thinking. Assuming that the apes do take over our planet, what kind of economy are they likely to create? I’m not happy with the movie answers to this question. The movies – both the original sixties movies and the new rebooted series – depict an unconvincing economic image of ape ascendance. In both movie series the apes become clever enough to acquire human knowledge and to potentially adopt human practices and institutions, including the human economy. But they don’t.
In the rebooted series the apes seem not particularly interested in becoming the new humans, perhaps understandably. They’ve returned to the woods near San Francisco in the second movie, and they’re clearly not going to just continue the human economy based on capitalist production and trade. They seem clever enough to do this, but they either lack the will or the incentives to use their new intelligence to acquire the knowledge, the science, the technology, the institutions and the behaviors necessary to recreate a capitalist economy. In the original movies, the apes have created a primitive, pre-industrial caste-like system based on human slavery.
Either scenario seems unlikely. After all, if the apes have human level intelligence, why not use it in a better way? In the rebooted series the apes seem to have no desire to use their new knowledge and improve their economy. Pre-ascendance, apes had (or should I say “have”) no significant agriculture or other types of economic production, no surplus to trade, and no means of exchange. They were (“are”) essentially hunter-gatherers. Why put up with all the risks inherent in keeping such a fragile economic model if you’ve recently gained enough units of intelligence sufficient to improve it? The apes in the rebooted series resist the temptation of retribution (apart from some skirmishes – these are action-movies after all). They’re not interested in subjugating the humans and creating a human-slave economy as they do in the older movies. They want to stay in the forest and keep the humans out. They want to remain essentially ape-like in their behavior, if not their knowledge.
This extreme case of status quo bias seems an unlikely course of action after a major and sudden shift in levels of intelligence. And the actions of the apes in the original series are just as hard to understand. They have human-like intelligence and yet they decide that they want a vindictive system of pre-industrial slavery. Good for the storylines of the movies, but bad for long-term viability and productivity. And hard to understand given the fact that we are led to assume that they should know better.
There’s an article here starting from Austrian economics to make the not entirely convincing point that apes can be both highly intelligent and still remain hunter-gatherers. The argument goes like this: apes, even or especially intelligent ones, must remain hunter-gatherers for some time because sudden agriculturalization or industrialization of their economy would likely turn out to be immensely harmful and even disastrous in the short term. Everyone would starve. You need capital, time and sufficient stocks of supplies to create the institutions necessary for industrialization. I’m not convinced. If the apes do take over, they can also take over the stocks, tools and other forms of capital created by humans. They don’t have to industrialize from scratch.
If neither the movies nor Austrian economics help us to flesh out the unlikely future economy in a world ruled by apes, can we perhaps turn to primatology? We do know a lot about current ape behavior. Assuming that this behavior doesn’t entirely go away with intelligence enhancement, what can it tell us? One of the things we know, such as primates’ fondness of reciprocity and sharing, their inequity aversion and use of altruistic punishment would suggest a mixed economy with a strong welfare state, or even communism. Other things, however, such as the often strong competitive forces at play in primate groups, would suggest a very unencumbered free market economy. (There have been successful efforts to introduce currency into monkey economies). But then again, maybe the original movies were correct: strong primate group hierarchy points to more traditional economic models. So it would seem that our future of ape dominance is up for grabs. Maybe we will indeed be reduced to human slaves in a strictly hierarchical pre-industrial society. Or maybe the apes will join the WTO.
Moral philosophy is an infamous mess. However, this mess, which moral philosophers have inadvertently foisted upon us, may in the end do us a favor: by trying in vain to come up with a coherent and convincing system of morality moral philosophers may have shown that there isn’t in fact something called morality.
But let’s take a few steps back first. Why is moral philosophy a mess? After 2000+ years of trying, not even the brightest minds have produced a morality that’s the least bit convincing. There isn’t even a shred of promise that something convincing is somewhere around some distant corner. For example, your theory might require a bit of rethinking if it states that to act morally you have to
- Tell an inquiring murderer the whereabouts of your targeted friend
- Engage in infanticide
- Prefer a society with billions of people living only a marginally worthwhile life to a small society of very happy people
- Harvest the organs of a perfectly healthy individual in order to save 5 very ill and possible terminal patients
- Be as greedy as you can be so as to make tons of money that you can then donate to some hypothetical other people who I suppose shouldn’t follow the rule to be greedy
- Engage in mutually advantageous exploitation
However, “rethinking” won’t do the job. Moral philosophy has been “rethinking” for ages, and the only thing to show for it are increasingly exotic and outrageous moral systems that refute one another and that can never and shouldn’t ever be the guide to anyone’s daily actions. You have very imaginative constructs like negative utilitarianism or esoteric consequentialism that have had about as much traction as a spider in a bathtub. Or you have hybrid systems such as rule utilitarianism, threshold deontology or luck egalitarianism that look like desperate attempts to bridge contradicting theories and offer a unified and irrefutable system without the unsavory parts of its components. Qua traction they aren’t any better.
Of course, it’s not because a theory lacks traction that it isn’t correct. Lots of unpopular things are correct. But the general persuasional failure of moral philosophy does indicate a deeper level of failure. Maybe moral philosophy fails because it tries to find a good explanation of something that doesn’t exist. And maybe it makes the same mistake as theories about the Martian canals, Aether or other Phlogistons. (Some ominous parallels perhaps to theories about free will or the Mind).
But if there is no morality, then how do we explain the sense of morality? It’s quite common for people to have a sense of right and wrong, to have a distaste of doing wrong, to oppose wrong when they see it done, to avoid harming others etc. The failure of moral philosophy to come with a good system doesn’t change this fact and doesn’t undo the reality of this moral sense. But if it’s true that there is no morality then this moral sense is an illusion, right? Not necessarily. Moral intuitions such as “do no harm” and “do unto others as you’d have done to you” are not necessarily proof of the existence of something called “morality”. These intuitions are perhaps based on mere self-interest rather than being the result of a moral system. We follow these intuitions in our daily actions not because a system of morality (or a God for that matter) demands this of us, but because doing so furthers our interests.
For example, we have an interest in a prosperous life, but in order to have a prosperous life, we need bakers, butchers, shopkeepers and the like to be able to prosper as well. We need peace, but peace is a public good: if we have it, others have it as well, and the only way to have it for ourselves is to try to give it to others. Reciprocity also explains the intuitions against harming others. If we refrain from harming others we may expect others to reciprocate, for different reasons: those others have no reason to retaliate; they make the same calculation as we do; and there is habit-formation in rule respecting behavior. There is a whole field of game theory that is based on similar assumptions. And the scientific inquiry into human evolution also gives support, as it seems that a lot of morality has an evolutionary basis.
So we end up with “values” that are really self-interested rules which happen, by chance alone, to benefit others. And which, because of these benefits, appear to be morally inspired, altruistic and benevolent. This appearance in turn has produced a whole field of philosophy that, in my mind, mistakes the appearance for the underlying reality.
PS: how do human rights fit into this? If I were famous I would be famous for my interest in and promotion of human rights. Isn’t that a moral stance? Aren’t human rights based on a moral theory? Or aren’t they a moral theory themselves, equivalent to utilitarianism and such? Not in my understanding of human rights. Of course, if you believe that human rights are divine commands or a tool to enforce a consequentialist or deontological morality, then the possible non-existence of morality undercuts the system of human rights. But in my view human rights are tools to promote interests. (I have an older post here explaining my interest-based approach to human rights. And another one here about selfish reasons to respect human rights. A more concrete example is this post about the attractiveness of religious liberty to those who hate it, namely those of us who are most ardently religious. There is also a subset of human rights violations that is relevant in this context, namely boomerang human rights violations).
The absence of a link between human rights and morality also explains
- the existence of a right to do wrong (also here)
- the relative absence of talk about duties in human rights discourse
- and the fact that morality is a major cause of human rights violations.
More about human rights and morality here.
No more than a shadow in a mirror; a mirror which is in fact no more than a mere window; a window which is just a collection of moving atoms; atoms which are themselves no more than moving particles. The mere shadow itself was only a photon variation. There’s nothing redeeming about it all. “But look at the beauty of the thing throwing the shadow!” She may be beautiful, this strange illusion of solidity, but it’s only illusion that gives it beauty. Only illusion gives meaning and that’s all that meaning is. We have nothing else. Mock these trivial lines as much as you please, but you’re not mocking me. You’re objecting to pixels and particles.
Sorry for the prolonged silence, but nothing interesting and novel enough to say. Hence, in lieu of thoughts, some images. I still have this picture book to “sell” (it’s for free actually):
So we were in Berlin last weekend, and we passed the Holocaust Memorial next to the Reichstag. Our 5 year old son was intrigued by the structure and went ahead of us and entered it. He then started to use it as a playground, a maze, to play hide-and-seek. Of course, I wasn’t seeking. He still had a lot of fun, but I had mixed feelings, as you can probably understand.
On the one hand, he was showing a lack of respect for the dead. This – given his age – is understandable though still jarring. I felt ashamed of him and of myself for allowing him to do what he did. On the other hand, maybe his display of innocence and vitality was an appropriate antidote to the burden of national guilt and cosmic morbidity expressed by the memorial (which is beautiful by the way).
National guilt is a concept that is becoming less and less relevant, although you sense that Germany still suffers from it. In addition, the morbidity of holocaust remembrance, although it expresses a fitting form of respect for the dead, is also in a sense an expression of respect for the perpetrators. It makes the perpetrators more important than they should be. Perhaps the Nazis were just a bunch of ridiculous losers which should be laughed at instead of morbidly feared.
Of course, I should say “my blog”, but if we assume, unscientifically, that my experience is shared by many other bloggers then some of you may find my answers to the question in the title somewhat useful.
Almost nobody reads my blog these days. I’ve gone from a high point of about 10,000 pageviews a day – a respectable and higher than average number – to 20 or so. (Hi mom!). Whereas failure or success are subjective notions and to some extent in the eye of the beholder, they are fairly objective at the margins. Krugman is an objectively successful blogger, and yours truly is a verifiable suck. (Much of it my own doing, I admit, but I won’t go into the specifics of my personal failure, thank you). Sure, you can call yourself a success with a tiny readership if all you want is to spread the news about your local soccer club, but let’s limit ourselves here to what we could call “serious” blogging, i.e. writing about important topics for a targeted and perhaps sizeable audience in order to change something in the world – or at least in a part of the world.
How can this go wrong, you ask? In many ways, I’m afraid.
It’s the math.
Since it’s so goddamn easy to start a blog – it literally takes only minutes and costs nothing but time – millions of people have done so. Result: there are too many blogs. Which means that you won’t show up on Google and potential readers won’t find you. The only way for googlers to find you is authoritative endorsement: other famous and credible bloggers who write about the same topics and who publish links to or perhaps even favorable comments about your writing. That, of course, is another problem.
It’s the lack of authoritative endorsement.
Even if people do find you in some way or other, they won’t be able to judge the quality of your work compared to that of the thousands of others blogging about the same thing, unless they read you and all the others carefully. Of course they don’t have time for that. They’ll only read you instead of all the others if some authority figure in the field signals to them that that is what they should do. But getting such a figure to give the right signal is hard, for the same mathematical reasons. You can try to identify these people and email them links to your posts in the hope of receiving their endorsement, but here the mathematics will trip you up again. There are very few authority figures, almost by definition, and they receive far too many endorsement requests from far too many bloggers. The chances of getting noticed by authority figures are probably even lower than the chances of spontaneous discovery by a larger public.
Furthermore, endorsement requests can make you look needy, and the need for endorsement is for many readers – including the potential endorsers – a signal that you’re not worth the trouble. People tend to assume that success is self-made and doesn’t require endorsement. If you need endorsement then that’s already a sign that there’s nothing to endorse.
It’s what you write about.
A major factor in determining readership size is the topic you write about. Some topics are more popular than others, and the things you are passionate about may only be interesting to relatively few people even if these things are objectively important to humanity as a whole. That’s OK as long as you redefine success. For instance, if you write about something like human rights – as I do – then you should realistically aim at a relatively small readership. People in general do not want to read about human rights when they can read about celebrities and royalty. You set yourself up for failure if you ignore this fact about humanity. If, on the other hand, you aim at a small readership but one that includes many of the people working in the field of human rights – academics, activists, politicians – then a small but targeted readership can be considered a success. If you can change how academic specialists in the field of human rights think about their subject, and if you can inform activists about how to be more successful in doing their work, then readership size is somewhat less important. This is true for a lot if not all of what we call “serious” blogging. This type of blogging is by definition specialized in the sense that it’s about one topic, and an important topic, and that it tries to go deep within that topic. It’s success for those types of blogs that I care about and success here is more about targeting the right people than the size of the audience.
It’s the metrics.
So it’s important to get over the fetish of readership numbers. They’re not that important for serious blogs, with possible exceptions for wide-ranging fields such as economics. And anyway, they’re notoriously difficult to measure. Pageviews don’t tell the whole story. A lot of the views you get may be just mistakes or people scraping images from your blog. And the rest of the views may last for a few seconds only (although in theory it’s possible to measure time spent on a site). Advertising income, if you have it, is also not a reliable indicator of readership. The only really useful indicator of readership is mentions of and links to you elsewhere on the internet. And especially from authority figures in the field. And that’s by definition anecdotal and impossible to measure. You’ll have to “feel” it.
It’s your style.
Suppose you have a serious blog with some level of specialization – “going deep” – and a targeted and authoritative readership that came to you by way of endorsement. You may still struggle to hold on to your audience. Even a group of specialists in the field of human rights want to have variety in what they read. Hammering on about the same thing over and over again, even if you make sense and develop good arguments, tends to become boring, even to specialists. And it’s not enough to include the occasional funny gif post as a form of comic relief. People can get that anywhere. You’ll have to find a good balance between being short and to the point on the one hand and original and deep on the other. That’s tough. People don’t go to blogs to read thousands of words (I know, I’ll wrap this up in a moment, I promise). Or to read what they already know. And remember, you’re targeting specialists and authority figures, so they know a lot and you’ll have to be original and profound.
An additional stylistic difficulty: you’re forced to write in English. No brainer. But English probably isn’t your mother tongue. Whereas English is relatively easy to learn if all you want is to communicate effectively, it’s incredible hard to write well in English. Trust me, I know. And I guess you can tell. People want to read good writing. So invest some effort in it.
It’s only blogging.
Finally: if you obsess about success or failure as a blogger, you’ve already lowered your ambitions. Try to be successful as a writer, an artist, politician or spouse. You may face some of the same difficulties but the payoff will be bigger.
What to do about the risk of failure?
If you still want to be a successful blogger after all this, then what should you do? Invest in your mastery of the English language. Continue to seek endorsements and get over your squeamishness about it. But don’t spam people. Limit your ambition and get over the pageviews. Try to get quality readers. Persevere: blogging is useful even if literally nobody reads you. You learn things by writing about them. You become a better writer and a smarter person. Also: be regular. People don’t like blogs that aren’t updated regularly (ahem). But don’t spend more than a couple of hours a day on it. Life’s too short, there’s too much good television and food. And your wife and offspring don’t care about your blog. The sun is shining and your body needs a run.
[The drought of my inspiration continues, I’m afraid, so here’s another golden oldie. Tyler Cowen linked to it on Marginal Revolution at the time I first published it some years ago, so it must be good. Argumentum ad verecundiam, I know.]
One result of human rights measurement is a spatial pattern of human rights, a pattern that of course changes over time: countries with lower or higher levels of respect for human rights show up on a world map and this world map shows a certain spatial pattern.
The current spatial pattern of human rights is, somewhat simplistically, like this: wealthy and developed “Western” countries, although by no means free from human rights violations, show on average higher levels of respect for human rights than most developing nations. This is no reason to distribute praise or blame: developed countries share responsibility for human rights violations in developing countries, and high levels of respect for certain human rights in developed countries may be partly a matter of luck or perhaps even the direct consequence of the exploitation of developing regions. It’s also the case that rights cost money, hence wealthier countries can be expected to show higher levels of respect for rights.
Just take it as a fact rather than a judgment, admittedly a stylized fact (one can argue that human rights are better protected in Italy than in the US even though the latter is much wealthier; the same is true if you compare Botswana en China). Here‘s an example of one human rights index that confirms this spatial pattern.
Given this current spatial pattern, what’s our best guess about the future? The dynamics of human rights are poorly understood: unfortunately, we don’t really know which actions or events are most likely to change levels of respect for human rights, at least not in the positive sense. We know that war, genocide, authoritarian rule and poverty bring levels down, but we don’t know quite as well how to bring levels up. We assume that different types of forces may play a role:
- bottom-up forces such as popular revolts, changes in cultural practice etc.;
- top-down forces such as coups d’états, government policies, national legislation, international law, international institutions etc.;
- horizontal forces such as peer pressure among states, conditional bilateral development aid, pay-offs, military intervention, naming-and-shaming etc.
Incentives also play a role, and maybe even forces beyond human control such as climate, geography etc. However, the exact result and impact of these forces is unclear and controversial, so we don’t really know what to do and kinda grope in the dark hoping something is successful.
Given the fact that many people and many institutions actually try to do something in order to raise levels of respect for human rights, it’s indeed likely that some actions will be somewhat effective. Hence the spatial pattern of human rights may change in the future. Here are my guesses as to how it may change:
- Those areas of the world where respect for rights is already relatively high are most likely to see additional improvements. I agree that low hanging fruit is easiest to pick, and that is why we may see spectacular progress in some countries where respect is currently low: the removal of an oppressive regime can, in theory, bring rapid and large improvements in levels of respect, but in practice there are very few cases (often the overthrow of an oppressive regime is followed by civil war or a successor regime that is only slightly better or even worse). Conversely, sometimes high hanging fruit is, paradoxically, easier to pick. Countries with a reasonably high level of respect often have a history of struggle for rights as well as a culture of rights resulting from that struggle. Rights are part of the ethos of the common man. Remaining rights violations will therefore be more jarring, and existing institutions necessary to tackle them are in place. Another reason to believe that improvements in human rights will first take place in those countries that are already relatively good is the dynamic of bilateral aid: aid donors are likely to give more to countries that already have a certain level of respect, not just because donors like aid conditionality but also because of things such as the “bottomless pit syndrome”. Badly governed countries just take the aid and spend it for the rulers’ personal profit. Donors understandably don’t like this and therefore tend to give to countries that are better governed.
- Those areas of the world adjacent to areas where respect for rights is already relatively high are likely to see additional improvements. Countries tend to see rights violations in neighboring countries as more urgent than rights violations far away. The former violations can have spillover effects: a civil war in the country next door can cause refugee flows into your own country or other types of spillovers, hence you have an incentive to do something about the war. The same is true for other types of rights violations. Rights violations in a country far away don’t create the same incentives to act. Additionally, the EU and other regional organizations insist that candidate member countries – almost always adjacent countries – first respect human rights before they can become members. These candidate countries therefore have a powerful incentive to raise levels of respect, since membership is often profitable. And there are also other, non-spatial types of proximity among adjacent countries: they may share a language – or their languages may belong to the same family – or a religion. This kind of cultural proximity makes bilateral intervention more likely and more acceptable. If one of two adjacent countries has a high level of respect for human rights, it may find it easier to intervene in the other country in order to foster human rights. It may offer effective institutional assistance for instance, assistance that is more effective – because more acceptable and easier – than assistance from a country far away, “far away” both spatially and culturally. Another reason to believe that proximity plays a role: a country that exists in the proximity of other countries that perform better in the field of human rights is in direct competition with those other countries; competition for workers, international investment etc. Both workers and companies will prefer to invest in countries that are free. Hence the underperformers in a certain region will have the incentive to do better.
If these two claims are correct, then we’ll see increasing polarization among two groups of countries. Not the optimal outcome, but perhaps the most likely one. Time will tell.
More posts in this series are here.
[You may have noticed a lack of blog posts recently. At least I hope you have. For personal reasons I’ve been having a hard time writing anything these last weeks, so here’s one from the archive (with a new title). It’s almost 5 years old but I still think it’s one of my best.]
Human rights have many functions, but their most important one is perhaps the institution and the protection of a public space and a public life for every individual. This is especially true of freedom rights or civil rights (which of course also institute and protect a private space, in particular by way of the right to privacy and the right to private property). These rights protect public life because public life guarantees a number of important human values such as the ability to form, experience and preserve an individual as well as a collective identity and the ability to think more or less correctly. I will use Kant’s philosophy to substantiate these claims.
Public life as such is not dependent on human rights. There is publicity in states which do not protect human rights. The advantage of human rights is that they are equal rights. They try to protect public life and the values attached to it for every individual in an equal way. We can of course have a perfectly happy life without having a public life, but then we relinquish the values that are protected by this public life. It is also true that we can have a public life without the protection of a state and its legal instruments (such as human rights, judges, police etc.). However, public life would then be fragile, uncertain and unequally distributed among individuals.
I am conscious of the fact that not everybody will be convinced by this justification of human rights. Those who desire nothing but a completely private life or a hedonistic life devoid of any public communication or political involvement will be disappointed. However, I am sure that, once I have explained the meaning of the words “public life”, most of the people in most cultures of the world will agree that they refer to something valuable. Which, of course, does not mean that they will agree that there is a link between these concepts on the one hand and human rights and democracy on the other hand.
Human rights protect our public life, but why do we need a public life? And what is this public life? How does it protect certain values, and how is it protected by freedom rights? Let me start with the first two questions. A public life is a life dedicated to publicity, to public deeds and words, not necessarily in an active way; for most of us maybe only in a passive way. Publicity is open interaction, taking place between as many people as possible and with as little limitations as possible. Hidden, private, secret, clandestine or prohibited interaction is not public interaction.
I will not use the word “public” in the legal sense. Public law regulates the relationships between the citizens and the state (for example criminal law, constitutional law etc.), while private law regulates the relationships between citizens (for example the law of commerce or the law of succession). This legal way of understanding the word “public” is too limited for my purpose. This legal definition also leads to confusion. Hannah Arendt (1992:95) states – and I agree – that the separation of church and state has not transformed religion into an entirely private or intimate affair. Only a tyrant can destroy the public role of religion and churches and can destroy the public space where religious people meet. However, because of her purely political interpretation of the word “public” – the public domain is the political domain, and nothing more – she is forced to use the awkward expression “secular public space” in order to describe the sphere of politics or the state, and the equally awkward expression “religious public space” for the space left vacant by politics in a system which is characterized by a separation between church and state. She seems to define the word “public” in a very limited way (public = politics), but also speaks of “all forms of public relationships, social as well as political” (Arendt 1990:170). Habermas struggles with the same contradictions: his “‘öffentlichkeit” is a space where private citizens can act in a critical way towards the public/political domain. Castoriadis similarly reduces the public to the political:
The emergence of a public space means that a political domain is created which ‘belongs to all’. The ‘public’ ceases to be a ‘private’ affair – of the king, the priests, the bureaucracy, the politicians, and the experts. Decisions on common affairs have to be made by the community. Cornelius Castoriadis
A public life, in the way I understand it, consists in the first instance of sets of relationships between citizens, although the relationships between the state and its citizens can also be part of a public life (especially in a democracy; democratic political life is a part of public life). The public space is larger than the space of politics and the state (although in a democracy the latter is part of the former).
Human life is of course impossible without relationships. We all live in society. No one is self-sufficient or “atomized”. Man is always a fellow man; existence is always coexistence. Other people are there before we are and we continuously profit from their achievements. We need interaction and communication with other people – first our parents but not just our parents – in order to be able to think. Moreover, thinking has to transcend the private sphere because it is dependent on other people besides our relatives, friends and private acquaintances. It needs public interaction, not just private. The ability to think is not created and developed in any arbitrary group, but only in a community – if possible the world community – in which publicity reigns and in which there are rules and laws that can enforce this publicity. Immanuel Kant correctly stated that the authority that takes away the freedom of expression also takes away the freedom to think, a freedom usually considered to be inalienable (Kant 1992:87). Thinking needs the public use of reason. Thoughts are not something you develop on your own or in some small and closed group. You first need to listen to as many thoughts as possible in order to develop your own thoughts. (Or, which can be the same thing, you need to read books. Books are thoughts made public, which is why they are called publications). Listening to as many thoughts as possible, expanding the sources of thoughts and information, can only be done by making them public. Thinking, the inner dialogue, is always the result of a public dialogue. How much would you think if you would never speak to anyone, or even if you would always speak to the same, small and private group of people? Thinking needs thoughts that come from outside of your own limited group. Hence thinking needs human rights.
However, not only the ability to think as such, but also the ability to think in a more or less correct way, with as few mistakes as possible, depends on publicity, which is another thing we learned from Kant. By making your thoughts public and thus submitting them to scrutiny and tests by other people – first and foremost submitting them to those who are not your private or personal friends, because they might be too kind for you or too like-minded – you are forced to say how you came to have these thoughts and to give an account of the reasons why you have these thoughts instead of others. This will force you to reflect on your reasons and arguments, and, if necessary, to look for better ones. Giving a public account of your reasoning, or knowing in advance that you will give this account, makes you very critical of yourself and helps you avoid mistakes. Nobody wants to make a fool of themselves. This means that you confront – or prepare to confront – other people and their (possible) objections, not only in order to disprove their objections, but also in order to disprove or possibly improve your own opinions.
Publicity improves the quality of thoughts both because of the a priori self-criticism that it promotes and because of a posteriori testing by other and not necessarily like-minded people (a phenomenon well known in the scientific community).
A particular issue is forced into the open that it may show itself from all sides, in every possible perspective, until it is flooded and made transparent by the full light of human comprehension. Immanuel Kant
If you want to improve the quality of your thoughts, then you need publicity on two levels: first you have to make your thoughts public, and then you have to listen to public objections and arguments. This means that you as well as your opponents must have the right to be heard and to defend arguments.
This is the link between publicity and human rights. Giving a public account of your reasoning and arguments, taking objections into account, putting yourself in the place of someone else, think like someone else, look at things from another side or perspective, act as if you hold a contrary point of view, all this is possible only when different perspectives and different points of view are freely expressed. Human rights and in particular freedom rights can help to achieve this (Kant’s imagination can also help but is probably not enough). Putting yourself in the place of someone else, looking at something from another point of view or another perspective helps you to better understand things, just as looking at an object from another point of view helps you to better perceive the object. Without human rights, many valuable points of view or perspectives will not be made public, and many valuable objections and counter-arguments will not be known to someone defending a certain thought or idea. This can diminish the quality of the thought or idea in question.
Thinking correctly means thinking in community with others. Of course, I use the word “correctly” not in an absolute or scientific sense. The debate is open-ended, new arguments or new objections can always emerge and can lead to an even better understanding. Correctness in this sense can only be an approximation.
If you consider thinking and thinking correctly to be valuable activities – and it is hard not to, because without thinking you cannot consider anything – then publicity or public life as well as the rights that are necessary for its protection must also be valuable.
The fact that thinking is not an isolated business contradicts a well-known intuition.
Thinking . . . is the silent dialogue of myself with myself . . . and . . . is a “solitary business” . . . Also, it is of course by no means true that you need or can even bear the company of others when you happen to be busy thinking; yet, unless you can somehow communicate and expose to the test of others, either orally or in writing, whatever you may have found out when you were alone, this faculty exerted in solitude will disappear. Hannah Arendt.
But not only afterwards does the thinking self leave its solitude. Before thinking can begin there must be some kind of public interaction (e.g. reading books, the public ideas of others).
I have said before that we should try to expand the public space beyond the national boundaries. Ideally, the other people who we need to think and to think correctly are not only our compatriots but also the rest of humanity. A global public space is the natural consequence of the widest possible extension of sources of thoughts required for thinking and the widest possible confrontation with counter-arguments and different points of view required for the correctness of thinking. Only by living in this kind of global public space can we hope to become Kant’s world citizen or “Weltbetrachter” and can we avoid national prejudices or national one-sidedness. The western feeling of superiority, for example, needed colonization to become aware of its errors. Both the private sphere and the national sphere have to be transcended in order to transcend our curtailed, narrow-minded, one-sided, prejudiced and unthinking existence. A life completely dedicated to intimacy, to that which is your own (“idion” in Greek), far away from the common world, is by definition an “idiot” life (Arendt 1983:76). The same thing can be said of life limited to a (national) group.
As for human rights, it is quite certain that they cannot do their job in the global public space as well as they can in the national one. It is difficult to enforce the protection of public communication between an American and a Chinese, even in the age of the Internet. The best we can hope for at the moment is the establishment of a chain of national public spaces protected nationally by national human rights instruments, although one should not underestimate the effect of cross-border action in favour of human rights. Ideally, human rights can only be justified when they are applied globally. A purely national application in the midst of an anti-human-rights world would lose much of its meaning if we accept the justification based on thinking.
John Stuart Mill has given another reason why human rights promote correct thinking. An opinion is not a purely personal possession and the act that inhibits the possession or the expression of an opinion is not a purely private crime. Suppressing an opinion is a crime against humanity. If the opinion in question is correct, we make it impossible for humanity to distinguish right from wrong. If the opinion is false, we make it impossible for humanity to make what is right more apparent by confronting it with that which is wrong.
Public life also plays a part in the development of an individual’s identity, at least to the extent that this identity is consciously created at all. Establishing your identity is intimately linked to thinking and, in the same way as thinking, it is not a purely private, individual or inward activity. It takes place in society and in the institutions of society. You become who you are by thinking and by developing your ideas. To a certain extent, your thoughts, ideas and convictions determine who you are, determine your identity. If thinking depends on publicity, then identity or personality as well depend on publicity.
You also become who you are by expressing yourself, by saying, doing or making things visible to all and by distinguishing yourself. All this implies the existence of a public or an audience and hence implies a public life. Thoughts take shape only when they are expressed or prepared to be expressed. By expressing and showing yourself, you make things public about yourself, things that were a secret before, sometimes even a secret to yourself. In this way, you get to know yourself and you shape your identity.
Furthermore, you shape your identity by looking at others, by studying them, by following them or by wittingly contradicting them. An individual identity needs a group in which there is a public life in the sense of showing, listening, following and contradicting (although groups are of course also the product of individuals). “Polis andra didaskei”, the individual is shaped by the “polis”. The identity of a member of a socialist party is profoundly shaped by his or her membership. We are who we are because we are part of a group. Belonging is not only a psychological or emotional need. It also shapes our identity. Hence the importance of the right to associate.
But we also are who we are because we revolt. People should therefore be allowed to leave groups. Because groups not only promote but sometimes also hinder the creation of an individual identity (they can for example be ideological “schools” or dogmatic churches enforcing conformism), it is important that membership is free and that the communication which takes place inside these groups, is as open and as free as possible. Groups should allow members to hear outside information. In other words, groups should have a public character on top of or instead of their private character.
It is useful to point out the difference between identity and individuality. Identity can imply conformism, wittingly or unwittingly. You can define your identity by conforming to a group with a certain identity that you either like or imperatively adopt because of education, propaganda, brainwashing etc. In the latter case, you have an identity, but not necessarily an individuality. You can only have an individuality if:
- You consciously choose the identity of a group as a consequence of reasoned reflection of a public nature (of the kind discussed above); and
- You have personal and unique characteristics on top of the identity of the group you have decided to join, and this is not as evident as it sounds given the power of some groups.
Conforming to a group in order to acquire an identity is very important to most people, and rightly so, at least as long as there is room left for individuality. Most people do not feel that their personal uniqueness is enough to give them an identity. They believe that only a link between them personally and something outside of them that they consider to be important – for example socialism – is able to give them an identity (Charles Taylor 1994:46). Most of the time, establishing this link can best be done by joining other people with the same idea – for example the community of socialists. This feeling of belonging to an important group also guarantees that the rest of the world is aware of your identity. The feeling of belonging to something important is crucial here. You do not have an identity because you belong to the community of people with red hair. But even the individual identity or individuality can only exist because of a link with something important, such as an event you have witnessed or caused etc. You do not have an identity because you are the only one with blue hair. Your individuality is not the consequence of a unique but arbitrary characteristic, event or sequence of events.
The process of shaping an identity through group conformity requires publicity and human rights. Groups must be allowed to exist, to make publicity for their identity, to convince people to join them etc. All these things are explicitly provided for in human rights. The process also requires democracy because it implies an egalitarian society. You cannot at the same time emphasize the importance of people shaping their identity and individuality, and accept a hierarchical society in which identities are automatically determined by social position, role or activity. A democracy, moreover, needs groups because it needs majorities, minorities and political parties. And because it needs groups, it tends to protect groups.
It is clear from all this that language and therefore also education and the struggle against illiteracy are extremely important for public life. Language is more than just an instrument to represent or translate reality or to transfer messages (Taylor 1994:10). It also has the power to constitute the human person, to express, understand and develop our personality or individuality, to promote thinking etc. Language, therefore, also creates reality.
The fact that public life and the values resulting from it require the presence of other persons and meeting other persons, does not exclude the possibility of solitude and even loneliness. The presence of others can be indirect, for example by way of a book. Sometimes it is even useful to be alone, for example when we want to study, to open up sources of ideas and information etc. This kind of solitude is not the same thing as the absence of relationships. It is not a private solitude, but a public one, if I may say so, because it requires the presence of a book; and a book is a public thing (it is a “publication”, the thoughts of someone made public). It is the indirect presence of another person.
Proust . . . ne croyait plus en la conversation ni d’ailleurs en l’amitié. C’est même de sa longue pratique de la parole vive qu’il avait tiré, contre Sainte-Beuve, la certitude d’un abyme entre le moi social et le moi profond. Mais justement les livres sont silencieux et leur auteur absent. On peut donc les aimer sans faire de manières et sans s’inquiéter de ce qu’ils ont pensé de nous: “Dans la lecture, l’amitié est ramené à sa pureté première. Avec les livres, pas d’amabilité”. Et c’est la même image que l’on retrouve chez Arendt quand elle définit la personne cultivée comme quelqu’un qui sait choisir sa compagnie “parmi les hommes, les choses, les pensées, dans le présent comme dans le passé”. Alain Finkielkraut
Reading means having a public life because it means participating in a public phenomenon, namely the published book. This is apparent in the description of the community of readers as the “public” of the writer (it is maybe even more apparent in the French language in which “le public” literally means the audience or the readership). A public space does not only contain people who disclose something. It also contains the people to whom something is disclosed. Persons who never meet each other can have a conversation and can even arrive at a common opinion.
How do the different parts of the substructure and superstructure determine each other according to Marx?
Marx is usually understood as arguing that the substructure (the material world) determines the superstructure. But that’s only part of his argument. The creation and propagation of ideology is an important activity of the ruling class. The members of this class usually do not work but appropriate the fruits of the labor of other classes, and hence they have the necessary leisure time to engage in intellectual “work” and to construct and promote ideologies that they can use to serve their interests, consciously or unconsciously. Those with material power also have intellectual power. They can influence what others think, and they will be most successful if they themselves believe the ideologies that they want to force on others.
This clearly shows that the substructure does not only determine the legal and political parts of the superstructure, but thinking as well. The prevailing ideas are the ideas of the prevailing class.
[T]he class which is the ruling material force of society, is at the same time its ruling intellectual force. The class which has the means of material production at its disposal, has control at the same time over the means of mental production, so that thereby, generally speaking, the ideas of those who lack the means of mental production are subject to it. The ruling ideas are nothing more than the ideal expression of the dominant material relationships, the dominant material relationships grasped as ideas; hence of the relationships which make the one class the ruling one, therefore, the ideas of its dominance. The individuals composing the ruling class possess among other things consciousness, and therefore think. Insofar, therefore, as they rule as a class and determine the extent and compass of an epoch, it is self-evident that they do this in its whole range, hence among other things rule also as thinkers, as producers of ideas, and regulate the production and distribution of the ideas of their age: thus their ideas are the ruling ideas of the epoch. K. Marx, The German Ideology
But there is a kind of feedback action at work here. The substructure determines ideas, but these ideas in turn help to maintain a particular economic substructure. Not everything goes up from the material to the intellectual. Something comes down as well, but only after it went up first.
This can be expressed in the left half of the following drawing:
In this drawing, an arrow means “determination”. All ideas, not only political and legal ones, are both the expression (arrow 2) and the safeguard (arrow 3) of the economic structure of society. (The bottom-left half, arrow 1, represents the previously mentioned relationship between means of production and relations of production).
But there is also a right half in this drawing: the fact that ideas, in a kind of feedback mode, help to determine a particular economic structure, does not always have to be negative or aimed at the status quo. The poor, when they shed their false consciousness imposed by ideology, become conscious of their real situation, and this consciousness will help to start the revolution which will modify class relations and hence the substructure. This is represented by arrow 6.
Ideally, arrow 6 would have to pass through the box containing “politics” since the revolutionary proletariat will take over the state when attempting to modify the relations of production.
However, this awakening is bound to certain material preconditions, in particular the presence of certain very specific forces of production, namely large-scale industrial production with mass labor (arrow 4) and the strain imposed by existing class relations (arrow 5). It cannot, therefore, take place in every setting. Ultimately, all consciousness, real and false, is determined by the substructure. The order of determinations is fixed and follows the numerical order in the drawing.
More about Marx here.
I know poor people and I know rich people. There are sad and happy ones in both groups. However, in general and on average, higher levels of self-reported happiness correlate with higher income and wealth. This also corresponds to intuition. Poverty is a burden – both financially and psychologically. Being poor means being anxious about the future, about your children and about your self-worth. This anxiety is a form of unhappiness. Money can buy happiness, not in the sense that having money causes you to be happy, but because having money means that poverty related anxiety is mitigated, if not completely eliminated (although of course your feelings of apprehension, self-doubt and vulnerability may have reasons unrelated to poverty). Money also allows you to “buy away” some of the more specific causes of unhappiness associated with poverty, such as ill health, vulnerability to crime, a bad job etc.
A look at the data confirms all this. For example, it seems to be the case that people living in rich countries are happier than those in poor countries.
We establish a clear positive link between average levels of subjective well-being and GDP per capita across countries, and find no evidence of a satiation point beyond which wealthier countries have no further increases in subjective well-being. We show that the estimated relationship is similar to the relationship between subject well-being and income observed within countries. Those enjoying materially better circumstances also enjoy greater subjective well-being and ongoing rises in living standards have delivered higher subjective well-being. Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers (source)
This study, based on two cross-country happiness surveys (one by Pew and another by Gallup in which people report their own levels of happiness), found that richer countries are happier than poorer ones, and that this is reflected internally in countries (rich people are happier than their poor compatriots).
This is confirmed by another study by Lane Kenworthy, based on the Penn World Tables (for cross country analysis) and the General Social Survey (for U.S. data). Additional confirmation by Angus Deaton.
If you look carefully at some of these data, then they seem to contradict the Stevenson/Wolfers quote given above. It looks like there is a satiation point beyond which wealthier countries or individuals have no further or slower increases in subjective well-being: higher income is positively associated with happiness and life satisfaction but the association may be curvilinear in the sense that more income means greater happiness but less so at high levels of income than at low levels. This has been called the Easterlin paradox, but Wolfers and Stevenson argue against it (somewhat technically: a lot hinges on the type of scale used, namely a logarithmic one).
If I had any real power I would tax you all in the following manner:
First, I’d impose a consumption tax such as a VAT on traded goods and services. The consumption tax will have to be progressive, for example by way of a 0% tax on food and other basic necessities and a rate close to 100% for luxuries. A consumption tax encourages savings and investment and does away with the disincentives of income and payroll taxes which it will replace (disincentives to work, earn and hire). It also puts a stop to wasteful conspicuous consumption and status competition, at least at the top end. The sharply decreasing marginal utility at high levels of consumption means that the tax can indeed be strongly progressive, with close to 100% rates at very high levels of consumption. Such a strongly progressive consumption tax will leave incentives in place: a $1 million dollar home motivates just as well as a $200 million home, because people mostly care about how they are doing relative to similar others and all similar others will be subject to the same taxes.
Second: add an inheritance or estate tax because the wealthy, who will save more as a consequence of the consumption tax, will die with larger estates than before. Inheritance is inherently unfair because undeserved. A tax on inheritance not only reduces this unfairness, but does so without distorting incentives. Most other types of taxes have disincentive effects: when an activity such as consumption, investment, employment or pollution is taxed, the activity becomes more expensive. Hence, people will to some extent disengage from the activity (consume less, hire less employees, invest less, pollute less) or find ways to reduce their tax burden (offshore profits or assets, fail to declare income etc.). Disengagement is good in the case of pollution and consumption, but not for investment and employment. An inheritance tax is one that doesn’t have disincentive effects. People will not die less when wealth and assets are taxed after death. This tax is therefore sustainable, in addition to being moral.
It’s a kind of wealth tax. Wealth taxes, including an inheritance tax, promote consumption and are in conflict with the stated aims of a consumption tax (see above). But in the case of inheritance tax that’s a reasonable price to pay. Other wealth taxes – with one exception (see below) – will have to go, precisely for this reason, as well as other reasons: wealth taxes are difficult (they are a percentage of the taxpayer’s calculated net worth – total assets including cash deposits, real estate holdings, investments, trusts and shares in businesses, minus debt – and this net worth is difficult to valuate and easy to offshore); and they raise liquidity problems (the taxpayer may have to sell part of her assets in order to pay the tax, which will increase the supply of assets and drive down their prices, making wealth creation less attractive and possibly undermining the wealth tax). So, although a wealth tax is perhaps a fair tax – wealth is more concentrated in the hands of a very small elite, compared to income – it’s not necessarily a good idea.
Third: add a land value tax. This is a wealth tax, but not really a real estate tax, because the largest part of the value of real estate is the value of the land, not the value of the buildings. It doesn’t cost much more to build a house in Manhattan than to build an identical one in the Midwest. The house in Manhattan is much more expensive because it’s on Manhattan land. A land tax is similar to an inheritance tax: no one built the land, so people will not have less land when it’s taxed. And because no one built it, no one can be said to deserve it. So no incentives arguments against a land tax, and a strong moral argument in favor of it. Just as with inheritance.
Fourth: add some pigovian taxes (taxes on carbon and other externalities such as pollution, congestion etc.).
Fifth: abolish all other taxes, including taxes on investment income or normal income, on corporate profits, on labor/employment etc.
This system yields our tax revenues. A tax system can be justified on different grounds, and I’ve already mentioned a few, namely fairness, incentives (incentives to consume less, to save and invest more, to avoid pollution…) and efficiency (ease of tax collection and tax calculation). But an important justification of a tax system is its general purpose. What do we want to do with the tax revenue? Apart from the obvious goals – public goods such as a police force, a judiciary, a national defense, infrastructure, some regulatory agencies, public education, healthcare etc. – my main concern is welfare, or social security as they say in Europe. And like an increasing number of people I want to propose that we use our tax revenues to fund a universal basic income system which will replace all or most of the existing government support measures such as unemployment benefits, pensions, food stamps etc. I’ve defended the UBI in more detail before so I won’t burden this already longish post any more than necessary.
Now tell me why I’m wrong.
Here it is, with bonus sarcasm in square brackets:
The poor are society’s underprivileged [all they lack are certain privileges]. They are of modest means [as opposed to “of no means at all”]. In order to make ends meet [what are those f*cking ends that are supposed to meet anyway?] they need to disinvest. In other words, the less fortunate become negative savers [as if they have any savings that they can negate]. The penniless [I’m sure they still have pennies] are in financial distress and are socially disadvantaged [they only lack some kind of advantage].
As a result of their poverty, those in dire straits [excuse me?] are marginalized [I suppose they are not in the center of attention]. They live in substandard housing [not entirely up to standard, but hey]. Or maybe they don’t have housing at all and then they are forced to become urban campers. Many of the poor have gotten the pink slip [I mean “the boot”] and are between jobs [or even “between shows”]. They are benefit claimants [yes, they claim instead of asking politely]. If they work, they work in the informal economy [they can only make a living illegally]. Their children in school have fallen in the achievement gap [forget about them]. Health conditions are a major problem [“sir, you have a serious condition”]. The uncertainty weighs heavily [much more heavily than the certainty of hopelessness].
History has seen many genocides and large scale killings. Some of those resulted in more deaths than the Holocaust. So why is the Holocaust special? It’s special because it was the first and last example of the industrial production of corpses. It was, quite literally, a murder machine. The murders were not the actions of specific individuals who did what they did because of their identity, motives or pathologies. They were not like the brutalities of the Roman Emperor Nero, which were clearly his. Nor were they like the crimes of Saddam Hussein or any other identifiable criminal. In the case of the Holocaust, it was impossible to recognize an identity in the deed. The killers were impersonal, insignificant, loyal, conscientious and hardworking civil servants operating together in an organized, efficient, systematic and planned extermination, characterized by division of labor and the industrial production line. Everyone knew exactly what to do, and often that was a very small part of the process. Shared responsibility is often seen as diminished responsibility, and makes it easier to produce corpses. The detailed planning, organization and execution of the project sets the Holocaust apart from other genocides. Eichmann protested against spontaneous pogroms in the east, not because he was a humanitarian but because those unorganized interventions messed up his bookkeeping and made it difficult to count how many exactly were killed by the otherwise machine-like operation.
The Holocaust was not the action of an individual or a small group of people. Nor was it motivated by egoism, the will to power, money, hate, rage, revenge, sadism, war or the elimination of opposition. The victims were not guilty of opposition or even crime. The perpetrators weren’t motivated by self-interest (for example, the Nazis prohibited private confiscation of Jewish goods for personal use). Neither was it primarily the hatred of Jews that led the Nazis to try to exterminate them. It was the love of humanity – or better what they considered to be true humanity – and the need to protect it. The Holocaust wasn’t a war crime either and wasn’t part of the normal atrocities of war. It started well before the war and the German war effort suffered substantially from it: potentially useful labor forces were eliminated, soldiers and other means that could have been used in the war were diverted to the extermination effort etc. The Jews were murdered, not because that would have allowed soldiers to fight rather than guard prisoners, but because they were Jews. The extermination continued even in the final days of the war, when Germany was losing and all military resources should have gone to the war effort. And, finally, the purpose of the Holocaust wasn’t to instill fear. Normal state terror serves to scare the population and convince it to submit and to behave in ways that are acceptable to the rulers. Not in the case of the Holocaust. Fear had become useless because it couldn’t serve to guide actions and to steer away from danger. Danger would have found you anyway. Everyone knew that you were a Jew, and tactical maneuvering motivated by fear could have helped you escape only in very few cases.
Self-interest, power hunger, sadism, revenge or other utilitarian motives were seen by the Nazis as diversions from the genocidal operation that was undertaken for the benefit of mankind. As was the military self-interest of Germany’s success in the war. The project of extermination of the Jews and the protection of mankind was more important than the risk of a possible military defeat of Germany. Pity as well could not stand in the way of the demands of nature and history. The pleas of the victims were not heard and people convinced themselves of the historical and natural necessity of the Holocaust. Like pity, the taking of money from a victim as a bribe for letting him or her live was a betrayal of nature. Germans had to be the superhumans that they were destined to be, free from all that makes us ordinary humans: pity, self-interest, hate and the will to power.
The Holocaust wasn’t a crime. A crime is a deed that goes against social order and established law and that challenges the powers that represent social order. In this case, we have an atrocity that emanated from the state and that had become the moral and legal law. Murder had become a form of government. Evil no longer had to fight the Good, and no longer had to hide and to be hypocritical. Evil ruled. There was only evil. The world was without a horizon, without hope or salvation. Another reason why the Holocaust can’t really be called a crime is the fact that the perpetrators didn’t have criminal motives. They just carried out the verdict of nature and implemented the laws of nature. A deeper legality defined the actions of government. Murder had become the law of nature as well as the legal law and the law of morality.
More on the Holocaust here.
The odds that your vote will actually affect the outcome of an election are very small. Close elections are very rare, and even rarer are those in which one vote is pivotal. So it doesn’t make a difference whether you participate or not. In light of this, it’s a small miracle that turnouts are as high as they are, and it’s ridiculous for people to lament a turnout that’s “only” 60%.
Clearly, people know that their votes don’t affect the outcome – at least most of the time – and vote for other reasons than a mere sense of responsibility. But what reasons? Signaling is certainly part of it. People vote because they are more than individuals. They identify with others, they want to belong and they want to be part of a “movement” or party that has a certain set of beliefs. Voting makes them such a part, and hence gives them an identity and a cause. Let’s not forget that an identity is highly dependent on expression and on recognition of this expression by others. Elections, even with a secret vote, are highly effective tools for the production of identity. The seemingly meaningless and futile vote of an individual becomes quite meaningful when aggregated with the votes of like-minded individuals.
It’s only when you adopt an economic and reductionist view of people, in which individuals only pursue their self-interest, that you cannot make sense of apparently silly behavior such as voting in which the costs (transport, risk, time etc.) outweigh the immediate benefits (if any).
There’s also the mysterious force of the “if-everyone-were-doing-this” rule, which we apply regularly. (It’s a variation on the Kantian categorical imperative: it is immoral to act on a maxim that we cannot imagine everyone else acting on). Throwing one piece of garbage in the park is almost absolutely harmless. Someone will clean it, and if not no one will notice. And yet most of us just don’t do it because “if everyone was doing it” – which they are not – it would be hell, and that’s how we teach our kids not to do it. And they understand. And they – or most of them – listen and don’t do it. Part of the reason why this rule works is the force of example. We don’t want to give a bad example because when people follow it, we will suffer, even though we may in the short run benefit from doing what we shouldn’t.
Similarly, when a certain number of voters believe that their vote doesn’t make much of a difference and isn’t worth the cost of participating, then they give a bad example which can be followed by large numbers of people. As a result, the usefulness of the remaining votes increases, and these votes will then determine the behavior of the rest of the population. People will be ruled by a minority with perhaps harmful views. So in order not to find themselves in this situation which is detrimental to most people, most people choose to vote.
A better way to express this idea:
The idea is not that one person’s decision to forgo voting would crash the system—how would that possibly happen?—but that it is immoral to act on a maxim that we cannot imagine everyone else acting on. So if I … will abstain from voting because the costs of voting outweigh the benefits, I will first need to see if the maxim passes a test implicit in Kant’s categorical imperative. I ought not act in accordance with the maxim if it fails the test.
So let’s see: can I universalise the non-voting maxim? Can I imagine living in a world in which every eligible voter opts for a nap or a game of Temple Run in lieu of going to the polls? No. The logic of American democracy does not support such a universalised principle. No one votes, no one is elected, a moment of constitutional failure brings an emergency convention in which unelected delegates draft a new constitution calling for an alternate system of specifying leaders that doesn’t involve the public. The franchise, and America as we know it, disappears. Since the logic of the system cannot be sustained were everyone to adopt the nap-over-voting maxim, I am morally bound not to act on it.
Now, again, the force of Kant’s argument is not empirical: you don’t need to show that a decision not to vote will actually bring a constitutional doomsday. You just need to show that if universalised it would. (source)
So, drag yourself outside tomorrow, if necessary, and do your duty, which is a duty both to your community and to yourself.
A few days ago, we were treated, once again, to a typical sexist rant by the awful Rush Limbaugh. This time, it seems that he’s provoked some kind of boycott. Some advertisers and listeners are turning their backs to the radio host, voting with their feet and their wallets. In a sense, this is a typical libertarian response:
[V]iolating Rush’s First Amendment rights would require state action. Rush has not been jailed for his views, nor has anyone even whispered a suggestion to that effect. There have been no calls for his radio transmitter to be jammed. No one is even demanding he be fined, which might be possible under the FCC‘s arcane and arbitrary decency laws. Instead, what his critics are doing is exercising one of their own fundamental American rights, their right as consumers to frequent the businesses they choose. (source)
I agree that this right of consumers and advertisers to shop where they want and pay for what they want is an important one, although probably not as important as libertarians have it. I have no beef with that. What worries me more and what brings out libertarians’ flawed understanding of human rights is the peculiar opinion on free speech that is evident from the quote above. It’s an opinion that libertarians apply to all human rights, namely that violations of human rights only and always result from government actions. Actions by fellow citizens – such as boycotts of radio talk show hosts – can never, according to libertarianism, result in rights violations.
The problem with libertarians is that they take cases such as the one we’re discussing now – and which indeed do not involve violations of free speech – and then extrapolate this in order to argue that there are never any similar cases in which citizens’ actions do result in violations of free speech. In the case under review, Limbaugh’s freedom of speech is evidently secure: the government hasn’t intervened, fortunately, and the action of listeners and advertisers don’t make it harder or impossible for Limbaugh to express himself. No one’s freedom of speech presupposes other people’s duty to listen or a duty to support speech through advertising money. Limbaugh’s freedom of speech would be secure even if the boycott were large enough for him to lose his radio pulpit. People don’t need to be a talk show host in order to have freedom of speech.
However, in other cases, it is possible that non-governmental actions – actions by fellow citizens in other words – result in violations of one’s freedom of speech. Some examples: the heckler’s veto, the silencing of critics of Islam by way of threats of violence, the chilling effect of political correctness etc. The same is true for all other human rights: it’s not the government that engages in FGM, that flies planes into the WTC buildings, that attacks gay couples on the street etc.
The central libertarian teaching about human rights as expressed in the quote above (“violating Rush’s First Amendment rights would require state action”) is therefore an error of fact. The error is probably unavoidable given libertarianism’s focus on the evils of government. This is all the more regrettable given the fact that libertarianism is, in theory, a philosophical school that should be very friendly to human rights. (Robert Nozick, perhaps the most famous libertarian philosopher, starts his magnum opus with the words: “Individuals have rights, and there are things no person or group may do to them without violating their rights”).
My argument here may be lacking in nuance and may not do justice to one or other subtype of the admittedly very large and diverse family of libertarianisms. If so, please feel free to correct me in comments.
At first sight, anarchism is an attractive theory for proponents of human rights. It’s often the state that violates human rights and getting rid of the state would therefore automatically and drastically reduce the number of rights violations. However, state action isn’t the only cause of rights violations; our fellow citizens can also take away our rights or fail to act in ways that protect our rights. When that happens, we often go to the state for protection. We regularly ask judges and police officers to protect our rights to physical security, property and life, and we depend on the government to provide education, poverty relief, transportation infrastructure etc.
Anarchists claim that we don’t necessarily have to go to the state for those forms of protection or provision. For example, the monopolization of violence by the state isn’t the only possible means to achieve physical security and protection of property. One can imagine private companies offering their protection services. That would also be more fair to those who need those services less (for example because they have less property or because they live somewhere isolated). In a government protection scheme, these people pay as much as anyone else (at least proportionally, given a more or less progressive tax system) whereas in a system of private protection services they could pay less or even nothing at all if they so wish.
One problem with a system of private protection services is that it can’t regulate violence or theft among the different service providers (a form of insecurity that can affect individuals as well). Anarchists could reply that a natural monopoly would arise as a result of that risk, but a monopoly would then drive up the price of security, which would be detrimental to the buyers and would, in the end, make government provided security look like a better deal. And government is definitely a better deal for those who can’t afford to buy private security.
And then there are of course the other, non-security related human rights. A free market solution to education, healthcare etc. is possible, but again would likely be insufficient for those who don’t have the means to buy those services. Rights are important first and foremost for vulnerable members of a community. If these people can’t count on rights, rights aren’t of much use. We all have rights and the protection of those rights shouldn’t be dependent on our individual ability to pay for them.
Of course, it’s true that rights cost money, and somehow this cost has to be covered in whichever way we think is best. But it seems better and more fair to cover this cost by way of taxation than by way of voluntary purchase, because then at least people’s rights don’t depend on their ability to pay, even though they depend on an overall social ability to cover the cost.
Moreover, free market solutions can cause free rider problems, especially in the case of public goods – and many human rights are public goods. If people have to pay for services, then some may be able to enjoy the services without paying. In private garbage collection systems, for instance, people who don’t pay for the collection may just put their garbage next door, together with the garbage of the paying neighbor. That is obviously not a human rights issue, but the same effect can occur when people have to pay for rights protection or provision. Let’s reiterate the example of security: if a certain number of people in an area pay a private security agency, then this agency will provide security in the area, even – to some extent – for those who don’t pay. This, of course, will convince many that they don’t have to pay. State protection or provision can also suffer from free rider problems, but at least the state can force people to pay (by way of taxation). However, government monopolies create the same problems as private monopolies (see above), so perhaps a mixed system of government and private rights protection and provision would be optimal.
Obviously, when we argue in favor of the relative advantages of state vis-à-vis private protection and provision of rights, we also have to acknowledge the practical reality that states often fail to protect and provide. They fail in two ways: many of them don’t sufficiently protect or provide, and much of what they do is completely unrelated to rights and often even detrimental to rights. We also have to admit that whatever the theoretical merits of either state or private protection and provision, the empirical reality is difficult to ascertain. Whereas we have many cases of state action – some good, some very bad – we have very few cases of attempted anarchy. That doesn’t help the case of anarchism. Maybe some theoretical shortcomings of anarchism don’t turn out so bad in practice, compared to the practice of government. And there’s of course the status quo bias which doesn’t help anarchism either: we know what we have, and trying something new is always risky.
So it appears that humanity will welcome its 7 billionth member. The United Nations claims that the baby in question will be born today, on October 31st.
Well, “welcome” isn’t exactly the right word. The number, like the 6 billionth 12 years ago, is the signal for hordes of population alarmists to repeat their message of doom. They aptly use people’s bias for numbers with a lot of zeros at the right side in order to garner some attention. 7 billion is believed to be special, highly significant, much more than 6.324.168.131 or 7.000.122.011 or something. Humanity is supposed to take another momentous step in its growth path. The common belief in the special significance of round numbers is the perfect excuse for those lamenting humanity’s growth to indulge in dire warnings, warnings that may fall between the cracks when there’s no round number on the horizon.
Never mind that none of this is actually true. No one really knows how many people there are. All that we have are rough estimates. There’s absolutely no basis to claim that a special person will be born today. In 1999, someone even had the stupid idea of actually naming the 6 billionth baby. No one knows exactly how many people there are because population censuses are inaccurate. And even if they were accurate, with more than 3 babies born around the world every second, it’s impossible to work out which baby is the world’s n billionth. It’s all just smoke and mirrors, pure symbolism that can only serve one purpose: to stress that there are many of us, too many. Still, people go about and pontificate about numbers as if they are actually true.
It’s not just the numbers that are misleading. The same is true for the conclusions that people draw from them. It’s highly dubious that there is an overpopulation problem. Even if we assume that there are indeed roughly 7 billion people on earth – which is a reasonable assumption after all – it’s incorrect to state that this number in itself is the cause of problems. True, certain resources are under pressure, but the reason isn’t always the number of people using those resources, and especially not the global numbers of people – small pockets of population concentrations can indeed cause resource problems, but then the problem is concentration, not overpopulation. The most important problem, however, resides in the ways in which resources are used, not in who uses them. I won’t repeat the detailed argument against the overpopulation discourse here: you can go back and read some of my older posts.
Colorism is prejudice of or discrimination against other people based on skin color. The concept is different from racism because it’s usually used to describe discrimination within a certain race or ethnic group, based on the tone of skin color, rather than discrimination of an entire race or ethnic group. In general, this means that lighter skin tones are preferred and darker skin is considered less desirable. Lighter-skinned members of a certain race or ethnic group can discriminate against members with darker tones within the same group, but colorism more often means a general social preference for lighter skins.
One cause of colorism may be a traditional and historical preference for light and an abhorrence of darkness, light being good and godly, dark being evil and scary. However, I won’t explore the causes and just limit myself to some examples. There’s the one I mentioned some time ago, and then there’s this one:
Villanova researchers studied more than 12,000 cases of African-American women imprisoned in North Carolina and found that women with lighter skin tones received more-lenient sentences and served less time than women with darker skin tones. The researchers found that light-skinned women were sentenced to approximately 12 percent less time behind bars than their darker-skinned counterparts. Women with light skin also served 11 percent less time than darker women.
The study took into account the type of crimes the women committed and each woman’s criminal history to generate apples-to-apples comparisons. The work builds on previous studies by Stanford University, the University of Colorado at Boulder and other institutions, which have examined how “black-looking” features and skin tone can impact black men in the criminal-justice arena. …
Part of the reason may simply come down to how pretty jurors consider a defendant to be, and that being light-skinned and thin (also a factor studied in the research) are seen as more attractive. (source)
I argued before that there can’t be a duty to speak, except in certain very specific cases involving a moral urgency. Hence, if you’re free to speak you’re also free to shut up. The freedom to shut up, although not recognized as a human right, can be important for the protection of other rights, either the rights of the person deciding to remain silent, or the rights of others.
For example, you have a right not to incriminate yourself (in the U.S., this right is translated into the Miranda rights and the Fifth Amendment). You may also want to remain silent because you want to choose your audience carefully. Some of your speech has to remain private, and your right to privacy would therefore be violated if you can’t remain silent in certain settings.
Or you may decide to remain silent in order to protect the rights of others: for instance, you may decide that certain words at a certain time and place would risk inciting others to commit crimes. Or perhaps your words may make it easier for others to commit crimes (take the case of a murderer asking you where he can find his intended victim).
However, the right to shut up is not just relevant in cases in which it can protect the speaker or others against rights violations. For instance, someone may refuse to pledge allegiance to the flag, take an oath on the bible, divulge his or her religious beliefs etc.
Suppose an asteroid is heading for earth and the calculations indicate that it will hit my hometown, Krasnoyarsk Krai, in Russia. There’s no time for me to flee, and I’m subsequently killed by the impact. Did the asteroid violate my human right to life? Everyone did everything to help me, but there wasn’t anything that could be done. And it was the impact that killed me, not a scramble for safety or whatever. Hence, no one is complicit, and no one can be blamed for failure to assist. No human beings are therefore in the least bit responsible for my death. Responsibility rests wholly with the asteroid.
But there lies the problem: an asteroid in a non-sentient being that can’t be responsible or irresponsible. It can’t “violate” a right since – according to the standard view – violating a right implies not just that there’s someone suffering a harm but also some kind of purposeful and conscious action on the part of a sentient being that
- is aware of the possible consequences of certain actions
- is capable of acting otherwise
- and yet decides to act in a way that causes harm, and a particular form of harm that is also a rights violation.
Indeed, not all causing of harm is a rights violation, but all rights violations are a causing of harm. The asteroid impact would then be a harm that is not a rights violation.
However, I had a right to life, and my life was taken away from me. To me, it doesn’t matter a whole lot in which way exactly I came to my end: I’m as dead as I would be if my neighbor had killed me. My life was valuable to me, and the value it had was the reason why I had a right to life in the first place. It seems strange to claim that my right to life is only violated if my life is taken away in a certain manner. Still, I guess most of us wouldn’t say that being killed my an asteroid implies a violation of the right to life. In order for a right to be violated, there must be both a victim incurring some kind of harm (and not just any kind of harm) and a perpetrator inflicting the harm (a perpetrator who has the characteristics described above). No rights violations without rights violators.
So, the rather silly example of the asteroid boils down to a more general and more interesting question: what exactly does it take to call something a rights violation? When is a harm just a harm, and when is it also a rights violation? That is a more interesting question because it touches on some very relevant problems, more relevant at least than the asteroid problem. For example, many people believe poverty is not a rights violations (which means that the framers of the Universal Declaration were wrong since they included a right not to suffer poverty). They believe it’s not a rights violations because poverty isn’t caused by certain intentional actions by clearly identifiable perpetrators; it’s just the unfortunate but unintended outcome of economic processes, much like the loss of life following an asteroid impact is an unfortunate and unintended outcome, and nothing more. Poverty eradication may then be a goal or an aspiration, and perhaps even a requirement of morality (e.g. the moral duty to engage in charity), but it is not, according to this view, required by the rights of the poor.
However, we can chip away at the standard view of rights violations as it is described above, in a way that makes poverty more like a human rights violation. For example, the capability of acting otherwise doesn’t really seem to be a necessary condition for a rights violation. The U.S. government was purportedly convinced that it had no alternative but to bomb Hiroshima and Nagasaki. At the same time, it’s not uncommon to view those events as rights violations. The same is true for the other condition, the awareness of possible consequences: if I drive my car at high speed down a road which I believe is deserted, I also believe that my actions don’t have any possible consequences that can be harmful. And when I kill a girl crossing the street which I believed to be deserted, people will still think I’m culpable. And finally, there are many cases in which it’s impossible to define a purposeful and conscious actor but which we nevertheless label rights violations. Take communism for instance. Most of us would agree that communist rule in Soviet Russia was a massive rights violation. And yet, it’s impossible to single out the set of perpetrators.
Hence, the cut-off point between rights violations and unfortunate harm is actually a rather large gray zone. This zone probably doesn’t include asteroids, but I think it’s reasonable to assume that it does include an economic system of highly complex human interactions that leads to the poverty of some participants.
Moreover, poverty is often the direct result of purposeful and conscious actions on the part of sentient beings that are aware of the possible consequences of their actions and capable of acting otherwise. That’s true for many third world dictators, but also for westerners shielding their markets and restricting immigration. The point of this post however, is that poverty is not only a human rights violations when it’s the direct result of certain intentional actions by clearly identifiable perpetrators.
Die wirkliche Genesis ist nicht am Anfang, sondern am Ende. Ernst Bloch
You could view the struggle for human rights as a “utopian” one. We’ll never live in a world that respects human rights completely and universally. The only thing we can hope for is an incremental improvement. And there are many reasons for this limitation: people always come up with new ways to violate human rights (“ah, the Internet! let’s make a Great Firewall!”), and people always come up with new human rights as a way to redress newly discovered wrongs. And even if we hope for incremental improvement, we can’t be sure that things are going as we hope, given the lousy measurement systems.
And yet, if you scratch the surface a bit and look at the deeper meaning of the word “utopian”, you’ll discover that utopian thought is fundamentally inimical to human rights. In fact, there’s perhaps no better way to violate human rights than to be utopian. Both the struggle for utopia and life within utopia are necessarily detrimental to human rights. That may seem paradoxical, but it’s easy to see how the struggle for an ideal can lead to disaster. The road to hell is, after all, paved with good intentions. We’ve seen many examples of this in recent history. But not only the struggle for utopia leads to rights violations; utopia itself does the same. Strange perhaps, since utopia is the ideal world. How can there be rights violations in an ideal world? And yet, no matter how it is envisaged, utopia violates human rights.
Utopia, where there is no war, strife, exploitation or scarcity, does not allow contestation, change or diversity. What’s there to contest if society has reached perfection? Why change when you can’t improve? Why have diversity, since diversity means different points of view about goals. If there are different points of view, some of them must be wrong. When people advocate wrong views, you have hardly reached perfection, and you’re likely to have conflict, violence etc. You can already see why people would believe that human rights are useless in such a world. Why would you need free speech if there is unanimity? Now, if there really is unanimity, human rights are indeed superfluous. No reason to express your views and to have rules to protect that expression if everyone has the same views. However, unanimity will probably always be something that has to be enforced because even in utopia some people will not freely understand their own wrongness or give up their own vision of perfection. Only a radically new but also radically improbable type of human being would populate a unanimous society. This enforcement of unanimity is necessarily a violation of human rights, which is why such violations would have to occur in utopian societies.
If you look at historical utopian thought, you’ll see that utopia is typically a highly centralized and planned world. It’s one big organization, a megamachine. Streets are geometrically designed. People’s movements are directed and controlled in order to avoid clashes and inefficiencies. Every detail is planned beforehand. Everything is rational. One hospital per square kilometer, one school, and one church. The organic growth of real cities is suboptimal because it hasn’t been planned beforehand. Real cities aren’t rational, orderly or efficient because no one has designed them. Hence, what is required is a tabula rasa. That means kicking people out of their houses and demolishing their houses. It means centrally allocating jobs so that the people don’t start a career that wouldn’t be the best one for them and for the whole of society. The structure of utopia is designed to enforce a certain behavior that promotes efficiency. Movement, habitation, work and all other aspects of life are planned and organized. The consequences of this aren’t limited to evils such as boredom, repetition, the absence of creativity and of the unexpected, or the feeling of being stuck in the present (the past is gone because that’s just the history of imperfection, and there is no future either because the future is here). The evils will be a lot worse than that: massive violations of rights, limitations of freedom and invasions of privacy are inevitable in utopia. Utopia is necessarily dystopia.
Of course, utopia can be a useful theoretical construct. I don’t want to trash every type of utopian thinking. A utopian vision is typically the current world put upside down. It is a tool that makes criticism of the current world possible, and it may provide a driving force for incremental change. It can motivate people to work for a slightly better world. It’s like you only know how troubling poverty is when you know what it would mean to be rich. But this realization shouldn’t make you desire a world of only rich people; a world without poverty suffices. Utopia, in this sense, is not a blueprint for the future, but merely a kick in the gut. That is also why many utopian fantasies were not located in the country the writer lived in, but in a far away place, an island or a mountain top. And that’s where they should remain. They are a means, not a goal. And true Genesis is neither at the beginning nor at the end; it’s ongoing. We daily remake our world and we’ll most likely never finish.
Despite what foreigners usually believe about the U.S., and despite the confused ramblings of a tiny group of anti-“socialist” loudmouths high on tea, U.S. public opinion is actually very egalitarian:
Americans are in broad agreement on the need for a more equal distribution of wealth. … that’s what a forthcoming study by two psychologists, Dan Ariely of Duke University and Michael I. Norton of Harvard Business School, has concluded. First, Ariely and Norton asked thousands of Americans what they thought the nation’s actual wealth distribution looks like: how much is owned by the wealthiest 20 percent of the population, the next-wealthiest 20 percent, and on down. The researchers then asked people what, in an ideal world, they would like the nation’s wealth distribution to be.
Ariely and Norton found that Americans think they live in a far more equal country than they in fact do. On average, those surveyed estimated that the wealthiest 20 percent of Americans own 59 percent of the nation’s wealth; in reality the top quintile owns around 84 percent. The respondents further estimated that the poorest 20 percent own 3.7 percent, when in reality they own 0.1 percent.
And when asked to give their ideal distribution, they described, on average, a nation where the wealth distribution looks not like the U.S. but like Sweden, only more so—the wealthiest quintile would control just 32 percent of the wealth, the poorest just over 10 percent. “People dramatically underestimated the extent of wealth inequality in the U.S.,” says Ariely. “And they wanted it to be even more equal.” (source)
It’s impossible to measure of course, but I would guess that the recent disclosure by Wikileaks of secret documents about the Iraq war has created more noise than the war itself. And that’s good. We want people to have information on human rights violations, especially when they occur on a national scale and when the cloak of war hides them from view. The Wikileaks model, whatever its deficiencies, and the whistleblower model in general are extremely important for the exposure of human rights violations. In many cases, we can’t count on the victims of those rights violations to stand up for themselves. Not only do they often fail to survive the rights violations, but they are generally in a position of powerlessness and domination, making it impossible for them to speak out and let the world know what’s happened. Third parties such as Wikileaks step into the void and expose what otherwise would remain unknown. Such exposure is important because we hope that it ultimately leads to the cessation of rights violations and/or redress for the victims.
This is true for human rights violations in general, not just those gross violations that occur during wartime. Even the daily, “small” scale rights violations in otherwise reasonably well-governed countries are often hidden from view. People try to expose those violations in various ways: they go to the press, they blog, they litigate, they associate, assemble, protest, educate themselves, boycott etc. And, as in the case of Wikileaks, third parties play an important role. For example, journalists investigate, and they have a powerful tool called freedom of information acts. Those acts are in fact legal versions of the Wikileaks model.
Both official and non-official disclosures of secret government information are crucial for the exposure of human rights violations, but they are plagued by the paradox of self-frustration. Let me explain. When government officials engaged in rights violations become aware of the risk or likelihood that what they do will become public (either through official freedom of information procedures or through the initiatives of whistleblower or “traitors”) they may act in two ways:
- Either they change their behavior for the better,
- Or they try to hide their behavior even further, for example by switching from written to oral procedures.
The latter option is not unrealistic. Assuming that people take that option, one also has to assume that the third party disclosure model can only function to the extent that those whose behavior will be disclosed are unaware of the possibility of disclosure, or at least as little aware as possible and dismissive of the likelihood of disclosure. But with every new disclosure, their awareness of the possibility of disclosure will increase, as will their evaluation of the risks of being disclosed.
On the other hand, one would want the citizenry in general to be maximally aware of the possibilities of disclosure: if no one knows of freedom of information acts, no one will use them. So in fact the third party disclosure model requires an unrealistic asymmetry in knowledge. If anything, the asymmetry will go the other way in real life: it’s likely that government officials are better informed about legislation and the possible effects of legislation than the citizenry in general. Hiding the possibility of disclosure to government officials, in the hope that their lack of knowledge will steer them away from tactical behavior aimed at frustrating disclosure, means hiding it for the public as well, and means that there will be no disclosure demands.
That’s a real paradox. And apart from this paradox, disclosure efforts face other problems as well. It’s obvious that some secrets are necessary. For example, government agencies for crime prevention can’t be required to publish the dates when they’ll intervene to trap criminals. Other agencies managing public procurement can’t be expected to divulge the content of an offer to competitor firms also interested in making an offer. Etc. Some of this secrecy is “due time” secrecy, in the sense that it’s temporary and that disclosure after some time won’t be self-frustrating. And perhaps all secrets are of this nature. But that also means that those who engage in “guerilla” style disclosure outside of official freedom of information procedures have to be careful not to frustrate the legitimate objectives of some secret operations.
The substructure, according to communism, is the mode of production or the nature of productive activity. Productive activity means the production, in interaction with nature, of goods necessary to survive. This production requires, on the one hand, means of production (materials, machines, land, tools, labor etc.) and, on the other hand, relations in which production takes place (relations of co-operation or ways of organization such as relations between masters and slaves, employers and employees, landowners and farmers etc.). The combination of means (or forces) of production and relations of production is the mode of production.
The available means of production determine the relations of production. A certain degree of development in the former necessarily produces a certain degree of development in the latter. This idea is the basis of the historical evolution of society that is so important in communism.
In production, men not only act on nature but also on one another. They produce only by co-operating in a certain way and mutually exchanging their activities. In order to produce, they enter into definite connections and relations with one another and only within these social connections and relations does their action on nature, does production, take place. These social relations into which the producers enter with one another, the conditions under which they exchange their activities and participate in the whole act of production, will naturally vary according to the character of the means of production. With the invention of a new instrument of warfare, firearms, the whole internal organization of the army necessarily changed: the relationships within which individuals can constitute an army and act as an army were transformed … Thus the social relations within which individuals produce, the social relations of production, change, are transformed, with the change and development of the material means of production, the productive forces. K. Marx, Wage Labor and Capital
These social relations are therefore independent of the will of the participants. They depend on technology, the availability of land etc. Each major change in the relations of production and the organization of production, caused by changes in the means of production, leads to a major change in the type of society we live in.
The combination of means of production or productive forces on the one hand, and relations of production on the other, is the substructure and determines the superstructure or the collection of different forms of consciousness, such as law, morality, religion, philosophy, politics etc.
The substructure is “the real foundation, on which rises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness”. “Economic production and the structure of society of every historical epoch necessarily arising therefrom constitute the foundation for the political and intellectual history of that epoch”.
Politics and law are parts of the superstructure which are determined by the substructure. They are formed by the interests of those who have economic power and they serve to defend these interests. “Political power … is merely the organized power of one class for oppressing another”. “Are economic relations regulated by legal conceptions or do not, on the contrary, legal relations arise from economic ones?” The quintessential example is the right to private property. Owners can use this right to defend their interests against the poor. They can appeal to the judiciary and the police force to defend their property and hence to maintain existing class relations and modes of production.
The right to private property makes it impossible for large groups of people to have their own means of production and hence to be economically independent and self-sufficient. In other words, it makes it impossible for people to be free.
However, the law is not only something that can be used to justify the use of force for the maintenance of the status quo. The use of force by the state for the defense of the right to property is not necessary when the poor can be convinced that this right is in their interest, that it is a human right rather than a right of the wealthy. The economic relationships and structures are maintained with political and legal force but also with legal ideology.
All ideologies are similar. Christianity can convince people to accept their situation by promising salvation in a future life, and the ideology of human rights does the same by convincing people, all people, that they have the same rights and that they are therefore equal. When this universality and equality of rights is accentuated, people do not see that others who have the same equal rights profit more from these rights. Human rights give the impression of guaranteeing freedom and equality but in reality give those who are better off tools to improve their situation even more, and at the expense of the poor. Instead of real equality there is only legal and formal equality, and the latter takes us further away from the former because the rich can use their equal rights to promote their interests. Rights give us the freedom to oppress rather than freedom from oppression.
Human rights, according to communism, are “an illusory sense of community serving as a screen for the real struggles waged by classes against each other”, an ideological veil on reality, a set of false ideas that has to cover up class rule and make it acceptable. The continuation of inequality by political and legal means is based on the combination of coercion and false consciousness. Christians are equal in heaven and thereby maintain inequality on earth, and believers in human rights are equal in the heaven of their political ideals and thereby forget the inequality that these ideals help to maintain. Again we see how the ruling class uses ideology rather than mere force to maintain its rule. It tries to instill certain beliefs in its victims and to use these beliefs as a drug, an opium to pacify them.
Like the protest inherent in the Christian ideology of a future paradise must be maintained but stripped of its ideological content, so the ideal of equality inherent in human rights must be maintained but in such a way that it becomes real equality in a real and worldly paradise, and not some kind of formal equality of rights that only aggravates real inequality and postpones paradise to the afterlife. The poor must become conscious of the fact that their formal equality only covers up their real inequality. This consciousness will be an important step in their liberation. However, as we will see later, this consciousness is conditioned by and can only come about at a certain time in the evolution of exploitation. It cannot result from education or political agitation alone.
I won’t repeat my somewhat hesitant argument in favor in hate crime laws (you can go here, for instance). The more limited question I want to talk about today is whether such laws should not only cover hate attacks against blacks, gays etc. but also attacks against pedophiles. (I guess some of those attacks, when they occur, follow publication of the addresses of pedophiles in so-called registers, a topic of a separate post). In case you’re wondering, there are some jurisdictions that have included attacks on pedophiles in their hate crime laws (New South Wales in Australia is an example).
At first sight, it would seem reasonable to include attacks on pedophiles. Hate crime is a crime that is motivated or aggravated by prejudice, hate or contempt for a specific group of people. People can be victims of hate crime, not just because of their mere membership of a group – sometimes, people get beaten up just for being black, for instance – but also because of the activities that they engage in and that are deemed immoral by the wider community – attacks on gays fall under this heading. You could claim that attacks on pedophiles are similar. But I don’t think they are.
Before I say why, let me be absolutely clear: I don’t approve of mob attacks on pedophiles or vigilante violence against them. Far from it. I merely believe that such attacks shouldn’t be covered by hate crime laws. They should be illegal as any other violent attack, but the sentencing or penalties shouldn’t be increased on account of the incontestable hatred of the motivations, as is usually the case in hate crime.
Now, why do I believe that hate crime legislation can often be beneficial but not in the case of pedophiles? Not because I think that pedophiles are less “deserving” than other groups that do and should enjoy the protection of hate crime laws. Obviously they are less deserving but that’s not the reason. Remember the rationale behind hate crime laws: they are intended to avoid situations in which hate crime can stigmatize and terrorize discriminated minorities. By punishing violent attacks against such minorities more severely than actions that are similar but otherwise motivated (i.e. the stabbing of a black person for his wallet rather than because of his race) we can discourage intentional stigmatization and intimidation of an entire group, and we therefore contribute to the ultimate equality of those groups and to the ideal of a tolerant and diverse society. Hate crime laws signal that the larger society is behind the minorities and willing to protect them and elevate them to equal rank. They signal not only that violence as such is wrong, but also violence directed at the marginalization and intimidation of entire groups.
We don’t want any of this for pedophiles. We don’t want them to suffer violent attacks, but neither do we want to grant them equal standing. Moral condemnation of their activities is not unjustified, and they aren’t a persecuted minority. Their activities harm non-consensual parties, which can’t be said of gays, blacks etc. and hence they do not deserve equal standing.
Some would say that the case of the pedophiles undermines the whole idea of hate crime because it shows that hate crime laws inexorably lead to a widening of protected groups and put us on a slippery slope towards an increasing criminalization of society (“what next: make it a hate crime to slash the wheels of SUVs?”). But I don’t think that’s correct. Slippery slope arguments are too easy.
Some will disagree, but I believe that many of the important questions in politics, society and morality aren’t matters of truth, knowledge and certainty. For example, it isn’t “true”, in any sense of the word, that justice means the equal distribution of goods, that abortion is wrong, or that free speech is important. Those who advance those propositions may use facts, data and logic in their arguments, but ultimately the propositions are value judgments rather than statements of fact or knowledge. They are about right and wrong, not about true or false. (I made a similar case here).
This view of morality is known as moral skepticism. The opposing views are often called moral intuitionism or moral realism, and state that there are objective facts of morality independent of human opinion. I’ll do these views an injustice and summarize them in the question: “Don’t you know that slavery is morally wrong?”.
I can understand the attraction of such claims, but still I think moral skepticism holds because political and moral matters are fundamentally different from mathematical or scientific claims based on logic, data gathering, experimentation, statistical analysis, falsification etc. In politics and morality, we’re stuck with mere opinions; opinions which can be better than others, based on the reasoning and the arguments supporting them, but which nevertheless cannot pretend to be the truth. There will always be people with other opinions which may be supported by equally good arguments. Of course, also in matters of scientific or mathematical truth will there always be people with other opinions – take the example of global warming, or the vaccination skeptics – but these other opinions can be easily dismissed by facts, experiments, proofs etc. (which doesn’t mean that these opinions will go away; many people are immune to facts and proof). The same is not the case for basic political and moral questions. These questions may also be supported by data and experiments, but ultimately they rest on arguments for or against value judgments, and hence they can’t be settled on a purely cognitive or scientific basis (in other words, they aren’t – or better don’t have to be – caused by the mere ignorance or stupidity of one of the parties).
So, if data aren’t sufficient and truth and certainty aren’t a possible result of politics and morality, and if, as a result, there will always be a plurality of contradicting opinions, should we just keep on arguing indefinitely? Obviously we don’t. We decide on these questions all of the time. A large proportion of political activity is taken up by decisions on moral matters. And many consider those decisions not only necessary but also urgent. But then how do we decide? How do we distinguish good from bad decisions? We decide, not simply on the basis of facts and experiments, and certainly not on the basis of proof or a priori given truth or knowledge. Instead we use reasonable procedures guaranteeing the best possible decisions in a situation of uncertainty and urgency. These reasonable procedures produces reasonable decisions, not true or certain decisions. It is not because truth and certainty are unavailable that we have to find ourselves at the other extreme of arbitrary, impulsive and purely individual decisions. It is not because we cannot be certain of something that we cannot act in a reasonable way. There’s space between moral realism and moral nihilism, or between moral subjectivism and moral objectivism.
Reasonable decisions have at least the following six characteristics:
- First of all, reasonable decisions have to have a high level of acceptability and have to be relatively easy to attain and to execute. The decisions of the majority of the people are more difficult to attain but also more acceptable and therefore easier to execute than the decisions of an individual, a monarch or a minority. A decision by consensus is, of course, even more acceptable, but it is also much more difficult to attain. The system of majority decisions seems to be the most reasonable one because it strikes the right balance between the two different criteria of acceptability and ease.
- However, a reasonable decision has other characteristics as well. A decision of a majority can have terrible consequences, even if it is highly acceptable to the majority and easy to attain and to execute, especially when it is directed against a minority. A decision is a solution to a problem and should not cause problems that are worse than the one it tries to solve. The consequences of a decision should be taken into account. In other words, a reasonable decision is a responsible decision, in the sense that responsibility means taking into account and being accountable for the consequences of your actions.
- A reasonable decision must be the best possible one under the given circumstances. This means that all possible decisions must be allowed to appear and to be defended in public before the actual decision is taken. The advantages and disadvantages of each one must be compared to the advantages and disadvantages of all other possible decisions. The choice between competing decisions must take place in public and as many people as possible should participate in this choice, otherwise we may not find the best possible decision. If we exclude some people, we may exclude some possible solutions or some arguments against or in favor of some solutions. In order to be able to identify the best solution, the choice of a solution should be preceded by thorough examination of every possible or proposed solution and by public argumentation and deliberation. A maximum number of people should consider every possible solution. Reasonable decisions or reasonable solutions to problems should be public and should involve massive and free participation. Dictatorial, secret or impulsive decisions can only by chance be the best possible decisions.
- We should not be impulsive, but some things are urgent nevertheless. Sometimes we do not have time for massive participation and for thorough consideration of all possible solutions and arguments. Timeliness is also a characteristic of reasonableness. A decision that comes too late can never be called reasonable.
- The characteristic of timeliness is balanced by the characteristic of provisionality. Every reasonable decision is provisional, experimental (but not in the scientific sense) and therefore possibly transitory. It must be possible to correct or revoke a decision if it turns out to be the wrong one, if better arguments for other decisions turn up or if the circumstances change. This makes the speed of some decisions more acceptable. Regret and self-criticism are important democratic values. There is a Scottish rock band, The Proclaimers, that sings: “what do you do when democracy’s all through, when ‘minority’ means you, when the rest can’t see its true?”. The members of the band are Scottish nationalists who favor independence. However, there seems to be no Scottish majority ready to follow them. The error in their argument is that democracy is never “all through”. You can always continue to advocate your case and maybe, some day, you will find the right argument to convince a majority.
- The provisional character of a decision should, of course, be balanced against the need for stability and continuity. Decisions that change all the time are not the best possible decisions either.
These remarks indicate that democracy and freedom of speech are necessary or at least very helpful to arrive at the best possible decisions. Of course, massive participation and free discussion are also important in the discovery of scientific truth. But the “massive participation” is limited to scientists with knowledge of the domain in question. No one will propose a nation-wide referendum to decide on the correctness of the theory of relativity for example. Moreover, scientific discussions rest heavily on data, proof, experiments etc., which doesn’t have to be the case in moral and political matters.
Politics is not concerned with an a priori given truth. Political decisions do not exist because someone declares them after contemplation of the truth. They exist because a democratic majority has taken a decision with its limited knowledge of the moment and after reasonable, public and large-scale discussion, and because afterwards experience has shown that the decision has done what was expected and that arguments for other decisions have remained unconvincing. Reasonable procedures and experience, rather than truth, data, proof etc. give legitimacy to decisions.
Did you hear the joke about the statistician who put her head in the oven and her feet in the refrigerator? She said, “On average, I feel just fine.” That’s the same message as in this more widely known joke about statisticians drowning in a pond with an average depth of 3ft. And then there’s this one: did you know that the great majority of people have more than the average number of legs? It’s obvious, really: Among the 57 million people in Britain, there are probably 5,000 people who have only one leg. Therefore, the average number of legs is less than 2. In this case, the median would be a better measure than the average or the mean.
But seriously now, averages can be very misleading, also in statistical work in the field of human rights. Take income data, for example. Income as such isn’t a human rights issue, but poverty is. When we look at income data, we may see that average income is rising. However, this may be due to extreme increases at the top 1% of income. If you then exclude the income increases of the top 1% of the population, the large majority of people may not experience rising income. Possible even the opposite. And rising average income – even excluding extremes at the top levels – is perfectly compatible with rising poverty for certain parts of the population.
Averages are often skewed by outliers. That is why it’s necessary to remove outliers and calculate the averages without them. That will give you a better picture of the characteristics of the general population (the “real” average income evolution in my example). A simple way to neutralize outliers is to look at the median – the middle value of a series of values – rather than the average (or the mean).
An average (or a median for that matter) also doesn’t say anything about the extremes (or, in stat-speak, about the variability or dispersion of the population). A high average income level can hide extremely low and high income levels for certain parts of the population. So, for example, if you start to compare income levels across different countries, you’ll use the average income. Yet country A may have a lower average income than country B, but also lower levels of poverty than country B. That’s because the dispersion of income levels in country A is much smaller than in country B. The average in B is the result of adding together extremely low incomes (i.e. poverty) and extremely high incomes, whereas the average in A comes from the sum of incomes that are much more equal. From the point of view of poverty average income is misleading because it identifies country A as most poor, whereas in reality there are more poor people in country B. So when looking at averages, it’s always good to look at the standard deviation as well. SD is a measure of the dispersion around the mean.
We’re all familiar with the phrase. Democracies allow so much freedom that anti-democratic forces can develop inside of them and ultimately destroy them from within, using the very tools that make democracy what it is (freedom of speech and association, elections etc.). The archetypal case is, of course, the Weimar Republic of pre-WWII Germany (although one can claim that Weimar wasn’t really a democracy and Hitler’s rise to power didn’t occur through purely democratic means). The democratic destruction of democracy is also, misleadingly, called the self-destruction of democracy, as if it is the democracy as a whole rather than an abusive part of it that causes the destruction.
However, I also have a problem with the phrase “democratic destruction of democracy”. There is, after all, nothing democratic about the abuse of democracy by anti-democratic forces trying to get elected with the sole purpose of ending all future elections. Their actions may be democratic in the strictly legal sense, but not in the moral or philosophical sense.
I believe the “democratic destruction of democracy” means something else. Most people, and even those who care about democracy and are willing to die in its defense, view one of its basic characteristics – the plurality of opinion – as a suboptimal state of affairs, and something to be overcome. We all believe strongly in certain opinions, and we may even consider those opinions to be more than mere opinions. In other words, we make truth claims about our opinions. That means that we believe that other people, who have adopted other opinions, are wrong, mistaken. We want to convince them, but that means that we want to eliminate the plurality of opposing opinions. It also means that we want to abolish democracy, because it’s impossible to imagine a democracy in a world of unanimity.
Paradoxically, the most typical democratic activity – persuasion – has the objective of ending democracy. I wouldn’t call it a “destruction”, because the end of democracy is a byproduct, not a conscious goal. Of course, this democratic (let’s call it) termination of democracy is possible only through persuasion, and by the looks of it, that’s not a very sharp tool. Hence the termination is still a rather abstract and long-term possibility. The undemocratic termination of democracy does not suffer from tool-limitation, and is therefore a much less theoretical possibility.
This undemocratic termination can occur inside or outside of democracy, with the tools offered by democracy or with other tools. Anti-democrats can decide to try to get elected, or they can stage a coup. Or whatever. Common to many anti-democrats is impatience with persuasion. Some are motivated simply by power or money, but many believe that the “democratic masses” just can’t see the light and are immune to even the best arguments. Instead of persuasion, the impatient anti-democrats are led to believe that imposition of a worldview is the only remedy for error and mistake. Re-education camps are quick to follow, and extermination camps for those for whom even persuasion in the form of re-education is impossible.
Practically all crime is “thought crime” in the good ol’ common law sense of the Latin phrase actus non facit reum nisi mens sit rea – the act does not make guilt unless the mind be guilty. If we were to take a strict liability approach to all violent crime we would be obliged to place wrongful death on a par with premeditated murder. (After all, it’s not as though the lives of those killed accidentally are worth less.) John Holbo (source)
This nicely debunks the claim that hate crime laws – laws which make the punishment for an existing crime more severe when the crime was motivated by hate for the segment of the population to which the victims belongs – institute “thought crimes” and make thoughts, opinion and beliefs illegal. I believe that hateful motives are aggravating circumstances that should make a penalty more severe. A hate crime is not only a crime against the immediate victim, but is intended to terrorize a whole segment of the population. It creates therefore more victims than is apparent at first sight.
When you mistakenly believe that hate crime laws create thought crimes, you have to conclude that proponents of hate crime laws do not want to punish behavior but want to eradicate hate, or at least reduce the levels of hatred in a society. And then you have a cheap shot: how stupid to want to eradicate hate! Haha! (There’s an example of this kind of reasoning here*). Indeed, that would be stupid, if that’s what proponents of hate crime laws would propose. But they don’t. They simply want to punish crimes, and want to punish a specific kind of crime in a specific – and especially tough – way. They know that there will always be hate, that hate is the price to pay for a free society. Maybe hate crime laws can reduce the amount of hate in a society, but that’s not the main purpose. Hate crime laws want to punish behavior and want to protect people from fear. And they want to signal that society has understood the difference between hate crimes and other types of crimes, even if these other types of crimes have the same material results.
* The article linked to also irresponsibly blurs the differences between hate speech and hate crime. When you do that, it’s of course much easier to attack hate crime laws because then it becomes much more “obvious” that hate crime laws are “in fact” thought crimes.
What’s the status of thinking about political subjects? I think it’s fair to say that there’s no way of achieving something called “truth” or “scientific knowledge” when dealing with basic political concepts. For example, there’s no truth about democracy, human rights, justice etc. We’re stuck with mere opinions. Opinions which can be better than others, based on the reasoning and the arguments supporting them, but which nevertheless cannot pretend to be the unquestionable truth. There will always be people with other opinions which may be supported by equally good arguments. This doesn’t mean that we should all become extreme relativists for whom everything is equally valuable. Opinions can be based on prejudice or arguments, on good or bad arguments, on arguments picked up more or less randomly or on arguments that are properly tested and investigated, on correct logic or flawed logic etc.
This doesn’t mean that there can’t be any truth or scientific knowledge in the field of politics. We can do scientific work, for example we can do quantitative analysis on support for democracy, on preconditions of democracy etc. but not on the concept of democracy as such. The basic terms of the debate will remain contestable concepts that mean different things to different people, and that are valued differently by different people.
Opinions – contrary to the truth – do not have to be accepted, do not eliminate difference and do not impose consensus. They can be accepted or rejected, depending on the force of the arguments, your inclination to properly investigate the arguments, your prejudice, your upbringing and education, your social environment etc. Needless to say that the proper way of thinking about politics or about anything else requires investigation of the arguments for and against any opinion.
The world of political thinking is therefore very similar to the world of politics itself, at least as long as we limit ourselves to democratic politics (which for many is the only proper type of politics – any other kind is really just force rather than politics): it’s a world of plurality, contradiction and persuasion. We like to hope that the similarity between these two worlds goes even further than this, that democratic politics isn’t just a clash between opinions, but that the persuasion taking place in democratic politics is based on the proper investigation of all the arguments for and against, and that the opinions which temporarily gain the upper hand (and become policy or law) are the ones that are strongest intellectually. Just like in the world of political thinking.
Of course, democracy is only potentially like this. In reality, the predominant opinions aren’t necessarily the ones that are backed by the best arguments. Sloppy arguments or even prejudice (the absence of arguments) often determine which opinions “win” in a democracy. But that also happens in the world of political thinking, although perhaps (and hopefully) less often (if it happens less often, this doesn’t have anything to do with the supposed superior “intellects” of political scientists or philosophers compared to the ordinary people; it’s because of structures and procedures such as peer review and citation requirements, the time these people can spend on investigations of arguments etc.).
Democracy falls short of its potential because arguments aren’t investigated properly or are replaced by prejudice, but also because some players in the game regard their opinions not as opinions, but as the truth. As a result, they don’t believe it’s necessary to investigate the merits of other opinions or the arguments behind other opinions. Other opinions are no longer equal players in a game of persuasion, but are mistakes, errors, lies, or even sins (if the “truth” is of godly origin).
Ideally, the world of political thinking and the world of democratic politics would merge. Democratic politics, if it’s to avoid prejudice, faulty argumentation and claims of truth, needs an education in argumentation. Political thinkers (and, yes, I’m not thinking of myself) can provide this, not because they are smarter than the ordinary people who engage in politics, but because they have the benefit of practice in the art of argumentation. However, the benefits don’t have to travel in this direction: Soviet political science in the 1930s or 1940s, for example, could have benefited a lot from the example of ordinary US politics at the time. I’m not so sure about present-day US politics…
The current economic recession has cast a shadow on the economics profession. Economists are blamed for not having foreseen the recession. There’s for example this famous article by Paul Krugman.
Whereas many economists undoubtedly have encouraged wrong policies and harmful trade practices, I think it’s unfair to criticize them for failing to predict the future. Contrary to the natural sciences, human sciences (or social sciences) such as economics are constitutionally unable to predict the future. The reason is their subject matter: human beings. Contrary to celestial bodies, atoms or DNA, human beings have free will, which means that we can decide to change our goals and plans. And this kind of decision cannot be foreseen because the decision is our own free choice, a choice therefore that isn’t determined by other factors. Moreover, because we live in society with others, there’s necessarily interaction between people’s goals. Other people have different goals which interfere with our own goals. And because of their own goals, they often do not wish to cooperate with us or even actively oppose us.
There is therefore an uncertainty and unpredictability inherent in our goals. This seems to be an unavoidable fact of social life. An action causes reactions, and that is why the consequences of the action are often different from the ones we intend, expect, predict or desire. Consequences are often unknown beforehand, or at least uncertain. You never know if the result of your action matches your intentions, if you will reach your goal and if things turn out as planned, as foreseen, as initially desired.
That is also why you cannot and should not be held legally or criminally responsible for all the possible consequences or results of your actions. Only for those consequence which could reasonably have been foreseen. Part of the legal definition of a mentally ill person and one of the reasons why such a person’s criminal actions should be punished in a different way (if at all) is this person’s inability to judge the consequences of his or her actions.
Reality often does not live up to expectations. Events are not always anticipated events. Many events escape the power of those who have initiated them or wish to guide them.
“Siramnes the Persian replied to those who were amazed that his enterprises turned out so badly, seeing that his projects were so wise, by saying that he alone was master of his projects while Fortune was mistress of the outcome of his enterprises . . . What he undertakes is vain if a man should presume to embrace both causes and consequences and to lead the progress of his action by the hand”. Michel de Montaigne
We all have the experience that the future is not completely determined by the will of an individual or a group. The unexpected and unwanted is part of social history because history, and even many different parts of history – many “stories” – are the result of both action and reaction, of a game of action and reaction over which no one has complete control. This is the inevitable result of the plurality of social life. Demanding prediction and predictability – as is now done of economists – means neglecting plurality. Only in the absence of plurality can predictability be conceived, because only when there is one goal will there be no action and reaction.
Hannah Arendt has lambasted the equation between history and production. History is not made by man in the sense that an artifact, a cultural object or a technological application of scientific knowledge is made by man. It is not written beforehand like a blueprint or a production procedure. History, and every social story involving different actors, is written afterwards, in retrospection, and often not even by those who act in it but by an outsider. Everybody is the author of his own actions or reactions, but not of the complete story. The complete story – all interconnecting actions, reactions and consequences – becomes clear only when it is more or less finished, afterwards, when we can know how it was and what the reactions and consequences have been.
In the words of Hegel: the owl of Minerva, the symbol of wisdom, only flies out at dusk. The actor, contrary to the author, looks forward or better tries to look forward, and by definition knows less than the author of history. It was Kierkegaard who said that life can only be understood backwards, although it must be lived forwards.
Of course, history is not entirely unpredictable. We can guess. We can try, on the basis of the past, to identify some trends, patterns, regularities etc., and hope that they will hold for the future. Some guesses are better than others. Also, contrary to the criticism of Arendt, there is sometimes creation or “production” in history. Some actions do not encounter reaction and unfold as planned beforehand. These stories do not result from the game of action and reaction or from a plurality of separate and contradictory desires. They result from one desire and one goal. In some instances, people have a goal, a desire, and can realize it in a predictable and controlled manner, without or notwithstanding reactions. Life would not be worth living without such stories. Sometimes, people have a grip on the future. Politics is also impossible without a consensus on a purpose.
Suppose we think of ruling as being an exercise of power. For someone to exercise power is for their wishes to be effective. So someone is a ruler if it is the case that what happens happens because it is in accordance with their wishes. If, then, the people rule, this means that the people’s wishes are effective. (source
Somebody who is in power has a desire and realizes this desire. Otherwise it cannot be said that this person has power.
However, such kind predictability is probably the exception. History in its entirety and many parts of it can never be a creation, a simple purpose or the realization of a plan, a process or an evolution. History and most of its parts are the result of different and contradictory actions, reactions, desires and goals interfering with each other. Therefore, the idea of progress has to be limited. There may be fields of progress, but these evolutions are counteracted by reactions and other evolutions. Progress is never global or certain or predictable.
Not even one’s personal history is written or produced entirely by the person in question. And since our identity is perhaps the same thing as our personal history, our identity is not entirely the product of our own actions and decisions either. It is also the product of the things that happened to us and of the actions and reactions of others. We act, we strive to achieve goals, but there is a plurality of goals. The single, uniform goal, either in overall history (e.g. the overall goal of progress, communism or democracy dragging people along) or in many small or personal histories, is a pipe dream. Plurality results in things happening to us, things that we cannot control or foresee but which shape our lives, histories and personalities irrespective of our will.
History and most of its parts are not made by man, but they are not made by any other force either. I do not believe that God or Fate or the Economy or whatever makes history. History is to a large extent if not entirely the result of consciously chosen human actions and reactions. Consequently, people remain responsible for their actions, although not for all the consequences of their actions. They cannot claim that things happen because God or Nature (the genes for example) or Race or Culture (the unconscious national character) or Fate or whatever wants these things to happen or causes people to make them happen. People are relatively free. Most of their actions are not caused by some necessary force outside of them (or inside of them, for that matter, but beyond their power).
In order to remedy the defects of plurality – uncertainty, unpredictability and the powerlessness which this implies – one can try to eliminate plurality. Reactions and contradictions are excluded (and maybe “reactionaries” are persecuted) and all actions are focused on one and the same goal. Instead of the plurality of individual projects, we get a collective project. Individuality disappears.
“Le groupe en fusion” or “la volonté générale” implies that the individual individual is absorbed by the community. Everybody’s individual goals or desires must be harmonized with the collective one. Every action is forced into a coherent whole. The individual will is discredited. It is egoistic, focused on the short term, subjective, reactionary; it is useless and powerless because of the contradictions with other individual wills; or it is futile because contrary to the trend of History or the forces of Biology etc. If the individual is only a part of a whole, then he can be sacrificed for the whole. Individual rights become less important. At best, people are interchangeable, specimen instead of unique individuals; at worst, they are eliminated.
As many successful dictators have shown, eliminating reaction will indeed make it possible to control the future, to remain in control of an action, to enforce certain consequences, to realize goals, to make history like an artifact or to write history like a novel. It makes it possible to know the future, to know how things will turn out, to put a clear purpose in history, a plan which unfolds exactly as it was contemplated beforehand, a clean process rather than a volatile and uncertain multi-directional chaos. If there are no reactions and only one general will, then all actions go in the same direction and toward the same goal, and only nature or inactivity can thwart our plans (hence the dictatorial need for “mobilization”). We can with much greater certainty predict the future and the realization of our plans. The expected consequences are the actual consequences. We are masters of the consequences and we control the future.
This has always been the great selling point of authoritarian government. Compared to the chaos of democracy, the “strong man” can be very efficient. I’ve refuted this here. Democracy indeed doesn’t offer predictability, precisely because it guarantees plurality. The common will of a democratic majority can be undone by reactions of the minority, by the reactions of a future majority, or by some outside force. Predictability requires unanimity rather than majority, if possible global unanimity (dictatorships are therefore often imperialistic). Only a unanimous group can have power as it was described above: power means that wishes are effective, that things happen because they are in accordance with wishes. A majority can only have limited effectiveness, effectiveness limited by future majorities and by the reactions of minorities (in a democracy, minorities have some power, e.g. their rights cannot be violated by the will of the majority). Of course, unanimity is often obtained by force: reactions are forcibly suppressed because unanimity of convictions and goals is a rare occurrence. Force then produces power, although Arendt, again, has something to say about the confusion between these two terms.
A democracy does not try to suppress or eliminate reactions and contradictions. On the contrary, it fosters them. But it does try to ritualize and soften them, take the violence out of them, because they can take a nasty turn. Democracy needs conflicts, opposition, criticism, plurality etc. It is the game of action and reaction institutionalized and accepted as an inevitable fact of life in a community with different people and different goals. It cannot exist without events initiated by some and reacted upon by others. Hence democracy embraces uncertainty and unpredictability, however unpopular and perhaps ineffective this may be.
However, democracy also needs some level of predictability. It wants to be certain of its own survival and that is why it accepts only opposition within the system. It tries to eliminate anti-democratic reaction and opposition and asks people to promise respect for democratic values. Promises produce some certainty, a certainty and predictability based on freedom and free choice, which is not the case with certainty produced by the elimination of reaction. In a tyranny, everybody is certain that the regime will survive because nobody can or dares to react, or because indoctrination and propaganda have conditioned people in such a way that they do not even contemplate reaction. In a democracy, there is relative certainty because enough people keep their promise to respect the regime. This is the rationale behind the so-called “pledges of allegiance”. Promises are based on freedom, because a promise is only valid if it is voluntary.
Of course, this does not mean that everything in a democracy is free and voluntary. Although a democracy wants to limit coercion as much as possible and tries to secure its future by way of promises, education, persuasion, judicial review etc., there has to be some coercion because some people will not make or keep the necessary promises. There will be coercion, not of promises, but of actions. Promises cannot be coerced. Coercion in this case is the use of force against anti-democratic reaction.
An anti-democratic reaction is a contradiction in terms. It is because of democracy that reaction is possible. If reaction becomes an activity without risk, as is the case in a democracy, then reaction blossoms. Reacting against democracy is not only ungrateful, it is self-destructive.
But apart from this predictability of the institutions necessary for unpredictable political life, it is clear that the focus of democracy is on conflict, contradictions, opposition, reactions, unpredictability and uncertainty. Those who want to limit the game of action and reaction are necessarily anti-democratic. More freedom and more democracy means more reaction, more plurality, more kinds of actions which can interfere with each other, and therefore more unpredictability, less control over the future, and less certainty that goals will be achieved. Democracy does not only accept the game of action and reaction as an inevitable fact of social life. It also promotes this game, as long as it remains a game and does not become violent or a threat to democracy or to people’s rights and freedom.
Counter-intuitively, freedom does not always go hand in hand with control, although on an individual level this may be the rule. An individual is free if he controls his life. But a society is not free if people try to control consequences and the future. Unpredictability does not mean that people are not free to choose their future. They are just not certain that the future will be the one they have chosen. It’s when they want this certainty that they are tempted to destroy the freedom of society. When people want to be certain of their goals and want to be in control – when, in other words, they want to be free – they need to eliminate interference from other people and other goals. Other people with other goals become a nuisance, and their freedom has to be sacrificed. However, this may not result in control. It is far from certain that the elimination of reaction is possible. It may be counterproductive and create more reaction than initially anticipated. Plurality is probably unavoidable.
I often have the impression that people transform the right to free expression into a duty to free expression. And I don’t think that’s a good thing. For example, Muslims in western countries are often told that they should distance themselves from the more violent members of their religion. We require them to speak out against Muslim terrorism.
Another example: politicians, especially in the U.S., are required to speak out on a number of subjects, e.g. abortion, same-sex marriage, their faith in God etc. As if it would be a disaster to elect a politician who happens to doubt about abortion. After all, many people do (myself included).
A somewhat exaggerated view on democratic transparency is undoubtedly a small part of the explanation for this. Democracy can’t function without public knowledge of politicians’ opinions, or without some sense of what our fellow citizens believe (part of democracy is group formation, and group formation is based on discussion and persuasion; and you can’t persuade someone if you don’t know what he or she believes).
But the most important cause of this “duty of expression” is, I think, the manichean nature of contemporary politics. Every issue is painted in black and white, good and evil, for or against. We force people to express themselves on issues so that we can see if they are with us or against us. And if someone expresses him or herself in a nuanced way we automatically assume that he or she takes a position opposite from our own. For example, if Muslims reject Islamic terrorism but at the same time point to the situation in Palestine, we assume that they really think terrorism is OK, or justifiable given certain circumstances. We can’t accept muddled or nuanced middle ground positions, or positions which change according to the circumstances. Gray isn’t an option.
Clarity, simplicity and certainty are important human objectives, but often they aren’t appropriate in thinking. Of course, sometimes manicheism is the only possible position: you either believe the holocaust is a fact of history or you don’t; there’s no middle ground, and those who don’t believe in it are either stupid or evil. But when it comes to political or moral opinions (rather than facts), those who really think about them often find themselves occupying a gray, complex and uncertain position.
I suspect that the difficulty to let go of manicheism and to accept uncertainty and nuance has something to do with the nature of democratic politics. It’s hard to vote for nuance, and easy to vote for or against a clear and simple proposition. And simple propositions get more attention, sell better and make it easier to mobilize large constituencies (see the cartoon below). But then again, when we look at political reality, manicheism is much more common in autocratic societies. The public debate on issues which is made possible by democratic societies forces nuance to appear.
The difficulty to let go of manicheism also has something to do with the fear of the other extreme: the paralysis that follows from endless nuancing and thinking. Politics is a realm where decisions have to be taken, contrary to philosophy where thinking is unending in principle.
However, it doesn’t follow from this that decisiveness has to be manicheism. Decisions can be based on nuanced thinking. The risk of paralysis is averted by the realization that our decisions, often taken under the pressure of urgency, are necessary yet provisional, based on the best thinking available at the time, and open to revision when time has improved our thinking.
Trickle Down Economics, also called Reaganomics (due to its association with the policies of Reagan and Thatcher) or supply-side economics, is the theory according to which policies destined to alleviate poverty and redistribute wealth are unnecessary and even counterproductive. The rich should be allowed to become even more wealthy, by imposing very low tax rates on high incomes (or a flat tax for example) rather than using the tax system to redistribute wealth. The result will be that their wealth will “trickle down” towards those who are less well off.
When government policies favor the wealthy — for example, via tax cuts for upper-income classes — the increase in wealth flows down to those with lower incomes. That’s because the rich are more likely to spend the additional income, creating more economic activity, which in turn generates jobs and eventually, better paychecks for the less well-off. Michael S. Derby (source)
All boats rise on a rising tide. Redistribution is counterproductive because it will take away the incentives to do well, and hence also take away the possibility of wealth creation and subsequent automatic wealth distribution through “trickling down”. All this is reminiscent of laissez-faire and the invisible hand theory.
Reagan’s trickle down policies in the U.S. can still be felt today:
According to the Tax Policy Center, the top marginal tax rate in the U.S. stood at 70% when Reagan was elected in 1980, falling steadily to 28% by 1989, before it began to rise modestly. The top marginal rate now stands at 35% against a peak of 94% in 1945. (source)
These tax cuts were implemented with the support of the Democrats in the House, which explains why they have been upheld all these years. The result of this was, unsurprisingly, a higher concentration of wealth in fewer hands:
In the period since the economic crisis of the early 1970s, US GDP has grown strongly, and the incomes and wealth of the richest Americans has grown spectacularly. By contrast, the gains to households in the middle of the income distribution have been much more modest. Between 1973 … and 2007, median household income rose from $44 000 to just over $50 000, an annual rate of increase of 0.4 per cent. … For those at the bottom of the income distribution, there have been no gains at all. … incomes accruing to the poorest 10 per cent of Americans have actually fallen over the last 30 years. John Quigging (source)
This is already part of the refutation of the doctrine. Obviously not all boats have risen on the same tide. But if you don’t believe this, there’s a paper here and a blogpost here arguing against the doctrine in a more intelligent way. Maybe “spreading the wealth around” a bit and imposing some tougher taxes on the rich isn’t such a bad idea after all. I mean, the “tricklers” have had decades to prove their point, and failed; maybe now it’s time for the “spreaders” to have a go.
Obviously, we all run the risk of having our rights violated. Depending on where you live in the world, this risk may be big or small. For some, the risk always remains a risk, and their rights are always respected. But that’s the exception. Many people live with a more or less permanent fear that their rights will be violated. This fear is based on their previous experiences with rights violations, and/or on what they see happening around them.
I see at least two interesting questions regarding this kind of risk:
- Is, as Nozick argued, the risk or probability of a rights violation a rights violation in itself? Do people have a right not to fear possible rights violations?
- And, to what extent does this risk of rights violations lead to rights violations?
The first question is the hardest one, I think. It seems that the risk of suffering rights violations is there all of the time, although it may be very small for some of us. If there is a right not to live with this risk, then this right would be violated all of the time. What good is a right that is perpetually violated?
However, it would seem that in some circumstances, where the probability that rights are violated is very high, people do indeed suffer. Imagine that you live in a society in which there is a high probability that you are arbitrarily arrested by the police. Even if you are not actually arrested – and your rights are therefore not violated – you are living in fear. It would seem that a right not to live in fear of rights violations does have some use in these high-risk environments.
But if we limit the right not to risk rights violations to situations in which there is a high probability of rights violations, we will have to decide on a threshold: when, at what level of high probability of rights violations, does the right not to risk rights violations become effective? This means introducing arbitrariness.
And another problem: what if you don’t know about the risk? There may be at certain moments a high probability that your rights will be violated, but you don’t have to be aware of this. In that case, you don’t fear the rights violations, and hence there is no harm done to you. It’s difficult to conceive of a right when its violation doesn’t (always) cause harm of some kind, and hence the right not to risk rights violations seems impossible in this case.
The second question is more straightforward. Everyday we see how the risk of rights violations leads to actual rights violations. The perception of risk, and people’s counter-strategies designed to limit the risk of rights violations, makes them violate other rights. The war on terror is a classic example. Ticking bomb torture is another.
The objective of avoiding risk creates risks, namely the risks that our actions designed to avoid risk cause harm. We may have to learn (again) how to live with risk.
Only days after the attack on Dr. Tiller, the U.S. is shocked by yet another terrorist attack by a right-wing extremist, this time at the Holocaust Museum in Washington. Some have questioned the role of the media in all this. It’s true that parts of the U.S. media, especially on the conservative side, are not characterized by nuanced analysis and balanced reporting. There’s a lot of hate speech, stereotyping and shouting on cable news, on the radio and on the internet. So it’s fair to say that there may be a risk that the media are fanning and nurturing extremism and hate in society, and that they may be responsible for pushing sick people over the edge. (See also here).
I personally regret the lack of quality in the media, and I do believe that journalists and pundits should be more careful in what they say and how they say it. But I also believe that critics of the media should be careful when deciding responsibilities and causal relationships. Society is complex, and people are driven by many factors. Still, most people are ultimately responsible for their own acts (I don’t know enough about the two cases at hand to conclude that the mental condition of the perpetrators at the time of the crime was such that they could be held criminally responsible).
We run the risk that these terrorist events will lead to calls for a more restrictive interpretation of the freedom of speech of the media. Let’s hope that this risk incites the media to question their behavior and to abandon the language of hate.
A good decision is based on knowledge and not on numbers. Plato
Plato is dear to me, but dearer still is truth. Aristotle
I’m with Aristotle here. Plato is well known for his aversion to democracy (see here; Aristotle is more moderate in this respect). With this quote, Plato initiated the long tradition of juxtaposing rule by experts (or meritocracy, aristocracy or whatever) and rule by the people (majority rule in a democracy). This tradition is, of course, intuitively attractive. Politics is a profession like any other. You wouldn’t have a popular vote on the best design for a bridge, so why on government policy and legislation? Better give political power to those who know what they are doing. (In Plato’s case philosophers, but I guess his contemporary followers would prefer other types of expertise).
I accept part of this argument, but I include the need for popular control of experts, thereby safeguarding democracy to some extent. What I want to do now in the current post, is go a step further, and claim that the quality of political decisions doesn’t necessarily or always depend on expert knowledge of the matters at hand, but rather on mass participation in the decision process, and hence on democracy. Or, more precisely, on a democracy that isn’t just about electing and controlling experts but also about large numbers of people participating in the determination of policy and legislation. The important thing here is the element of MASS participation, of numbers.
What’s interesting in the Plato quote above is the implied opposition between knowledge and numbers, typical of Plato of course. But we can turn this around, and say that knowledge DEPENDS on numbers. The equal participation of large numbers of people in a democracy results, perhaps not in more knowledge stricto sensu, but at least in better decisions compared to the political inequality that goes with rule by experts. The opinion of the people, as established through democratic decision procedures, is – potentially at least, and given certain preconditions – better than any other opinion (which does not mean that the people are infallible).
Why is this? In ideal circumstances, the opinion of the people results from an inclusive, widespread and free discussion, guaranteed by human rights, among large numbers of people who all have an equal say. A discussion in which as many people as possible participate in an equal way contains the largest possible number of arguments for and against a proposal. Such a discussion, therefore, makes it more likely that false arguments are refuted and that good arguments are recognized and are widely tested. Two heads are better than one, and 4 better than 2 etc.
A group of individuals is more intelligent than the sum of the individual intellects. Massive participation means massive criticism and this improves the quality of a proposal which can survive this massive criticism.
Political equality is a value because it improves the quality of decisions. This idea is also behind John Stuart Mill’s defense of equal political participation rights for women:
The inequality of the sexes has deprived society of a vast pool of talent. If women had the free use of their faculties along with the same prizes and encouragements as men, there would be a doubling of the mass of mental faculties available for the higher service of humanity. The injustice perpetuated against women has depleted the human condition: every restraint on freedom of conduct of any of their human fellow creatures … dries up pro tanto the principal fountain of human happiness, and leaves the species less rich, to an inappreciable degree, in all that makes life valuable to the individual human being. John Stuart Mill
Excluding or neglecting certain opinions or certain people from political decision procedures does not only harm the interests of the people concerned but also harms the thinking process of the community and the quality of common decisions. The best decisions – on average – require the equal participation and activity of as many persons as possible.
Elitism has always been very popular, both at the right and at the left of the political spectrum. Decisions of the “common people” are said to be stupid by definition. The people are not qualified to rule and are perhaps, not even qualified to choose their rulers. An elite must rule the people and this is in the best interest of the people. The people must be protected against their own stupid decisions. Only an elite has the necessary qualifications to rule. It knows better than the people what the people need and it knows better how to achieve the real goals of the people. That is the legacy of Plato.
However, an elite is more likely to make wrong decisions because it does not know all possible arguments and it does not have to submit itself to criticism. Large scale discussion is not an obstacle for action; it is a necessary condition for wise action.
The majority of the plain people will day in and day out make fewer mistakes in governing themselves than any smaller body of men will make in trying to govern them. Theodore Roosevelt
Be that as it may, how do I explain the phenomenon of demagogy or the often very irrational, unreasonable and emotional reactions of the people (lynching, for example, or voting for Hitler)? Of course, nobody in his right mind would maintain that the people are always reasonable, rational or infallible. The quality of the decisions of the people can only be good in the setting of ideal democratic procedures in which discussion, deliberation and argumentation take a prominent place. This setting is an ideal but many existing procedures come very close to this ideal. If the right institutions, mentalities etc. are given, then the ideal can become a fact.
Besides, individuals or elites are often just as unreasonable, emotional or irrational as large groups of people. It is even easier to excite a small group than it is to excite a large group, because it is more difficult to have a unity of feeling in a large group. There are more conflicts and contradictions in large groups than in small groups, which makes it unlikely that a large group of people gets excited in the same way.
The (in)famous Prop 8, banning same-sex marriage in California, was approved by a democratic majority. This raises the interesting question whether democracy means something more than majority rule. Does democracy mean that a majority can decide whatever it wants? I don’t think so. That would not be a democracy but a tyranny of the majority. Democracy is much more than simple majority rule. (By the way, dictatorships can also have majority approval, but that doesn’t make them democracies).
The decisions of a majority have to take place within a framework of rules. These rules have two functions.
- First, they facilitate the decision making (e.g. rules on free speech, freedom of assembly and association etc.), and therefore they cannot, logically, be violated without undermining the whole system.
- Secondly, these rules limit the kind of decisions that can be taken by the majority. For instance, majorities cannot decide to violate the human rights of a minority. Why? Because these latter rules are basically the same as the former ones. The rules necessary for the successful operation of majority rule are the same, or at least profoundly connected to, the rules granting protection to the minorities. This is called the interdependence of human rights.
If a democratic majority decides to enact laws or policies that violate the human rights of minorities (or individuals, or even majorities), then courts have to step in and enforce the rules of the game. This is not judicial activism by anti-democratic and elitist judges infringing on the democratic rights of the people. It’s judges enforcing democracy, but democracy as something more and better than tyranny of the majority.
We have a clear example of all this in the case of Prop 8 (unfortunately, the courts don’t seem to be playing their constitutional role, yet):
It is our position in this case that Proposition 8, as upheld by the California Supreme Court, denies federal constitutional rights under the equal protection and due process clauses of the constitution. The constitution protects individuals’ basic rights that cannot be taken away by a vote. If the people of California had voted to ban interracial marriage, it would have been the responsibility of the courts to say that they cannot do that under the constitution. We believe that denying individuals in this category the right to lasting, loving relationships through marriage is a denial to them, on an impermissible basis, of the rights that the rest of us enjoy…I also personally believe that it is wrong for us to continue to deny rights to individuals on the basis of their sexual orientation. Ted Olson (source)
There is some discussion on whether the courts should be playing a role in this. Some gay rights advocates insist that it is better to work on public opinion and hope for a general public approval of same-sex marriage in the decades to come. Of course this is a useful strategy, if perhaps somewhat naive (who knows what would have happened to the civil rights movement had the same strategy been applied then). However, the dismissal of any role for the courts, for example because of the fear of a popular backlash against equal rights enforced by unelected courts, amounts to a profound misunderstanding of democracy.
We punish the crimes of murder, kidnap, and battery. Why isn’t that enough? … It strikes me as weird that the mere utterance of a racial slur during a violent act automatically makes it worse. Ta-Nehisi Coates (source, part of this quote is actually Coates citing someone else)
Doesn’t the concept of hate crime imply a punishment of expression and thought? And isn’t it therefore essentially a thought-crime, and as such objectionable to people who cherish freedom of thought and speech? Shouldn’t someone’s convictions and expressions be immaterial to their punishment? And shouldn’t we just focus on what someone did rather than what he or she was thinking or saying when he or she did it?
Not really. Intent, motive and state of mind have always been crucial to punishment, hence the difference between premeditated murder and manslaughter. Killing or hurting someone because of race, gender or sexual orientation is worse than mere killing or hurting, and should incur a more severe punishment because it is meant not only to harm the victim but to terrorize an entire community.
This paper claims that hate crime is independent of economic deprivation and lack of education. Hate crimes are typically acts of violence against persons or their property committed for no other reason than these persons’ membership of a certain religion, race or ethnic or other group. Those who commit hate crimes can act on an individual basis, but are often members of so-called hate groups and may act together with other members.
The paper cites a number of data that indicate that poverty and ignorance aren’t the main drivers of hate crime. Lynchings, for example, were not correlated to economic growth. They didn’t rise during the Great Depression. The existence of hate groups such as the Ku Klux Klan is unrelated to economic indicators such as unemployment. We even see that there is a higher probability that a hate group is located in an area with a relatively large share of the population with higher education. The wave of violence against foreigners in Germany in the 1990s also didn’t show a relationship between unemployment rates per county, and the number of incidents in a county. The same for levels of education and wages.
Some second thoughts after this and this. The system of private ownership of the means of production (factories, natural resources etc.) that characterizes the capitalist economies of all developed and many developing countries has proven to be very resilient and very successful economically speaking. Marxism and communism traditionally criticize this system, for many different reasons, the most important one being the alleged exploitation of the workers employed by the owners of these means of production.
However, in this blogpost, I want to focus on another, less well-known criticism. Marxism claims that the private ownership of the means of production yields not only an unfair share of economic power, but also of political power, especially when, as is more and more the case, the means of production also include information production (news, TV, movies etc.).
From the point of view of the defenders of democracy (such as we), that’s a highly relevant criticism, and its relevance hasn’t decreased during the century and a half since it was first expressed. It’s relatively uncontroversial to state that in all democracies the owners of the means of production influence democratic processes with
- financial means (lobbying, campaign finances or outright corruption),
- ideological means – as was already known to Marx
- but also with information technology.
They use these means in order to further their own interests. Well-developed democracies have systems to detect and correct this (a free press for example) but these systems can themselves be “infected”.
Disparities in economic power tend to distort the democratic process. This process is based on the ideal of equal influence and the equal importance of everyone’s interests. But that’s an ideal. Existing democracy, as opposed to ideal democracy, often serves the interests of a particular part of the population (e.g. what marxism called “the ruling class”) rather than the interests of the people, in which case it is perverted or imperfect.
The purely formal abolition of the difference between rich and poor in a democracy – every citizen has one vote and as many rights as the next citizen – cannot hide the reality that some citizens can influence policies and public opinion much more than others and hence have more power. The difference is only abolished formally; in reality, democracy may serve to widen it given the fact that relatively powerful individuals or groups can use democracy to become even more powerful.
The communist theory that politics, including democratic politics, is a capitalist tool or that the state is a “capitalist machine”, has had an enormous success, even with people who are not communists or even anti-communists. Who is not convinced that the numerous military or covert interventions of the United States elsewhere in the world served the interests of American companies and American economic supremacy in general? Or that the elections in democracies are heavily biased by big business which wants politics to serve certain interests and therefore funds candidates, lobbies officials, indoctrinates the public through grossly biased television channels etc.?
The reason for this success is that the theory is based on reality. Politics is to some degree influenced by the economy and communism is still relevant to us today because it reminds us of this and because it was the first theory to systematically expose this. Also relevant and significant today is the theory that oppression is not only a power thing but is also based on ideology, persuasion, information etc.
What we have to reject is the communist insistence on determination. Politics and narratives are influenced but not completely determined by economics. According to communism, the superstructure of consciousness, religion, morality, politics and law is a mere product of the substructure of productive forces and class relations. However, we must accept that politics can be much more than violent oppression, ideological indoctrination or perversion of democracy for the purpose of maintaining class and property relations.
In a democracy especially, we see that politics can be a powerful tool for people to determine and control their common destinies and to expose and undo economic injustices. Consciousness and thinking are obviously much more than ideological shadows of the light of economic reality. (And religion is of course much more than opium for the people. It has many beneficial effects which we need not mention here. Even if it is a bag of illusions, which no one and not even Marx can prove, it is still a fact that religious illusions can have morally beneficial effects and can make life easier to bear. So why try to strip people of their illusions – which has proven very difficult anyway – for the sake of a better yet uncertain future?)
It is wrong to claim, as communism often does, that the economic perversion of democracy is a necessity. Communism sometimes acknowledges that improvements in the situation of the workers can be the product of democratic politics (no room to include citations here). However, these are mere footnotes in communist theory. In most cases, communism demands revolution and an entire change of system, based no longer on the private ownership of the means of production. Private ownership softened by economic and social human rights, social-democracy, legally enforced improvements for the workers etc. is not enough. It doesn’t have to be softened but replaced by the community of the means of production, or communism.
Communism therefore fails to acknowledge the importance of legality, and particularly of democratic participation in legislation and of the use of human rights (especially economic rights) to improve the situation of those who are worst of. Human rights are more than the right to private property. They include economic rights and the participation in democracy by workers’ representatives. The effective exercise of these rights can lead to some kind of redistribution of property, better working conditions, corporate participation and less poverty.
No matter how strong the influence, the economy and economic power do not completely determine politics and law. Human rights and democratic participation for example can and do change the economy. Human rights are more than purely formal, and certainly more than false consciousness, convincing the people that they are equal when they are not, and thereby deflating any pressure for change and maintaining the status quo. They can give power to those who want to change the economy. This is insufficiently acknowledged by communism. It is even likely that communism’s rejection of rights and democracy as bourgeois exploitation tools has facilitated human rights violations of totalitarian communist regimes.
Does globalization erode social safety nets? Economic theory and intuition suggest that as economies become more globalized, the ability of governments to undertake redistributive policies and to engage in social spending erodes. After all, a large part of the tax base – corporations, financial intermediaries, and skilled workers in particular – become internationally mobile and can evade taxes needed to finance those public expenditures.
… the lack of an obvious decline in the overall tax take in major advanced economies, has led many observers to think that the hypothesized decline of the welfare state has not in fact taken place. [However], as technological progress and multilateral trade liberalization have made borders less of a barrier to economic activity, the scope of redistribution policies has become smaller. Dani Rodrik (source)
This doesn’t mean that globalization necessarily leads to more poverty. Redistribution on the basis of taxation is only one way to fight poverty. In this post I discussed some of the ways in which more free trade and hence more globalization can reduce poverty.
In the ideal Platonic society, led by thinking people who use force to train others to become like them, there will be wellbeing because spiritual life, free from the slavery of nature and desires, is the only good life. It means freedom, the satisfaction of knowledge, and peace because the desires and passions of people are the main reason for strife. Also other reasons for strife, such as scarcity, will be eliminated by a planning state taking care of population and birth control. The number of citizens will no longer cause scarcity, envy, territorial expansion and other reasons to go to war.
So Plato started from an initially attractive premise, the importance of a thinking life compared to consumerism, but then issued a whole range of proposals to protect and promote this life which invariably lead to dictatorship. In all this, he is perhaps the classic example of the way in which the combined hostility to nature, materialism and the plurality of society causes hatred for democracy.
But even his premise is questionable. Is solitary reflection of the general, free from appearances and the particular, really the road to wisdom? Perhaps it is more correct to say that sense perception, expression, and hence the use of one’s body and the interaction with other bodies is the best way to gain knowledge. Much of science is still very material, and discussion, argumentation, deliberation and the testing of opinions through expression and discussion protected by human rights can radically improve our opinions.
We need interaction and communication with other people in order to think correctly, and even to think at all. Would we think without our parents and teachers, without speaking and listening to anyone, without engaging in the world of appearances? And would we be able to think more or less correctly without public interaction protected by a democracy and human rights, without venturing in the bigger world of appearances and without leaving our own small and private group of people? Thinking needs the public use of reason (see also this post on Kant). Thoughts are not something you develop on your own, not even in some small and closed group. You first need to listen to as many freely expressed thoughts as possible in order to develop your own thoughts, and then you need to test your own thoughts in confrontation with others.
By making your thoughts public and thus submitting them to scrutiny and tests by other people – first and foremost submitting them to those who are not your private or personal friends, because they might be too kind for you or too like-minded – you are forced to say how you came to have these thoughts and to give an account of the reasons why you have these thoughts instead of others. This will force you to reflect on your reasons and arguments, and, if necessary, to look for better ones. Giving a public account of your reasoning, or knowing in advance that you will give this account, makes you very critical of yourself and helps you avoid mistakes. Nobody wants to make a fool of himself.
The world of appearances, so disliked by Plato for its volatility and imperfection, actually improves the quality of thoughts because of the range of sources of information and opinions, because of the a priori self-criticism that it promotes and because of the a posteriori testing and objecting by other and not necessarily like-minded people (a phenomenon well known in the scientific community).
Giving a public account of your reasoning and arguments, taking objections into account, putting yourself in the place of someone else, think like someone else, look at things from another side or perspective, act as if you hold a contrary point of view, all this is possible only when different perspectives and different points of view are freely expressed. Human rights can help to achieve this. Without human rights, many valuable points of view or perspectives will not be made public, and many valuable objections and counter-arguments will not be known to someone defending a certain thought or idea. This can diminish the quality of the thought or idea in question and therefore it is difficult to understand how a theoretical life can benefit from the elimination of the world of appearances.
Knowledge can hence be defined in a way which is completely different from the Platonic, passive, lonely, anti-social, introvert, non-discursive contemplation. More on the problem of knowledge and politics here.
The philosophers are the only ones who know the value and superiority of theoretical life. The rest will only appreciate their efforts once they are successful. This is an effort on the part of Plato to justify the use of force. Ordinary people will not strive autonomously or voluntarily towards a theoretical life because they do not understand the value of such a life. They will have to be forced (e.g. educated, moderated etc.). An emotional and materialist way of life must be prohibited. The leaders must not follow the desires of the people – as they do in a democracy – but on the contrary suppress these desires.
People have to be coerced. They must be taught the value of theoretical life. Their intellect must be stimulated, and their passions moderated. Censorship is therefore important. Art which stimulates the passions and desires must be prohibited. Art must be rational instead of emotional. Plato did not appreciate the art and mythology of his time, because they depicted the gods with the same shortcomings as man. Art must give the right example (Christianity and communism later followed in Plato’s footsteps).
However, Plato wanted to avoid physical force. He believes that truth is better than force and also better than persuasion based on opinions and argumentation. Self-evident truth forces the mind to accept it, but this force is quite different from physical force and it is more persuasive than opinions based on arguments.
The question is whether physical force can always be avoided. First, though, Plato wants to try the transmission of truth by way of education. He even proposed to take away the children from their families in order to insulate them from the bad habits of the ordinary people. A kind of tabula rasa. The purpose of education is to mold people according to the image or the model of the philosopher, to make a new man. If it is impossible to have a tabula rasa by means of forced adoption, then the old habits must first be taught away before new habits can be imprinted.
However, this is already a very violent form of education. Moreover, not everybody is adequate material for the fabrication of a philosopher. What happens with those people who turn out to be somewhat different from the plan? The best that can happen to them is hard discipline; the worst is elimination. They may be a bad example to the rest. Elimination either directly or through eugenics and arranged marriages.
The Platonic ideal is a society of people who lead a thinking life, who know the eternal truths and disregard the changing appearances, the desires of the body and the cycles of natural necessity. But it is not democratic to force one vision of the good life on all citizens. In a democracy, people must be free to choose their own good life. If we force them to lead a particular kind of life we enslave them, even if we think that it is for their own good and that later they will thank us for it.
And after we enslave them, we run into the problem of those people who are not able to live up to the model. Plato believes that the power of thinking can overcome the body and that this power can be developed and trained. Every human being has the power of thinking and the capacity to develop this power in such a way that it is correctly balanced with other powers such as emotions, ambitions etc.
But Plato admits that this training and discipline may sometimes be unsuccessful. The mind may not be able to gain a position of superiority with regard to other, more bodily faculties and desires. Some people will never be strong enough to fight the beast in them, not even with extreme discipline in a dictatorial state led by philosophers with an iron hand. The one who, in the eyes of Plato, was the best master of the beast in himself and hence the example to us all, was Socrates. By refusing to escape after having been condemned to death, he showed the undisciplined democrats how to live beyond desire, the ultimate desire being the wish to live.
(please read part 1 first)
Theoretical life, the most elevated way of life and the only life which leads to the knowledge of truth, is incompatible with political life according to Plato. Contemplating the truth with the eye of the mind – this is theoretical life – is impossible as long as one is dominated by appearances, or in other words as long as one follows desires, participates in political deliberation or uses one’s human rights. Democratic politics and human rights are all about appearances, exposure, communication, and persuasion. Plato’s world is a solitary one, where the mind is engaged only with itself.
However, after contemplating the truth the philosopher has to return to earth, or to the darkness of the cave in Plato’s words. He is morally obliged to use his superior knowledge of the good life, acquired in the course of his solitary theoretical life, in order to improve the lives of his fellow-citizens. And the best instrument to do this is politics, but a kind of politics quite different from democratic politics. As a result of his philosophical activity, or his theoretical life, he has knowledge, not only about the good life but also about politics and the organization of society. He has the moral obligation to organize or make his society according to a plan that he knows is best and that he has obtained from his reflections. This plan is a matter of knowledge. Hence, it is the best and only plan. He will have to eliminate opposition and reaction because opposition and reaction to his plan is by definition stupid. It does not result from knowledge or from theoretical life.
This plan, according to Plato, is the roadmap to a generalized theoretical life. The theoretical life of the individual philosopher is the model for society. Everybody, or at least as many people as possible, must be given access to theoretical life through the political organization of society. Only then will there be general wellbeing because theoretical life is the only good and happy life, especially when compared to the life of the senses and of consumption. Theoretical life becomes the goal of politics, the only goal. Instead of the institutionalization of the game of action and reaction around different goals (as in democracy), politics becomes the organization of coordinated action with a single goal.
The philosopher has to become king and has to shape his society in his image, even though in principle theoretical life is far better than political life and should be chosen above political life. However, he has knowledge and the responsibilities that knowledge entails. He knows what theoretical life is, and so he knows how to lead or even force others in the direction of such a life and how to organize society in such a way that theoretical life becomes a general fact.
The philosopher-king, a dictatorial concept later translated into concepts such as the enlightened sovereign, the technocrat etc., results from the logic of fabrication. The expert maker, the one with the best knowledge of the goal or the plan, should be the leader of the construction process, construction in this case not of a product but of society and of the people in society.
Only those with sufficient knowledge of the good life, the goal of politics according to Plato, should be political leaders, otherwise politics will not be aimed at the good life. This knowledge is not primarily political expertise, knowledge of the art of rhetoric or negotiation etc., but knowledge of the way in which to lead a theoretical life. Only those who already lead it know how to guide others along the way.
We should rely on those persons who have acquired knowledge of the good life. This is true in every field of knowledge. If we want to build a ship, we rely on those who know how to build a ship. Everybody else must be polite enough to shut up. The ordinary people, people without knowledge of the good life, should remain silent when it comes to politics, just as they rightly remain silent when a ship has to be build.
Democracy is therefore undesirable. The experts of the good life, and hence the rulers, are by definition a minority. The ordinary people are ruled by their desires and have to be assisted and forced in their development towards a higher way of life. If they rule, politics will necessarily be focused on desires, on quantity rather than quality. Only those who can rule themselves must be allowed to rule others, and to rule others for their own good. That is why Socrates can say to his judges that they should cherish someone like him instead of condemning him. He does not defend himself but the entire city. The city would suffer most from his death, much more than he himself.
The philosopher-king acts in the interest of the good life of his society and not in his self-interest. The latter would be better served by a theoretical life and by avoiding politics. The fact that philosophers take over power reluctantly insulates them from abuses of power (for example, the use of power in their self-interest). They are forced to take over power for two reasons:
- their moral obligation to improve their society, and
- the fact that they otherwise would have to follow orders from people who are less wise than they.
Because they are forced they will rule not in their own interest but in the general interest.
A democracy can never rule in the general interest, because democratic politicians always listen to the people, always take over the claims of the people, and these claims are always materialistic and incompatible with the good life. Hence the goal of their rule is always the fulfillment of desires. Automatically, they will start to see power as well as an object of desire and use it in order to serve their own personal desires rather than those of the people.
The material appetites of the common people are not the only reason why democracy, according to Plato, is based on the senses, on appearances rather than underlying, eternal truths. The democratic style of politics is basically sense-oriented. It is about discussion, communication, deliberation. It’s policies change, are refined, repealed etc. Plato’s style of politics is different. It starts with solitary thinking, contemplation of eternal truths, which are then implemented top-down by politics.