Adventures in Meta-Blogging: What is the Truth Value of Writing About Rights?

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

  1. opposite opinions disappear as a result of free discussion and persuasion rather than force and coercion
  2. 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.

Marx and the Arrows of Determination

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:

2

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.

The Ethics of Human Rights (94): Spheres of Life

Screen Shot 2014-10-12 at 8.58.35 AM

I was never happy with some of the traditional distinctions in political theory such as state-church, state-society, etc. (The same is true for some traditional equations such as public and state). Don’t get me wrong, I think these two distinctions in particular are very important, but they tend to become simplistic in political discussions.

That is why I would like to propose a new model, which contains the distinctions, but also makes the different spheres overlap. Moreover, it includes an important distinction which is seldom made but very useful when discussing the problem of religious politics in a society which at the same time values religion in politics AND wants to hold on to the separation of church and state: namely the distinction between politics and the state. This distinction also makes it possible to accept a high level of citizen engagement in politics (direct democracy for instance) without abandoning the important distinction between state and society (some argue that direct democracy leads to a blurring of this distinction, and hence leads to an infiltration of the state in society, with totalitarianism as a result).

My model is stylized as a figure composed of squares and numbers. The squares represent the spheres of human life. I identify 7 overlapping or encompassing spheres: private and public life, personal and family life, social life, political life, and the state.

The numbers in the figure represent types of human activities: feelings, thoughts, judgments, relationships and actions.

The model is prescriptive, not descriptive: it pretends to describe an ideal situation, not actual human life. I understand that reality is too complicated to be forced into a simple drawing, but simplifications are often useful.

The gray area in the figure represents the scope of legitimate legislation, again ideally speaking. The whole of the state’s activity should be legislated. No state activity should take place outside of the law. This is the concept of the rule of law. All other parts of life can be partially regulated by law, apart from the purely personal, the activities which do not regard other people and which can never inflict harm on other people (for example thoughts, convictions, suicide, euthanasia etc.). This is John Stuart Mill ‘s Harm Principle.

Some examples of the different types of human activity, linked to the numbers in the figure above:

  1. Feelings of loneliness
  2. Marital infidelity or adultery (in some countries, the grey area would extend to this); Raising children in the family, but not the task of educating children, because education is that part of raising children, which is a public activity (education is the transmission of public knowledge) and is part of number 8
  3. Certain socially determined or guided moral convictions about family life, for example the division of labor in the family (some feminists or egalitarians demand government intervention and regulation in order to establish a more equal division, and according to them the grey area should extend to this)
  4. Certain socially determined or guided moral convictions unrelated to family life, for example convictions about the permissibility of suicide
  5. Gardening
  6. Child abuse
  7. Violence within the family, caused by patriarchy
  8. A sports club
  9. A cultural society, a church, certain political convictions
  10. A school (the government has a right and a duty to regulate education to some extent, hence it is in the grey area)
  11. Political participation outside government institutions, for example electing representatives, voting in a referendum, membership of and activity in a political party, participation in political demonstrations, in pressure groups, in lobbying etc.
  12. Political participation within government institutions, for example participation in local government meetings, in a jury, being an elected representative in parliament
  13. Espionage. Espionage is obviously not a public activity, but it is nevertheless part of public life, because in a democracy, espionage must become public, after the fact. It is a secret activity, not because it should never be known to the public, but because it involves acts that require secrecy, in order to be successful and effective. However, this requirement loses its force a certain time after the performance of the acts, which is why these secret acts can become public after a while.
  14. Administration, government bureaucracy

What is Democracy? (73): A Summary Definition

I’ve now written 72 posts in this series, and so it’s time for a summary. Most of those posts focused on one or the other characteristic of democracy – including characteristics it shouldn’t have – but the big picture is still missing. That’s why I’ll now try to offer my own, undoubtedly controversial definition of democracy.

What is a democracy, or better, what should it be, ideally? The short version: democracy is a form of government – government of a state or of any other group of people – in which all of the main positions of power are filled by way of elections, and in which decisions on important public issues are taken by vote (a vote either among those previously elected, or among the population at large; preferably a mix of both systems).

This core definition comes with a series of prerequisites. Elected holders of power should not be subordinate to other, unelected holders of power, such as the military or religious bodies. In addition, elections, popular votes on issues (e.g. referenda) and votes among groups of elected representatives should be inclusive, competitive, free and fair, and their results should represent the will of the people. Let’s break that down a bit.

  1. “Inclusive” means that all or most adult residents should have a right to vote, and that most of these people actually vote. The word “residents” covers of course citizens, but some non-citizens should probably also get the right to vote. The same is true for ex-felons.
  2. “Competitive” means that there is a real choice between candidates and policies. Also, when there is a real choice, the available options to choose from are not set by a minority or by some authority. Everyone has the right to become a candidate and to put an issue up for a vote. (Some restrictions may be acceptable in order to avoid very large numbers of candidates or issues: for example, candidates or ballot initiatives only pass when there’s a large number of signed approvals). Term limits are also a means to improve competitiveness and to counteract any advantage that incumbents may have over challengers (see below). An election can only be competitive when the merits of each candidate can be clearly established. Government transparency and accountability, including free and equal access to government information, are therefore required. For the same reason, we should try to limit the influence of money on politics.
  3. “Free and fair” means that the choice between candidates and policies should not be  artificially driven towards one candidate or policy, for example by incumbents monopolizing the media or the resources of the state, by efforts to discourage or intimidate certain voters, etc. Media neutrality or media balance may have to be enforced. Vote counting should be correct and independently monitored. The ballot must be secret when voter intimidation is a risk.
  4. “Representative of the will of the people” means that the elections and votes should respect the rule that one person has only one vote. (Representation is, however, not unidirectional: the will of the people may be shaped by the representatives. The latter can present points of view which are then internalized and expressed by the people). The requirement of representativity may entail a need to circumscribe the voting population: local decisions should be decided locally. Having too many people who can vote – including people who do not have a stake in the matter up for a vote –  can be just as harmful as having too few. Federalism, devolution etc. are therefore required by democracy. However, federalism may lead to gerrymandering, which should be prohibited because it reduces representativity.

The inclusive, competitive, free, fair and representative nature of elections and votes is a prerequisite for a democracy, but it also has its own prerequisites. We need political freedom and equality – which means the equal freedom to try to influence the outcomes of elections and votes. All individuals should be free to express their will equally and in peace, to discuss it with others, to persuade and be persuaded, to join forces in free organizations, and to have their preferences weighed equally in collective and peaceful elections and votes. Candidates as well should have this freedom and equality.

Political freedom and equality in turn depend on human rights, the rule of law, separation of powers, judicial enforcement and the regulation of the role of money in politics. Candidates should have physical security, freedom of speech and association, freedom of movement and freedom from arbitrary arrest and imprisonment. The same is true for the voting population. If necessary, these rights should be enforced by a judiciary that is independent from the elected legislature and executive (and that is therefore not subject to election itself). Equal influence depends on equal suffrage rights and other rights, on the enforcement of these rights within a judicial system that is protected by the principle of the separation of powers, but also on the regulation of party financing, campaign financing and lobbying.

All these arrangements – rights, separation of powers and the regulation of money – create upper and lower levels of resources and capabilities, and hence create political freedom that is more or less equal (it can never be completely equal for a variety of reasons that can’t be remedied: differences in talent and motivation, social networks etc.).

Why do we need these arrangements? Equal political freedom means equal influence, but some people may lack the rights, resources or capabilities to exercise their influence. People can’t exercise their civil and political rights if they suffer arbitrary arrest, violence or poverty, if they don’t have a minimum of education, lack proper healthcare, or have to spend their time struggling to survive whereas others can spend a fortune to influence politicians. Just as insufficient rights, resources or capabilities undermine the equality of influence that is typical of a democracy, so can large excesses of resources. Hence we need regulations aimed at limiting the political advantage and influence of the wealthy (e.g. limits on the size of individual donations, limits on election expenditure, transparency in party funding etc.).

There are also other, less precise prerequisites. How much confidence do people have in the fairness of elections, in the impartiality of the judicial process, or in each other? How do they perceive corruption? Do they experience the government as a representative institution? And so on. These subjective perceptions of institutional arrangements are just as important as the institutional arrangements themselves.

All the things I’ve listed here are necessary for a full democracy. This doesn’t mean that you can’t call something a democracy when some of these things are missing. There wouldn’t be a single democracy if that were the case. But it does mean that democracy is a work in progress and a sometimes elusive ideal. It also means that it’s wrong to say that a country is either a democracy or something else. The concept of democracy is continuous. A country can be more or less democratic and can evolve up or down the scale.

Given this description of an ideal democracy and the acknowledgment of the fact that countries can be more or less democratic (as well as not democratic at all, of course), the question is whether there’s room for the idea that democracy can be many different and equally valuable things. I think there is. Different circumstances require different institutions, and different institutions may realize certain norms equally well. Conversely, the same institutions in different countries and contexts will yield a very unequal quality of democracy. For example, a very small country may not require a federal structure.

The characteristics of an ideal democracy that I have given here should therefore be viewed as applicable to the average country only. However, while it’s unwise to demand that all countries adopt or strive towards an identical political construction, it’s equally unwise to give every country the freedom to define democracy according to its own wishes. There’s a limit to the flexibility of concepts. A democracy should, ideally, have certain characteristics or attributes, and not others. Over to you.

What is Democracy? (71): An Instantaneous Face-Based Competence Assessment

We already knew that good looks give political candidates a sizable advantage. We’ve probably known this for ages, even before we had television. Now it seems that looks are important in democracies in other ways as well, and not just because they are intrinsically appealing. They tell us something about candidates’ competence to rule over us, or at least that’s what we think. Let me rephrase that, because “think” is too strong a word here. We “feel” it, and we do so immediately. Here’s a new study that claims voters judge politicians’ competence levels on the basis of a quick, almost instantaneous look at their faces:

[Princeton psychologist Alexander] Todorov showed pairs of portraits to roughly a thousand people, and asked them to rate the competence of each person. Unbeknownst to the test subjects, they were looking at candidates for the House and Senate in 2000, 2002, and 2004. In study after study, participants’ responses to the question of whether someone looked competent predicted actual election outcomes at a rate much higher than chance—from sixty-six to seventy-three per cent of the time. Even looking at the faces for as little as one second, Todorov found, yielded the exact same result: a snap judgment that generally identified the winners and losers. Todorov concluded that when we make what we think of as well-reasoned voting decisions, we are actually driven in part by our initial, instinctive reactions to candidates. … While we are never forced to vote based on one factor alone, the apparent predictive power of competence judgements reveals how deeply that quick impression may color our evaluation of more serious considerations. (source)

This reminds me of the equally well established finding that the voice of a politician also influences his or her share of the votes. I’m not here to undermine your belief in democracy, on the contrary, but a reality based belief is always better than a naive one.

More about lookism. More posts in this series.

Religion and Human Rights (34): What Happens When You Want to Make Politics and the World More Religious?

You’ve probably guessed from the title where this post is heading, so in order to avoid the obvious misunderstandings I’ll reiterate my basic position on the role of religion in contemporary society: I’m an agnostic, but I fully understand the importance of religion for religious people; I believe that part of the function of human rights is to protect those people, and that another part of that function is to protect the rest of us against them; yet I don’t believe some of the overblown but unfortunately very fashionable statements about the extent of the religious threat to society; and neither do I believe that principles such as the separation of church and state imply religion should have no voice at all in democratic politics.

So, now that this is out of the way, let me try to answer the question in the title. The answer will be predictable, but perhaps also somewhat illuminating in the details.

In modern-day democracies, rulers no longer claim a divine right to rule and most of them admit that they don’t have the authority to further the cause of God on earth by violent and coercive means. They can speak and persuade, but wars against against foreign sinners and oppression of domestic heretics is not done. However, the word “most” does a lot of work here. Many democratic politicians, backed by their religious supporters, still try to shape politics and the law according to religion and try to use those earthly powers as means to make the world more religious. That’s fully consistent with the universalist claims inherent in their religious beliefs: their God isn’t just their God but the God of all humanity, and all of humanity has a duty to obey the word of God. If this obedience can be promoted through the use of politics and the law, then religious citizens have a religious duty to try. Their attempts typically follow a number of steps:

1. Demand religious freedom

They start of from the very reasonable claim that they themselves have a right to live their own lives according to their religious faith, unmolested by the state or by other citizens. The first of their religious duties is to obey the word of God themselves, and they should be allowed by the state and the law to do so. That is indeed their human right and they are entirely justified in using politics and the law to protect that right.

2. Demand religious exemptions

However, some religious people interpret this right to religious freedom in a rather loose way. For example, they see this right not merely as a means to fend off anti-religious and hostile legislation or other forms of state action intentionally interfering with their religion (or hostile private action for that matter). They see their right to religious liberty also as a right to disrespect general and non-religiously motivated legislation which they believe violates the word of God.

For example, a law imposing a military draft may be seen as illegitimate by the adherents of a pacifist religion, and a law requiring the use of crash helmets should not be forced upon the followers of a religion that demands the wearing of turbans. Hence, religious people often demand that they should be exempted from the application of certain laws – or at least their right to conscientious objection should be respected – when they view those laws as being against the word of God.

I’ve argued elsewhere that such exemptions – which take us one step further than simple religious liberty – can be justified in some cases, but that we should be careful not to undermine the rule of law.

3. Demand religious laws

Some want to go even further than that. From the point of view of a religious person, the two previous demands on politics and the law were strictly self-regarding: religious people should be allowed to live their own lives according to their own beliefs. However, as I stated above, religion is hardly ever purely self-regarding. Most religious people feel a strong urge to work for the salvation of their fellow human beings. Hence, instead of demanding personal exemptions from laws that inadvertently violate the requirements of their religion, some religious people want to abolish the laws in question and replace them with laws that better promote those requirements.

If we take the same example as above, they may want to abolish the law imposing a military draft, rather than just asking for a personal exemption. Their religion requires not just that they personally refrain from violence, but that humanity does so as well. Hence they would like to end the military altogether rather than just their personal participation in it.

Or take the more salient example of laws permitting same-sex marriages. Many religious citizens claim a right to abolish such laws. Their religion doesn’t permit what these laws permit. And even if they have received a personal exemption so that the laws don’t force them to act against their religion (same-sex marriage laws don’t force people into a same-sex marriage, nor do they force people to validate and recognize the same-sex marriages of others), laws such as these do make it possible for other people to act against the word of God. Hence, some religious people want the abolition of such laws, thereby saving people in the eyes of God. However, the implication is that people’s rights are violated by the religiously inspired removal of laws that guaranteed people’s rights. Maybe religious people want to claim that this is the price to pay for the preservation of their right to religious liberty, but I fail to see how people’s religious liberty is violated by the self-regarding actions of others. (More on the relationship between religious liberty and same-sex marriage is here).

4. Demand religious laws that violate human rights

Now, it’s perfectly OK for religious people to try to move the law in a certain direction, just as it is OK for other people to try to move the law in their preferred direction. I don’t buy the theory that says that in a diverse and tolerant modern democracy religious people should refrain from using religious reasons for legislation or the reform of legislation (sometimes called the Doctrine of Religious Restraint). Religious people are allowed to work against what they see as anti-religious laws and also to promote religiously inspired laws, on the condition that the laws we end up with have managed to convince a majority and do not violate the rights of others (see here for a detailed version of this argument).

For example, a law abolishing the draft or the military could be a religiously inspired law (although it can simultaneously be inspired by secular reasons), but it could also be acceptable when it’s clear that it doesn’t violate anyone’s human rights, e.g. assuming there is no military or terrorist threat. When there is such a threat the law could lead to rights violations and hence should be resisted. Things are clearer in the case of a religiously inspired law outlawing same-sex-marriage. Such a law should always be resisted since people have a human right to get married. The same is true for blasphemy laws and a whole range of other religiously inspired laws.

The efforts by religious people to make politics, the law and the world more religious go too far when those efforts include legislation

  1. that makes non-religious people or people adhering to another religion live according to the precepts of the legislator’s religion, and
  2. that violates the human rights of some.

Those efforts are understandable from the point of view of the religious legislators, since their religion requires them to work for the salvation of everyone, but they are not acceptable.

5. The ultimate step

So there’s an increasing intensity in the demands to make politics, the law and the world more religious: the law should not intervene with religion; then the law should be more considerate of religion and provide exemptions; then it should promote religion; and then it should promote religion even if that means violating the human rights of some. If, however, there is something blocking this increasingly intensive intervention and the law and politics do not cooperate sufficiently, some religious people will take matters into their own hands. After all, one can’t accept that the word of God is trumped by an anti-religious democratic majority or by a religious law that isn’t sufficiently respected. Direct action to make the world more religious is then required. You may then see someone attacking a Danish cartoonist for being blasphemous. Or someone else killing abortion doctors. Fortunately, very few religious people go all the way, which is the reason for the optimism I expressed at the beginning of this post.

Should we conclude from this that it’s best to keep religion as far away as possible from politics and the law? I don’t think so. As long as religious people respect human rights they can do as they please. Given the importance of religion to many of us, it’s illusory in the best case and counterproductive in the worst case to try to artificially ban religion from politics and the law.

Other posts in this series are here.

Why Do We Need Human Rights? (35): Why Do We Need Democracy?

Democracy is a human right. In the past, I’ve  listed a number of reasons why we should prefer democracy over other forms of government (here and here for example). I’ve now come across another reason, one that may not be convincing or relevant to everyone, but still it’s mildly interesting:

All things — including wealth — being equal, earthquakes kill more people in dictatorships than in democracies, write NYU political scientists Alastair Smith and Alejandro Quiroz Flores. The reason that democratically elected leaders prepare their countries for disaster better is because they fear they’ll be voted out of office if their governments are caught unprepared. (Dictators obviously tend to worry less about election outcomes.) A recent World Bank study backs up this argument, with an added wrinkle: institutionalized autocracies, like China’s, tend to outperform non-institutionalized or corrupt autocracies as well as young democracies when it comes to preventing earthquake deaths. Still, another study finds that politicians in democratic elections benefit even more from doling out disaster relief after a catastrophe than they do from preparing for disasters yet to come. (source)

More on democracy and human rights here, here and here.

What is Democracy? (64): Plutocracy?

The role of money in democracy is hotly contested. It’s undeniable that democracies spend a lot of money on campaigns, advertising, lobbying etc. Some argue that wealthy individuals or corporations often use their financial means to distort the outcomes of elections or the framing of policy and legislation. There may also be a problem of vote buying: wealthy individuals or politicians paying voters or giving them some other advantages (such as jobs or cheap housing) in an effort to convince them to vote in a certain way. Worries about the effect of income inequality on democracy are partly based on this type of argument, as are efforts to regulate campaign financing.

And indeed, the huge amounts of money going around in democratic politics could potentially move us away of the democratic ideal of equal influence. So the charge of plutocracy isn’t necessarily ridiculous. However, this is essentially an empirical matter and we should therefore look at evidence from political science. Here’s a short and somewhat depressing overview:

With regard to overall spending, Jacobson (1978) was the first to show an effect on vote outcomes, but this effect was mainly present for challengers [in U.S. Congressional elections]. In subsequent years, the effect of challenger spending was confirmed, but others also found effects for incumbent spending as well (e.g. Green & Krasno 1988, Erikson & Palfrey 1995, Gerber 1998). The basic takeaway is that spending more is clearly effective for challengers, and probably also matters for incumbents too, but solving the causal direction problems involved makes it very difficult to be really certain of any of these findings.

One problem is we know that winning candidates generally have more money, but whether money helps candidates or is just a signal of unobserved candidate quality [i.e., people give more money to better candidates] is unclear. Another problem is that not only are donors attracted to high-quality candidates just as voters are, but they are also attracted to winning candidates—that is, if money is given in order to get access to elected officials, donors are more likely to give to candidates who are expected to do well, because the expected return is greater. In both cases, we could observe an empirical relationship between winning and having more money for your campaign, without the money actually “causing” the victory. (source)

So, maybe the “plutocrats” can’t just simply spend in order to have their preferred candidate elected and instead spend money on the candidate who is good and who will win anyway. However, the fact remains that their spending gives them privileged access to politicians and possibly also privileged influence on subsequent policy, and that isn’t something we want in a democracy. If “winning candidates generally have more money” – whether the money causes the win or not – one can reasonably assume that the candidates will in some way be indebted to or influenced by their donors. Also, even if there are doubts about the causal direction, it is worrying that the evidence doesn’t rule out the possibility that campaign spending – especially spending by challengers – can determine who gets elected.

Regarding deterrence – successful fundraising by incumbents deterring challengers from entering a race – the empirical evidence is weak:

there is no consensus in the literature regarding deterrence, and once again there are major questions about causal relationships (i.e., do high-raising incumbents deter, or is it just high-quality incumbents who can raise a great deal of money and simultaneously deter quality challengers for reasons having nothing to do with funding?). (source)

Whatever the evidence on deterrence, it’s clear that money determines who can run. It’s naive to think that a candidate with few means would be able to run against another having a lot of means. The former would simply be invisible, even if he or she feels undeterred.

What about campaign advertising, one of the more visible ways in which money could play a part in politics?

[A]ds appear to be somewhat effective but have wide variance in their effectiveness (that is, some ads help a lot, most help very little or not at all, and a few are counterproductive). (source)

Voter mobilization – face-to-face canvassing, mailings, phone calls – is also very expensive, hence well-funded candidates can do more of it. Whether they in fact do more of it depends on its effectiveness:

mobilization efforts appear to be effective but costly (face-to-face canvassing appears most effective by far, while phone calls & direct mail have much less effect). (source)

The conclusion is that campaign spending is somewhat effective, and that those candidates with more money do somewhat better. This results in a financial arms race between candidates, increasing the risk of donor indebtedness and of unequal access and influence:

Candidates who raise a lot of money tend to do better, and it’s more likely than not that at least part of this relationship is due to money paying for things like ads and canvassers that help candidates win over new voters and/or turn out their bases. (source)

Vote buying is the other channel through which money could potentially influence democratic politics. Here, some of the evidence is more encouraging:

The experiment took place during the March 2011 elections in Benin and involved 150 randomly selected villages. The treatment group had town hall meetings where voters deliberated over their candidate’s electoral platforms with no cash distribution. The control group had the standard campaign, i.e. one-way communication of the candidate’s platform by himself or his local broker, followed (most of the time) by cash distribution.

We find that the treatment has a positive effect on turnout. In addition, using village level election returns, we find no significant difference in electoral support for the experimental candidate between treatment and control villages.

…the positive treatment effect is driven in large part by active information sharing by those who attended the meetings. (source)

In conclusion: democracy is not simply a market transaction, but neither is it silly to worry about the role of money in elections and legislation.

More on money in politics here. More posts in this series are here.

Human Rights Promotion (9): Most Urgent Human Rights Policies

If you’re a political leader, a church leader or anyone else with the ability and willingness to change some people’s behavior and promote respect for human rights – to some extent that includes all of us – what should be your policy priorities? On which human rights violations should you focus? Ideally, you would like to be told something more specific than “reduce suffering and violence and enhance liberty and equality”. So here’s my attempt at something specific.

I’ll list a few domains that require urgent action. Not all of these domains are equally amenable to action, because there may be strong resistance in some quarters. Nevertheless, I consider all these domains to be equally important. I’ll list them first (and include links to older posts arguing why action is important) and afterwards distinguish between those domains where immediate progress is realistic and where it’s not. Of course, it’s not because progress isn’t realistic that we should remain passive.

  1. Promote free trade. Standard arguments for protectionism sound a lot like the Count complaining that there are beggars at the door. Protectionism may even harm citizens of the protecting country. It certainly harms producers in poorer countries. More here.
  2. Abolish capital punishment and reduce incarceration rates. Capital punishment doesn’t deliver on its promises, and even if it did it wouldn’t be acceptable. “Tough on crime” policies go beyond what is required for public safety and the rights of victims.
  3. One way to reduce incarceration rates is to end the war on drugs. Ending the war on drugs will also reduce racial discrimination because it leads to strong imbalances in incarceration rates by race, impoverishing and even destroying many black families.
  4. Abolish existing laws and practices that lead to discrimination of all types. Some laws, however, may be necessary to combat discrimination.
  5. Guarantee social safety nets through a fair and efficient system of benefits and progressive taxation – perhaps including a basic income guarantee – but also encourage private charity. Design the taxation system in such a way that it reduces income inequality.
  6. Help the poor by way of Conditional Cash Transfers.
  7. Rethink development aid.
  8. Combat malnourishment and hunger and improve the water supply.
  9. Reduce immigration restrictions. The supposed negative consequences of increased immigration are largely fictitious, and the benefits for migrants are huge. Also relax asylum rules for refugees.
  10. Improve education and healthcare.
  11. Enhance the scope of humanitarian intervention in order to avoid Rwanda style atrocities.
  12. Promote democracy, the rule of law, the separation of powers, federalism, and the separation of church and state, and improve those institutions where they already exist. Human rights are typically safer in democracies and obviously require the rule of law.
  13. Declare victory in the war on terror, but continue the capture terrorist and subject them to fair criminal trials. Abandon torture, targeted killings if alternatives are available, and extrajudicial incarceration, and limit invasions of privacy to those strictly necessary to capture terrorists.
  14. Abolish freedom-restricting laws such as those prohibiting assisted suicide and euthanasia. Relax abortion laws where necessary.
  15. Guarantee the freedom of the internet.

Now, which of these actions are realistic in the short term, and which are not? The latter part of the list, namely actions 9 to 15, seems to be the most difficult. Substantial progress is already under way for 1, 2, 4 (take the case of same-sex marriage and the repeal of DADT), 6, 7 and 8. Also, 3 may be heading in the right direction. 5 depends to some extent on the general economic climate.

It’s obviously a long list of often very difficult policies, even when we limit ourselves to those areas where progress is relatively easy. Also, in some countries, progress may be easier in some areas than in others. That’s why this list is still too general and different actors may have to choose a subset.

More on progress in the field of human rights here.

What is Totalitarianism?

It sounds like a somewhat antiquated concept and it may very well be true that it’s useless as a descriptive device for current politics. However, I believe that it remains a necessary tool for the correct understanding of 20th century history. Nazi Germany, Soviet Russia and Mao-era China were very different countries and very different political regimes, but it can be argued that what they had in common was more important than what separated them. And what they had in common separated them from all other authoritarian governments before and after them. (Hannah Arendt was one of the first to notice this). That is the reasoning behind the concept of totalitarian government. Those three governments – and perhaps a few others – can be described as totalitarian states and were therefore instances of a separate type of government, like oligarchy or democracy. They were not just particularly brutal forms of dictatorship. We’re not talking about a difference in degree. Of course, some of the elements of totalitarian rule which I describe below can be found in other dictatorial governments as well, but other elements can’t. (Just like some elements of democracy can be found in non-democracies). And what certainly can’t be found elsewhere is the combination of all those elements.

Totalitarian government is a post-democratic form of government. It couldn’t exist in the era before mass democracy. It’s post-democratic in the sense that it is an outgrowth of modern democratic traditions. Political parties, party ideologies, mass movements and mass mobilization, the pseudo-popular legitimacy of rigged elections and referenda, the mass idolatry, the personality cults, mass indoctrination, propaganda, Potemkin constitutions, show trials etc. all show the totalitarian debt to democracy. The same is true for the focus on re-education and rectification of thought when some parts of the popular will are considered to be deviant: this is proof of the importance of popular consent (when consent is absent, it’s fabricated).

Contrary to older forms of despotism, totalitarianism admits that the state is no longer the natural property of a ruling class, the private tool of a sovereign or a gift of God. It is the expression of the will of the people. Not, as in a democracy, of a divided people or of a people who’s identity fluctuates over time as a consequence of public debate. The will of the people under totalitarian government is permanently defined as a unified whole. The people are defined as a race or a class. The people have a homogeneous project, namely racial supremacy or the liberation of the proletariat. The will of the people, which is also the basis of democracy but which is always kept vague, heterogeneous and fluctuating in a democracy, now becomes a singular, clear and permanent will. All individuals and individual projects or interests are identified with a collective project. Everything which is in accord with this project, is part of the people; everything else is not – is foreign, alien, “entartet”, bourgeois or capitalist – and must be destroyed. If it’s the whole of the people that works towards a certain project, then those with another opinion are enemies of the people and have to be destroyed to protect the people and its project.

That is the origin of the genocidal nature of all totalitarian governments but also of their less extreme forms of exclusion of the other. Every internal division is seen as external. The other is not part of the people. Society isn’t divided but is divided from its enemies. Every sign of internal division is externalized: dissidents are foreign spies, the other is a member of the international jewish conspiracy, a tool of international capitalism, the fifth column etc. For example, long after it was clear that the attack on Hitler in 1939 was the work of a single German individual (Georg Elser) the nazis maintained that the British secret service was to blame. The other attack by von Stauffenberg in 1944 was framed as the work of aristocratic officers who were alienated from the German people. This division between internal and external is consciously cultivated because it confirms the image of the people as a unified whole. If real foreign spies or class enemies can’t be found then they are created. and duly suppressed. Hence everyone can become the enemy, even the most loyal followers.

The fixed will of the people is subsequently represented by the party and the state. The party doesn’t represent a majority, but the people. Hence, other parties have no reason to exist. All people and the whole of the people are represented by a single party. And since this party perfectly represents a perfectly clear and unified popular will, it can infiltrate all parts of society: school, church, labor union, factory, the press, the judiciary, the arts and all other social organizations cease to be independent. The party is everywhere and submits every organization to its will. It believes it can do so because its will is the will of the people. And the party uses the means of the state to be everywhere: the secret service, the department of communications, the police… As a result, the state is also everywhere. Totalitarian government simultaneously bans people to the private sphere – all free and deviant public actions and expressions are forbidden – and destroys the private sphere, to the point that people can’t even trust their friends and family. All private actions are potentially public. Wiretapping, surveillance, public confessions… Even the most private things of all, your own thoughts, are attacked by way of propaganda and indoctrination. Totalitarianism strives for total control of private and public life. All spontaneous and independent individual or social projects are doomed unless they are completely trivial. They can only survive when they are part of the common project, because they make sense only when they are part. When they are not, they are potentially in opposition to the common project.

But we should understand that the identification of the party with the state is only temporary. The state in fact is bound to disappear. That becomes clear when we consider the imperialism that is typical of totalitarianism (to a lesser degree in the case of China). By definition, the projects of totalitarian governments – racial supremacy or a classless society – go beyond the borders of a state. Aryans aren’t only meant to rule within the borders of Germany. They deserve global supremacy in part because they are the best race and in part because the Jews are a worldwide threat. And the classless society can’t exist when it is surrounded by a capitalist world; the proletariat in other countries also deserves to rule.

Totalitarianism is a form of rule that goes beyond the state. A particular state is just a convenient tool for a certain stage in the popular project. The people as well is a concept that goes beyond the group of citizens of a given state. There are also Aryans and workers in other states. In non-totalitarian dictatorships, political rule is essentially tied to the state. A normal dictator may attack other countries, but will do so while enhancing his state or expanding his country. His rule will never go beyond the rule of a state, suitably redefined if necessary. If necessary he’ll redraw the boundaries of the state, but he will never go beyond the state as such. Totalitarian rule, on the other hand, is ultimately larger than the state. It’s the rule of a race or a class, on a potentially global level.

As the people and the state are subject to the rule of the party, so the party is subject to the rule of one individual. The leader makes sure that the party remains unified, because a divided party can’t claim to represent a unified people. So there’s a series of identifications going on: the people is identified with a class or a race; this unified people is then identified with the party that represents it; the party in turn identifies itself with the state because it (temporarily) needs the tools of the state to realize its project (class rule or race rule); the state then takes over society and identifies with it; and ultimately a single leader takes over everything in order to guarantee unity.

The people are like a collective individual, a body with a head controlling all its coordinated movements. State terror and genocide can then be seen as the body removing sickness and parasites. The other is often explicitly identified as parasitical or infectious. Violence and oppression are medicines used to safeguard the integrity of the body of the people and their purpose. The Great Purge wasn’t called a purge by accident. The Jews weren’t depicted as pestilent rats for no reason.

The image of the body also means prophylaxis: why wait with punishment until the crime is committed? We know that certain persons are enemies of the people. Crime in the sense of opposition to the project of the people is a fatality for them, sooner or later. There may be good Jews, but we can’t take the risk that they marry an Aryan and defile the race. And some capitalists may be less harmful than others, but why wait until their presence undermines collectivization or until they betray the country and invite an invasion?

Totalitarian government isn’t like a normal lawless and arbitrary dictatorship. Of course, the laws under totalitarian government are regularly broken or changed to serve certain goals. But there are deeper laws that the totalitarian government has to protect, namely the laws of nature (in the case of Nazism, and more specifically the laws of natural selection) and the laws of history (in the case of communism, more specifically the laws that say that economic and industrial development will necessarily destroy capitalism and inaugurate communist production). Those “deeper” laws aren’t human laws; they are historical laws that drive mankind towards the realization of the project that animates totalitarianism. Totalitarian government serves to facilitate and fasten the operation of those deeper laws. Jews are exterminated because that promotes the ultimate and inevitable supremacy of Aryans. Capitalists, bourgeois, kulaks etc. are exterminated (or reeducated in order to become communists) because that promotes the ultimate and inevitable supremacy of the proletariat (the proletariat is doomed to rule given the evolution of capitalism, but its rule can be hastened).

There is no “regis voluntas suprema lex” as in previous forms of despotism. The legal lawlessness covers a deeper lawfulness. Legal laws have to be adapted to best serve the deeper laws. If terror and violence are required for the realization and hastening of the evolution postulated by the deeper laws, then the legal laws will mandate and require terror and violence. Terror and violence don’t only serve to intimidate, destroy opposition, isolate people from one another and coerce compliance. They serve the project of the people.

I think all this justifies grouping Nazi Germany, Soviet Russia and Mao-era China under a separate form of government. That doesn’t mean that everything about those regimes was new and typical only of totalitarian government. Obviously, genocides, terror, show trials etc. have occurred before and since. Those are not inventions of Hitler, Stalin or Mao. There are historical parallels, just as there are parallels between contemporary art and ancient art, but still we prefer to distinguish these two forms of art. We have to look beyond the phenomenology of despotic regimes throughout history, and identify the particular logic of different forms of despotism.

What Are Human Rights? (44): External Constraints on Politics, Means of Politics, or Objects of Politics?

People describe and define human rights in lots of ways, but perhaps the most common definition is this: human rights are external constraints on politics. They determine the boundaries that political action – action by both authoritarian rulers and democratic majorities – should not cross. I want to use the metaphor of the ring to clarify this, because that will help us later on in this post. Political action – including legislation – is constrained by a ring of rights.

This definition – let’s call it definition 1 – places human rights squarely outside of and even prior to politics. This is why oppressive actions by authoritarian rulers who have not enacted human rights law can still be condemned by human rights talk. If rights were just a part of politics, this wouldn’t be possible because they would be on the same level as authoritarian politics and they would therefore lack constraining power. (Of course, it is a fact that human rights often fail to constrain, but I’m dealing here with the moral and not factual status of human rights).

The same logic applies to democratic governments that have enacted human rights law: their actions as well should, ideally, stay within a realm defined by a ring of rights. The difference with authoritarian governments is that democracies have more efficient extra-political means to keep their governments within the ring, at least some of the time (for example judicial review; in the case of authoritarian governments there are also means – such as foreign intervention, rebellion etc., but those are normally a lot less effective).

So that’s definition 1, and it’s good as far as it goes. The problem is that it doesn’t quite capture the essence of human rights in a democracy. Rights are not just or not merely outside of politics in a democracy – they are intrinsic to it. Democratic politics can’t function without human rights; rather than external constraints on politics, rights in a democracy are essential means of politics. They are the foundation on which democratic politics can function. That may be obvious in the case of some rights – no democratic politics without free speech, assembly or association rights and the right to vote – but it’s true for all rights (for example, I argued here that violations of the right not to be tortured can undo democracy).

So let’s call this definition 2 and represent it like this: the ring has become the foundation. Now, it may look as if these two definitions are contradictory and incompatible: something is either an external constraint or a means, but never both. However, rights should be both: we need rights as foundations and means of democratic politics, but at the same time we want rights to be able to constrain democratic politics when necessary (for example when the majority wants to violate rights). I think we can have both.

Things get more complicated when we consider a third definition: rights as objects of politics. The two previous definitions assume that rights are uncontroversial, but that is untrue. Human rights are objects of frequent and reasonable disagreements. They are not self-evident, God-given or axiomatic. They need justifications and arguments, and different people will have different justifications and hence different definitions of rights. The only way to deal with these disagreements is through politics: discuss them in public, and let the majority vote. (E.g. should work be a right, should unemployment insurance be, should incitement be protected as free speech? etc.) As a result, the width and strength of the ring of rights changes over time.

One could argue that it’s not up to politics to decide these disagreements, and that instead a constitutional court should deal with them. However, we know from experience that this doesn’t work: politics will continue to interfere, either directly through legislation or indirectly by way of interference with the workings of the court.

And there’s an even more fundamental problem. Definition 3 looks like it’s incompatible with definitions 1 and 2. If rights are supposed to function as constraints on politics, then we shouldn’t place rights within the political process which they should constrain. When we allow rights to become objects of politics then majorities can easily destroy the  constraints that bind them. Similarly, when majorities are allowed to vote on the fundamental means of politics they may well decide to destroy those means.

The solution is not the removal of rights from politics – that’s both illusory and undesirable – but rather the creation of a distinction within politics: normal political decisions should be absolutely constrained by human rights and should respect rights as the fundamental means of politics; and then there is constitutional politics, which is a periodical – and not a day-to-day – form of politics that tackles society’s basic rules, including human rights. Normal majoritarian procedures don’t apply here. Special majorities are required as well as other safeguards against the destruction of rights.

More posts in this series are here.

What is Freedom? (8): Generic and Specific Freedom

People from both sides of the political divide are in favor of more freedom, it’s just that they often talk about different kinds of freedom: those on the left usually want to promote generic freedom, while those on the right favor specific freedom. Of course, they don’t use these terms, since I just made them up. What I mean by them is this:

  • Generic freedom: I lack generic freedom if I never have the freedom to do certain things, for example because I don’t have the capabilities, resources, education or whatever that is necessary for me to normally be able to do these things.
  • Specific freedom: I lack specific freedom if I normally have the freedom – i.e. the generic freedom, which is the ability or the resources – to do certain things but if in certain specific circumstances or on certain specific occasions someone or something prevents me from doing these things.

In the case of specific freedom, I both can and cannot do certain things (in the words of von Wright): I cannot do them now or here, but I could have done those things had it not been for some obstacle or interference. The “can do” is given and the problem of freedom only arises afterwards, namely when I can’t do, in some specific circumstances, what I normally can do.

In the generic type of freedom, on the other hand, the “can do” is problematic, and problematic in a generic rather than a specific sense: I can’t do certain things, not because I normally can but I now and here face some impediment, but because I normally can’t.

Promoting someone’s generic freedom means increasing the range of different things that person can do, generically. For example, it means teaching people to do things, allowing them to learn to do things, giving them the resources and opportunities to do things etc. Promoting someone’s specific freedom means reducing the range of impediments that force this person to omit certain actions. For example, it means reducing legal prohibitions, social pressure etc.

It’s tempting to conclude that generic freedom is in a sense prior to specific freedom: you won’t encounter impediments while trying to do what you already can do if what you are trying to do is not something you already can do. If you can’t do something, whether or not there are impediments, you don’t care about possible impediments. However, maybe specific and generic freedom are not so different after all: lack of capabilities or resources can also be viewed as an impediment.

Still, if we maintain the distinction between these two types of freedom – or these two understandings of freedom – then it seems to me that it can help to explain many of the differences between right and left wing politics. If you’re worried about generic freedom, you’ll want to help people pay for their healthcare and education; you’ll favor generous social security benefits etc. If, on the other hand, your main worry is specific freedom, you’ll favor less regulation and legislation, free markets and other policies that may or may not promote equal generic freedom for everyone.

More on the similar distinction between positive and negative freedom is here. More posts in this series are here.

For My American Readers: Should You Vote Tomorrow, or Would That Be a Complete Waste of Time?

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.

Capital Punishment (41): The “Healing” Argument and the “Danger” Argument

Capital punishment is usually defended on the basis of a theory of deterrence or retribution, but there are some other, less common arguments as well. There’s for example the argument that capital punishment is necessary for “closure” and “healing” of the victim’s surviving family and friends. Capital punishment is therefore viewed as a therapy. Apart from the doubts that capital punishment can serve this purpose – what does closure and healing mean and do they necessarily require an execution? – there’s a strong case that it shouldn’t be used for this purpose even if it can be: it would amount to crude instrumentalization of the criminal, even more than in the case of deterrence. Moreover, there’s a problem with cause and effect: if people are told that they need an execution in order to accomplish closure, then perhaps they’ll start to believe there’s no other way.

Another argument in favor of capital punishment is based on guesses about the harm that would result from failing to use this type of punishment. If we don’t satisfy the public’s blood lust – or call it “punitive emotions” if you want – the public will seek to satisfy it in ways that we wouldn’t like (e.g. lynching). However, there’s again a problem with cause and effect in this argument: the justice system does not merely reflect opinion about appropriate punishment, but also shapes it. Far from reducing blood lust, capital punishment may instead promote it. This is the so-called brutalization effect.

The basis of blood lust is moral outrage, and such outrage – contrary to blood lust – is often completely justified. And it should be recognized, but it can be in ways that don’t involve executions.

More on capital punishment is here.

Terrorism and Human Rights (37): Torture is Social and Political Suicide

When democratic governments consider the option of torturing someone, the stakes are usually high. They won’t consider it just for some marginal benefit. The paradigmatic case is the ticking time bomb that’s about to kill thousands or even millions. Torture is supposed to be justified because the benefits are huge, or – stated negatively – because the possible harm resulting from a failure to torture is huge. Combining the size of what is at stake with the urgency of the threat makes the case for torture even stronger.

However, this justification of torture has some unsettling side effects. Given the urgency, and given the fact that terrorists are probably trained to withstand torture, a free society would have to

maintain a professional class of torturers, and to equip them with continuously-updated torture techniques and equipment. Grave dangers to democracy and to individual freedoms would be posed by an institutionalized professional “torture squad”. (source)

Such a highly trained and continuously available torture squad would be necessary to inflict torture that is likely to succeed in extracting the information on a reliable basis and within an extremely short time frame. It would also be necessary to inflict levels of pain sufficient to procure the victim’s compliance but insufficient to kill or render incapable of communication. Amateur thugs will not suffice. You really need professionals.

This is the institutionalization of torture. It’s difficult to see how a free society could survive the presence of such a torture squad. It would infect our entire society to know that there are people among us who torture for a living. The squad members themselves will most likely fail to remain well-intentioned, and the mere existence of such a squad corrupts morality in a society. It’s naive to think that the members of the torture squad will return to normality once their job is done and function like normal law-abiding and non-violent citizens in between emergency sessions. Torture leads to the destruction of a democracy and a free society that decides to go this way.

Measuring Democracy (7): Some Technical Difficulties

Suppose you want to construct a democracy index measuring the level or lack of democracy in different countries in the world. The normal thing to do is to select some supposedly essential characteristics or attributes of democracy and try to measure the level or presence of those. So, for example, you may select free speech, elections, judicial independence and a number of other characteristics. Some of those are perhaps already measured and you can simply take those measurements. For others, you may have to set up your own measurement (e.g. a survey, analysis of newspapers or official documents etc.), or use a proxy.

In any case, you’ll end up with different datasets on different attributes of democracy, and you’ll have to bring those datasets together somehow in order to make your overall index, you single country-level democracy score. The problem is that the datasets contain different kinds of scales which cannot as such be aggregated into a global index. The scales and the values in the scales have to be normalized, i.e. translated into a common metric.

normalized value = raw value/maximum raw value

First, however, you have to rescale some existing scales so that they start at 0 – in other words, so that the lowest score is 0 (instead of starting at 1 for example, or at -10 such as the Polity IV scale). This way, all scales will have a normalized range from 0 to 1; 0 being the negation or total absence of the attribute; 1 being the complete and perfect protection or presence of the attribute.

What about weighting the different attributes? Some may be more important for a democracy than others. However, introducing weights in this way inevitably means introducing value judgments. While value judgments can’t be avoided (they’ll pop up at the moment of the selection of the attributes as well, for example), they can be minimized. If you choose not to use weighting, you consider all attributes to be equally important, which is a view that can be defended given the often interdependent nature of the attributes of democracy (an independent judiciary for example will likely not survive without a free press).

Once the different data sources are translated into normalized scales and, if necessary, weighted appropriately, they have to be aggregated in order to calculate the global index of quality of democracy. One possible aggregation rule would be this:

global index = source 1 * source 2 * ... * source n.

So a simple multiplication. But that would mean that a value of 0 for one attribute results in labeling the country as a whole as having 0 democratic quality. This is counter-intuitive, even with the assumption of equal importance of all attributes. Hence, a better aggregation rule is the geometric or arithmetic mean (or perhaps the median).

However, there’s also a problem with averages: low scores on one attribute can be compensated by high scores on another. So very different democracies can have the same score. Also, within one country, a high score on suffrage rights but 0 on actual participation would give a medium democracy score, whereas in reality we wouldn’t want to call this country democratic at all (the score should be 0 or close to 0). Perhaps we can’t avoid weights after all.

More posts in this series are here.

Capital Punishment (34): Mere Signaling

It’s often assumed that capital punishment is about fighting crime, just retribution or desert, or perhaps about anger and revenge, but in reality it’s much more about signaling. And by signaling I don’t mean the signaling of threats to potential murderers so that they are deterred, or the signaling of the “just” nature of a society that takes an eye for an eye. Proponents of capital punishment, by expressing their support for it, signal their own moral rectitude. Their expression of support refers to high profile crime cases that are widely discussed in the media and that are likely to be familiar to friends, family and others to whom people want to signal. Signaling support for the death penalty in reference to such high profile cases makes the signal particularly strong and deep, partly because it’s so full of familiar and shockingly emotional detail.

Politicians who favor capital punishment and who keep the legal regime in place are equally focused on signaling. They signal that they care about the emotions of the victims of crimes and of the relatives of the victims, and at the same time they signal that they emotionally identify with those who care about the victims of crime. In other words, they signal that they feel connected to the large majority of humanity. And that kind of signal is vitally important for democratic politicians.

Opponents of capital punishment simply don’t have the same signaling power. For example, there’s no large constituency for signals about sympathy for criminals or for signals about anti-instrumentalization. Politicians don’t stand a lot to gain from such signals, and neither do citizens concerned about how others think of them. On the contrary, they risk signaling emotional indifference for the plight of victims and hence they risk lowering their moral standing.

This asymmetry in signaling power between proponents and opponents can explain the persistence of rational arguments in favor of capital punishment, even after they have been shown to be wrong or inconsistent with the facts. (That’s the case for the arguments based on the deterrent effect for instance – see here and here – but also for the arguments based on retribution which are hopelessly circular: a certain punishment is appropriate for a crime because that crime requires a certain punishment). Proponents of capital punishment obviously can’t justify it simply on the basis of emotional identification. They need a more rational story as a cover. And as long as this story can be used successfully in the signaling process, that will do, whether or not the story is factually or logically correct. That will do, because opponents who point to factual or logical failings in the story amplify the signaling of the proponents: by pointing to these failures, the opponents signal rationality and detachment rather than emotional connection, and they thereby make the case for the proponents.

This is counterintuitive, given that it’s most often the opponents of capital punishment who are accused of emotionality and a lack of toughness, but I think it’s the right conclusion.

Human Rights Promotion (2): Who Does Most Harm to Human Rights? The Left or the Right?

I can simplify this question a bit and focus on those rights violations that are caused by government action. Moreover, I’ll focus on governments in developed countries and say that those are generally democracies dominated either by left-wing or right-wing political movements, alternating. Now, if I want to judge whether it’s the left or the right that is most harmful to human rights, I need to define left and right. And that’s tricky. But let’s simplify some more and say that

  • the right is generally conservative, concerned about respect for religion and religious rules/morality, in favor of capitalism and free markets, against taxation and government intervention in markets, not very interested in equality or equal rights in some areas (as a consequence of religious morality for instance), suspicious of immigration, in favor of a strong national defense, and focused on law and order;
  • the left is worried about capitalism and free markets, in favor of government regulation and intervention in markets, suspicious of free trade, willing to tax and redistribute, and politically correct.

I know, highly simplistic, but I’ll try to make it useful. So bear with me. If we focus on present-day developed nations, which of these two political ideologies is most likely to lead to government policies and legislation that cause human rights violations?

If you look at national defense, you could claim that right-wing governments are most harmful. Although the left is often very supportive of the war on terror, especially in the US (but less elsewhere), it’s the right that is most enthusiastic and most eager to adopt extreme measures. In the name of this war, the US tortured, invaded, murdered civilians, eavesdropped, rendered, and arbitrarily arrested. After every new terror-scare, right-wing spokespeople are quick to demand more rights sacrifices (Miranda rights should be suspended, citizenship revoked etc.). On the other hand, it was a left-wing government in Britain that eagerly supported this war, and Obama seems to be continuing the work of Bush.

If we look at markets, the left is clearly more skeptical about it’s benefits. However, economists – also left leaning economists – generally agree that free trade is good and that many interventions in markets, such as trade restrictions, quotas, subsidies etc. aggravate poverty. And poverty is a human rights violation. Of course, right-wing governments also impose or maintain such restrictions, but arguably left-wing governments are more prone to such vices since they often depend on support of labor unions and other protectionist forces.

On the other hand, the trust in markets expressed by the right can result in a kind of blindness: the right often doesn’t notice market failures and the harm that a slap of the invisible hand can do. As a result, the poor are blamed for their poverty, which is why government assistance in the struggle against poverty is deemed unnecessary, unhelpful and even damaging. The right’s focus on private philanthropy is good but it’s naive to think that philanthropy alone will solve the problem of poverty.

Taxation is a difficult one. Very high levels of taxation are obviously economically inefficient and may lower living standards rather than equalize them. On the other hand, very low rates make it impossible to fund the welfare state, with the same result. Both right wing and left wing fiscal policy can be harmful from a human rights point of view. And there’s a problem of actions vs words here: it’s not obvious that right-wing governments impose low tax rates and left-wing governments high tax rates, despite the respective rhetoric.

If we accept that the right is more enamored of religion, then it’s clear where we should lay the blame for a host of rights violations, such as attempts to undo the separation of state and church, discrimination based on religion or sexual orientation and invasions of privacy. Take the example of 0gay marriage. A focus on religion can also lead to a lack of respect for the sexual privacy of consenting adults, not just homosexuals, but also adulterers, people consuming obscene or pornographic material, or engaging in sodomy. Laws against homosexuality, adultery, sodomy and obscenity usually come from the right. Moreover, the right can show a lack of respect for religious minorities, a result of the incompatibility of different religious claims (“there is only one God”). Opposition to Muslim headscarves for instance is often more prevalent among the right (although there’s also anti-Muslim sentiment in some parts of the feminist or atheist left).

Moving on to another topic. The right’s focus on law and order has led to high incarceration rates, especially in the U.S. These rates have also been inflated by a misguided war on drugs, apparently inspired by a puritan religious morality. Capital punishment is also more popular on the right.

Regarding the left, we can mention some of the harmful consequences of political correctness. PC can lead to exaggerated limits on free speech. Hate speech, for example, is in certain cases a justifiable reason for speech limits, but it seems like some of the limits go too far. An innocent use of a particular word can get you fired, for instance.

Of course, I did simplify. The left-right dichotomy as I have defined it here doesn’t accurately reflect all nuances of political ideology. Some on the left are more pro-free-market than some on the right. Moreover, the dichotomy doesn’t capture all ideologies (libertarianism in a sense is neither left nor right). Also, many governments are left-right coalitions. And, finally, many human rights violations are not caused by governments but by fellow citizens. And when they are caused by governments, they may not be caused by those parts of government that are made up of elected politicians of the left or the right. Bureaucracies or judges can also violate rights. Some violations are not based on left or right leaning ideologies, but on other things such as an extreme desire to regulate etc.

Still, I think that the overview given above is useful. It’s not useful in the sense that it allows us to quantify or compute the respective levels of (dis)respect and to conclude that either the right or the left is better for human rights. It doesn’t. In that sense the question in the title of this post is meaningless. However, the overview above highlights the fact that everyone can violate human rights and that human rights activists should be careful when affiliating themselves with a particular ideology. Neutrality, objectivity, fairness and a lack of double standards are crucial in the struggle for human rights.

What is Democracy? (54): Kalocracy?

Beautiful people have a number of advantages in social life. They earn more, even in occupations where appearance does not seem relevant to job performance. And, somewhat surprisingly, the beauty premium – and the corresponding ugliness penalty – are higher for men than for women. (I say surprisingly because we usually think that women are more often judged on the basis of their looks). A related effect is heightism: tall people, who are often considered to be more beautiful, also earn more.

And it’s not just in salaries that beauty makes a difference. Beautiful people are also more successful in democratic politics. They are more likely to be elected and, again, the marginal effect of beauty is larger for male candidates than for female candidates. So democracy is in fact kalocracy, rule of the beautiful (from the Greek “kalos“).

But why is there a political benefit of good looks? Probably because there’s a general benefit of being beautiful and because people generally – and hence also in politics – value good looking people more than the rest of us. Psychological experiments have shown that a snap judgment of whether we like someone’s face determines what we believe about that person’s character. And character is important in politics. There’s also the fact that the visual media give more attention to beautiful politicians, something which probably translates into a higher voter share.

Makes you doubt the value of democracy, doesn’t it? And makes you wonder whether we wouldn’t be better off handing over politics to some kind of elite. More positively, perhaps we should start seriously considering a type of democracy that isn’t focused on the selection of candidates through the means of a media circus.

More posts in this series are here.

The Compatibility of Freedom and Equality (12): How Coercion Promotes Freedom

Freedom understood as independence and the absence of interference or intentional coercion (especially government coercion) is an important concept. The problem is that it seems to invalidate redistribution through taxation. If the government taxes a wealthy person to transfer some of her wealth to another person living under a fixed threshold of basic resources, then the government intentionally coerces the wealthy person and takes away (part of) her freedom. That’s one of the origins of the traditional view that freedom and equality are incompatible. For people who believe strongly in freedom as the absence of intentional coercion, it’s very difficult if not impossible to accept taxation and redistribution.

On the other hand, there are those who want to maintain the use of government and taxation as a means to guarantee people an equal share of those basic resource necessary for a decent human life. And I’m one of them. How can we reply to those – let’s call them libertarians – who voice concerns about the loss of freedom that’s inherent in redistribution?

1. First, we could argue that freedom, as it is understood here, isn’t the only important value, and that we should put it “in the mix” of the whole of human values, including welfare and equality, and try to balance those values in a fair way. That’s the value pluralism approach, but it’s an approach that won’t be successful to those who don’t believe in value pluralism or who believe that if there are many values, freedom is still the most important one (e.g. many libertarians).

2. Another reply could be that redistribution reduces one type of freedom – freedom from intentional coercion – in order to promote another type of freedom, namely a more positive type of freedom in which not only the absence of coercion is important but also the availability of choices, capabilities and power. Of course, a wealthy person’s choices, capabilities and power aren’t enhanced by the fact that she pays taxes – on the contrary – but when these taxes are used to guarantee a poor person’s basic income for example (or education, or health etc.) then that poor person will have a wider array of choices, capabilities, opportunities, power etc. So positive freedom is redistributed by means of a limitation on negative freedom, and is redistributed in such a way that on average people have more equal access to it. (If a rich person pays $10,000 in taxes for the welfare benefits, healthcare, education etc. of a poor person, then the rich person loses less choices, opportunities and capabilities then those gained by the poor person. Of course, the exact tax rate is important: punitive tax rates may harm the rich more than they benefit the poor).

In a way, this second reply also involves an appeal to value pluralism: negative freedom (one value) is balanced against more equal access to positive freedom (another value), and is – sometimes and in part – outweighed by it.

3. A third reply isn’t based on value pluralism. We could argue that redistribution of income or wealth through government taxation merely limits one person’s negative freedom for the sake of another person’s negative freedom. It’s fairly easy, in fact, to argue that poverty, or the absence of those basic resources necessary for a decent human life, reduces the negative freedom of the poor. The poor are intentionally coerced all the time, for no other reason than their poverty: the homeless are forcibly removed from train stations, gypsies from land where they aren’t allowed to camp, poor migrant workers have their passports taken away by their employers and are forced to repay “travel costs” by working for free, etc.

If the government gave these people a basic income for example, or rent subsidies, they wouldn’t be coerced in these ways. The taxes that the government would collect for this purpose would not simply reduce negative freedom for the sake of another value (positive freedom, welfare, equality etc.). It would reduce the negative freedom of some for the sake of the negative freedom of others (possibly many others depending on the type of taxation system). In other words, it would modify and equalize the distribution of negative freedom. It would increase intentional coercion on some people in order to reduce intentional coercion on (many) others.

Taxation and redistribution do indeed reduce freedom (in one sense of the word) but at the same time they increase freedom (freedom in the same sense as well as in a more positive sense). Conversely, a failure to tax and redistribute could reduce freedom.

More posts in this series are here.

The Causes of Wealth Inequality (16): Wages in the Financial Sector

[I]nequality has been soaring in part because of politics. Piketty and Saez document that the very rich today are different than those several decades ago, most importantly because they are not rentiers enjoying returns on their or their parents’ capital, but W-2 earners, enjoying very, very high salaries. Recent research by Thomas Philippon and Ariel Resheff shows a concurrent increase in salaries in the financial sector relative to the rest of the economy, confirming the pattern suggested by casual empiricism that many of these very high W-2 earners are in the financial sector.

But the expansion of the financial sector and the salaries therein over the last two decades may not have been just an unavoidable consequence of economic tides but a very political process. The deregulation of finance, despite the presence of implicit and explicit government guarantees to financial institutions which would have ordinarily necessitated significant regulation, appears to have been partly won by the financial industry as a result of lobbying, campaign contributions and the access to politicians that the industry enjoys (though this is not to argue that some of this deregulation did not have a compelling economic logic nor that free-market ideology played no role). If so, politics may have been the key factor in setting in motion the forces that have led to the massive rise in top inequality. (source)

More posts in this series are here.

Why Do Countries Become/Remain Democracies? Or Don’t? (17): Inequality

A transition to democratic government is very unlikely when the population of a country is sharply divided in unequal classes or groups. Some of these groups will try to monopolize political power in order to repress rival groups and maintain the distributional status quo. For example, when there’s a division between a landowning class or an industrial class on the one hand, and a group of impoverished rural or urban workers on the other hand, then the former group will fear election victories by the latter group because such victories will lead to redistribution of land or other assets. Privileged classes will therefore work against democracy. As a result of this, the working classes will radicalize and aim for a revolutionary overthrow and the abolition of property rights altogether, thereby also making democracy less likely.

Something like this is arguably a good description of much of the recent history of Latin America. Positively stated: more economic equality – perhaps following the expansion of a middle class – will make democracy more viable, since different groups have less to lose from a democratic power shift.

But polarization doesn’t have to be exclusively economic in nature. Religious or ethnic divisions can also hinder the creation and continuity of democracy, especially when there’s also a spatial division between groups. This is probably what happened in Africa since decolonization. Of course, non-economic divisions are often exacerbated by economic ones, in which case we can hope that more economic equality will take the sting out of ethnic divisions.

More posts in this series are here.

Why Do Countries Become/Remain Democracies? Or Don’t? (15): Presidential v. Parliamentary Democracy

This post in the series focuses on the “remain” part rather than the “become” part. Juan Linz has famously argued that presidential democracies don’t work, with the exception of the US. To simplify things a bit, in a presidential democracy – where you have of course also a parliament – the executive power is elected directly by popular vote. People elect a president and this president selects her government. The people also elect members of parliament in separate elections. In a parliamentary democracy the executive isn’t elected directly by the people. The people elect only the members of parliament. The political party (or parties) that manage to get a majority of elected members of parliament then form a government (often after coalition negotiations between parties when there isn’t one party that has managed to acquire a majority of representatives in parliament).

One of the causes of the breakdown of presidential systems is the opposition between legislature and executive: both the president and the majority in the legislature have democratic legitimacy since they are both directly elected. That’s not a problem when both are of the same political family, but when they are not, it’s a recipe for stalemate at best and breakdown at worst.

Under such circumstances, who has the stronger claim to speak on behalf of the people: the president or the legislative majority that opposes his policies? Since both derive their power from the votes of the people in a free competition among well-defined alternatives, a conflict is always possible and at times may erupt dramatically. Theme is no democratic principle on the basis of which it can be resolved, and the mechanisms the constitution might provide are likely to prove too complicated and aridly legalistic to be of much force in the eyes of the electorate. It is therefore no accident that in some such situations in the past, the armed forces were often tempted to intervene as a mediating power. (source)

On the other hand, parliamentary systems seem to be less stable in countries plagued by bitter ethnic conflict, as is the case in many African countries.

More posts in this series are here.

The Causes of Human Rights Violations (24): Political Rhetoric, Violence and Free Speech

My two cents about the shooting of Gabrielle Giffords:

  • The attack was obviously politically inspired, even though the shooter may have been insane. An insane act isn’t necessarily apolitical. There may or may not be a direct causal link between the attack and the “heated political rhetoric” that has come to characterize American politics and that often borders on incitement. (Compared to other western democracies, the political language is indeed extreme in the US). If there is such a link, it will be very hard to establish, given what we know about the psychology of the attacker.
  • In general, violent rhetoric can contribute to actual violence (see this paper for example). The case of the Rwanda genocide is well-known. And we don’t need to go and look at extremes in order to find cases of hate speech turning into hate crime. There are not a few pedophiles who have had there whereabouts shouted from the rooftops and who suffered the consequences. Given the omnipresence and ease-of-use of the media in developed societies, what is published and broadcast through these media may very well nurture or even provoke extremism and hate in society. It’s futile to deny this possibility.
  • This general conclusion does not warrant the automatic linking of a case of violence to instances of political rhetoric that seem to be a possible inspiration. In other words, it’s not because Sarah Palin was silly enough to publish a map with cross-hairs “targeting” Giffords (among others) in a purely political and non-violent way, that her actions caused the attack. Maybe these actions contributed, maybe not. Most likely we’ll never know. And even if they did contribute in driving a sick person over the edge – which is not impossible – then they are most likely only one element in a large set of causal factors, including the perpetrator’s education, medical care (or lack thereof), the ease with which he could acquire a gun etc. That large set doesn’t drown individual causes but it does diminish the importance of each (possible) cause. Human motivation and the determinants of human action are almost always highly complex. (Something which is too often forgotten in criminal sentencing).
  • Given the general possibility of speech resulting in violence, is that possibility a sufficient reason to limit our freedom of speech, even before the actual violence occurs? Yes, but only in very specific cases, namely those cases in which the link between speech and (possible) violence is clear. John Stuart Mill used the example of an excited mob assembled in front of the house of a corn dealer accused of starving the poor. Hate speech in such a setting is likely to lead to violence, while the exact same words printed in an obscure magazine are not. The words in the magazine should be protected by freedom of speech; the words of the mob leaders probably not.
  • Yet even when words should be left free by the law, morality requires of speakers that they consider the possible consequences of speech.
  • Are the events we witnessed recently of the same nature as the words of the mob leaders? And what about similar recent events? I don’t think so. Which means that the people concerned have not abused their freedom of speech.
  • Does that mean that they used their freedom in a good way? No, it doesn’t. Heated rhetoric is almost never the best way to talk, not even for the purposes of the speaker. It doesn’t tend to accomplish a lot or to further anyone’s interests (apart from the interest in getting attention). So those of us who insist on “turning it down a notch” have good reasons to do so. This insistence obviously doesn’t imply curtailment. It’s just a question, and it deals with form rather than content. People are generally too fast to claim their right to free speech when confronted with criticism of the way in which they use or abuse this right. Criticism of speech doesn’t automatically imply the will to prohibit speech, and freedom of speech doesn’t mean freedom from criticism. Quite the opposite.

More here and here.

The Causes of Wealth Inequality (13): Deliberate Policy?

Some say that the increase in income inequality in countries such as the U.S. has been the result of deliberate government policy. That’s quite an accusation. It’s not controversial to assume that tax policy under right wing governments tends to be less burdensome on the rich, and that social welfare policy under such governments tends to be more stingy. If you look at it like this, it’s not crazy to argue that right wing policies can aggravate income inequality. But it’s quite another thing to claim that right wing governments use these policies in order to deliberately aggravate income inequality. That accusation is incompatible with right wing ideology, which claims that the preferred policies also and ultimately help the poor (trickle down economics etc.), and that left wing policies supposedly favoring the poor are in fact self-destructive (unemployment benefits create labor disincentives, taxes create production disincentives, etc.). However, it’s possible that this ideology is just a smokescreen for anti-poor policies. But I guess that’s somewhat difficult to prove.

If we look at the tax rates, it’s true that the rates for the wealthy tend to go down under Republican presidents:

In 1979, the effective tax rate on the top 0.01 percent (i.e., rich people) was 42.9 percent. … By Reagan’s last year in office it was 32.2 percent. (source)

However, things aren’t as simple as that:

From 1989 to 2005, … as income inequality continued to climb, the effective tax rate on the top 0.01 percent largely held steady; in most years it remained in the low 30s, surging to 41 during Clinton’s first term but falling back during his second, where it remained. The change in the effective tax rate on the bottom 20 percent (i.e., poor and lower-middle-class people) was much more dramatic, but not in a direction that would increase income inequality. Under Clinton, it dropped from 8 percent (about where it had stood since 1979) to 6.4 percent. Under George W. Bush, it fell to 4.3 percent. (source)

The tax rate for the rich dropped somewhat around 2005 following the Bush tax cuts, but all the tax effects over the last decades taken together don’t really make a good case that tax policy is the major cause of rising income inequality. So it’s even more difficult to make the case that tax policy was part of a conscious strategy to aggravate inequality. The increase in inequality has been too big compared to the possible impact of taxation. That’s corroborated by the fact that pre-tax inequality in the U.S. rose faster than after-tax inequality.

What’s interesting, however, is that pre-tax inequality in the U.S. tends to rise much faster under Republican rule. So inequality can still be the result of policy, but policy expressed in other ways than taxation. Other policies that may have contributed – deliberately or not – to rising income inequality are anti-labor union policies, decreases in the minimum wage, etc.

More posts in this series are here.

Migration and Human Rights (39): The Democracy Argument Against Open Borders

Usually, arguments against open borders and in favor of varying degrees of immigration restrictions are based on economic or cultural considerations. Often, such arguments can be easily dismissed as prejudiced, chauvinist and selfish, and the data don’t support them anyway. However, a potentially stronger argument against open borders is based on the requirements of democracy. It’s potentially stronger because it goes to the heart of the same liberal values that animate the push for open borders.

Central to the idea of democracy is that those who are governed by laws should have a say in the drafting of the laws. In the words of Jürgen Habermas:

Gültig sind genau die Handlungsnormen, denen alle möglicherweise Betroffenen als Teilnehmer an rationalen Diskursen zustimmen könnten.

People are obligated to obey the laws of government only insofar as they have consented to those laws (or to the power exercised in passing those laws). That’s the whole idea behind self-government.

Now, what would happen to this idea where we to open the borders? It’s claimed that the constant coming and going of people that would result from open borders, would make self-government impossible. People would vote on laws that would not apply to them in the future because they come and go, and other people would not be able to vote on laws that would apply to them because they won’t be here yet. Open borders would mean that people are allowed to decide on things they don’t care about and won’t have a stake in. Self-government would not be possible because the “self” that governs would never match the “self” that is governed.

Another democracy based objection to open borders is a practical one. The effective functioning of democracy requires a common language, since democracy is essentially deliberation. It also requires knowledge of the political system and the political culture, and a feeling for what is achievable and acceptable to the wider community. Open borders inhibit this effective functioning.

There are basically two ways to respond to these arguments. First, the arguments seem to confuse access rights and citizenship rights. It’s correct that citizenship in a democracy should be tied to certain conditions, such as knowledge of the language and permanence of residence, and that citizenship is a necessary condition for most democratic participation. I made that argument here so I won’t repeat it now. Suffice it to say that there are good reasons to distinguish – but not separate – different parts of humanity by way of conditional acquisition of citizenship – with each part hopefully having democratic rights within its own country. However, these reasons don’t, by themselves, justify closed borders. Access rights and citizenship rights are different things.

However, as Michael Walzer has argued, when we decide to allow people in but at the same time deny them citizenship, we run the risk of creating a permanent underclass of disenfranchised non-citizens, who live and work in the country but can’t effectively protect their interests through political participation. Hence, an open border policy should also include a pathway to citizenship. The problem is then to strike the right balance between the need for flexible citizenship and the risks to democratic governance resulting from a notion of citizenship that is too weak.

Secondly, the central idea of democracy – that people governed by laws should have the right to participate in the framing of those laws – can be used to argue in favor of rather than against open borders. A decision by one part of humanity to exclude others from a certain part of the earth’s surface clearly violates this central idea. The potential immigrants who are excluded obviously don’t have a say in this decision, and yet they are governed by it. If they had a say, they would probably carry the day, given their numerical strength.

Some would claim that it’s foolish to allow potential immigrants to participate in such decisions. Would we allow a mob of homeless people, demanding access to our house, to vote, together with us, whether or not they have a right to access? No we wouldn’t, but the analogy is baseless. We do have a legitimate property right to our house (at least most of us do), but the citizens of a country don’t have a similar right to a part of the surface of the earth.

It’s of course an open question how we would practically organize such a common decision. Perhaps we should take the next logical step and institute some kind of federal world democracy. But that’s for another post.

More on open borders here.

Why Do Countries Become/Remain Democracies? Or Don’t? (14): Assassination

If we agree that democracy is something important, then we need to know why, how and when countries turn to or away from democracy. So, here’s another installment in our ongoing series:

Assassinations are a persistent feature of the political landscape. Using a new data set of assassination attempts on all world leaders from 1875 to 2004, we exploit inherent randomness in the success or failure of assassination attempts to identify assassination’s effects. We find that, on average, successful assassinations of autocrats produce sustained moves toward democracy. We also find that assassinations affect the intensity of small-scale conflicts. The results document a contemporary source of institutional change, inform theories of conflict, and show that small sources of randomness can have a pronounced effect on history. (source, source)

I guess no need to say that this isn’t a sufficient condition for a democratic transition. More posts in this series are here.

Terrorism and Human Rights (29): Terrorism, Caused by Poverty or Repression?

It seems that poverty doesn’t cause terrorism, at least not usually. Rights violations are a better predictor (and, conversely, respect for human rights predict reduced terrorism). I’ve found this paper (gated unfortunately) supporting those claims.

The empirical results reported here show that terrorist risk is not significantly higher for poorer countries, once the effects of other country-specific characteristics, such as the level of political freedom, are taken into account. … lack of political freedom is shown to explain terrorism, and it does so in a nonmonotonic way. Countries with intermediate levels of political freedom are shown to be more prone to terrorism than countries with high levels of political freedom or countries with highly authoritarian regimes. …

On the one hand, the repressive practices commonly adopted by autocratic regimes to eliminate political dissent may help keep terrorism at bay. On the other hand, intermediate levels of political freedom are often experienced during times of political transitions, when governments are weak, and political instability is elevated, so conditions are favorable for the appearance of terrorism. (source)

Children’s Rights (12): Child Soldiers, Why and How?

Why are children recruited for warfare? Why not just use adults who are likely to be more capable and reliable soldiers? There’s an interesting paper here looking at some of the reasons:

  • Children are relatively easy to abduct, subjugate, and manipulate. They are more impressionable and vulnerable to indoctrination, and their moral development is incomplete and malleable.
  • They are also seen as more loyal and less threatening to adult leadership.
  • Children, despite their a priori disadvantages in terms of fighting skills, may have a particular functional value. They may be suitable for menial logistical support of the armed group, or they may even have certain tactical advantages: they can slip through enemy lines unnoticed, making them effective spies and bomb carriers. Also, the proliferation of inexpensive, lightweight weapons has made it easier to use children as soldiers. These small arms are easy to transport and use with little training.
  • Rebel groups also make simple cost-benefit analysis: children require less food and no payment. Punishment of children is also less costly. Child soldiers are financially attractive. Rebel groups may be extremely resource-constrained and forced to recruit children.
  • The use of child soldiers can present a moral dilemma to enemies: should they kill children?
  • Rebel groups may recruit children in order to signal seriousness, commitment and ruthlessness, and thereby instill fear in the enemy.

How are child soldiers recruited? Patterns of recruitment of children vary according to the context. It’s usually a mix of punishment, promises of rewards and indoctrination.

  • The recruitment of children is facilitated when they are forced to participate in an assassination (perhaps of one of their relatives, parents or friends). The objective is to break their will. The forced killing of relatives also destroys a child’s outside options: if the child were to flee, it has no place to go to, or the community may reject the child because of what it did.
  • Armed forces will also destroy other outside options for children: schools, villages, farms etc.
  • Armed forces abuse children’s feelings of desperation and traumas resulting from previous situations of extreme violence.
  • Armed forces also abuse certain motivations of children: children may join armed forces because of the desire to take control of events, or because of the protection offered by being at the shooting end of a gun.

The Causes of Human Rights Violations (17): Private Interests and the General Interest

What kind of state do we desire? What kind of education for our children and for the children of the future? What kind of health care, not just for ourselves but for all citizens? How will we leave the environment for future generations? These questions and many others concern us all, no matter which private interests we have and which interest groups we belong to.

Unfortunately, it looks like the first objective of politics today is not to serve the general interest but to serve a variety of private interests expressed by pressure groups whose support the government must buy by way of special benefits, simply because it cannot retain its supporters when it refuses to give them something it has the power to give, in the words of Friedrich A. Hayek.

But not only governments and legislators are forced into this. Groups in society quickly understand that the best they can do is to play the game and try to win as many benefits as possible, otherwise they end up paying for the benefits of the rest of the population. We find ourselves in a vicious circle in which

  • politicians are forced to grant interest groups special benefits, simply because they can and because they would lose voters if they refused
  • interest groups are forced to ask for special benefits if they don’t want to end up as the only suckers paying for the benefits of others
  • different interest groups are out-asking each other because otherwise they end up paying more than they get
  • politicians are forced to give more because people ask more, but also have to tax more because the money has to come from somewhere
  • interest groups are forced to ask more to compensate for the heavier taxes
  • etc.

Of course, this is a libertarian dystopia which fortunately doesn’t quite work out the same way in reality. But it serves the purpose of highlighting the risks of interest group politics.

Given these risks, it’s unfortunate that politics in most democratic countries is so much focused on private interests. The majorities that do exist are not inspired by a general interest or by a common will to achieve something that will benefit society as a whole. They are no more than collections of different pressure groups which have all been promised benefits in exchange for their votes. These pressure groups can be certain states or provinces, whose representative will only vote for a proposal when he or she gets something in return which benefits the locals. Or they can be a certain profession, a religious group or whatever.

As a result, people do not see themselves as a community that can identify with the state and with politics. They only identify themselves with a particular interest group (or with several different interest groups, depending on the types of private interests that they want to see protected), and they see politics as an instrument to fulfill their interests or as a warehouse of advantages ready to be looted by whoever comes first.

This makes effective common actions and actions that serve the general interest very difficult if not impossible. Any vote on something that is of general interest – e.g. healthcare reform – can only pass if a series of private interests are satisfied at the same time. And again we have a vicious circle here. If the state cannot prove itself as a vehicle for common action and for the general interest, then people will not be encouraged to fall back on their private interests. Only successful common action can enable people to transcend fragmentation, to escape decomposition, to identify with the political community and to think of the state as something else than a loot. On the other hand, if the meaning of this political community is diluted, then it is very difficult to mobilize people for a common action, in the words of Charles Taylor.

This focus on private interests and sub-communities is completely different from the way in which the Ancient Greeks for example reflected on politics. In the Greek city states, the inhabitants of border regions were not allowed to participate in a vote concerning a declaration of war with neighboring countries. It was assumed that these inhabitants were unable to vote in accordance with the general interest. Their immediate private interest would inhibit a reasonable reflection on the general interest. In this case, some legitimate private interest where neglected. But today we seem to have gone from one extreme to the other.

Of course, there ‘s nothing wrong with self-interest as such. A conception of the general interest that is established without the cooperation of everybody or that is incompatible with the interests of a majority is likely to cause resistance. And also the interests of the minority are important. The basic interests of the minority are expressed in human rights which can’t be overridden by a democratic majority. We have to start from self-interest, but we do not have to end there. A general interest is always a reformulation of self-interest. And it’s this reformulation through political debate that is often missing, and politics tends to be  a mere sum of or a compromise between private interests.

However, the other extreme is also a risk. Exaggerating the importance of the general interest can be very dangerous as well. Those who have witnessed nazism or communism—or both—can testify to this. The general interest — whatever it is — can justify oppression because it can require the sacrifice of “small” private interests which hinder the development of the community, of the race etc.

Truth vs Reasonableness in Politics

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.

The Democratic Destruction of Democracy

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.

Thinking About Politics, and Doing Politics

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…

Limiting Free Speech (37): Incitement to Murder and Death Threats

Should a joke about killing the president be protected by the right to free speech and the First Amendment? Or a poll on Facebook asking if Obama should be assassinated? Or a rap song about “killing a cop”? Or do such things cross a line beyond which the government can intervene, can limit the freedom of speech of those involved, and can punish them for having committed a crime? I would say: it depends.

In US jurisdiction, the Brandenburg v. Ohio case stipulates that abstract advocacy of violence is protected speech under the First Amendment. However, it is equally acceptable, also according to Brandenburg v. Ohio, that speech which incites imminent, illegal conduct – including violence – may itself be made illegal:

The constitutional guarantees of free speech and free press do not permit a State to forbid or proscribe advocacy of the use of force or of law violation except where such advocacy is directed to inciting or producing imminent lawless action and is likely to incite or produce such action.

So, advocacy of violence can only be prohibited when there is clear incitement of an imminent violent act, as well as the likelihood that this incitement produces or helps to produce such an act.

In the specific case of death threats, the Supreme Court case is Watts v. United States (1969). There it says that only true threats aren’t constitutionally protected; mere hyperbole, humor or offensive methods of stating political opposition are protected. What is a “true threat? According to Virginia v. Black (2003),

a statement can’t be a punishable threat unless it’s made “with the intent of placing the victim in fear of bodily harm or death.” Thus, following Black, a statement is a punishable threat only if a reasonable listener would understand it as a threat of attack and the speaker intended that the listener get that impression. (source)

Personally, I wouldn’t place too much weight on the second clause in that last sentence (after the “and”). I think it’s sufficient that the listener gets the impression of a threat and that the threat produces reasonable fear, even when the person stating the threat didn’t really mean it and was just joking (hence no real “intent”). So a joke about a bomb while on an airplane shouldn’t be protected, while a joke on the radio about killing the president should be protected, because the president or anyone else would probably not take it very seriously. The context of the threat is important. Even when there is clear intent and therefore not just a joke, but no likelihood of the threat being carried out, I would also propose to protect freedom of expression. The main focus is on the reaction of the reasonable recipient and the risk to which he or she is exposed (this focus contains a subjective and a factual element: perception/reaction and factual risk).

The Ethics of Human Rights (20): Why Are There Genocides?

How can there be genocides? Genocides, and especially the holocaust, seem to be impossible to understand. They leave even the most astute thinkers perplexed. What is it that makes ordinary people, people who have never before engaged in violence or crime, turn on their neighbors and even friends in the most extreme way, without any apparent rational reason or provocation?

Hannah Arendt has written a lot about this, and she made the following observation while watching the trial of Eichmann in Jerusalem:

Eichmann committed his crimes under circumstances that make it well-nigh impossible for him to know or to feel that he is doing wrong. (source)

Under extreme circumstances people seem to lose their “moral compass”. They are

swept away unthinkingly by what everybody else does and believes in. (source)

This is what Heidegger called the “dictatorship of the They“: society, the general cultures or mores and the common practices force individuals to act in certain ways and undermine their independent judgment.

It is indeed difficult to tell right from wrong, independently, if almost everyone around you tells you that wrong is right. People’s sense of morality – or moral compass – is deeply influenced by the society they live in and grow up in. If you live in a racist society, chances are high you end up being a racist.

When this “dictatorship of the They” is purposefully cultivated by political elites, propaganda, indoctrination etc, and when, furthermore, it is combined with thoughtlessness or the willingness to give up on thinking – as was the case of Eichmann – then evil and genocide are just a small step away. Thinking, according to Arendt, makes it hard to engage in evil. Thinking is the silent dialogue with yourself. Since people generally want to be in harmony with themselves, it’s better to be the victim of an injustice than the perpetrator (in the words of Socrates), because the perpetrator has to live with the criminal. In this way, a conscience is a byproduct of thinking (Arendt), and the absence of thinking leads to immorality.

However, this explanation of evil, immorality and genocide is unsatisfactory, because it abandons moral responsibility and the possibility of moral and legal judgment. Arendt was acutely aware of this. If we again take the case of Eichmann, how can we possibly judge and convict him if his actions were the result of social pressure and his inability to think? Civilized legal systems as well as moral systems understand that the intent to do wrong and freedom of choice are necessary prerequisites for the commission of a crime.  No responsibility without mens rea: “actus non facit reum nisi mens sit rea”, “the act does not make a person guilty unless the mind be also guilty”.

It’s good to understand how morality is influenced by circumstances and culture, and how crime can result from education, society and thoughtlessness, but that’s not the whole picture. People aren’t just products of their environment. They can think and choose, except perhaps under the most extreme circumstances (such as torture). And I don’t think Eichmann lived in such extreme circumstances. This element of moral freedom is shown by the fact that evil people can arise from the best of circumstances.

Limiting Free Speech (36): Are Restrictions on the Financing of Political Campaigns a Violation of Freedom of Speech?

Whether or not, to what extent and it which manner the law should regulate the financing of political parties, candidates and campaigns, is a difficult question for democracies. Two democratic values –  freedom of speech and equal influence – seem to be incompatible.

Equal Influence

On the one hand, a democracy adopts the ideal of “one man, one vote“. That means that everyone’s voice should have equal weight, and every person should have equal influence in the decisions on who gets elected and which laws are passed. If you don’t want people to have equal political influence, you don’t adopt the principle of one man, one vote. Then you give some people more votes than others or you just exclude some people from the right to participate in elections.

Restrictions on party financing – such as maximum amounts for donations, prohibitions on donations by corporations etc. – are designed to enforce equal influence (or better promote equal influence, because other elements beside money can give some people more influence than others – talent for instance). If rich people or rich corporations are allowed to donate without limits, it’s likely that the political beneficiaries of these donations will give more attentions to certain interests than to others and that the ideal of equal influence recedes into the background.

What is necessary is that political parties be autonomous with respect to private demands, that is, demands not expressed in the public forum and argued for openly by reference to a conception of the public good. If society does not bear the costs of organisation, and party funds need to be solicited from the more advantaged social and economic interests, the pleadings of these groups are bound to receive excessive attention. John Rawls

Freedom of Speech

On the other hand, democracies, by definition, care a lot about human rights, including freedom of speech. It’s impossible to imagine a democracy functioning without freedom of speech and many other human rights. The problem is that party financing and political donations are clearly acts of speech. By donating to a party, you state your political preferences.

Restrictions on political financing are restrictions on freedom of speech in another way as well. Take the case of “Hillary: The Movie“, an unbelievable piece of shit attacking Hillary Clinton. As all pieces of shit that have taken the form of speech, it should be protected by the First Amendment. Freedom of speech doesn’t only protect thoughtful and interesting speech. And yet the distribution of the movie was hampered by the threat of fines. The Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002 – also known as the McCain-Feingold Act – bars corporations or labor unions from financing the broadcast of election messages before elections. The movie in question violated this rule. And it’s a sensible rule from the point of view of equal influence. If you allow people with deep pockets to flood the airwaves with biased messages – especially around election time – you are likely to influence the outcome of the elections in a way that favors the interests of those deep pockets. Most democracies have rules like this in place.

So not only direct donations to parties or candidates can be restricted, but also the indirect use of funds for the benefit of parties or candidates. Restrictions on funding the broadcast of political views is even a more direct restriction on freedom of speech than the restrictions on donations to parties or candidates.

The question now is whether these are legitimate and acceptable restrictions on freedom of speech. The U.S. Supreme Court will soon decide on this, and is likely to throw out all restrictions.

It’s not a simple question of free speech against democracy. These two ideals aren’t contradictory. Democracy needs free speech, so limiting free speech for the sake of democracy doesn’t make a lot a sense. However, democracy doesn’t just need free speech, it needs some level of equal freedom of speech. If the voices of the strongest always silence the voices of the weaker – the less talented speakers, the shy, the people without money to buy advertising time, to finance “movies” or to “buy” politicians – I think it’s fair to say that we have strayed a long way from democracy. One person’s right to free speech shouldn’t overwhelm another’s right. It’s a fundamental principle in the whole system of human rights that these rights are equal rights. In a way, this is similar to the problem of the heckler. In this post, I defended heckling as a legitimate exercise of the freedom of speech, on the condition that it doesn’t destroy someone else’s right (the heckled in this case).

On the other hand, you could say that unlimited financing rights promote rather than destroy equal influence and equal rights. For two reasons. If donations are widespread, the risk that politicians become dependent on particular private interests and start to favor certain elements in society, is diluted. And there’s also the fact that incumbents usually have no problem getting their message across. They have easy access to the media. Challengers on the other hand often need relatively large sums of money to do the same. Restrictions on financing could favor incumbents. However, unlimited financing rights – because they are unlimited – benefit incumbents and challengers equally. So this argument based on the needs of challengers unwillingly makes the case in favor of regulation.

It seems that everyone is in favor of some kind of regulation. It’s the precise nature of regulation that is contested. I’ve proposed a system here.

Lies, Damned Lies, and Statistics (11): Polarized Statistics as a Result of Self-Selection

One of the most important things in the design of an opinion survey – and opinion surveys are a common tool in data gathering in the field of human rights – is the definition of the sample of people who will be interviewed. We can only assume that the answers given by the people in the sample are representative of the opinions of the entire population if the sample is a fully random subset of the population – that means that every person in the population should have an equal chance of being part of the survey group.

Unfortunately, many surveys depend on self-selection – people get to decide themselves if they cooperate – and self-selection distorts the randomness of the sample:

Those individuals who are highly motivated to respond, typically individuals who have strong opinions, are overrepresented, and individuals that are indifferent or apathetic are less likely to respond. This often leads to a polarization of responses with extreme perspectives being given a disproportionate weight in the summary. (source)

Self-selection is almost always a problem in online surveys (of the PollDaddy variety), phone-in surveys for television or radio shows, and so-called “red-button” surveys in which people vote with the remote control of their television set. However, it can also occur in more traditional types of surveys. When you survey the population of a brutal dictatorial state (if you get the chance) and ask the people about their freedoms and rights, many will deselect themselves: they will refuse to cooperate with the survey for fear of the consequences.

When we limit ourselves to the effects of self-selection (or self-deselection) in democratic states, we may find that this has something to do with the often ugly and stupid “us-and-them” character of much of contemporary politics. There seems to be less and less room for middle ground, compromise or nuance.

Types of Human Rights Violations (2): Self-Inflicted Human Rights Violations

We usually think of human rights violations as a harm inflicted by one person on another, by the state on some of its citizens, by companies on citizens etc. And that’s indeed the natural way to think of them. But there is also something we can call self-inflicted human rights violations.

Self-inflicted human rights violations can be classified into different subgroups: involuntary self-inflicted human rights violations, voluntary ones, mixed cases or unclear cases, cases similar to risk taking, cases involving individual and their rights, and cases involving groups and the rights of their members.

Involuntary self-inflicted human rights violations

Some people make mistakes, or act in a self-destructive way or in a way that causes involuntary harm to themselves. For example, while poverty has many causes, some people are poor because of their own actions or omissions. Hence they violate their own right to a certain living standard (art. 25 of the Universal Declaration). Other people act in such a way that they make it very hard on themselves to find a job, violating their own right to work.

Voluntary self-inflicted human rights violations

Some people just decide to give up some of their rights voluntarily. They may decide that these rights are not important, or less important than something else, e.g. their religion or culture. Some examples: the participants in certain reality TV shows such as Big Brother, forfeiting their right to privacy; people choosing euthanasia or (assisted) suicide; people choosing to be unemployed etc. As long as these people don’t cause harm to anyone else, it’s difficult to see how one can disapprove of them. After all, it’s their life and their rights, so they alone can decide what to do with them.

Between voluntary and involuntary

It starts to become difficult when the involuntary masquerades as the voluntary. And there are indeed many cases that are mixed or where it’s not clear if we’re dealing with voluntary or involuntary self-inflicted rights violations. Take the school drop-out for example. At first sight, one can say that someone who decides not to finish school takes a voluntary decision to do so, and that we can’t label this an involuntary self-inflicted violation of the right to education. However, is such a choice really voluntary? Remember we’re often dealing with children in these cases. Voluntary means that there is a choice. And a choice implies knowledge of alternatives, as well as knowledge of the different consequences of different choices. Without these two types of knowledge, we can hardly say that there is a choice. This knowledge assumes that there has been education, and hence that we are dealing with an educated grown-up, not a teenage drop-out.

Another example: Muslim girls or women who voluntarily accept the restrictions imposed on their gender by their religion, hence violating their own right to equal treatment and non-discrimination. Again, no problem if it’s really voluntary. But is it? Didn’t their education and social environment condition them in believing that a certain interpretation of their religion is more important than their human rights? Possibly so.

Risk

I talked about risk and human rights before, albeit in another context. Risk is relevant here because it can lead to self-inflicted human rights violations. People who do not voluntarily violate their own rights, or who don’t make mistakes that cause violations of their own rights, may nevertheless act in such a way that they take a conscious risk that their actions will lead to violations of their own rights. Take the criminal for instance. He takes the risk that his actions will cause him to end up in prison, in which case he has violated his own right to free movement, and possibly other rights as well.

Such a risk is also on the borderline between voluntary and involuntary. If you take a risk, it has to do with risking certain consequences you want to avoid. You don’t want these consequences, so if they occur the situation can be said to be involuntary. On the other hand, the fact that you take the risk of these consequences occurring, indicates some level of acceptance of these consequences, but not full acceptance (otherwise it would be silly to speak about a “risk”). And acceptance equals voluntary. To take the same example: the convicted criminal did not enter prison voluntarily, but the fact that he took the risk of ending up in prison indicates that his predicament is to some extent voluntary. He could also not have taken the risk.

The rights of group members rather than individuals

There’s a difference between individuals giving up or violating their own rights, and groups doing the same for their members. Take the example of the Roma minorities in parts of Europe. Many of the Roma parents don’t register their children at birth. Without a birth certificate, it’s hard to receive benefits or access to schools. When girls reach the age of 14 or 15, they are taken out of school and they enter into arranged marriages. Such actions cause serious harm to children’s education, and are a major cause of the continuing poverty of many Roma communities.

Measuring Democracy (3): But What Kind of Democracy?

Those who want to measure whether countries are democratic or not, or want the measure to what degree countries are democratic, necessarily have to answer the question “what is democracy?”. You can’t start to measure democracy until you have answered this question, as in general you can’t start to measure anything until you have decided what it is you want to measure.

Two approaches to measuring democracy

As the concept of democracy is highly contestable – almost everyone has a different view on what it means to call a country a democracy, or to call it more or less democratic than another – it’s not surprising to see that most of the research projects that have attempted to measure democracy – such as Polity IV, Freedom House etc. – have chosen a different definition of democracy, and are, therefore, actually measuring something different. I don’t intend to give an overview of the differences between all these measures here (this is a decent attempt). What I want to do here is highlight the pros and cons of two extremely different approaches: the minimalist and the maximalist one. The former could, for example, view democracy as no more than a system of regular elections, and measure simply the presence or absence of elections in different countries. The latter, on the other hand, could include in its definition of democracy stuff like rights protections, freedom of the press, division of powers etc., and measure the presence or absence of all of these things, and aggregate the different scores in order to decide whether a country is democratic or not, and to what extent.

When measuring the democratic nature of different countries (and of course comparing them), should we use a minimalist or maximalist definition of democracy? Here are some pros and cons of either approach.

Differentiation

A minimalist definition makes it very difficult to differentiate between countries. It would make it possible to distinguish democracies (minimally defined) from non-democracies, but it wouldn’t allow to measure the degree of democracy of a given country. I believe an ordinal scale with different ranks for different levels of quality of democracy in different countries (ranging from extremely poor quality, i.e. non-democracies, to perfect democracies) is more interesting than a binary scale limited to democracy/non-democracy. The use of a maximalist definition of democracy would make it possible to rank all types of regimes on such an ordinal scale. A maximalist definition of democracy would include a relatively large number of necessary attributes of democracy, and the combination of presence/absence/partial development of each attribute would almost make it possible to give each country a unique rank in the ordinal scale. Such a wide-ranging differentiation is an advantage for progress analysis. A binary scale does not give any information on the quality of democracy. Hence, it would be better to speak of measuring democratization rather than measuring democracy. And democratization not only in the sense of a transition from authoritarian to democratic governance, but also in the sense of progress towards a deepening of democratic rule.

A minimalist definition of democracy necessarily focuses on just a few attributes of democracy. As a result, it is impossible to differentiate between degrees of “democraticness” of different countries. Moreover, the chosen attributes may not be typical of or exclusive to democracy (such as good governance or citizen influence), and may not include some necessary attributes. For example, Polity IV, perhaps the most widely used measure of democracy, does not sufficiently incorporate actual citizen participation, as opposed to the mere right of citizens to participate. I think it’s fair to say that a country that gives its citizens the right to vote but doesn’t actually have many citizens voting, can hardly be called a democracy.

Acceptability of the measurement vs controversy

A disadvantage of maximalism is that the measurement will be more open to controversy. The more attributes of democracy are included in the measure, the higher the risk of disagreement on the model of democracy. As said above, people have different ideas about the number and type of necessary attributes of a democracy, even of an ideal democracy. If the only attribute of democracy retained in the analysis is regular elections, then there will be no controversy since few people would reject this attribute.

Balancing

So we have to balance meaning against acceptability: a measurement system that is maximalist offers a lot of information and the possibility to compare countries beyond the simple dichotomy of democracy/non-democracy, but it may be rejected by those who claim that this system is not measuring democracy as they understand the word. A minimalist system, on the other hand, will measure something that is useful for many people – no one will contest that elections are necessary for democracy, for instance – but will also reduce the utility of the measurement results because it doesn’t yield a lot of information about countries.

Limiting Free Speech (32): Hate Speech in Canada

In Canadian law and jurisprudence, the definition of hate speech as a form of speech that falls outside the protection of the right to free speech, is quite different from the definition in the U.S. And quite different as well from what I personally think is correct. I believe Canada is on the wrong track in this respect, and should move closer to the U.S. view.

In the U.S., the two main Supreme Court cases defining the rules concerning hate speech, are Brandenburg v Ohio and R.A.V. v St Paul. Hate speech in the U.S. can only be punished when it is likely to incite imminent lawless action. This is consistent with my personal view that human rights can be limited solely for the protection of other rights or the rights or others.

In Canada, however, it’s not the likelihood of actual harm than can turn speech into prohibited hate speech. The expression of hatred, irrespective of the possible consequences of this expression, is considered a crime. The content itself is the crime, not where it may lead. Canadian law and jurisprudence (see here for instance) assume that hate speech in itself, independent from its consequences, inflicts harm on a plural and tolerant society. The objective of Canadian hate speech laws is not only the prevention of harm to individuals and their rights, but also the protection of the kind of society Canada wants to be.

Obviously, Canadian society deserves protection, as does tolerance in general. But it’s quite another thing to claim that this protection requires content-based hate speech laws. I don’t think content as such should ever be the sole test of whether to protect speech or not. The (possible) consequences for the rights of others should be the main criterion, together with intent.

Limiting Free Speech (31): Speech That Incites, and Teaches the Methods of, Illegal Activity

This is a follow-up from two previous posts on the same subject (here and here).

In Brandenburg v. Ohio, the Supreme Court held that abstract advocacy of lawlessness and violence is protected speech under the First Amendment. Even in a society based on laws, people should be free to express disagreement with the law and call on others to break the law (inflammatory speech).

I think that’s generally acceptable and fair. If someone believes that smoking dope shouldn’t be a crime, and carefully describes to his or her readers how to cultivate and use the drug, then he or she should be permitted to do so. The crime is drug use, not the description of or incitement to use drugs. The same is true for a more extreme example, such as the infamous book called “The Hit Man Manual” (see the Rice v. Paladin Enterprises case). Also, we don’t want to ban chemistry books because someone may use them to build a bomb.

However, it is equally acceptable, also according to Brandenburg v. Ohio, that speech which incites imminent, illegal conduct may itself be made illegal:

The constitutional guarantees of free speech and free press do not permit a State to forbid or proscribe advocacy of the use of force or of law violation except where such advocacy is directed to inciting or producing imminent lawless action and is likely to incite or produce such action. Brandenburg v. Ohio

If speech intends to produce illegal actions, and if, as a result of this speech, the illegal actions are imminent and likely, then there is a reason to limit freedom of speech. In the words of Justice Black (who was, by the way, something of a first amendment absolutist):

It rarely has been suggested that the constitutional freedom for speech and press extends its immunity to speech or writing used as an integral part of conduct in violation of a valid criminal statute. We reject the contention now.

When speech acts contribute substantively to criminal acts, the speech acts are considered to be “aiding and abetting”.  The fact that “aiding and abetting” of an illegal act may be carried out through speech is no bar to its illegality. (source)

The justifications for free speech that apply to speakers do not reach communications that are simply means to get a crime successfully committed. K. Greenawalt in “Speech, Crime, and the Uses of Language”

Aiding and abetting a crime can be criminal in itself, even if it takes the form of the spoken or written word. The First Amendment doesn’t provide immunity from prosecution because someone uses speech or the printed word in encouraging and counseling others in the commission of a crime.

Volokh has given the following example:

A Virginia woman has been arrested for blogging about the members of a local drug task force. The charge is harassment of a police officer. She apparently posted on the blog one officer’s home address, as well as photos of all members of the task force, and a photo of one officer getting into his unmarked car in front of his home….

Photographing, writing about, and criticizing police officers, even by name, should of course be legal. But it’s a tougher call when the officers in question work undercover. Naming them, posting their photos, posting their addresses, are all pretty clearly efforts to intimidate them, and it isn’t difficult to see how doing so not only makes it more difficult for them to do their jobs, but may well endanger their lives….

When may speech be restricted because it provides others with information that may help them commit crimes? Here, the information may help people kill police officers, or at least conceal their crimes from police officers (once the undercover officers’ covers are blown). (source)

However, this doesn’t mean that all inflammatory speech or every publication and distribution of instructions on how to act illegally, can be suppressed and made illegal. The “Brandenbrug test” has to be successful first, which means that there has to be more than mere intent. There has to be incitement of an imminent lawless act, as well as the likelihood that this incitement produces or helps to produce such an act.

Measuring Democracy (2): Polity IV, and Some of Its Problems

Polity IV is, like Freedom House and others, a project ranking countries according to their political regime type. It’s extensively used in comparative and causal analysis that require a distinction between democracies and non-democracies, partly because its time series start from the year 1800.

Its

perspective envisions a spectrum of governing authority that spans from fully institutionalized autocracies through mixed, or incoherent, authority regimes (termed “anocracies”) to fully institutionalized democracies. The “Polity Score” captures this regime authority spectrum on a 21-point scale ranging from -10 (hereditary monarchy) to +10 (consolidated democracy). (source)

The Polity Score is the aggregate of 6 component measures that aim to record what are called key qualities of democracies: executive recruitment, constraints on executive authority, and political competition.

However, it seems that Polity IV doesn’t adequately measure what it claims to measure. Its concept of democracy is quite thin, resulting in a fair number of “perfect democracies”, whereas we all know that there is no such thing in the world we live in. And other countries, which are obviously dictatorial, are classified as fairly democratic. A quote from this paper (which is an attempt to improve Polity IV):

Polity’s 21-point democracy/autocracy scale, illustrated by the dashed line [in the figure below], tracks the major changes in British political history, but only roughly. The Reform Bill of 1832 revised a complicated system of determining the franchise by increasing the number of voters from 500,000 to 813,000. Despite the modesty of this expansion, changes in the Polity Score for Britain give a sense of greatly expanded democracy, moving from a -2 (democracy=4, autocracy=6) to a +3 (democracy=6, autocracy=3).

However, … only six percent of the adult population voted even after the reform.

While the male franchise had broadened considerably by 1884, suffrage still excluded agricultural workers and servants. Actual voter turnout reached 12% of the population only in the election of 1885 before falling, and didn’t return to that level again until 1918. All the while, Polity scores for executive recruitment and competition increased while institutionalized autocracy decreased. In 1880 the Polity democracy score stood at 7 (autocracy=0). By 1901 the democracy score rose to 8 and by 1922 Polity suggests that Britain was a “perfect 10” democracy, even though full male suffrage was not achieved until 1918 and full female suffrage until 1928.

Britain has received the highest democracy rating ever since, even though the voting rate has never exceeded 60% of the adult population.

The high scores that Britain receives from 1880 on are misleading and, with respect to changes in participation, mistimed. As Figure 1 illustrates, participation doubled during a period Polity records as unchanged and doubled again during a modest 2 point move in Polity.

The racial exclusion in South Africa also demonstrates the danger of conceiving democracy without taking account of the breadth of citizen participation. According to Polity, South Africa was a relatively stable democracy from 1910 until 1989. It was coded a 7 out of 10 on democracy and a 3 of 10 on autocracy, bringing its score to +4. A positive score is surprising because it ignores the exclusion of the 90 percent of the population that did not – most could not – vote.

Switzerland, our final example, has scored a perfect 10 out of 10 on democracy in the Polity dataset since 1848, even though women – roughly half the population – were not granted the right to vote until 1971, 123 years later. Furthermore, electoral turnout has hovered around 30% recently, despite virtually universal suffrage. One reason is that Switzerland’s collective executive is an organizational form that diminishes voter motivation by minimizing the significance of election outcomes. Surely such a system should be regarded as less democratic than one in which most citizens participate in elections that actually make a difference in the leadership and policies of the nation.

What is Democracy? (43): A System Characterized by Free Speech

The principle of the freedom of speech springs from the necessities of the program of self-government. It is not a Law of Nature or of Reason in the abstract. It is a deduction from the basic American agreement that public issues shall be decided by universal suffrage. A. Meiklejohn (source)

Democracy is a power struggle. The participants in this struggle have to be able to express themselves, to present themselves to the electorate, to create a distinct profile for themselves, and to make the electorate familiar with their political program. That’s one reason why democracy needs freedom of expression. The participants in the power struggle also have to be able to organize and associate in a group that is free from government control, because this allows them to gather strength and have a more influential voice. So they need the freedom of association and the separation of state and society. And for the same reasons they have to be able to meet and demonstrate. So they also need the freedom of assembly. If they want to organize, associate and assemble, it’s because they want to convince new people to join them. And they can’t do that without free speech.

Without the guaranteed right of all citizens to meet collectively, to have access to information, to seek to persuade others, as well as to vote, democracy is meaningless. Democratic rights, in other words, are those individual rights which are necessary to secure popular control over the process of collective decision-making on an ongoing basis. David Beetham (source)

The U.S. Supreme Court (SCOTUS) as well has long recognized that the facilitation of self-government is one of the main goals of free speech and the First Amendment. Take, for example, Mills v Alabama:

Whatever differences may exist about interpretations of the First Amendment, there is practically universal agreement that a major purpose of that Amendment was to protect the free discussion of governmental affairs. (source)

Or Brown v Hartlage:

First Amendment [is] the guardian of our democracy. That Amendment embodies our trust in the free exchange of ideas as the means by which the people are to choose between good ideas and bad, and between candidates for political office. (source)

Or Roth v United States:

The protection given speech and press was fashioned to assure unfettered interchange of ideas for the bringing about of political and social changes desired by the people. (source)

There’s also Justice Louis D. Brandeis famous (concurring) opinion in Whitney v California, in which he described the democratic function of freedom of speech. According to Brandeis, every citizen has the right to

endeavor to make his own opinion concerning laws existing or contemplated, prevail. (source)

Brandeis believed, correctly I think, that free speech is necessary for democracy in three ways:

  • to inform the people about the workings and policies of the government (a free press being an important part of freedom of speech)
  • to inform the government of the the will of the people (an election – or “vote” – being the voice of the people)
  • to allow the people to deliberate, to discuss government policy and the merits of representatives.

Why Do Countries Become/Remain Democracies? Or Don’t? (6)

Democracy is a human right. If we want to promote universal respect for this right, we have to know how societies have achieved the transition from authoritarian forms of government to more democratic ones, and how democracies have avoided the opposite transition. Once we know this, we can promote the future emergence of democracies, and we can counteract the breakdown of existing ones.

Unfortunately, this is a very murky area of political science. The only thing that’s clear is that there is no silver bullet. There isn’t one thing we can do to transform societies once and for all into democracies. Things aren’t easy or simple. A huge number of factors have been identified as causes of or obstacles to democratic transitions, and existing democracies need constant nurturing and protection. A few of the factors that have been named as either promoting or inhibiting democracy are:

  • economic growth or GDP per capita
  • protestant culture versus catholic culture (a catholic culture is believed to be more hierarchical)
  • levels of education and literacy
  • income or wealth inequality (in very unequal societies, the wealthy have a lot to lose with democracy)
  • levels of employment in agriculture versus industry (industrial societies are believed to more more urban and less attached to traditional and authoritarian social relationships)
  • the presence/absence of neighboring democracies
  • export diversity (countries with one major export product such as oil tend to be “resource cursed”)
  • is a country a former U.K. colony or not? (former U.K. colonies are believed to be more sympathetic to democracy given their British colonial heritage)
  • is there a large middle class or not?
  • etc.

Statistical analysis to pinpoint which ones of these many variables really determine democracy – and which ones are merely guesses – has yielded contradictory results, not surprisingly given the low numbers of observations (societies or countries don’t change their political systems very often) and the relative lack of long time series (most classifications of regime types haven’t started earlier than a couple of decades ago). One interesting analysis is here.

So don’t expect me to have an opinion here. What I wanted to focus on in this post is the first in the list. There are two radically opposing views on the effect of economic development on democracy. One view is called modernization theory. Basically, the idea is that as countries develop economically, people will switch to other, higher needs, such as self-government, self-control, and political activity in general. Poverty, on the contrary, forces people to focus on survival and makes democracy seem like a luxury.

However, the opposite view is also persuasive. Countries that do well economically are less likely to become democratic because the population is quite pleased with how things are going and will not revolt. The authoritarian rulers can claim that it’s thanks to them that things are going well. It’s not unlikely that economic collapse rather than success causes authoritarian regimes to break down.

So even if you isolate one of dozens of possible factors causing regime transition, things aren’t very clear. Should we starve dictatorships, or help them develop economically? As a result of this lack of clarity, it’s very difficult to frame foreign policy in such a way that it favors the development of democracies around the world. This may go some way to explain the traditional lack of ambition in diplomatic circles.

Human Rights and International Law (15): Human Rights and Business, and the Problem of Legally Enforceable “Corporate Social Responsibility”

Something more on the impact of businesses or companies on human rights.

What is “Corporate Social Responsibility”?

Companies, like any other human entity with the power to act and influence people’s lives, should respect human rights and should do all that is possible in order to avoid that its activities somehow violate human rights. This is part of “corporate social responsibility” (CSR). The concept of CSR describes the responsibilities of corporations or companies to the wider social environment in which they operate. These responsibilities go beyond the interests or needs of shareholders, workers, employees and customers, and include care for the natural environment and for the human rights of people who are affected in some way by the activities of companies.

Potentially, CSR is of a global nature, because a company can affect the environment of places far away, and the human rights of people in distant countries. Transnational companies (TNCs) especially may have such a global impact, but other kinds of companies as well. For example, an arms producer doesn’t have to be a TNC in order to be complicit in rights violations in different parts of the world.

How can companies violate human rights?

So, human rights are part of corporate social responsibility. The activities of companies can violate human rights in various ways. Just a few quick examples:

  • Workers and employees can be forced to accept labor conditions which violate the rights described in articles 23 and 24 of the Universal Declaration. These labor conditions can even amount to slavery (violating article 4) or child labor (violating article 26) and should include the labor conditions in the supply chain and in companies that work as subcontractors (including outsourcing).
  • A company’s products and services can be harmful to the health of its customers, violating articles 3 and 25.
  • Apart from directly violating human rights, a company can also be complicit in violations committed by others. It can, for example, sell arms and other commodities to authoritarian and dictatorial governments, or governments engaged in an unjust war.
  • Its economic activity in a country can be beneficial to a dictatorial government and can prop up this government (e.g. buying diamonds from a government exploiting its people).
  • Etc.

Making companies responsible for human rights violations?

Many companies have already adopted a code of conduct, voluntarily or forced by public opinion or consumer action (see here for an example). But others haven’t. And there are still numerous companies actively engaging in activities which they know contribute to rights violations. So the question has been raised if companies should be forced to respect human rights. Or, in other words, if corporate social responsibility in general and corporate responsibility for human rights in particular, should be made legally enforceable. And, if so, how this should be done.

Of course, many laws, including human rights laws, already apply to companies and can be used to force companies to respect human rights (for example laws on labor standards, safety, non-discrimination etc.). However, perhaps it would be better to say that many such laws apply to individuals within companies rather than to companies themselves. And that’s ok, because most of the time, human rights are violated by individuals. Someone, somewhere in a companies always decides to sell arms to a warlord, to invest in a dicatorship, to impose grossly inadequate labor conditions etc. So it’s possible to find someone who’s legally responsible. (The ICC, for example, can prosecute individuals acting in their capacities as directors, employees or agents of corporations).

Some problems and solutions

However, there are two problems with this kind of reasoning. One problem is that enforcement of laws is difficult in the case of TNCs or other companies with activities abroad. A company may have its headquarters in one country, which, as it happens, is a country with good laws and good enforcement mechanism. But it’s activities generate rights violations elsewhere in the world, in countries that cannot do much about it, either because they are afraid to scare away the TNCs, or because the governments there are complicit in the human rights violations. So there’s a problem of enforcement.

And the second problem: it may not be so easy to determine exactly which individual(s) within a company are responsible for the harmful activities of the company.

A few solutions to these two problems have been proposed.

  • The first is to use international law and international enforcement mechanisms (in the style of the ICC). I have no problem with that.
  • A second potentially useful solution is to include extra-territoriality in national legislation. Companies can then be prosecuted by the country in which they have their headquarters, and under the law of this country, even if the violations have occured elsewhere. (One can even imagine some kind of universal jurisdiction).
  • A third possible solution is more troublesome: make companies separate entities punishable by (international) law, like individuals and states already are. I see some problems with this one. It would allow individual perpetrators to hide behind their companies and escape responsibility. And it would mean, in some case, that people are punished for the misbehavior of their company. For example, if a company is held liable for rights violations, and forced to pay damages which lead to bankrupcy, the company’s employees would suffer, even though they carry no responsibility for the actions of the company (or for the actions of those in the company making the decisions). That would be collective punishment, which is a morally odious concept.

Plato, Aristotle, Democracy, and the Quality of Political Decisions

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.

What Are Human Rights? (19): Universal Rights

What is meant by the expression “universality of human rights“? Just simply that these rights belong to all members of humanity, all members of the human family, without any distinctions. They are equal rights, not just the rights of a particular class, race, gender, nation or religion. Human beings have these rights, not because they belong to a certain group, or because they have certain beliefs of convictions, or because they fulfil certain conditions or whatever. They have them for no other reason than because they are human. This is, of course, obvious from the word “human” in “human rights”.

Why is it important to mention this? Because it’s contested. Some say that gays shouldn’t have the right to marry, even though this right is included in the Universal Declaration, a Declaration which explicitly states that

Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind.

People of color, members of other ethnic groups or members of other religions are regularly treated as inferiors (or worse). Women often have less legal rights than men. And the list can go on and on.

If you oppose this, and believe that all people should be treated equally and should be able to enjoy the same rights as everyone else, then you in fact espouse the ideal of the universality of human rights. (Equality, in the sense of equal rights, is a concept that is closely related if not identical to the concept of universality of rights).

However, how would you defend this position against those who want to discriminate and treat certain people unequally? There are many possible defenses. For example, you could say that all human beings are created in God’s image, and are therefore equal. Treating them unequally would then be an offense against God. Or you could invoke a concept such as human dignity. My preferred defense is based on certain very specific human values, values which are shared by all human beings and which require human rights in order to be protected. Physical security, bodily integrity, self-government, peace, prosperity, belonging, property, identity etc. are some of these values. The problem here is not to convince opponents of human rights – or better of the universality of human rights – of the importance of these values. It will be very difficult to find anyone who needs to be persuaded of this and who is not self-destructive. The problem is how to give an adequate and convincing explanation of the way in which these values require human rights.

These values are shared by human beings in the same way as they share some biological features, like their organs, limbs, and skin. This analogy with biology can be taken quite literally, in the sense that human life can cease when these values are negated. Hearts may not stop beating and brains may not stop working (although they can in extreme cases) but people at the very least will stop living like human beings when they are unable to realize these values. Human rights are therefore indispensible for humanity: all human beings needs them, and we all need them for our humanity. I said a moment ago that all human beings have human rights because they are human beings and for no other reason than their humanity. If asked what is humanity, I would say that it is respect for these universally shared human values.

Religion and Human Rights (13): Same-Sex Marriage and Religious Liberty, How Much Can We Discriminate?

Same-sex marriage to me is a no-brainer. Although international human rights law doesn’t explicitly grant gays and lesbians the right to marry, the notion of equal rights can be used to counter discrimination of homosexuals, including discrimination of marriage rights. Article 2 of the Universal Declaration states that everyone is entitled to all the rights set forth in it, without distinction of any kind. And the right to marry is recognized in article 16.

Furthermore, article 7 outlaws discrimination. On the basis of articles 2 and 7, many countries have enacted anti-discrimination legislation which outlaws racial discrimination, gender discrimination, sexual orientation discrimination and sometimes other types of discrimination as well. Such legislation punishes citizens who discriminate other citizens, for example restaurant owners refusing access to homosexuals, Jews, African-Americans etc.

However, the Universal Declaration and many constitutions also grant the right to religious liberty. Article 18 states that everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. Now, I think it’s fair to admit that freedom of religion and anti-discrimination laws can sometimes clash with each other (although the importance of such conflicts is often artificially inflated by opponents of same-sex marriage, see here for example). Anti-discrimination laws can force people to do things that violate their religious beliefs, if these beliefs require them to discriminate. Such laws can, if we stick to the previous example, force restaurant owners, who believe that homosexuals and Jews are sinners, to open their doors to homosexuals and Jews. When people are forced to act against their religious beliefs – no matter how bigoted these beliefs – it is fair to say that their religious freedom and freedom of conscience and belief are violated. These freedoms are not contingent on the quality of beliefs. All beliefs and religions, even the most bigoted ones, deserve protection (as long as they don’t cause harm to others of course).

It is not uncommon to see contradictions in the system of human rights. This system is not a harmonious whole. I’ve covered this problem extensively here and here. Rights are not always compatible, in which case one has to decide which of the conflicting rights has priority (or “trumps the other”). The normal (but not the only) rule is the extent of harm caused by a limitation of one right or the other.

In the case of discrimination of people on the basis of their sexual orientation, anti-discrimination laws based on article 2 of the Universal Declaration (or relevant articles of a national constitution) come into conflict with religious liberty (based also on the Universal Declaration or constitutional provisions). Both rights are very important (and I say this as a non-religious person), so the decision in favor of one or the other will never be an easy one.

Take again the example of the restaurant owner. At first sight, the answer seems obvious: let the restaurant owner refuse entry. The harm done by forcing him to grant access is clearly greater than the harm of forcing homosexuals to find another place to eat. On top of that, the restaurant owner can rightfully claim that not only his religious liberty and freedom of belief would suffer from forced access, but also his right to property (and to use it as he pleases). However, on closer inspection, things aren’t so clear. The harm done to homosexuals is likely to be much greater than just a dinner inconvenience. If a restaurant owner is allowed to discriminate, then this sends a signal to others that discrimination is OK. Choosing the side of the restaurant owner is in fact choosing the side of discrimination and legitimizes discrimination, causing harm that is potentially very widespread. After all, in a great majority of cases of people refusing to do something because of their discriminatory beliefs, there is someone else available to do what they refuse to do. So allowing people to refuse in one case because there is someone else who will not refuse (another restaurant), opens the door to a great number of refusals, and hence to widespread discrimination.

Furthermore, many cases are much more complicated than the restaurant case. How about a doctor refusing fertility treatment to a lesbian couple (married or not)? Or a Muslim doctor refusing to treat a female patient? Or a Christian university refusing to grant a gay person a place in its dormitory? Or a Catholic adoption agency refusing to place children with same-sex couples (married or not)? It’s clear that in many of these cases, the rights of those discriminated should take precedence over the freedom of belief of those discriminating because the harm done by discrimination is greater than the harm done by outlawing discrimination.

We should also distinguish between refusal by private persons and refusal by public officials. It seems much less acceptable for the latter to refuse to grant their services to certain types of people. The government should never discriminate people on the basis of religious belief. Governments should be religiously neutral as much as possible, and should respect the separation of state and church.

Anyway, sometimes anti-discrimination laws will trump other rights such as the freedom of religion, and sometimes not. So equal rights for gays, including the equal right to marry, will not “kill” religious freedom as some on the right believe. If we can convince opponents of anti-discrimination in general and same-sex marriage in particular that the concerns of religious beliefs are taken seriously and are not systematically deemed of lesser importance compared to equality, then they may give up some of their opposition. After all, even in those cases in which the concerns of equality are deemed to outweigh the concern of religion, the harm done to religion is not of catastrophic proportions. No one will ever force a priest to marry anyone, or a church to modify its doctrine, or someone wishing to express a preference for “traditional marriage” to shut up. In all these discussions on same-sex marriages, it’s important to keep things in perspective. Hysteric reactions on either side aren’t helpful at all. Compared to other rights violations, this problem is a minor one.

Much of this concerns discrimination in general, not just discrimination in the application of the right to marry. It just happens to be the case that the ongoing efforts to reduce marriage discrimination seem to cultivate the fears of many religious people that anti-discrimination laws will impose even further restrictions on religious liberty when same-sex marriage is recognized by law. These fears, however, are not substantiated by the evidence of countries or states which have, sometimes long ago, recognized same-sex marriage. Another reason to put things in perspective, something which is clearly captured by this quote:

While marriage and religious belief are one creature in the minds of many people, they are separate things in the law. Catholicism and Orthodox Judaism, for example, refuse to recognize secular divorce. But few argue that we should refuse to let people divorce for this reason. One can be divorced under the law but married in the eyes of the church. The statuses can be separated without a diminution of religious liberty. And nobody thinks that this de-linking of the two constitutes official oppression or the obliteration of religious freedom. Similarly, in principle, it should be possible to have a regime in which same-sex couples are married under the law but not married in the eyes of a given religion – all without extinguishing religious faith. Dale Carpenter (source)

Children’s Rights (9): Child Soldiers

From Amnesty International:

Approximately 250,000 children under the age of 18 are thought to be fighting in conflicts around the world, and hundreds of thousands more are members of armed forces who could be sent into combat at any time. Although most child soldiers are between 15 and 18 years old, significant recruitment starts at the age of 10 and the use of even younger children has been recorded.

Around the world, children are singled out for recruitment by both armed forces and armed opposition groups, and exploited as combatants. Easily manipulated, children are sometimes coerced to commit grave atrocities, including rape and murder of civilians using assault rifles such as AK-47s and G4s. Some are forced to injure or kill members of their own families or other child soldiers. Others serve as porters, cooks, guards, messengers, spies, and sex slaves.

What is Democracy? (38): Equal Representation and the Share of Women in Parliament

In a representative democracy, one can reasonably expect to have a parliament that is roughly representative of the population in general: poor people should have their representatives or delegates just like rich people, women just like men, minorities just like majorities. This representativity or representativeness isn’t an absolute requirement. One can have a democracy without it. The people, after all, may decide that their views are best represented by an all-male, all-white body of parliamentarians for example.

However, it seems statistically unlikely that this would be their decision in each consecutive election in each democratic country. Imbalances in the demographics of parliament that persist over time and space are probably not the result of the choices of voters but of other factors, such as discrimination, unequal opportunities etc. If that’s the case, we are dealing with an imperfect democracy because democracy means equal influence and an equal chance to get elected (art. 21 of the Universal Declaration and art. 25 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights).

And that is the case. Take the share of women in parliament for instance. In almost every major democracy of the world, election after election, women are a (tiny) minority in parliament. It’s very unlikely if not impossible that women are systematically less competent than men to serve in parliament, or that the voters sincerely, rationally and objectively believe this to be the case. There must be other, more deeply embedded psychological motives for such a choice, related to the generally inferior position of women in patriarchal societies.