The riddle of Key’s incredible popularity

datePosted on 16:53, January 7th, 2010 by Lew

ONE of the year’s intriguing mysteries remains the source of Prime Minister John Key’s popularity when there is no evidentiary reason for the continuing level of public support he enjoys.
In the US, the American public, both Republicans and Democrats, have long realised that President Barack Obama’s “yes, we can” is more accurately defined as “no, we can’t”, despite the passage of his health-care bill on Christmas Eve.
In this, he has achieved rare bipartisanship. Both major parties accept that the bill, in its current form, is a real stinker.
So much for compromising with the states and with every Congressman and Senator to get it passed.
Given Key has achieved nothing of similar magnitude [...] he has finished his first year in office with a duck on the political scoreboard.
[...]
The mystery of Key’s incredible popularity may well lie in the sneaky admiration New Zealanders have for those who get away with extraordinary scams.
Remember how the Great Train Robber Ronnie Biggs found a haven (for a while) with his family in Melbourne while on the lam from British authorities and how he managed to stay ahead of the law while making good his escape to Brazil?
Biggs was no Ned Kelly, nor a Robin Hood, but managed to gather a surprising mass of public sympathy despite dudding his wife and children and was in all reality no more than a petty criminal addicted to good-looking women and a lazy lifestyle.
New Zealanders appreciate clever rip-offs and may not yet have cottoned on to the personal cost that they will have to bear from Key’s profligacy with their cash.

If I could spy on you, dear readers, I suspect I would see a few heads nodding in approval.

As the second-to-last paragraph hints, the above wasn’t written about John Key — it was written by conservative columnist Piers Akerman in Sydney’s Sunday Telegraph the week before last. I’ve replaced ‘Kevin Rudd’ with ‘John Key’ and ‘Australian’ with ‘New Zealander’ (and cut it, obviously).

But dedicated partisans on both sides are frequently similar in their thinking, and I’ve read pretty much this sort of argument again and again from Key’s enemies — people whom I hope are embarrased that they deal in the same sloppy generalities and bitter grumblings as Piers Akerman — over the past year. It misses the point, which is that he’s still popular. By definition, he’s doing well. And yet there is no ‘evidentiary reason’ for it to be so.

This provides a clue as to Akerman’s puzzlement, and that exhibited on this side of the Tasman with regard to Key’s ongoing favour: you’re looking at the wrong factors. The main factor omitted by Akerman and others of his sort is that he (Rudd or Key, take your pick) is emotionally resonant with the electorate. This matters; in some cases, it’s enough on its own. He (either of them) won a campaign based on next to no policy at all, leading the incumbent oppositions of the day to ridicule him, ignoring what was right under their noses: that policy wasn’t necessary.

The modern left’s obsession with facts and figures, expected utility and measurable outcomes should, in a rational world, grant them a strong advantage in any political contest. Indeed, the classical analysis is that democratic political systems which apportion votes by population rather than by wealth are inherently biased toward the working classes who are more numerous by definition. Given the assumption that Labour’s policies objectively provide greater material advantage to a larger number of electors than National’s policies, they should win that horserace every time. But they don’t, because politics is not rational. Concrete policy achievements are not the key to political success; their impact is largely limited to how they make the electorate feel about the party and candidates, not how they impact on the electorate in observable, material terms (although, depending on the policy, this can have considerable impact). The link is not direct and linear: there’s a crucial and very complex layer of abstraction which most politicians on the left simply don’t see.

Drew Westen (about whom I’ve been raving to anyone who’ll listen for the past year or so) goes into much more detail about this, and his book The Political Brain should be required reading to anyone who wants to know how people actually think about politics — when they think at all, which isn’t very much or very hard.* He calls this focus on reason ‘trickle-up politics’; as valid, he says, as trickle-down economics. This strategy concentrates its firepower on the dispassionate brain, the least-important part when it comes to making important judgements, and disdains that which lurks beneath — the part which can call upon deep-seated experience and instinct to order the supposedly rational brain to do what feels right, utility calculations be damned.

Generally speaking, the right understands this better, and they tend to lead from the gut. This provides the left with what they think is an opening to debate the matter on facts, not realising that facts aren’t very important in political decision-making. Westen and other researchers have found in a wide range of experimental situations that they can predict with greater than 80% accuracy a person’s position on a given political issue of the day, knowing only how the person feels about the issue. Adding facts back into the equation only improves predictions by a few per cent. They literally don’t matter without the emotional resonance. This is true for everyone from randoms on the street to justices of the Supreme Court. It’s just how people are.

So, my one wish for the NZ left for 2010 is this: stop thinking of political popularity as the result of naked appeals to the material self-interest of utility accountants; stop hectoring those who remain unconvinced and ask why they are unconvinced, without resorting to the lazy option of complaining that they are fools or stricken by false consciousness or that they just like a good scam when they see one. Start thinking of politics as a system for engagement and trust-building, by which to build a mandate to make a better country. National aren’t that strong; it’s just that they’re against opposition who turn up to the battle for hearts and minds armed with a spoon.

L

*Westen’s research is American and focuses solely on the two-horse Republican v Democrat battle, so it isn’t directly analogous to NZ or Australian politics. Nevertheless, most of the traits he observes hold true to a fairly large extent.

70 Responses to “The riddle of Key’s incredible popularity”

  1. BK Drinkwater on January 7th, 2010 at 19:33

    This is an interesting post, and I think I’ll kick off my 2010 blogging with some sort of response to it on Monday. In the meantime, though, I’d like to make a couple of little notes.

    1) John Key is popular, but that his popularity is not “incredible”.

    His net favourable is +54% (UMR Mood of the Nation) or +60% (TV3), but his preferred-PM is sitting around only 50% (TV3). Right-track/wrong-track seems to be sitting at 60%/30% across polls and stable: this is not a wonderful result for National; and the party-vote question has National further down in the low-to-mid fifties.

    These numbers are high, but not outside the bounds of what year-old administrations get elsewhere. National’s support is soft; Key’s personal popularity may well be more to do with the inability of Phil Goff and Labour to make much of an impression just yet. The first year in opposition’s a b****; they’ll come round.

    I’d say this all lends support to your emotional-resonance thesis; and that the riddle isn’t so much one of John Key’s incredible popularity as one of the perception that Key’s popularity is incredible. People are over-thinking it.

    2) A little more predictable: I don’t think either of the major parties are so light on policy as the congealing conventional wisdom has it, and I certainly don’t think that the modern Left has a monopoly on facts, figures, and measurable outcomes, or that Labour is all that much weaker than National on the “non-rational” stuff. But more of that on Monday.

  2. Lew on January 7th, 2010 at 19:39

    BK, I agree on all counts. There’s also the fact that we have a representative system, and the strong argument made by Bryce Edwards that there’s a general consensus on a lot of the main dividing points. To my mind these things make the small differences very much more important than in Westen’s political milieu.

    Interested to hear your response.

    L

  3. Ag on January 8th, 2010 at 09:49

    Drew Westen (about whom I’ve been raving to anyone who’ll listen for the past year or so) goes into much more detail about this, and his book The Political Brain should be required reading to anyone who wants to know how people actually think about politics — when they think at all, which isn’t very much or very hard.* He calls this focus on reason ‘trickle-up politics’; as valid, he says, as trickle-down economics. This strategy concentrates its firepower on the dispassionate brain, the least-important part when it comes to making important judgements, and disdains that which lurks beneath — the part which can call upon deep-seated experience and instinct to order the supposedly rational brain to do what feels right, utility calculations be damned.

    See, I told you democracy doesn’t work. ;)

  4. Lew on January 8th, 2010 at 09:54

    Ag, that only holds if you think pure reason is the best way to runh a society. Westen argues that it’s not, and that the non-rational mind is a much more highly-developed tool for turning reasoned thought into socially (and personally) useful action.

    L

  5. Hugh on January 8th, 2010 at 11:03

    Lew, if you’ll recall Ag’s recent post about climate change denial, that’s essentially exactly what he was arguing.

  6. Lew on January 8th, 2010 at 11:19

    Hugh, I don’t get that from it. What I get is that the non-rational mind of the general public should be subsumed to the reason of experts — and I largely agree as a matter of what ought to be, in terms of policy. But this isn’t a post about policy, it’s a post about electoral popularity, and different rules apply. You can’t usually win an election solely on cold facts, and you can’t run a good society solely on gut feelings. The two need to be set to the tasks to which they’re best suited.

    L

  7. What would Hayek say on January 8th, 2010 at 11:27

    For thse arguing for government by the rational, great and good – who do we define good? its value judgements all the way down from there and where do those value judgements originate from? The emotional part of ourself. Don’t dismiss emotion so quickly, often its a short heuristic mechanism used to process/assess a lot of information quickly passed on past experience, personal knowledge and conflicting advice from the rational, great and good.

    John Key’s popularity – relative performance. he may not be the greatest ever, but relatively he is miles ahead of the next best alternative (and by current performance by all other parties, national will win the next election and have a good probability of winning a third).

  8. Ag on January 8th, 2010 at 12:10

    Ag, that only holds if you think pure reason is the best way to runh a society. Westen argues that it’s not, and that the non-rational mind is a much more highly-developed tool for turning reasoned thought into socially (and personally) useful action.

    Responsivity to facts is the only way to run a society in the long term. Even if social norms are designed or arranged to channel irrationality into useful outcomes, someone still has to verify the design or arrangement (unless you believe in the myth of spontaneous public rational outcomes, which I do not), and it will have to be enforced against irrational elements that would seek to overthrow it.

    Our modern political culture fears reason because it would then have to confront some uncomfortable truths about itself.

    @WWHS

    For thse arguing for government by the rational, great and good – who do we define good? its value judgements all the way down from there and where do those value judgements originate from? The emotional part of ourself. Don’t dismiss emotion so quickly, often its a short heuristic mechanism used to process/assess a lot of information quickly passed on past experience, personal knowledge and conflicting advice from the rational, great and good.

    The distinction between reason and emotion is not a useful distinction. It’s a piece of political propaganda, along with the bizarre notions of free will and public reason. All too often, people who ask us to respect their emotional judgements are asking us to participate in their self deception.

    Moreover, the worry about value judgements is pointless, as the global warming debate shows. Even if value judgements cannot ultimately be argued for, facts invade and often determine political decisionmaking on a regular basis.

    Rational outcomes are provided by rational persons in systems that reward rationality and punish irrationality. Science is the major public institution that does this, and does it reasonably effectively. Fundamentalist religion does just the opposite.

    After all, who would you rather have running the country given an option. John Key or Brian Tamaki?

  9. What would Hayek say on January 8th, 2010 at 12:39

    Re John Key v B Tamaki – the choice is John Key, which is the point of the relative performance comment. John is not necessarily the best possible outcome but relative to all other current possibilities he is a better choice.

    Ag – you subscribing to the great minds fallacy in dismissing value judgements and decision making (after all decision making is what government is about). You can have a rational process to assist decision making e.g. use of cost-benefit analysis, but that still relies on an assessment of individuals own value judgements on something. Individuals know their own goals, ambitions and priorities. I don’t know what your values are or what opportunities (now and future) are available to you (and what aren’t), I don’t know your likes and dislikes (well I do know you don’t like democracy). Likewise you don’t know anything about me, my family or about anyone else in general.

    The reliance on “facts” (we haven’t even discussed how we decide what is a fact) to make decisions is only part of the equation. However it is a fact my value judgements will potentially be different to yours, my intertemporal discount rate and marginal utility could be significantly different. This why prices are so important to an economy and something that drives planners crazy. On a basis of one type of facts the Ipod would never have been successful (cheaper better alternatives), but on the basis of a different type of facts which relate to value judgements, the Ipod was well branded, marketed and simple to use. For some consumers this marginal utility mattered more to them than other products (and or services). That marginal utility is based on value judgements.

    Ignore value judgements at your peril. The great minds fallacy increases the probability of downside in decision making instead of minimising downside and mazimising the upside. We are not talking perfect outcomes, but second best that is effective and efficient (in the real world) trumps first best in hypothesis that is not effect in the real world.

    Which nicely takes us back to the importance of relative performance.

  10. Ag on January 8th, 2010 at 14:36

    Ag – you subscribing to the great minds fallacy in dismissing value judgements and decision making (after all decision making is what government is about). You can have a rational process to assist decision making e.g. use of cost-benefit analysis, but that still relies on an assessment of individuals own value judgements on something.

    Not really. People may well agree that if global warming is real, that something ought to be done about it, but disagree over whether it is real. A great many political disputes are like that, so your objection is irrelevant. Markets are also useless in such situations compared to informed opinion.

    The reliance on “facts” (we haven’t even discussed how we decide what is a fact) to make decisions is only part of the equation.

    That snow is white is a “fact”. Leave disputes about the metaphysical status of facts to philosophers, because any solution they find won’t make a practical difference anyway.

    However it is a fact my value judgements will potentially be different to yours, my intertemporal discount rate and marginal utility could be significantly different. This why prices are so important to an economy and something that drives planners crazy.

    This makes no difference, since your value judgements may well be inconsistent with each other as well as the possibility I mentioned earlier that you may be wrong about the facts that pertain to policy claims (like climate change). Socrates made a career out of exploiting this.

    Even if no form of moral realism is true, reason is for practical purposes unavoidable. You cannot hide. Your value judgements have no particular authority just because you hold them. Pretty much any opinion you have can be put to the test, even if only the test of consistency with your other opinions. Our society spends much of its time trying to hide from reason, but the devil will always be around to collect in due course.

    That’s kind of why Austrian economics is going nowhere.

  11. BK Drinkwater on January 8th, 2010 at 15:01

    Yikes: this is too interesting for me to pass up.

    There’s just one note that I’d like to add. There’s an argument made extensively by Hayek and Mises—and a growing body of data backing it up—that markets provide incentives for people to inform themselves of and research facts: after all, if their economic action is based on flawed information, they go out of business.

    It’s less clear that experts exercizing government power have incentives so strong.

    This applies rather less to large-scale public policy issues like global warming; but in issues like “how many paperclips to produce”, it’s not really arguable any more that central/expert direction—where the experts lack the price signal to encode consumer preference and lack also any real incentive to learn facts about actual demand—is superior to markets.

    So, I’d never go so far as to say that “Austrian economics is going nowhere”.

    There was a post at Volokh recently going into this a bit: http://volokh.com/2010/01/06/how-markets-make-us-more-rational/

  12. What would Hayek say on January 8th, 2010 at 15:25

    Ag – snow is white – this is the “All swans are white” argument about what is a fact. On that basis there are no black swans… you may want to avoid fallacies about what are facts.

  13. Lew on January 8th, 2010 at 16:35

    If snow is white as a matter of fact, why did Frank enjoin us not to eat the yellow stuff?

    L

  14. Bruce Hamilton on January 8th, 2010 at 19:48

    That snow is white is a “fact”.

    “Facts” have a nasty habit of misleading…

    http://www.colourlovers.com/blog/2009/12/08/why-is-snow-white/

    I particularly like watermelon-coloured snow.

  15. Quoth the Raven on January 8th, 2010 at 20:23

    I remember an interesting documentary series by Susan Greenfield The private life of the Brain The part that is interesting here, if I remember rightly, is that emotion and logic are intertwined in decision making. You need emotion because how can you make effective decisions if there’s no emotional weight to them. People who suffer brain damage in parts of their brain involved in emotion have serious difficulty in decision making even simple decisions like what to eat or wear etc are hard for them to make.

  16. Ag on January 8th, 2010 at 22:08

    Ag – snow is white – this is the “All swans are white” argument about what is a fact. On that basis there are no black swans… you may want to avoid fallacies about what are facts.

    No it’s not. That’s an absurd equivalence. You’re just trying to avoid the subject.

    Facts qua facts are rather mundane things for practical purposes. People just try to make a fuss about them as a means of avoiding facts they don’t like.

    Besides, if you are going to claim that facts are slippery, then that looks suspiciously like a fact stating claim of the kind you deny.

    Philosophical scepticism is for the seminar room, not for practical politics.

    There’s just one note that I’d like to add. There’s an argument made extensively by Hayek and Mises—and a growing body of data backing it up—that markets provide incentives for people to inform themselves of and research facts: after all, if their economic action is based on flawed information, they go out of business.

    That argument is contradicted by the evidence. The market does a poor job when it comes to general research. That’s why universities tend to be funded by the state, and things like the weather service and so on.

    Austrian economics is a waste of time because they eventually abandoned empirical evidence. There’s a pretty decent smackdown of the issue I alluded to here:

    http://economics.gmu.edu/bcaplan/whyaust.htm

    Why bother with an economic theory when it has to insulate itself from empirical evidence to remain viable?

  17. Ag on January 8th, 2010 at 22:10

    If snow is white as a matter of fact, why did Frank enjoin us not to eat the yellow stuff?

    I imagine for the same reason that the makers of popsicles enjoin us to eat frozen water of other colours.

  18. SPC on January 8th, 2010 at 22:41

    Perhaps the popularity is because he has not taken up the hard choices being promoted to him – he was elected on the basis that the people could trust him not to go down that road in “his first term”.

    This speaks to upholding his mandate – he of course has to renew that mandate in 2011 and uphold that trust into 2014 etc.

    Helen Clark won return to office in 2002 on that alone (to the point English and National had no chance). Whereas 2005 was a battle over two directions – Labour won and Key in 2008 campaigned on the basis of respecting that choice.

    People want security via a sense that their trust in the dependability of their leaders is not misplaced.

  19. BK Drinkwater on January 9th, 2010 at 00:29

    @Ag: Fair cop, I think.

    I think I miswrote. It’s not really my place to launch a full-throated defence of Austrian economics, especially as that term’s been subject to some fairly substantial semantic drift over the last few years especially, but mainly because I’m not really expert (self-zing).

    The point that I should have made relates a bit closer to what WWHS is saying in this thread: the Austrian arguments about disparate information (esp. w.r.t. consumer preference) and the calculation and coordination problems of expert/state controlled economies are not to be trifled with, even if one isn’t on board with the whole programme. I’ve never read a truly convincing response, and such a response is one absolute requirement for getting me on board with the expert-control thing over markets. (After that, someone would need to dislodge my emphasis on liberty: another story for another day.)

    I’m also not going to argue that markets do everything perfectly, or even particularly well. But there definitely is an intellectually respectable case to be made that markets do the vast majority of things better than the vast majority of alternatives, not least because they incentivize the search for true information and rational(ish) decision-making. You might not buy the case; I happen to lean towards it fairly substantially. (You’re dead right that they don’t do a great job on pure science, though.)

    (Very much of this stuff is due to Hayek, who you’ll note escapes almost unscathed by the very fun Caplan piece, which I incidentally should read two or three times a year to keep me from going off the deep end.)

    Anyway, that’s what I was trying (and failing) to get at; I imagine WWHS would say it a lot better. CliffNotes: I really don’t think that Austrian economics can be dismissed wholesale, even if you’re not on board with the Rothbard end of that particular spectrum.

    Apologies to Lew for thread-jacking: I’ll shut up now.

  20. Ag on January 9th, 2010 at 08:21

    The point that I should have made relates a bit closer to what WWHS is saying in this thread: the Austrian arguments about disparate information (esp. w.r.t. consumer preference) and the calculation and coordination problems of expert/state controlled economies are not to be trifled with, even if one isn’t on board with the whole programme. I’ve never read a truly convincing response, and such a response is one absolute requirement for getting me on board with the expert-control thing over markets. (After that, someone would need to dislodge my emphasis on liberty: another story for another day.)

    Oh OK. I’m sorry I misunderstood.

    Well, would you agree that a mid size company’s purchasing officer is usually better at making the purchases for the whole company than giving each employee their own purchasing accounts?

    That’s more what I had in mind, although I think the state is better at buying health care and weather information than we would be due to market failures.

    What I’m aiming at is the idea that each person is always the best judge of their own interests, which I think really means 4 separate things, none of which is true, but which lurks behind these debates.

    A

  21. Quoth the Raven on January 9th, 2010 at 10:14

    Well, would you agree that a mid size company’s purchasing officer is usually better at making the purchases for the whole company than giving each employee their own purchasing accounts?

    Kevin Carson has done some interesting work drawing on Austrian economics by applying the economic calculation problem to corporations. Have a look at part three of his book Organization Theory: A Libertarian Perspective.

    Austrian economics is a waste of time because they eventually abandoned empirical evidence. There’s a pretty decent smackdown of the issue I alluded to here:

    I’m no expert here, but I think this is a misunderstanding. It’s not that they abandoned empiracal evidence it’s that they reject ‘mathematical modeling of human behaviour’. In any event Caplan is still pro-free market.

  22. BK Drinkwater on January 9th, 2010 at 17:36

    @Ag: I don’t think you misunderstood; I think it’s that I’m a terrible communicator who normally takes three or four attempts to reach a sensible argument. So sorry about that.

    You raise fun questions, and I’m truly sorry that I must plead incompetence here. I know next to nothing on the theory of the firm :(

    I happen to agree that the state is likely to be better at buying some things things than individuals (here I part company with the anarchists), though my list of such things won’t be identical to yours.

    As to the medium-sized firm: I just don’t know. There are specialization/division-of-labour issues to be taken into account, and that I sense you’d push further to argue “if it works for firms, why not the state?”. I think I’d argue that firms have better incentives, in that the market punishes their mistakes; but that the state lives under no such threat (barring Tiebout competition).

    One last thing: if I took the sober approach, I’d argue not that the individual is always the best judge of his/her own interests (because, clearly, people make many mistakes), but that on aggregate, individuals are better at judging their own interests than any other judging system (which, in the last analysis, must always be run by some of those mistake-prone humans, who additionally happen to have on-average worse incentives).

    Yikes, it’s a long way from John Key’s popularity to “democracy doesn’t work” to here: the thread’s been too interesting for me not to threadjack. Sorry.

  23. Ag on January 9th, 2010 at 21:41

    Kevin Carson has done some interesting work drawing on Austrian economics by applying the economic calculation problem to corporations. Have a look at part three of his book Organization Theory: A Libertarian Perspective.

    This is exactly the sort of thing I think is bizarre. You have a bunch of people attempting to prove, a priori, that planning is impossible. You cannot prove something like that a priori. You need genuine evidence, and the evidence seems to point the other way.

    In the end all they have to offer against planning are conspiracy theories. Lord help us that people form corporations because they are actually efficient rather than because of some conspiracy or the “force of capital” or some other unverifiable nonsense.

    But at least it is honest. In fact, the anarchists are among the few honest thinkers in contemporary politics, for they take the modern obsession with freedom, consent and individualism to its logical conclusion. That conclusion is insane.

    All this really is, is vestigial Christianity. The individualism, free will and the idea of one’s actions being written down in some moral ledger to which one will be “called to account” more or less all originate in the Christian view of the human person, which holds sway among most of society, even those who profess no religion.

    It’s a stock view among such people that human action necessarily cannot be scientifically accounted for or predicted. This is for them a metaphysical claim, not a claim about our current lack of information.

    Insofar as this forms the basis on which our society thinks about moral and economic issues, our society ends up deranged. The disembodied rational autonomous chooser does not exist. Lew is correct to point out that most people do not make political decisions in this way. But it constantly amazes me how people will accept the facts about human beings and yet still imagine that the Enlightenment model of politics has any applicability at all. I think it’s because our society simply lacks the imagination to think otherwise. How else to explain that our deepest political categories describe people radically different from us?

    Our obsession with consent, individual liberty and freedom actually makes us worse off in all sorts of ways, in my view.

    @BK

    One last thing: if I took the sober approach, I’d argue not that the individual is always the best judge of his/her own interests (because, clearly, people make many mistakes), but that on aggregate, individuals are better at judging their own interests than any other judging system (which, in the last analysis, must always be run by some of those mistake-prone humans, who additionally happen to have on-average worse incentives).

    Have a think about the many things in your life that are not decided upon by you (or me for that matter). You and I have no say in food safety standards, or car safety standards, or thousands of other issues. Countless decisions that limit our freedom are made by other people, and I think this is necessary in maintaining any technologically advanced society as I argued in my guest post.

    When you look at the decisions we do get to make, it turns out that they are a very small subset of the decisions that we would get to make in a completely free market or a direct democracy. Our vaunted freedom is already subverted by expert rule, and we like it that way. Even our horror of things like arranged marriages is I think ill conceived (nothing changes your mind like trying to argue this with a bunch of people who find the idea of free marriages revolting).

    I’m fine with this as long as mechanisms are in place to prevent expert collusion. Otherwise, I don’t think that it is worrisome. But this puts me at odd with pretty much everyone else (for a change).

    I happen to think people are generally lousy at making decisions about their long term prospects (I recently gave up smoking, so I know this quite well). Democracies are particularly hopeless at dealing with slow burning long term problems like climate change (and fascism – check their failure to prevent WWII).

    An economist said to me that the kind of economy we have adopted really only works well at producing things like medium sized dry goods (due to the easy enforcement of property rights over such things), so we end up with a society snowed under with medium sized dry goods. Of course we think this is normal and right, but only because we are used to it.

    Similarly, citizens who live in democracies get used to governments that produce middle class and mortgage friendly policies. Of course we think this is normal and right, but only because we are used to it.

    The very few left wingers who understand that democracy and human rights necessarily result in bourgeois societies are I think correct. More democracy and more human rights simply produces more capitalism. Most left wingers are hopeless in my view because their remedy for capitalism ends up promoting it. The Standard, to give just one example, is replete with such foot-shooters.

    The idea is at least worth exploring, but our political culture makes it less popular than endorsing Al Qaeda or paedophilia.

    I was going to submit another guest post about the role of knowledge in politics and how the left needs it in order to function, but I guess I should wait until a decent interval has passed since the last one as Lew, Pablo and company have been relatively inactive over the break.

  24. Quoth the Raven on January 10th, 2010 at 11:41

    This is exactly the sort of thing I think is bizarre. You have a bunch of people attempting to prove, a priori, that planning is impossible. You cannot prove something like that a priori. You need genuine evidence, and the evidence seems to point the other way.

    There’s a wealth of empirical evidence against central planning you just don’t bother to seek it out. In fact Kevin Carson’s work is replete with industrial history that being one of his main interests.

    In the end all they have to offer against planning are conspiracy theories. Lord help us that people form corporations because they are actually efficient rather than because of some conspiracy or the “force of capital” or some other unverifiable nonsense.

    You might bother to actually read the work. And this coming from someone who’s always going on about ‘neo-liberals’ conspiring against the working class or conservatives about to bring back fascisim.

  25. Ag on January 10th, 2010 at 20:50

    There’s a wealth of empirical evidence against central planning you just don’t bother to seek it out. In fact Kevin Carson’s work is replete with industrial history that being one of his main interests.

    Will you please stick to the issue?

    I don’t dispute that there is plenty of empirical evidence that provides a prima facie case against massive central planning. I don’t dispute that at all. For example, having the government make cars would be a waste of time in my humble opinion.

    What I dispute is the Austrian approach (or what passes for it online), which is to make the issue an a priori argument, thus immunizing it from evidence.

    The idea that planning within corporations is inefficient is a fringe view. Wal Mart exists largely because of developments in IT, not because of some capitalist conspiracy.

    You might bother to actually read the work. And this coming from someone who’s always going on about ‘neo-liberals’ conspiring against the working class or conservatives about to bring back fascisim.

    I started to read it. I don’t see anything of use in it other than what appears to be a conspiracy theory about capitalism. Props to the guy for being honest about his hyper individualism though. I don’t think anarchism is in any way, shape or form a sensible political theory. I am sceptical about the categories on which it is based, so it is just a non-starter for me.

    BTW I don’t generally think neoliberals conspire against the working class. Sure, politicians do underhand things and many anti-working class policies are passed by misleading the public. But my own view is that none of this would be possible without general public acceptance of the core values that drive neoliberalism. In my view it is the anti-authoritarianism and hyper individualism of the 1960s that drives neoliberalism more than anything else (but more on this another day).

    You may have noticed that, unlike many left wingers, I am happy to blame the democratic system and the venality of voters for neoliberalism. In fact I think that neoliberalism is a sign that our country has become more democratic and is the natural end stage of trying to be more responsive to the voting public. Unlike a lot of people, I happen to think that this is a really bad idea.

  26. Quoth the Raven on January 11th, 2010 at 11:09

    You’re just being needlessly dismissive calling it conspiracy theory. Diseconomies of scale are an economic fact. That there are state policies that promote large organisation size are facts. What the effects of these are are arguable and what an economy would look like without them is arguable.

    FYI The Methodology of the Austrian School Economists

    I think neo-liberalism is hard to define. I think it is more of a bugaboo of the left. Some people seem to ascribe to it what they want and want they do doesn’t always match the reality of the actions of those who have been called ‘neo-liberals’ by their detractors. The last Labour government has even been called neo-liberal by many leftists.

    This isn’t about ‘hyper-individualism’ you’re just being bombastic it is just individualism.

  27. Ag on January 11th, 2010 at 14:57

    You’re just being needlessly dismissive calling it conspiracy theory. Diseconomies of scale are an economic fact. That there are state policies that promote large organisation size are facts. What the effects of these are are arguable and what an economy would look like without them is arguable.

    No. I wish you would appreciate more subtlety.

    I do not doubt that state policies promote large organizations, but to claim that this means that all large organizations are the result of state promotion is an invalid inference.

    It’s a conspiracy theory to state that planned economies (in the sense of corporate entities) are the result of compulsion by the evil forces of capital or the state when there is a much more obvious explanation: they are more efficient.

    The same goes for lefties who blame the sad state of public opinion on Rupert Murdoch and his ilk when the obvious explanation is that Murdoch and company simply peddle what people will buy.

    IIRC Mises himself was an a priorist. That’s not really economics. It’s just bad philosophy.

    Why can’t you please just answer the question yourself instead of linking to uncritical worship sites? I linked to Caplan precisely because he is a sympathetic critic.

    This isn’t about ‘hyper-individualism’ you’re just being bombastic it is just individualism.

    No. It’s about a more thoroughgoing individualism than someone like John Stuart Mill would support. You can call it whatever you like. I don’t care.

  28. Ag on January 11th, 2010 at 15:08

    Besides, you more or less have to believe in free will to believe in ASE, so that’s a big problem right there.

  29. Quoth the Raven on January 11th, 2010 at 16:50

    I do not doubt that state policies promote large organizations, but to claim that this means that all large organizations are the result of state promotion is an invalid inference.

    That’s why I said the effects were arguable and whether or not Carson maintains that all large organizations are a result of the state I don’t know. I myself couldn’t say either way.

    It’s a conspiracy theory to state that planned economies (in the sense of corporate entities) are the result of compulsion by the evil forces of capital or the state when there is a much more obvious explanation: they are more efficient.

    He precisely shows how they are not always more efficient that state policies enable corproations to grow to sizes well beyond that which is efficient. What we call a coporation is defined by the legal privileges it gets from the state. As they are they wouldn’t exist sans state interference. That’s not to say that joint stock companies may exist on the free market just that they wouldn’t have the legal privileges currently bestowed upon them.

    IIRC Mises himself was an a priorist. That’s not really economics. It’s just bad philosophy.

    Why can’t you please just answer the question yourself instead of linking to uncritical worship sites? I linked to Caplan precisely because he is a sympathetic critic.

    As I said I’m no expert on the Austrian school and I am not myself an adherent I’ve only recently come across it. The link was for you’re information because it appears that you have limited knowledge of the Austrian school as shown by your false claims that Austrians don’t look at empirical evidence. The link should show you that the school is not homogenous that there are a range of views within it and Mises’ aren’t the only ones.

  30. Ag on January 12th, 2010 at 20:59

    He precisely shows how they are not always more efficient that state policies enable corproations to grow to sizes well beyond that which is efficient. What we call a coporation is defined by the legal privileges it gets from the state. As they are they wouldn’t exist sans state interference. That’s not to say that joint stock companies may exist on the free market just that they wouldn’t have the legal privileges currently bestowed upon them.

    That’s fine and not at all controversial. I myself would agree.

    But corporations aren’t the only human organizations that involve internally planned economies. Such associations can occur quite naturally. Think of a bunch of people playing football, who elect one player the captain and defer to him or her on all aspects of team tactics.

    This is more or less the same mistake as above. To say that “some” internally planned economies are inefficient as the result of state policy doesn’t mean that they all are. All the statist needs to say is that corporate regulations ought to be revised to promote efficiency. In fact much of the so-called “anti-corporate” left has this as its aim.

    It’s very difficult to prove that all corporations are inefficient. The anarchists haven’t even come close to doing that. That even small companies exhibit internally planned economies requires explanation. Is it because they are naturally more efficient and crowd out those that operate with internal markets, or is it because the mean old state forces people to use them?

    The former is the explanation that does not require a conspiracy theory. It’s completely obvious once you think about how many human associations follow that model.

    As I said I’m no expert on the Austrian school and I am not myself an adherent I’ve only recently come across it. The link was for you’re information because it appears that you have limited knowledge of the Austrian school as shown by your false claims that Austrians don’t look at empirical evidence. The link should show you that the school is not homogenous that there are a range of views within it and Mises’ aren’t the only ones.

    Nobody says that they don’t look at evidence. They have appealed to certain events as confirmation of their theories. But they don’t treat this confirmation in the same way that ordinary empiricists do because they deny that empirical evidence justifies economic theory (quite how they parse the distinction between confirmation and justification is a separate issue). They say this because they do not think that human behaviour can be understood in the manner of the natural sciences. There are various ways this is articulated (one being that economic truths always involve subjectivity whereas scientific truths are objective).

    That’s the core of the Austrian theory. From your own link (which also talks about Mises apriorism:

    Empirical research in economics is not made less important by the fact that its task cannot include “testing” or “falsifying” economic theories in the same way that laboratory experiments test natural-scientific theories.

    On Hayek:

    The member of the Austrian School who has produced the most subtle and detailed critique of the notion that the social sciences should ape the methods of the physical sciences?an idea he calls “scientism”?is F.A. Hayek. The data of the social sciences are of necessity subjective, he writes, for they deal “not with the relations between things, but with the relations between men and things or the relations between man and man.”

    Did you actually read the materials from your own link? The only one who comes anywhere near allowing empirical evidence is Menger, and even he doesn’t.

    So what precisely were you objecting to in my complaints about the Austrians? Your own source says more or less what I claimed. The denial of objectivity appears to be the essential characteristic of the Austrian school. I think it would be nigh impossible to call yourself an Austrian economist if you did not adhere to it.

    Insofar as it goes on about subjectivity and refuses to accept that human action may be the object of scientific study, the Austrians are just peddling philosophy that is long past its sell by date. It’s just Christian metaphysics by another name.

    Fortunately, the development of such disciplines as neuroscience and evolutionary psychology allows us to dispense with their silliness.

  31. Quoth the Raven on January 13th, 2010 at 10:53

    Ag –

    So what precisely were you objecting to in my complaints about the Austrians?

    You said:

    Austrian economics is a waste of time because they eventually abandoned empirical evidence.

    Now you say:

    Nobody says that they don’t look at evidence.

    Someone did say that. You see my objection now?

    This is more or less the same mistake as above. To say that “some” internally planned economies are inefficient as the result of state policy doesn’t mean that they all are. All the statist needs to say is that corporate regulations ought to be revised to promote efficiency. In fact much of the so-called “anti-corporate” left has this as its aim.

    No, but the larger the internally planned economy the less efficient it is. The same prinicple that applies to the state. This is about different ways of organising ideally for anarchists, as I’m sure you know, that is non-hierarchical social orgainsation – it’s much more than efficiency.

  32. Lew on January 14th, 2010 at 21:09

    Another fascinating, if somewhat tangential, conversation which sketches out a few more of the boundaries of the wider topic — democracy, representation, free will, the role of the state. I’ve been entertaining people from the other hemisphere this week, so I’ve not been engaged, but it’s excellent that such discourse continues anyhow.

    Just a few things to point out. I’m not any sort of expert on Austrian-school economics, but I would note that Caplan’s arguments about democracy (as in Myth of the Rational Voter and such) are pretty compatible in some ways with Westen’s ideas — only he comes at it from a different position, one rather similar to Ag’s in that it disclaims the ability (if not the right) of the electorate to choose policy settings which meet their actual needs rather than the needs they think they have (with particular regard to economic concerns). Where Westen differs, and why I prefer his schema to Caplan’s or Ag’s, is that his position is rooted on the primacy of the electorate even if they are wrong, and secondarily lays the blame for their wrong-ness, such as it is, at the feet of those whose job it is to lead them on policy matters, rather than at the feet of the electorate itself. People are entitled to be wrong; it is almost always better that they are not (or that they do not act on that wrongness) but ultimately in any liberal society they must be free to be wrong, because of Mill’s principle of fallibility; and obviously also because ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ are quite often non-trivial to determine or presuppose that certain political, philosophical and policy preferences are ‘right’.

    Stepping back from this question of right and wrong and the problem of determining same, it is the job of politicians both to lead and to be led by the electorate, just as it is the job of the media both to inform and reflect society. It is their job to both help people be less wrong (by whatever definition) or better yet to entrust their expertise to those better qualified to exercise it — but then, ultimately, to enact their wrongness, because ultimately it’s the electorate’s society, not the elites’ society. But the electorate is not to blame for this: that falls upon the politicians who failed to gain the electorate’s trust to the extent that they could go and implement good policy.

    What I’m saying, and what Westen says is, don’t blame voters for neoliberalism (Ag), or for economic inefficiency and perverse policy (Caplan), or for electing Hitler (everyone who complains about democracy): blame those who have or had the power to convince voters to exercise their civic authority otherwise, but who failed to do so. The left, in particular, have failed at this, and this is why they spend so much more time lamenting the electorate, while the right praises their wisdom and good sense.

    Ultimately this is at the core of post-enlightenment liberal democracy: the entitlement of people to create and maintain the sort of society they choose is the only indispensable thing. What sort of society that is may be argued about, and the extent to which that entitlement may be exercised, in what contexts and to what ends are also factors, but these are just the trimmings. If people really, genuinely want to elect a genocidal demagogue, give him unbridled power or implement radical capitalism or communism, or a racist system — that’s their right. (It’s also your and my right to oppose it, but that’s another story and shouldn’t be confused with the belief that no such initial right is possessed by the electorate).

    Politicians who genuinely, in their deepest beliefs, consider that their policies are the way to a better society would do well to get the electorate on their side, because the more they do so, the more ability they will have to prosecute that agenda. It seems like a trite thing to say, but so many politicians, otherwise capable and competent, can’t or don’t do it due to an obsession with letting the electorate make mistakes and then blaming them for it rather than taking the responsibility of political leadership upon themselves.

    L

  33. SPC on January 14th, 2010 at 21:35

    I liked much of your line of thought Lew, but at the conclusion you seized your right to be wrong and ran with it.

    Democracy is not just about the majority getting what they want, it’s about limits on the power of government. Thus democracy includes the “bridling” of those in power – which is why Hitler’s power was not from a democratic mandate but a coup (albeit from within government) against democracy itself.

    As would imposing radical capitalism, communism and a racist order.

    The thing about democracy is that it has no order of rule, it is not capitalist, communist or racist. Democracy provides for the people to be wrong AND to have the right to change their mind – thus it cannot end up with any fixed state – it must always be in flux – and that requires continuing constitutional restraint on government.

  34. Lew on January 14th, 2010 at 22:42

    SPC, I agree, and I don’t see how that’s the slightest bit inconsistent with what I’m arguing. I don’t advocate unfettered populism; however, at core, I believe that a democratic society belongs to its people, not to its rulers (political or otherwise).

    L

  35. Ag on January 15th, 2010 at 05:33

    Someone did say that. You see my objection now?

    Your objection is pointless since they look at evidence only to deny that it has any power to falsify their theory.

    Can you not appreciate this distinction?

  36. Ag on January 15th, 2010 at 05:45

    What I’m saying, and what Westen says is, don’t blame voters for neoliberalism (Ag), or for economic inefficiency and perverse policy (Caplan), or for electing Hitler (everyone who complains about democracy): blame those who have or had the power to convince voters to exercise their civic authority otherwise, but who failed to do so. The left, in particular, have failed at this, and this is why they spend so much more time lamenting the electorate, while the right praises their wisdom and good sense.

    My criticism is slightly different I guess. It would be that the very form of democracy prevents those in power from doing this, and the more democratic a society becomes, the harder it becomes for them to do so.

    Pure democracy is in the end a market for votes (it’s just a market in which everyone has the same amount of money). But if democratic government exists to solve problems that markets cannot solve, it follows that a market mechanism for selecting a government will likely prevent some of those problems from being solved. Climate change and housing bubbles are concrete examples.

    I don’t think that there has ever been a period in which governments were more responsive to voter demands than now. Certainly, the existence of modern polling and information technology allows politicians to develop a near perfect pitch. Why then do we have governments that fail to solve our most pressing problems?

    I can see why Caplan and others would wish to defend democracy, since not to do so has the social consequences of failing to condemn paedophilia.

    @SPC

    The thing about democracy is that it has no order of rule, it is not capitalist, communist or racist. Democracy provides for the people to be wrong

    I’d argue that it is intrinsically capitalist or naturally tends that way over time, for the reasons given above.

    I’d also argue that the right of the people to be wrong stops when it starts endangering the entire planet. In the end it comes down to competence, and voters are generally incompetent to decide about many of the decisions they are faced with in a democracy.

  37. Lew on January 15th, 2010 at 07:40

    Ag, if the people of a society don’t get to determine the nature of that society (because they’re incompetent), who does?

    Pure democracy is in the end a market for votes (it’s just a market in which everyone has the same amount of money). But if democratic government exists to solve problems that markets cannot solve, it follows that a market mechanism for selecting a government will likely prevent some of those problems from being solved. Climate change and housing bubbles are concrete examples.

    While the two examples you cite are correct, this doesn’t hold, because it assumes the sort of rational self-interest model of voter behaviour you have previously identified as being fallacious (and I agree). People’s policy preferences in actual real-world situations are not strongly correlated with their material self-interest, as they are with more conventional markets. Voter behaviour is frequently altruistic, oriented around ideas of a greater good and how things ought to be. This is true even when the ‘pitch’ is not oriented around such things.

    L

  38. Quoth the Raven on January 15th, 2010 at 10:55

    I wasn’t familar with Caplan’s work, but interestingly enough Caplan seems to be an anarchist or near enough. Here’s his Anarchist faq.

    Your objection is pointless since they look at evidence only to deny that it has any power to falsify their theory.

    Why don’t you take this up with some actual austrian economists. There are plenty of blogs out there, say coordination problem or mises.org. See how far you get.

  39. Ag on January 15th, 2010 at 11:38

    Why don’t you take this up with some actual austrian economists. There are plenty of blogs out there, say coordination problem or mises.org. See how far you get.

    Why don’t you just admit you were wrong?

  40. Ag on January 15th, 2010 at 11:39

    Voter behaviour is frequently altruistic, oriented around ideas of a greater good and how things ought to be. This is true even when the ‘pitch’ is not oriented around such things.

    I agree, it’s just not altruistic enough of the time.

  41. Lew on January 15th, 2010 at 11:56

    Ag, and you propose to make it more altruistic … how? Or do you propose that, since peoples’ choices are not altruistic enough (by what standard?), then better choices should be made for them (by whom?)?

    I think it’s possible to encourage altruistic political behaviour by appealing to peoples’ better natures, their morality and identity as decent folk, on the basis that most people are generally decent folk at heart, even if they disagree on how that manifests. It’s important, though, that people do so of their own accord, not through coercion or excessive curtailment of options — because both those routes lead to rebellion and leakage, and play into the hands of a philosophical opposition which offers pure and unfettered devil-take-the-hindmost selfish idealism.

    L

  42. Ag on January 15th, 2010 at 13:29

    Ag, and you propose to make it more altruistic … how? Or do you propose that, since peoples’ choices are not altruistic enough (by what standard?), then better choices should be made for them (by whom?)?

    I already covered this in my guest post. My view is that the only workable democracy is regulative (if that is in fact workable). Voting is not an exercise in consent, but serves solely as a last check on social and economic institutions designed to regulate expert judgement for the public good.

    What has happened to us is that “regulative” democracy tends to degenerate into “consensual” democracy because no check exists on public will and political actors have an incentive to appeal to whatever the electorate wants. Two examples of this degeneration are the Tomorrow’s Schools policy and changes in health care, particularly the doctor-patient relationship.

    I’m quite prepared to argue that it is conceptually impossible for left wing politics to prevail under consensual democracy and that a major reason why the left has been in retreat is the left’s persistence in holding that consensual democracy is compatible with left wing social programs.

    I think it’s possible to encourage altruistic political behaviour by appealing to peoples’ better natures, their morality and identity as decent folk, on the basis that most people are generally decent folk at heart, even if they disagree on how that manifests. It’s important, though, that people do so of their own accord, not through coercion or excessive curtailment of options — because both those routes lead to rebellion and leakage, and play into the hands of a philosophical opposition which offers pure and unfettered devil-take-the-hindmost selfish idealism.

    On second thoughts, I would go further than I did in my previous post. Yes, people sometimes vote selfishly, and, yes, people sometimes vote altruistically, but the latter isn’t sufficient in certain situations.

    It’s not sufficient because, even though the market is poor at satisfying people’s altruistic desires (the usual example is charity) elections can fix it to some extent (hence the social welfare system). But people may lack sufficient information even when they vote altruistically, and in such cases the result will be something that none of us really like.

    In any case, capitalism doesn’t really care whether people act in their own self interest (sort of like how capitalism is excellent at supplying anti-capitalist goods for its anti-capitalist members). People just have to have interests that are expressed by the market system. I can’t see any problem with a country of altruists having a market. As an example: stock in socially responsible companies would be pricier than stock in socially irresponsible companies. Such an economy would be nicer than ours, but it would still be predominantly capitalist. I think that much of the consciousness raising Green movement aims at that outcome (where people are simply more thoughtful capitalists). I don’t.

    Short version: it’s not the selfish outcomes of capitalism that bother me as much as the stupid ones.

  43. Lew on January 15th, 2010 at 13:50

    Ag, by my read, this means you support my ‘or’ in the comment above.

    I would argue that if ‘left-wing politics’ cannot prevail under consensual democracy, it needs to be reformed to the extent that it can. If it cannot prevail by consent, then it is not worth pursuing. No political programme is good enough to force upon a society without its consent. Beyond that, such enforcement would rot the very core of what post-Soviet ‘left-wing politics’ is about, granting the ‘right’ a monopoly on the rhetoric (and indeed much of the substance) of freedom and democracy and the liberal tradition which is an indispensable element of success in modern Western politics.

    But beyond that, I would rather argue that it can prevail at present; only that it doesn’t because those responsible for progressing it aren’t doing so with a clear understanding of how politics works at the individual voter level. That was the point of the initial post, and in particular the last paragraph. I don’t think a lot of canonical ‘left’ issues (social welfare, workers’ rights, anti-discrimination, public services, constraints on capitalism, etc.) are at all antithetical to the nominal average voter; but I do think their articulation has been spectacularly poor, and the right has been able to demonise them to a greater or lesser extent as a result. I think some aspects of the traditional left pragma need to be abandoned (socialism as the endgame, for example), but many more simply need to be fought for with the full arsenal of political weapons, rather than just with a small and rather outdated subset.

    L

  44. Quoth the Raven on January 15th, 2010 at 14:04

    Ag – As I said I’m no expert on the Austrian school I would be genuinely interested in their response if you put the issue of the role of falsifiability in Austrian economists to an Austrian economist and I believe the picture is more complex than your pop philosophy assertions.

  45. Keir on January 15th, 2010 at 17:23

    But Lew, arguably by abandoning the presumption that voters act rationally you’re just as bad as Ag; if emotional resonance etc are what matters to voters, then political parties are worse than pop musicians*, and it’s utterly immoral to try and run a society off that sort of thing.

    * They aren’t even very sexy.

  46. Lew on January 15th, 2010 at 19:24

    Keir, two things:

    1. I never abandoned the assumption that voters are rational actors; I never really held it except for unusably broad definitions of ‘rational’. However I concede I have restricted the definition much more for the purposes of this argument.

    2. The thing to remember is that I’m not advocating running a country on gut — I’m advocating appealing to peoples’ gut to gain their buy-in so you can run society based on good policy. I addressed this in an earlier comment:

    this isn’t a post about policy, it’s a post about electoral popularity, and different rules apply. You can’t usually win an election solely on cold facts, and you can’t run a good society solely on gut feelings. The two need to be set to the tasks to which they’re best suited.

    One of Westen’s clever phrases is that Democrats campaign using faith and intuition and govern using the best available science, while Republicans campaign using the best available science and govern using faith and intuition. It’s a little bit too pat, but the point is there: if the best available science (which is what I’m advocating here) is employed in the campaign, it gives a political movement a great deal of freedom to progress a science-based policy agenda. The two should have a lot in common, but should be deployed in very different ways, since governance and campaigning are two radically different things. At present, we let policy geeks run campaigns. That’s as stupid, though not as dangerous, as letting marketers run society.

    L

  47. Keir on January 15th, 2010 at 21:48

    Essentially I think the problem I have is related to the Dsquared One Minute MBA line about good ideas.

    The reasons people vote for parties should, roughly speaking, be the reasons that the parties have for acting that way. Having different reasons for actions is a very bad sign, in my opinion.

  48. Lew on January 15th, 2010 at 22:08

    Keir, if I read you right I think you’re inferring bait-and-switch.

    I mean no such thing. I’m talking about emotively (as well as rationally) coherent political marketing: convincing people that they can trust you to undertake a policy agenda of which they can approve, and then undertaking it.

    L

  49. Quoth the Raven on January 15th, 2010 at 22:42

    Lew – I found Chapter Six The New Left and Participatory Democracy of this dissertation Aristotelian Liberalism to be quite interesting and germane to this whole discussion around democracy. Here’s a quote:

    The concentration of power in the hands of relatively few professional politicians, while the vast bulk of the population remains only vicariously connected to politics and largely ignorant about important matters pertaining to policy, is a strong inducement for the continual growth of government, particularly when the professional politicians take advantage of perceived crises to ratchet up its power and scope. The tendency is to consolidate and expand government power, to increasingly centrally plan society and the market which in turn begets more calls for central planning as the people become accustomed to central planning in more and more areas of life and in order to deal with the inevitable unintended consequences of previous policies.

  50. Keir on January 15th, 2010 at 23:25

    Keir, if I read you right I think you’re inferring bait-and-switch.

    No, that’s not quite what I think you’re advocating. The problem I have is that there’s no reason for emotional arguments to agree with rational arguments*, and there’s something immoral** about using one argument for the electorate and another amongst yourselves.

    * not the right words yes.
    ** and otherwise problematic.

  51. Ag on January 17th, 2010 at 08:51

    Ag – As I said I’m no expert on the Austrian school I would be genuinely interested in their response if you put the issue of the role of falsifiability in Austrian economists to an Austrian economist and I believe the picture is more complex than your pop philosophy assertions.

    So now you’re resorting to snide insults because you cannot defend your own criticisms of my posts and you posted “evidence” that directly contradicts the point you were trying to make, and now you want me to do your work for you.

    Can you explain to me precisely what value there would be for me in reading any more of your posts?

  52. Ag on January 17th, 2010 at 08:59

    I would argue that if ‘left-wing politics’ cannot prevail under consensual democracy, it needs to be reformed to the extent that it can. If it cannot prevail by consent, then it is not worth pursuing. No political programme is good enough to force upon a society without its consent.

    My point is that democracy based on consent is an unworkable fiction. People are being asked to consent to things that they don’t understand and can never understand. I don’t exclude anyone from this ignorance, since we live in a highly specialized society.

    Just what sort of meaningful informed consent do you think actually goes on in a democracy?

    Let’s take climate change or autism and vaccinations as practical examples.

    But beyond that, I would rather argue that it can prevail at present; only that it doesn’t because those responsible for progressing it aren’t doing so with a clear understanding of how politics works at the individual voter level. That was the point of the initial post, and in particular the last paragraph. I don’t think a lot of canonical ‘left’ issues (social welfare, workers’ rights, anti-discrimination, public services, constraints on capitalism, etc.) are at all antithetical to the nominal average voter; but I do think their articulation has been spectacularly poor, and the right has been able to demonise them to a greater or lesser extent as a result. I think some aspects of the traditional left pragma need to be abandoned (socialism as the endgame, for example), but many more simply need to be fought for with the full arsenal of political weapons, rather than just with a small and rather outdated subset.

    That sounds reasonable to me until I consider the systemic nature of contemporary democracies. I’m not so sure that the problem for left wing parties is in their poor marketing, but in the nature of the market itself.

    Otherwise Keir articulated the objection I wanted to make, except I would take the opposite tack and argue that it just shows that consensual democracy is chimerical.

  53. Lew on January 17th, 2010 at 09:23

    Ag, you assume that for consent to be legitimate, it must be complete and informed for every detail. But that’s not what representative democracy has ever been about — it’s always been about the electorate consenting to a framework or outline of a policy agenda and leaving the details of implementation up to the leaders and the professionals they employ to undertake the heavy philosophical, technological and legal lifting.

    Like it or not, that’s how democracy — the least-bad system of government we’ve had — works now. You’re free to argue for a change of system, but that’s not really germane to my point with this post, which is: given the system which exists, we should be using it as fully as possible.

    L

  54. Quoth the Raven on January 17th, 2010 at 10:49

    Ag – AFAIK – Austrian economics is axiomatic. For instance the human action axiom is simply that ‘humans take conscious action toward chosen goals’. It’s not falsifiable it’s irrefutable. It’s an a priori statment. That’s the point of a priori statements. Is that what you had in mind when talking of falsifiability in Austrian economics? There is much that is falsfiable in Austrian economics (and there are many differing views within the school) it’s just that they proceed from supposedly self-evident axioms. Of course you can argue about certain axioms that Austrians hold such as free will, as you seem to wish to, I don’t care I’m not an Austrian, but you seem to be overplaying the aspect of falsifiability in Austrian economics. Whatever you think about some of their methodology the theories of marginal utility, the subjective theory of value, and the economic calculation problem are great contributions to economics and so they are certainly not, as you maintain, irrelevant and they have demolished much of socialist economics.

  55. Ag on January 17th, 2010 at 16:36

    Ag – AFAIK – Austrian economics is axiomatic. For instance the human action axiom is simply that ‘humans take conscious action toward chosen goals’. It’s not falsifiable it’s irrefutable. It’s an a priori statment.

    Except “that human beings take conscious action toward certain goals” is not known a priori, and it is plainly ridiculous to think it so (unless you are a Kantian, and who is these days?). The discipline of philosophy has moved on a great deal since the Austrian theory was formulated. Claims like this appear to be a form of quaint rationalism. But who believes that any more?

    But that’s not all folks. Your own link explains the rest, which is more or less that the Austrians think that economics necessarily involves subjectivity, such that objective methods of inquiry are irrelevant. Again, this may make some sort of sense, but it is a philosophical matter and has nothing much to do with economics. But even now it is becoming evident that such ideas are becoming ever more irrelevant as we gain more knowledge of how the human brain functions and how it enables the human organism to function in its environment.

    As for the Austrians demolishing socialist economics, they have done no such thing. Austrian economics is a crank theory, beloved of internet loons. It’s the Scientology of economics. It’s just old antiquated philosophy pretending to be something else.

  56. Ag on January 17th, 2010 at 16:45

    Ag, you assume that for consent to be legitimate, it must be complete and informed for every detail.

    Not quite. I assume that for consent to be meaningful, it has to be sufficiently informed consent. That does not mean expertise, but a sufficient level of knowledge in the area of concern to be able to evaluate the outcomes. For many aspects of modern life, most people don’t have that.

    But, a lot of the time this isn’t a problem, because if food safety standards are awry people will start dying and it won’t be hard for everyone to see what is wrong. However, take anything for which the evidence is not immediately apparent, like climate change and the mechanism fails. By the time everyone can accept that climate change is happening, it will be too late to do anything about it. As our technological prowess increases, the number and severity of such issues multiplies exponentially.

    Like it or not, that’s how democracy — the least-bad system of government we’ve had — works now. You’re free to argue for a change of system, but that’s not really germane to my point with this post, which is: given the system which exists, we should be using it as fully as possible.

    The point I am trying to make is that the system as constituted is inimical to left wing goals. In other words, you can try to make it promote left wing goals, but the nature of the system will frustrate you in doing so.

    Insofar as democracy fails at dealing with the climate crisis, it turns out that the least worst system of government just isn’t good enough.

  57. Keir on January 17th, 2010 at 16:51

    Er,

    Ag – AFAIK – Austrian economics is axiomatic. For instance the human action axiom is simply that ‘humans take conscious action toward chosen goals’.

    that’s laughably refutable & falsifiable and there are some nice folks from cognitive science who’ll tell you in great detail about the problems with it. (Pro tip: purely axiomatic systems tell us nothing about the real world.)

    Ag, you assume that for consent to be legitimate, it must be complete and informed for every detail. But that’s not what representative democracy has ever been about — it’s always been about the electorate consenting to a framework or outline of a policy agenda and leaving the details of implementation up to the leaders and the professionals they employ to undertake the heavy philosophical, technological and legal lifting.

    But here you seem to be suggesting that the reasons the leaders should want to do something out be different from the way they get other people to support those policies; this seems awfully likely to go badly wrong to me.

  58. SPC on January 17th, 2010 at 19:24

    The difference seems to be that politicians have to both know their stuff (as to specialisation in the economy – be Ministers on top of their brief) and also connect with the people as their representatives. Lew makes the point that trust building between party politicians and the voter involves emotional reasonance as much as reason (policy development).

    The right in recent decades has won the war over the sound-bite (building a political brand conciousness in the electorate that can be exploited positively for the right and to the detriment of the left) and also has the greater public voice in professional expert advocacy on policy issues. This has not meant the “left” has lost elections, but it has undermined both the capacity and the mandate to be left wing in government.

  59. Lew on January 17th, 2010 at 19:46

    Ag,

    I understand your reasoning regarding consent, I just don’t accept the consequence you imply, which is that government by consent should be abandoned wholesale because it doesn’t (can’t) work sometimes. I value a robust system of governance higher than any particular policy outcome, and I consider this distinction (that the system is more valuable than the outcomes it produces) to be a cornerstone of liberal democracy. The societal and governmental benefits which accrue as a result of government by consent under this system far (far!) outweigh the resultant problems. Perhaps climate change will be the issue which alters this; but I’m not yet convinced. More on this in a moment.

    The point I am trying to make is that the system as constituted is inimical to left wing goals. In other words, you can try to make it promote left wing goals, but the nature of the system will frustrate you in doing so.

    There are three main problems with this line of reasoning. First, it’s incompletely argued (though given the venue that’s understandable). The two examples you bring up (climate change and vaccination) are not ‘left-wing goals’ by any meaningful definition of the word. By leaving other goals unstated, I think you beg an awful lot about what are ‘left wing goals’. I listed a good number of the most common above, and they are all perfectly achievable to some reasonable degree in principle, and have been (or are being) achieved in one liberal democracy or another. There are some goals which I believe a liberal-democratic electorate simply will not swallow — socialism, for instance. Since, to implement any meaningful form of socialism (by which I don’t mean the sort of thing implemented by Savage or FDR), the democratic system would need to be abridged in significant ways. I am happy to accept that such goals are not achievable in a democracy (though it’s redundant to say so).

    This leads to the second problem: you’re essentially arguing that the left is by definition anti-democratic, which renders the position indefensible as a political strategy. It’s all well and good to hold such a position as a philosopher, but the main objection I (and political scientists in general) tend to have with philosophers when it comes to political praxis is that they lack sufficient concern for implementation, and design systems (of thought, society, etc.) which are elegant in principle but unworkable in practice. Even if it were true, this position is self-defeating, and nothing upon which to found a political movement under the circumstances which abide. If you really believe that the left is undemocratic, kindly allow us to disassociate our democratic left from your undemocratic one.

    Third, while accepting that any system has inherent biases which make it more amenable to one or another form of government, I just don’t buy the argument that democracy is the domain of the right. As far as climate change goes, I return to my initial argument. This is one of my favourite case studies, because it’s an issue which should have been hit out of the park by any political movement with any competence, given the magnitude of the stakes and the weight of both reasoned evidence and benign symbolic matter which are present. The failure to convince the electorates of the free world of the need for urgent climate change policy, a matter of the most critical and immediate importance backed by the best science available, reflects an utter failure on the part of political and scientific elites whose most important job it is to provide such leadership. You seem to be suggesting that it was impossible to sell climate change to the electorate due to vested interests, cognitive biases, lack of expertise, plain ignorance, etc. I’m arguing that those are important factors, but that other factors were more important (and more controllable to boot). Essentially, the political and scientific establishment has squandered a phenomenal opportunity, with the exception of Al Gore, who with AIT did more to progress the cause of gaining electorate buy-in to the topic than everyone else has done since. The scientific establishment failed by allowing a tiny minority of skeptics and raving moonbats and vested interests to frame their establishment as a corrupt back-slapping club funded by grant money; by evading and prevaricating and playing dirty when legitimately challenged on important matters of fact and procedure; most recently by covering up emails and giving the conspiracy theorists grist for their mills. Politicians have failed mainly by couching their arguments in favour of urgent climate change policy in terms of hard facts and economic figures, assuming that people could connect the dots themselves rather than spelling it out in terms they could understand at a visceral or intuitive level as well as when they whip out their utility calculators. Part of this is systemic — there are problems with the peer review system; there are ruthless and well-resourced lobbyists with more vested interests which have been permitted to entrench themselves in democratic political systems. But that’s no excuse. The majority of the failure are not to do with democracy as a system, but to do with specific choices within the system.

    Keir,

    I am emphatically not saying anything of the sort. Politicians and political insiders are predominantly motivated and convinced by the same sorts of things as the general public. It’s rather more transparent and there’s much more abstraction and self-censorship, but most politicians aren’t utility accountants any more than their electorates are. They can’t be, and remain effective politicians. It’s crucial for an honest democracy that this commonality of purpose remains, because what electors ask themselves about isn’t so much what policies are at stake, but questions like: who is this person I am voting for? and to what extent can I trust them to represent my wishes? These are not things you can measure with a ruler.

    L

  60. Lew on January 17th, 2010 at 19:49

    SPC,

    The right in recent decades has won the war over the sound-bite (building a political brand conciousness in the electorate that can be exploited positively for the right and to the detriment of the left) and also has the greater public voice in professional expert advocacy on policy issues. This has not meant the “left” has lost elections, but it has undermined both the capacity and the mandate to be left wing in government.

    It has also meant they’ve lost elections: 2000 and 2004 in the US; 2008 in NZ; there will be many others. But it has also meant that the policy war is being fought predominantly on ground and with weapons of the right’s choosing. This is perhaps what leads Ag to assume that democracy can’t work for the left.

    L

  61. Keir on January 17th, 2010 at 22:41

    The failure to convince the electorates of the free world of the need for urgent climate change policy, a matter of the most critical and immediate importance backed by the best science available, reflects an utter failure on the part of political and scientific elites whose most important job it is to provide such leadership. You seem to be suggesting that it was impossible to sell climate change to the electorate due to vested interests, cognitive biases, lack of expertise, plain ignorance, etc. I’m arguing that those are important factors, but that other factors were more important (and more controllable to boot). Essentially, the political and scientific establishment has squandered a phenomenal opportunity, with the exception of Al Gore, who with AIT did more to progress the cause of gaining electorate buy-in to the topic than everyone else has done since. The scientific establishment failed by allowing a tiny minority of skeptics and raving moonbats and vested interests to frame their establishment as a corrupt back-slapping club funded by grant money; by evading and prevaricating and playing dirty when legitimately challenged on important matters of fact and procedure; most recently by covering up emails and giving the conspiracy theorists grist for their mills. Politicians have failed mainly by couching their arguments in favour of urgent climate change policy in terms of hard facts and economic figures, assuming that people could connect the dots themselves rather than spelling it out in terms they could understand at a visceral or intuitive level as well as when they whip out their utility calculators. Part of this is systemic — there are problems with the peer review system; there are ruthless and well-resourced lobbyists with more vested interests which have been permitted to entrench themselves in democratic political systems. But that’s no excuse. The majority of the failure are not to do with democracy as a system, but to do with specific choices within the system.

    Blame the victim! Blame the victim! I mean really, climate scientist unable to resist vast well organised smear campaign: it’s their fault!

  62. Lew on January 18th, 2010 at 08:24

    Steady on, Keir. Unlike victims of crime, who have a right to not be victimised, there’s no such right which accrues to scientists to not have their work, ethics and procedures criticised, even if the criticism is largely unjustified (which in this case, it is). Their task is to be above reproach, and they’ve failed at it.

    That having been said, the main responsibility for this failure still falls on the political leaders.

    L

  63. Quoth the Raven on January 18th, 2010 at 10:41

    But that’s not all folks. Your own link explains the rest, which is more or less that the Austrians think that economics necessarily involves subjectivity…

    Of course it involves subjectivity – people’s values are subjective. I may value a pear more than you may value an apple – Why? Subjectivity.

    that’s laughably refutable & falsifiable and there are some nice folks from cognitive science who’ll tell you in great detail about the problems with it. (Pro tip: purely axiomatic systems tell us nothing about the real world.)

    I’ve studied some cognitive science actually. It’s not to say that all human action is conscious nor does it imply that conscious action towards a goal is rational. Do you deny that humans take conscious action towards chosen goals? Mises own conception was simply that “man acts” following from which “all
    human action aims at realizing some end in the future using some means” and “human action involves a choice between alternative courses of action.” The idea is that any refutation of the human action axiom is self-contradictory.

    As for the Austrians demolishing socialist economics, they have done no such thing. Austrian economics is a crank theory, beloved of internet loons. It’s the Scientology of economics. It’s just old antiquated philosophy pretending to be something else.

    The subjective theory of value, the economic caluclation problem, marginalism, these are mainstream economic ideas that originated in the Austrian school, but are held beyond it and such ideas have demolished much of socialistic economic thinking. To say that those ideas are crank are to say that mainstream economic thinkers not of the Austrian school are crank. Even most socialists now and even communists hold to a dualistic account of value – intrinsic and subjective – as Carson does. You don’t have to accept all of Austrian economics to admit of its value and I don’t – I couldn’t because I don’t know it all, but rejecting it out of hand like you do is simply wrong and based on blind ideology.

  64. Keir on January 18th, 2010 at 12:59

    I’ve studied some cognitive science actually. It’s not to say that all human action is conscious nor does it imply that conscious action towards a goal is rational. Do you deny that humans take conscious action towards chosen goals? Mises own conception was simply that “man acts” following from which “all
    human action aims at realizing some end in the future using some means” and “human action involves a choice between alternative courses of action.” The idea is that any refutation of the human action axiom is self-contradictory.

    o good grief. look, this is scholasticism and may well be quite nice theology but it isn’t economics. there’s this austrian bloke who can help point some of this issues out, he’s called Popper.

    (not that Popper’s right about everything but.)

  65. Quoth the Raven on January 18th, 2010 at 13:24

    Popper a hypothetico deductivist against the Austrians who are mostly deductivists – hmmmm. The deductivism is the problem with both of them.

    Popper was wrong about most things.

  66. Ag on January 18th, 2010 at 18:04

    There are three main problems with this line of reasoning. First, it’s incompletely argued (though given the venue that’s understandable). The two examples you bring up (climate change and vaccination) are not ‘left-wing goals’ by any meaningful definition of the word.

    I would respond briefly that both, to be effective, require some amount of paternalism, and to acknowledge that is to acknowledge that some big decisions about our society must be taken by experts based upon their expertise and not as the outcome of a decentralized system of consent.

    But there is a lot more to say. I may start writing it up and submit it, but I think there needs to be a decent interval between guest posts.

    I am enjoying this discussion though.

    This leads to the second problem: you’re essentially arguing that the left is by definition anti-democratic, which renders the position indefensible as a political strategy.

    I guess so. I don’t share the common belief that democracy is somehow the end state of political development or that it is necessarily the best and only justifiable system available at every moment of history. There are two rough justifications for democracy, Kantian and Utilitarian, and these can and do conflict.

    My underlying point is that if democracy is incapable of solving the climate crisis, then democracy must go and be replaced with something else. It’s not like I am personally campaigning for the end of democratic New Zealand. But this blog is heavily theoretical, which is why I like reading it.

    In part, my scepticism about democracy is rooted in the claim you made in the original post, that rationality does not work in political campaigning. I consider that fact to be a solid refutation of Kantian justifications for democracy.

    Third, while accepting that any system has inherent biases which make it more amenable to one or another form of government, I just don’t buy the argument that democracy is the domain of the right.

    That’s my fault for making my case spread across multiple posts in multiple threads.

  67. Kiwipolitico » Climate credibility fail on January 19th, 2010 at 08:35

    [...] of Key’s incredible popularityLew on The riddle of Key’s incredible popularityLew on The riddle of Key’s incredible popularitySPC on The riddle of Key’s incredible popularityKeir on The riddle of Key’s incredible [...]

  68. Lew on January 19th, 2010 at 20:35

    Ag,

    I would respond briefly that both, to be effective, require some amount of paternalism, and to acknowledge that is to acknowledge that some big decisions about our society must be taken by experts based upon their expertise and not as the outcome of a decentralized system of consent.

    I should perhaps reiterate that I’m not opposed to all paternalism in all cases — I’m not really a democratic fundamentalist. But I do expect a very high threshold to be crossed before paternalism should be permitted or accepted, and it’s practically always an inferior solution to convincing people of the rectitude of your cause and having them adopt it willingly, if you can.

    I guess so. I don’t share the common belief that democracy is somehow the end state of political development or that it is necessarily the best and only justifiable system available at every moment of history. There are two rough justifications for democracy, Kantian and Utilitarian, and these can and do conflict.

    I also disagree with Fukuyama. But only inasmuch as it views politics as a vector where one system is more advanced than or superior to another, which begs a lot of questions about purpose and such. I suspect this is a different objection to yours.

    I also don’t necessarily agree that the de-emphasis on reason kills the Kantian justification, though it’s not a specialty of mine and I’m happy to be convinced. However, I should also say that my point isn’t that all reason is useless in political persuasion; indeed, emotional considerations and knowing when to go with your gut are a valid form of reason. Especially as a non-specialist needing to make important or complex decisions: you make the best judgement based on the information you have, move on, and reevaluate as new information comes to light; what Popkin calls “low-information rationality”. The point is that the “best” information, or the information which most often yields the correct (or a correct) course of action is typically emotional, instinctive or intangible rather than intellectual or what we would typically describe as rational. This is a function of how our brains have adapted to a complex world in which we can’t possibly know all the things all the time. The whole argument in this post can really be boiled down to something like: appeal to those things first, because most decisions stem from them.

    L

  69. Ag on January 19th, 2010 at 21:00

    The whole argument in this post can really be boiled down to something like: appeal to those things first, because most decisions stem from them.

    That’s cool for everyday issues, but difficult for technical issues. Our cognitive equipment adapted to deal with medium sized physical objects. But it doesn’t work very well on the macro and micro level. I wish it did. People have to spend years unlearning their ordinary ways of thinking.

    Not much of a reply, but I’ll write out something longer in a bit.

  70. [...] of economic value against another type and come out looking good on the margin. This is classic trickle-up politics, rationale which appeals to the brain instead of the gut. The people who are picking options one [...]

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