A few thousand primary school kids, dressed mostly in high-visibility gear and carrying (or wearing) makeshift traffic cones, lollipop signs and banners, have just marched through Wellington CBD escorted by police motorcyclists, ambulances and led by a highland band (bagpipes and all).
I work in a media office. Most of us spend hours every day scouring the news as it comes in – on paper, over the airwaves and on the interwebs – as a matter of our daily work. Not one of us had the faintest inkling what the march beneath our window was about, who had organised it or what end it aimed to achieve. We guess from the (excellent) adornments worn by the wee nippers and their guardians that it’s to do with proposed speed limit reductions around schools. But that’s just a guess.
Whoever organised this has achieved a remarkable feat: coordinating thousands – ok, maybe it was hundreds – of kids (which is like herding cats), gaining approval from their parents, the police, the City Council and signing up a marching band, without anyone in our esteemed media establishment hearing a word about it. That person should probably be put in charge of corporate communications for a big company or government department with a lot of bad news – one of the power companies, perhaps, or a trading bank.
Incidentally, if school speed limits is the cause being protested, then I fully support it. There’s a school near where I live which is at the bottom of a 70k/h hill, and the thought of sending their precious dear things down that road each day must give local parents conniptions. I have it on good authority that the local AOS sergeant, who has a kid at the school, spends his off hours parked up there issuing tickets in addition to his ordinary policing workload. Not ideal.
When National leaked and then announced the home insulation fund they had a choice about how to spin it. I can easily think of four options they had (I’m sure there are others):
National chose option 4 – why? It’s not the best PR option and it’s not the most on message, every other option had clear weathering the recession messages plus something forward looking and visionary. Instead they chose the staid dull message which appeals only to the traditional infrastructure industries.
The only explanation I could come up with is that traditional infrastructure is where National’s traditional funders and backers have come from, perhaps they wasted a golden opportunity for positive spin for a little old fashioned pay back?
This post was, in part, inspired by Zetetic’s post about National’s current lack of attention to the concerns of female voters. A couple of their options would’ve been great options if they cared about women voters, instead they chose the spin best suited for the Fletcher Building board.
Posted on 03:09, June 18th, 2009 by Pablo
In Part 2 of this series I mentioned the notion of contingent consent. I noted that consent is not given once, forever, but instead is contingent on collective and individual expectations being met at the economic, social and political levels. Today I begin by broadening that notion.
As Adam Przeworski pointed out some time ago, democracy is a contingent outcome of conflicts. No more and no less, at a political level “democracy” is a particular method for resolving conflicts between competing political and socio-economic groups. There are other methods of resolving such conflicts, but those involve degrees of coercion, intimidation and imposition rather than peaceful resolution of competing interests. Democracy is unique in that it is a political system (and society) that is based upon the contingent, amicable resolution of conflicts between collective (at the political level) and individual (at the societal level) interests. It is therefore unusual in the sense that it has an institutional bias (a story in and of itself) in favour of compromise rather than imposition. It is unique amongst social hierarchies because of its preference for the middlle view, rather than elite preference. Yet, the orientation towards peaceful or amicable conflict resolution in pursuit of mass consensus adds weight to the contingency of the resolution in question. Once again, we must unpack the term in order to understand its broader implications.
Democracy survives in the measure that it meets popular (not just majority) expectations. Expectations are a product of popular conceptions of entitlements and rights, often enshrined in law but always perpetuated in foklore and myth. The key for all governments is to manage expectations so that the political form can be reproduced. Authoritarian regimes reduce expectations (often to zero) in certain policy areas in order to satisfy those in others (if at all; in their most degenerate stage authoritarian regimes become mere kleptocracies, ideologically perverse fetishists or homicidal cliques, as the regimes led by Anastasio Somoza, Kim Jung-Il or Robert Mugabe attest). The difference is that democracies must satisify popular expectations in virtually all policy areas, or at least convince the public that a commonly-recognized hierachy of needs must be satisfied in order of priority, so as to reproduce mass contingent consent successfully. Everything political, in other words, is contigent in a democracy.
Democratic rule is contingent on popular expectations being met, and those expectations are raised or lowered by party promises while in government and opposition. In the measure that popular expectations of policy outcomes are broadly met, the government survives and the regime prospers. In the measure that popular expectations are not met governments fall and the regime is undermined. The reason for the latter is that, when confronted with repeated failures to meet expectations by ideologically different governments, popular confidence in the regime type as a whole begins to fall. When successive governments fail to meet expectations or live up to their promises, popular confidence in the regime begins to suffer. If prolonged, such a loss of confidence can lead to withdrawl of mass contingent consent to the regime, as people do not differentiate between the inaction or failures of particular governments and the regime as a whole (this was seen in Latin America in the 1990s and led directly to the resurgence of indigenous socialism in that region in the 2000s). Put another way: how many people, including those in the media, confuse the term “government” and “regime” when addressing issues of policy even during stable times? (another reason why conceptual precision should be a requirement in journalism as well as academic discourse). The result in any event is mass withdrawal of consent and a crisis of the regime. Hence, of all regime types, democracy is the most contingent on popular expectations being continuously met, which in turn forces political elites to frame policy debates in ways that allow them to do so. The more informed the public and the stronger the sense of entitlement and endowment of basic rights in society, the harder it is for elites to control the terms of that debate.
How then, can democratic governments continuously meet popular, or at least majority expectations with an eye towards peacefully resolving collective conflicts in order to secure ongoing contingent mass consent given any particular mix of perceived rights and entitlements? The answer lies at the heart of democratic society and is what distinguishes it from all non-democratic social hierarchies: self-restraint. Collective and individual self-restraint is the hallmark of “mature” democracies.
Contrary to economic logics that posit that the uncoordinated actions of self-interested maximizers of opportunities lead the market to clear in an equilibrated state, strategic interaction in democracies is predicated on the conscious adoption by collective actors (and individuals) of self-restraint when pursuing their interests. The use of self-restraint (or self-binding strategies) is done in order to pursue mutual second-best options rather than first choices, since the pursuit of the latter can lead to unbrindled conflict that, although individually optimal for the victors, is collectively sub-optimal in terms of social peace and regime stability (as it is inherently unstable and prone to challenge by force). Actors may use militant-moderate strategies to pursue their interests, in which they stake a militant position or demand in order to create space for the achievement of moderate compromises (as occurs in collective wage bargaining), but the objective is the moderate goal, not the militant one. In adopting the mutual second best approach to strategic interaction, collective actors and individuals take into account the interests and strategies of other actors. The democratic “game,” in other words, is coordinated, with actor coordination premised on mutual self-restraint.
Recall that capitalist democracy is itself a product of self-restraint and compromise on the part of capitalists and workers: capitalists consent to democracy and a reduced rate of exploitation, while workers consent to private ownership of the means of production and the universal logics of capitalist markets. Democracy is, in effect, a grand compromise born of collective self-restraint in pursuit of mass contingent consent.
The threat to democracy comes when collective actors and individuals abandon the practice of self-restraint and pursuit of mutual second best choices that are Nash equilibrated and often Pareto optimal in favour of egotistical first choice preferences. Often this is done because the actor in question believes in the superiority of its view on a given social construct or policy issue, but it can also be simply a matter of greed or ingrained authoritarianism. In New Zealand the political party that is the closest to this approach is ACT, which sees its market/libertarian/social authoritarian beliefs (yes, there is a contradiction there) as superior to all other political views and thus not worth compromising. Most other parties, to include the Greens, understand the give and take needed for the collective mutual second best to obtain over time, but ACT remains zealous, some might say extremist, in its approach to policy-making. In the measure that it continues to do so it is, consequently, a threat to democratic stability.
As with the other concepts examined in this series,there is more to the discussion of contingency and self-restraint in a democracy, particularly the macro-, meso- and micro-levels in which they are manifest and the tradeoffs that occur within and between each level. Suffice it to note here that the salient characteristics of democracies are their ability to inculcate in rulers and ruled the notion that self-restraint is an important ideal in and of itself, and that all political decisions and policy outputs must subject themselves to the contingency test that diminishes uncertainties, upholds universal rights, satisfies entitlements, improves accountability and reproduces mass consent over time. In the measure that they do so, we can say that such democracies are “hegemonic.”
This is the last of this series. My partner has joked that I have single-handedly driven down the blog readership with my long-winded ruminations amid the more topical posts of my blog colleagues. My apologies if that is so, but if nothing else the very act of writing has begun to clarify my thinking on the subject, and hopefully that of some readers as well.
How* to vote: Yes, [null] or !#gh$u%WfG?
What’s a body to do, who thinks the S59 referendum question is absurd and yet supports the rights of children to be free from violence, even that perpetrated by their well-meaning parents?
Russell Brown asks the question, and elaborates on the options, but doesn’t provide an answer. Essentially, the question is about principle against pragmatism. This approach is pretty elementary (game theory isn’t a speciality) but it does enough to demonstrate my views on the matter. (It looks to me like a weird sort of Stag Hunt with a third quarry thrown in). There are also a few assumptions and assessments as to how the results will play, which I’m happy to argue. I apologise if it all seems a bit bleedin’ obvious.
Starting with the worst response, the third quarry or null vote. An argument of principle, advocated by Denis Welch, it holds that people should treat the s59 referendum with utter contempt and dispose of their share of the $9m expense in the circular file. This is possibly best characterised as the Ostrich Strategy, viz. “ignore it and it’ll go away”. Unfortunately, no cause which attracts signatures from the 10% of the electorate required to trigger a CIR will ever just go away on its own. Given that there are a hard core of people who are strongly motivated to vote “no” in this referendum, the adoption of this strategy will send the (incorrect) message that the bulk of the electorate doesn’t care either way, ceding the field to the “no” voters (hereafter “anti-anti-smacking” or “AAS”). We can call this “Lose For Sure”, because no matter what happens, the strategy can’t win.
The main argument of principle, made most forcefully in the PAS thread by Craig Ranapia and Tom Semmens, is that the question is so badly worded that reading meaning into it and voting on the basis of that interpretation accords the question too much respect, and devalues the CIR system which should insist on properly-formed questions. This argument holds that one should respond to a meaningless question with a meaningless answer by invalidating the ballot and submitting it anyway, which I have characterised above as “!#gh$u%WfG”; in other words, leaving the chad hanging or writing something to the effect of “This question is meaningless” on the ballot and returning it. This has some history in previous referenda, and in principle if enough informal ballots were returned, could serve to discredit the question and the questioning lobby group. Which is what we want. We can call this “Win Big”, because if enough people take this approach, the anti-anti-smackers will be roundly shamed in a more thorough manner than simply losing the referendum. On the other hand, if not enough people do this and the votes are split between “yes” and “informal” the AASers will claim victory. We’ll call this “Lose”.
The argument in pragmatic terms is most eloquently put by Judy Callingham: “I’m going to vote “yes” – as I see it if the bastards don’t lose we’ll never hear the end of them”. This illuminates a key aspect of the matter: the AAS lobby doesn’t have to win big, they just have to not lose in order to demonstrate that they represent the “average kiwi”. This means the primary goal of those opposed to the question or what it represents should be to win, regardless of the magnitude of the victory. Put like that it seems obvious, doesn’t it? This position is most strongly put by The Yes Vote, whose banners are currently up all around the progressive NZ blogosphere. Essentially, if enough people interpret the question in the way in which the AAS want people to interpret it and vote “yes” anyway, they will lose, and the outcome will be positive, viz. parents not being allowed to claim correction as a defence for beating their children. We’ll call this “Win”. Those so voting will have favoured the AAS with a formal answer to their ballot, thus granting them some sort of legitimacy, and if insufficient people vote this way such that it boosts turnout and the AAS still win, they will rightly be able to claim that they have a public mandate for their policy of allowing parents to assault children with legal protection. We’ll call this “Lose Big”.
So, how do things stack up? I’ve established five notional outcomes, as follows:
So how should one vote? Well, it obviously rests on what other voters will do. Clearly the best outcome in the case of a split requires collusion – members of one group (either the “informal” voters or the “yes” voters) changing their vote. It looks to me like this:
So, essentially, my argument based on this is “vote yes, support campaigns to convince others to vote yes, and all those of you who are considering not voting or voting informally in protest – don’t, just vote yes, because the main danger of losing is in splitting the vote. And hope like hell the yes vote doesn’t fall short, because trying and failing will mean a worse loss than just plain old failing.”
* I have omitted the “no” vote. People who are going to vote thus have no need to consider the questions I raise in this post.
Sean Plunket delivered a stinging, if metaphorical, spank to Larry Baldock today on Morning Report (audio). Plunket challenged Baldock to demonstrate one case (just one) in which a parent was convicted of a criminal offence for smacking a child. He can’t, because there hasn’t been one. After several minutes of going around in circles arguing symbolic, rather than substantive matters and making excuses, he settles on the case of Jimmy Mason, which is explicitly not a s59 test case, since he denied striking his son at all.
What we have here is an apt and obvious demonstration that Larry Baldock doesn’t actually understand what the question means – and neither does John Boscawen. That, and the pro-smacking lobby is trying to use the referendum for symbolic purposes. They’re arguing that the question doesn’t mean what its words say it means – it means what its proponents say it means. If this was taken on by government it would be a subversion of the purpose of a CIR, which is to give the electorate a chance to answer a specific question which has clear and obvious policy implications – not to give people a chance to tick ‘yes’ or ‘no’ and then have the meaning of that response spun into whatever suits the referendum framers’ agenda. Because there is no possibility of gaining an understanding of what the electorate wants with this question there is no legitimate issue of representation, despite what anti-anti-smackers such as Dave think. John Key has seen this, and has wisely refused to allow his government to be hijacked by populist propagandists with an incomplete grasp of either the issues or the process; that is, people who figure that belief and ideology are all that matter.
Larry Baldock also reveals his larger purpose here, which is to establish himself and the Kiwi Party as NZ’s next populist vehicle, exploiting the vacuum left by Winston Peters’ absence. He started by talking about how both Phil Goff and John Key are “part of the problem” for supposedly ignoring the electorate, and finished this interview, in which he made no substantive points whatsoever in support of his case, with a petulant “the next-best referendum will be the elections in 2011”, a somewhat weak variation on “the eternal court of history will absolve me” which calls on people who believe that both Labour and National are the problem to vote for him.
Well, Larry, we’ll see. You’re no Winston. Perhaps you can sign Michael Laws up; you could use his political competence.
Posted on 10:02, June 16th, 2009 by Lew
The BSA has upheld a complaint against TVNZ’s Breakfast on the grounds of balance after it allowed Garth McVicar the free and unopposed opportunity to rant about sentencing.
Complainant Roger Brooking argued that the programme privileged “the reactionary views of an unqualified right wing individual as if he was the oracle on sentencing law”, and that the show’s hosts were unduly sympathetic toward him. The authority upheld the complaint on the grounds that Breakfast producers and interviewers failed to challenge or question McVicar’s “controversial” views, simply accepting them at face value, and internalising them for use as a frame for viewer responses.
This is an excellent decision, for a couple of reasons. First, it reinforces the expectation that the media have a responsibility not to naïvely accept the statements of their commentators or interviewees; that the interview process ought to be adversarial. Secondly, it provides a line in the sand as to what constitutes a controversial topic of public discourse, by implicitly agreeing with Brooking’s characterisation of McVicar and his pronouncements. It goes counter to some previous decisions, such as the rather alarming case last year in which the authority effectively declared that talkback was legitimately a balance-free zone.
One of the most divisive issues in modern democracies is the notion of entitlements. In NZ the dividing line mostly centres on interpretations of Te Tiriti and its sequels. In this discussion I shall try to unpack the concept in order to phrase its importance to sustainable democracy in broader terms.
To that end let us clarify what entitlements are not. Entitlements are not objective rights. Objective rights are universal standards guaranteed and enforced by the State. Contrary to what many believe and the desires of constitution-makers, they are not naturally given or divinely ordained. Rights are not “objectively” or materially given (contrary to what natural law and capitalist theorists believe). Instead, people are born into social contexts in which the notion of inalienable or universal rights may or may not exist, and may shift depending on circumstance (think the US government stance on torture under W. Bush). Individual and collective rights are not guaranteed deus ex machina but by human invention. They are a human artifice encoded, enshrined or ensured by human instrument. Thus, be it the 1948 UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights or civil liberties statutes in any given country, universal rights standards are effectively enforced by States, which are also the primary abusers of individual and collective rights. Universal rights in principle are selectively upheld in practice depending on the disposition of States and the regimes that govern them. In reality they are not natural, innate, inherent or immutable, but instead are the intellectual product of human beings (elites, for the most part) acting upon notions of collective interest in specific historical contexts.
Although they may overlap with universal rights and are often confused with them, entitlements do not originate in the State and are not always universal or objective. Instead, entitlements are subjectively driven assessments of what is deemed to be expected or “due” a person or group based upon their location in the socio-economic and political context. Such assessments are group and context specific in origins, although “outsiders” may believe in their validity. Thus, Kazak goat herders may feel that they are entitled to guaranteed pasture; Taiwaneese teenagers may feel that they are entitled to MP3s; Cubans may feel entitled to first class health and education services; Singaporeans may feel entitled to cheap public housing and food; Argentines may believe that they are entitled to a daily ration of “bife” (steak); Tongan fishing villagers may feel entitled to a portion of any day’s catch; Salafists may believe that they are entitled to religious freedom in Christian societies; Pashtun fathers may feel entitled to marry off their daughters as they see fit; African-Americans may feel entitled to affirmative action; physically disabled people may feel entitled to accessible facilities; religious, ethnic and linguistic minorities may feel entitled to observe their differences in a preferential way; Maori and other indigenous groups in post colonial societies may feel that they are entitled to the land, sea and air that comprise the physical boundaries in which they exist, and to continuing the cultural practices of their ancestors. The point is that all people have a sense of entitlement to something, and that something is a product of historical events and practice translated into current perspective, grievance, and approach, all subjectively assessed from the standpoint of the individual or group in question. Although they may be well-founded and quite necessary for the people in question to lead fulfilling lives, and may in fact be universally shared, these notions of entitlements are not, by definition, rights.
Authoritarians do not much have to worry about reconciling their political projects with notions of entitlement. They can recognize or disregard entitlements as they please, using force as the ultimate arbiter of disputes arising from differences over who is entitled to what. For democracies however, particularly those in heterogeneous societies with past records of oppression, exploitation and expropriation, addressing the issue of selective group entitlements is central to regime stability. That is where the so-called rights (entitlements?) of the majority may run in conflict with the rights (entitlements?) of minorities. Rights are always universal and State-granted; entitlements may or not be. The question in democracies is how to reconcile them.
Depending on the political strength of any given actor, selective notions of entitlement can be pushed onto the policy-making agenda. If successful, the promotion of entitlements can lead to legislative recognition, which in turn can lead to the treatment of entitlements as rights. The key to democratic stability is for selective entitlements to be accepted by the majority as if they were universal rights. That assumes majority consensus on the historical record that produces a shared definition and perspective on selected group entitlements as well as their means of achievement or redress. That is, above all, an ideological project.
Rights are defined, bestowed and enforced by the State, in a top-down process of elite attribution and mass application. Entitlements are construed “from below,” originating in grassroots conceptualisations of what is (historically) due to or expected by a given group or groups. In the measure that selective notions of entitlement enter into the majority consciousness as reasonable and fair given a particular history and current context, they then have the chance to become part of the policy process. In the measure that they enter into the purview of the State (as the operational agent for the implementation of policy), they can become synonymous with the general interest. At that point they become State-sanctioned and enforced. But however conflated their usuage may become, entitlements can never be construed as rights unless they are universally shared. That is why debates on selective entitlements are so heated and divisive. Be it on matters of cultural identity, resource extraction or political representation, the conflict between selective entitlements and universal rights is a permanent feature of the social landscape in modern democratic societies.
I admit to not having a complete grasp on how to reconcile group entitlements and universal rights in a democracy. Yet in seems that it is one of the most important and intractable issues in the reproduction of the democratic form. Better said, it is the resolution of the entitlements versus rights conundrum that lies at the heart of sustainable democracy in the early 21st century. And that, again, may be in the first instance more of an ideological project than a matter of policy.
Next post: contingency and self-restraint.
It’s not very often I get excited about a new entrant to NZ’s media ecology. The last time I did was for MiNDFOOD, based on the pre-release PR, and that only lasted until I opened the thing up and realised it was just another glossy ad-filled waiting-room mag with skinny celebrities on the cover.
But this morning I’ve read most of werewolf, the latest offering from Scoop’s Gordon Campbell and others, to be published every full moon. I’m pleasantly surprised. The debut edition features a reasonably thorough survey of Helen Clark’s little-considered but much-valued arts policy through the Oughties; a good bag of the smacking petition which drew immediate fire from petition backers Bob McCoskrie and Larry Baldock in comments; a satire primer from the dependably excellent Lyndon Hood; and a bit about the effect of electoral systems on democracy – case in point: Lebanon. Music and travel writing as well. Go read some of it.
I can only assume that Gordon’s choice of masthead is drawn from the same place as my title, the name of Ian Wishart’s publishing company. In some ways werewolf reminds me of Investigate: a niche publication which will try to carve out its niche from a critical, complicated, politically and philosophically-engaged, media-aware, somewhat geeky audience and specialising in long-format, analysis-rich material which digs a bit deeper than that published (and re,re,republished) by the usual suspects.
Like Investigate/TGIF/TBR, it has potential to bridge the divide between traditional and new media formats essentially by providing the best of both worlds – periodic, reliable and high-quality content which doesn’t demand too great a commitment in time or resource from its audience but which provides blog-style opportunities for engagement should readers want them. Since I don’t imagine Gordon and co. would overly appreciate being compared to Ian, I should note that that’s where I think (and hope) the similarity ends – NZ doesn’t need another ideologically-bound narcissistic soap-box publication, and that this first edition is not. Nevertheless, I wish them all the success Ian has had, and bring on the next episode.
Although I never got around to doing the follow-up post on the political-symbolic aspects of the Pirate Bay case (for which you can all blame my baby daughter), one of the consequences of the guilty verdict I considered has come to pass: the Swedish Piratpartiet has won a seat in the European parliament, gaining more than 7% of the vote in Sweden.
How much change they can make in that bureaucratic behemoth is another matter but their election as a Streisand effect-like result of the Pirate Bay verdict which gave them an immense boost in public profile, shows that this is a political issue with teeth.
Normally I despise and distrust political quizzes as misleading trivia, but since this one confirms my existing prejudices about myself I’ll post it anyhow.
My Political Views
My Foreign Policy Views
My Culture War Stance
Hat-tip: Dave at Big News; and ScrubOne (who seems to be my polar opposite) is apparently compiling another chart of the NZ blogosphere, so everyone knows which canned propaganda terms correctly apply to whom.