Posts Tagged ‘political philosophy’

Notes on democratic fundamentalism

datePosted on 22:48, June 9th, 2011 by Lew

Perhaps I’m reading a bit much into Jordan Carter’s declaration that he’s a libertarian socialist — as he said on the tweets, “it’s just a pun, an oxymoron. Which I found amusing”. So I may be overreacting in the particular case, but if you’ll forgive that, it’s made me look at and consider my own perspective in a way which lends itself well to writing down.

I think Jordan is cherry-picking his definitions; co-opting two existing pieces of fashionable terminology for the sake of provocative pretension. I think what he’s described is really just liberal-social-democracy of the relatively ordinary modern kind — a pretty far cry from anything resembling either libertarianism or socialism in actual history — and I don’t see what’s gained by smacking an ill-fitting label on it. But there’s a fair bit to lose. For a start, by doing so you alienate all those who really do call themselves libertarians and the socialists (though perhaps that’s not a great loss).

Moreover, as a matter of political branding it’s braindead. By applying what is, unjustly or not, heavily loaded and controversial terminology to what is actually a thoroughly mainstream political movement you risk marginalising it. ‘Socialist’ and increasingly ‘libertarian’ are markers of political extremism, at least in the Anglo world. They breed mistrust and fear, and rightly so: you can carry on all you like about how the horrors of 20th Century socialism and communism weren’t worthy of the names, but the fact is those were the names which stuck. They’re beyond reclamation. (I’ve argued this before, and I understand it’s not a line which is popular with wishful socialists, and you’re free to disagree — but I’d prefer not to argue the toss at too much length again; it’s really a sidebar in this post.)

‘Libertarian’, although Ayn Rand hated the term and its baggage, has been similarly redefined from its original usage by her heirs, and the authoritarian-conservatives who are busily colonising that movement (Tea Party, UKIP, ACT etc; collectively I call them ‘liberthoritarians’). Association with that lot is anathema to social democracy and left praxis of any sort. On the other flank you have the link with anarchism, whose symbolic currency among the social mainstream to whom a political vehicle like the Labour party must appeal is little better.

That’s all really just a preamble, though, to the following more important bit of the post, which is about my own rather amorphously-defined political perspective (bearing in mind that this is also a massive topic which I hope do deal with in about a thousand words and a couple of hours). The reason I think it’s daft and a bit pretentious to adopt titles like ‘libertarian socialist’ is that I’m less interested in what people declare to be their philosophy and more interested in the mechanisms they choose to promulgate that philosophy. Being a “socialist” or a “libertarian” or whatever else is one thing, but if your commitment to achieving the aims of your chosen creed is via democracy, that implies a commitment to fulfilling the expressed wishes of your society whether or not they accord with your own. If the electorate really does decides it wants a full-scale neosocialist agenda and votes in a government which will deliver it, a genuinely democratic libertarian movement will not impede the progress of such an agenda except by legitimate legal means; and by the same token, if the electorate seriously votes for the neutering of government and the implementation of a social-Darwinist Nightwatchman State, then a genuinely democratic socialist movement will grudgingly accede to that. The trouble is that many, if not most, libertarian and socialist movements are only democratic movements insofar as democracy is convenient.

Although I think I have previously disclaimed the title, I am essentially a democratic fundamentalist — I consider the commitment to democracy to undergird the rest of a political-philosophical agenda, rather than sitting on top of it. The reasoning is a mix of principled and pragmatic arguments which I’ve also made many times before, mostly derived from uncontroversial old-fashioned liberalism — that people have the right to determine the shape and nature of their society (right or wrong), that the government must answer ultimately to the governed, that there’s no other proven method of ensuring smooth, regular and nonviolent power transfer, and so on. For these reasons I have no truck with non-democratic movements on either side of the aisle; the authoritarian socialists who killed a millions in the last century, or the modern-day liberthoritarians who call for the violent overthrow of legitimate governments with which they happen to disagree, or those who argue that democracy is broken because voters make ‘bad’ choices (with the inference that, for society’s sake, the power to make such choice should be stripped from them).

Such movements don’t hold with democracy; they may tolerate democracy as long as it gives them results they like, but democracy doesn’t work that way. You take the bad with the good, on the understanding that you will have the opportunity to win back the fort and set things to rights again, if you can persuade the electorate that you’re worth supporting. So to merit consideration as a legitimate political movement, this commitment to democracy is a necessity. And to a large extent such a commitment — assuming bona fides can be demonstrated — is sufficient to grant legitimacy. For this reason, as much as I despise the ACT and New Zealand First parties, for instance, I do accept that they have legitimacy inasmuch as they generally conform(ed) to and support(ed) the robust, existing democratic norms of society. Regardless of the policy mix which sits on top of it, I can tolerate a genuinely democratic movement because in a robust democracy, you should only get away with doing what the electorate permits you to do.

Explained this mechanical sort of way it’s a naïve view, but to be useful, notions such of these do need to be considered in light of what lies beneath. Determining whether a given system constitutes a democracy worthy of the name is often non-trivial, particularly at the margins. Even within generally robust democratic systems, there exist distortions and imbalances which warp access to and exercise of power in favour of one group or another. There is even a pretty wide tolerance within which a democratically-elected government with a mandate to do so can fiddle with the levers, creating advantages for itself while not fundamentally rendering the system undemocratic. The authority of democracy is also not ironclad, it does not obtain outside the existing normative moral, ethical and legal frameworks of humanity; if 51% of an electorate decide it’s ok to slaughter all blue-eyed babies, it being democratically certified does not make such a provision legitimate. So in this way what I’m talking about it isn’t really democratic fundamentalism at all — there are sound arguments to be had all down the line about these and other factors, and indeed recognising and addressing the (many) limitations of democracy isn’t something to be shied away from.

The question of ultimate sovereignty also can’t be ignored. The ultimate authority for how a society ought to be configured rests with the people, and if this means that a government, democratically-elected or not, is acting egregiously counter to the electorate’s wishes in ways which democracy can’t fix, stronger medicine must sometimes be applied.

This is the reasoning the Tea Partiers claim when calling for Obama to be overthrown; and that Lindsay Perigo (now shilling for a noted authoritarian who is the parliamentary leader of a noted authoritarian party) appealed when he declared the Clark government illegitimate. But while some legitimate grievances exist(ed) in both cases, those calls were and are vexatious. In reality a stronger standard is needed to maintain the balance between democracy and ultimate sovereignty. Of course, in both cases the calls for insurrection came to nought — they were manifestly idiotic and consequently did not attract support; and moreover, in both cases subsequent democratic elections under the systems that both provocateurs claimed were invidious returned strongly in favour of the opposition parties, utterly disproving the assertion. In the New Zealand case, the incoming government repealed the offending Electoral Finance Act, doubling that proof (and then proceeded to enact something very substantively similar, to very scarce outrage from anyone).

Of course, this principle of the peoples’ sovereignty means the electorate can relinquish its power, vest it permanently or semi-permanently in some other mechanism of power. I’ll get the obvious out of the way now: this is what happened to the Weimar Republic; the existing democratically-legitimate rulers of Germany ceded their authority to Hitler, who enjoyed impunity from democratic censure (and, it must be said, who brilliantly exploited the constitutional arrangements of the republic to engineer the ongoing popular support for his cause and the ineffectuality of his opponents). What happened in the years following 1933 is an example of why a movement’s commitment to robust democracy must be treated as fundamental, but the ultimate recourse to power must remain with the people.

For me what it all really boils down to is the comment usually attributed to Tocqueville, that a democratic society gets the government it deserves. But this is both misattributed and misquoted — it was Joseph de Maistre, and the original quote omits ‘democratic’. The implication is that any society gets the government it deserves. A sham democracy exists because those governed by it do not demand more — more representation, more transparency, more robustness, more accountability. A dictatorship is such because its victims didn’t do enough to prevent one from becoming entrenched, or overthrow it once it had become entrenched. This is a harsh view, and strictly incorrect — there is little the Ukrainian peasantry of the Holomodor could have done to prevent their expurgation as a result of Stalin’s decrees, and nothing they did to deserve such a fate, for instance — but the essence of truth in the quote is generally that, in the final analysis, nobody has a greater responsibility or ability to ensure that their government carries out the wishes of the people it governs than the people themselves.

L

Cannibalising society for the money proxy

datePosted on 10:20, May 19th, 2010 by Lew

This talk of not being jealous about tax cuts, and the unstated supposition that the rich are just better reminded me about a couple of posts I wrote a year or so ago about the “money proxy”: the idea of wealth as an easy quantifier for a person’s value. I’ve rehashed the argument here because I think it’s particularly apposite given the forthcoming budget. Paraphrasing myself:

Money is both the means by which we judge a person’s worth (in the human sense) and the resource needed to enjoy the comfort and dignity to which human beings are entitled by simple virtue of their being human beings. Because the same thing is used as both a means and an end, there is inevitable conflict: by denying people access to sufficient food, healthcare, accomodation, etc. on the grounds that they cannot afford to buy it for themselves, a society tacitly says: you are not worth it because you do not have enough money.

Previously, I had argued that while there’s considerable shared ground between National and Labour (both want economic growth, believe in the state’s role in providing some public services, etc.) the predominant difference between the two in economic terms is in the reflexive positions to which they repair when hard choices need to be made. National believes in supporting ambition, Labour in mitigating harm:

The former sees achievement as the highest goal, and failure as a necessary collateral effect of attempted achievement. They grade a society by its upper bound, by how much success its leading members achieve. In this regard, the ideology emphasises ambition, celebrating that qualities as the most beneficial to society while disregarding the worst consequences of its failure – destitution, disease, starvation, etc. The caricature of an ambitionist, if I may coin the term, sees the world as humanity’s oyster, and humanity in positive terms – as potentially successful and satisfied and healthy and secure, and considers that anyone who does not achieve these things has simply not tried hard enough, or for long enough, or lacks the innate characteristics needed to achieve those things and is therefore not entitled to them. Entitlement accrues to a person on the grounds of their success. In symbolic terms, the way to appeal to these people is in terms of opportunity, advantage, individuality, and the idea of just desserts for effort rendered.
On the other hand, the caricatured mitigationist (to coin the opposite term) grades society on its lower bound, by the extent to which the least successful members of the society are allowed to suffer by the more successful. They see the world as a dangerous, inhospitable place in which the default state is abject meanness, and humanity in negative terms of limiting those inhospitable forces, keeping out the cold and the hunger and the disease, while anything else is a bonus. Entitlement accrues to a person on the grounds of their humanity alone. The way to appeal to these people symbolically is in terms of compassion, brotherhood, sacrifice, cooperative achievement and that principle that none should suffer needlessly.

Emphasis added to identify the key symbolic points of the rhetoric around this budget, and highlight the fact that things are playing out exactly as you would expect. These battle lines were drawn long ago, and for all National’s “compassionate conservative” rebranding, there’s really nothing new in their focus here. They faced a clear choice between ambition and harm-mitigation, and chose according to their political identity. They simply don’t have a problem with the money proxy: it’s a measure as good as any other, and a nice clean “objective” one, because it’s determined by a market.

But I do. Following the first excerpt, I wrote:

This, to me, is not acceptable. If we cannot divorce the value of a person’s dignity, comfort and wellbeing from the monetary cost of sustaining it, what’s the purpose of society?

It’s bad in principle that people are treated (to a greater or lesser extent) as non-people by virtue of their material circumstances. And furthermore, I think it’s a bad decision in plain pragmatic utilitarian terms to attempt to swim against the economic tide and support ambition at the cost of significant harm:

Push comes to shove at times like this, when things are tight. When many people are deprived them, the human necessities of health, comfort and dignity can more readily be achieved by an idea of the common good than by the burning desire of ambition. […] In good times it’s easy to emphasise the greater good because a reasonable minimum standard can be expected to exist or be trivially provided for the few who need it. None need suffer except by a relative standard. In hard times, however, when raw success is less achievable, mitigating harm at the temporary expense of ambition becomes more valuable by its easy achievement.

So what we have with the budget, judging by the pre-release hype, is simply a return to form for the National party, and it should be countered by a return to form by the Labour party as well. National are retreating from the middle ground which won them the election and repairing to their reflexive, reptilian-brain adherence to the money proxy as an iron law of society. Labour must reclaim this ground; not that it ever really ceded it, rather permitting an occupation which is now beginning to withdraw.

The underlying calculation is a tradeoff of societal harm against economic growth. Another way of putting it, in more resonant terms, is: how much of society are we prepared to cannibalise, and for what gains, accruing to whom? This is the question around which Labour should orient its response. The words “many” and “few” will fit neatly into it.

L

Turns out I am a Sensible Moderate™ after all

datePosted on 10:31, June 8th, 2009 by Lew

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
I am a center-left moderate social libertarian
Left: 2.64, Libertarian: 2.48

My Foreign Policy Views
Score: -6.04

My Culture War Stance
Score: -7.51

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.

L

BK Drinkwater replied several days ago to my post on the core philosophical difference between Labour and National. Unfortunately I’ve been too busy (with work and with caring for family members at either end of their lives) to give very much attention to this sort of thing, and this state will continue for the foreseeable future. His is a good post, and although it’s couched as a critique of mine, I mostly agree with it. It’s not so much arguing a different point than mine as looking at the issue more deeply. I especially like his restatement of the matter in formal terms:

The big question, and this is the one that will probably decide which camp of economic thought you pitch your tent in, is this: to what extent do the ill social products of income inequality compound as according to income inequality, and does this effect rival the benefits of economic growth to the point where you’re willing to see less of the latter?

A therefore B (therefore A)
I was in the initial post perhaps a bit vague about which parts of my argument were the hypothesis and which were the evidence to prove it (in truth, they’re both, which is itself problematic). This meant BK accepted the utilitarian dichotomy I raised (greatest good versus least harm), but didn’t follow it completely through. Once followed through, I think it illuminates the reasoning behind both sides’ policy preferences and ideological truisms. I pegged the core philosophical difference to a crude split of those who see the world as being bounteous with opportunity and potential, and those who see it as being fraught with danger and risk. For example:

Classical liberals in National are concerned almost solely with negative rights: the right not to have your stuff stolen, the right not to be raped, etc etc. Labour recognizes also positive rights: the right to a high standard of education and healthcare, the right to share equitably in the prosperity of the nation as a whole.

(Ignoring for a moment that the example isn’t accurate because both National and Labour believe in the things ascribed above to Labour). The notional ambitionist is concerned with negative rights because they see the world as basically beneficial, and consider that if people are just left the hell alone human beings will generally be sweet. The notional mitigationist ideologue, on the other hand, believes that the world is a harsh place, and that minimum entitlements of comfort and dignity should be guaranteed in positive rights. The two positions positions don’t explain the worldview as much as they are derived from the worldview. Other dichotomies map to this with a fair degree of accuracy: the abundance versus scarcity split of how full the glass is represents just one, you can probably think up others.

Above, I used `the world’ deliberately, because I think a good case study for this sort of thing are the linked matters of climate change and peak oil. Ambitionists, by and large, see neither of these as a great problem, because at core they hold an unshakable confidence in humanity’s ability to overcome anything and will find ways to mitigate against both, given enough time and good reason to do so. This is the throughoing theme of Atlas Shrugged. Mitigationists, on the other hand, believe that there are forces greater than humanity and that these problems cannot be overcome – at least not by the ambitionist approach. This is the throughgoing theme of another great dystopic novel, The War of the Worlds, where humanity is saved through no fault of our own but through careful preservation of a lower bound.

These dichotomies are heavily propagandised, and are a significant matter of political identity. I reject much of the Marxist cui bono? approach to explaining political allegiance, and rather think that (warning, rash generalisations follow) the wealthy support National because National reflects their experience that the world is a sweet place where everyone has opportunities, they just have to take them; while the less-wealthy support Labour because Labour reflects their experience that it’s tough to scrape by without a decent base-line of public support. This leads me to my next point: what do people really believe?

Apology
Answer: what their ideological identity tells them to. The dirty little secret of my initial post is that I appealed to utilitarianism because it’s a useful framework, but I don’t actually buy it, and I don’t think very many other people do either. The unstated assumption was that people think rationally about matters like this, in terms of actual utility. I think people should, but I don’t think they do. When it comes to propagandised political identity markers such as these dichotomies, people assess policies or political positions in deontological terms, not in utilitarian terms – they identify themselves with an end and then rationalise the necessary means, inventing or adopting or appropriating arguments which allow them to sleep at night. The question is what does this policy advocate vis-a-vis what I believe to be right rather than what utility will this policy bring vis-a-vis the alternatives. So all this talk about opportunity and risk and discount rates and such is useful in theory, and useful in practice inasmuch as it might form the basis for ideologically resonant arguments which might lead to greater support for better policy outcomes, but I don’t think the question I raised was strictly one of utility – it’s one of identity. Sorry about that.

More on the money proxy
I want to expand on why I have problems with the money proxy, which I touched on in the last post. It’s pretty simple, and explains the reason why I’m not strictly an ambitionist: money is both the means by which we judge a person’s worth (in the human sense) and the resource needed to enjoy the comfort and dignity to which I (and most people) believe human beings are entitled by simple virtue of their being human beings. Because the same thing is used as both a means and an end, there is inevitable conflict: by denying people access to sufficient food, healthcare, accomodation, etc. on the grounds that they cannot afford to buy it for themselves, a society tacitly says: you are not worth it because you do not have enough money. This, to me, is not acceptable. If we cannot divorce the value of a person’s dignity, comfort and wellbeing from the monetary cost of sustaining it, what’s the purpose of society?

I suppose that’s my A.

L

Greatest good versus least harm, and the money proxy

datePosted on 23:12, March 11th, 2009 by Lew

It seems to me that the main difference in principle between Labour and National-based governments in NZ is an old question of utilitarianism – whether one should work toward achieving the greatest good or toward ensuring the least harm. The two philosophical positions are sketched out reasonably well in the wikipedia article on utilitarianism.

In principle, the difference boils down to a strategy of positive ambition versus negative mitigation. The former sees achievement as the highest goal, and failure as a necessary collateral effect of attempted achievement. They grade a society by its upper bound, by how much success its leading members achieve. In this regard, the ideology emphasises ambition, celebrating that qualities as the most beneficial to society while disregarding the worst consequences of its failure – destitution, disease, starvation, etc. The caricature of an ambitionist, if I may coin the term, sees the world as humanity’s oyster, and humanity in positive terms – as potentially successful and satisfied and healthy and secure, and considers that anyone who does not achieve these things has simply not tried hard enough, or for long enough, or lacks the innate characteristics needed to achieve those things and is therefore not entitled to them. Entitlement accrues to a person on the grounds of their success. In symbolic terms, the way to appeal to these people is in terms of opportunity, advantage, individuality, and the idea of just desserts for effort rendered.

On the other hand, the caricatured mitigationist (to coin the opposite term) grades society on its lower bound, by the extent to which the least successful members of the society are allowed to suffer by the more successful. They see the world as a dangerous, inhospitable place in which the default state is abject meanness, and humanity in negative terms of limiting those inhospitable forces, keeping out the cold and the hunger and the disease, while anything else is a bonus. Entitlement accrues to a person on the grounds of their humanity alone. The way to appeal to these people symbolically is in terms of compassion, brotherhood, sacrifice, cooperative achievement and that principle that none should suffer needlessly.

Although it may sometimes seem so, the world is not made up of caricatures, and this is my round of defence against complaints of false dichotomy. Both of these two broad positions hold some resonance for each of us, and it seems plausible that the balance of that resonance has a strong determinant effect on our political preferences. The problem, as always, comes with implementation, and the primary problem of implementation in the society we have is that money is used as the main measure of success and therefore as a proxy for a person’s innate value. This is perfectly acceptable to the ambitionists, whose ideological basis enables them to embrace money just as easily as they might embrace any other measure of human importance, but it’s not so attractive to mitigationists, who argue that entitlements accrue to a person on the grounds of their innate status as human beings and members of society, regardless of their achievements.

Push comes to shove at times like this, when things (in terms of that prevailing measure of success, money) are tight. When many people are deprived them, the human necessities of health, comfort and dignity can more readily be achieved by an idea of the common good than by the burning desire of ambition. However, when things get good again, it’s a terribly hard ideological position to peel back, and inasmuch as the common good can constrain the urgency of effort required for success it can be counter-productive, entrenching mediocrity. Indeed, without the incentive of individual reward for ambition, it could be argued that society would never pull out of any trough. But contrary to what the Randroids say, this isn’t an absolute constraint. In good times it’s easy to emphasise the greater good because a reasonable minimum standard can be expected to exist or be trivially provided for the few who need it. None need suffer except by a relative standard. In hard times, however, when raw success is less achievable, mitigating harm at the temporary expense of ambition becomes more valuable by its easy achievement.

The case in point is the Key government’s recession strategy, which gives a great deal of consideration to maintaining ambition but little to mitigating harm. It’s a tacit acceptance of a certain amount of harm in service of a longer-term good. If not from the policy itself, you can tell this from the terms used to talk about it. That’s a complicated philosophical and utilitarian question for a supposedly non-ideological government to be tackling.

L