Category Archives: Reason

Liberty is Security, and Security is Liberty

A brief article over at Reason summarizes a couple of recent political studies that show that creating restrictions to combat terrorism actually increases the risk of terrorism*. In one case, religious restrictions foment religious violence. In the other case, restrictions on the freedom of expression in the name of security provokes violence. These studies provide evidence that security is better served by maintaining liberty, rather than curtailing it. While this is useful empirical evidence, we can make a stronger case for maintaining liberty for the purpose of security.

Let’s start with a real-world example.

On November 15th, sheriff’s deputies knocked on the door of John Livingston, a 33 year old father, looking for a suspect in an assault investigation. The deputies asked to enter and search the premises, and Livingston told them to get a search warrant, as is his right, and closed the door. Instead, the deputies broke down the door and began beating Livingston. The deputies tased, maced, and finally shot him four times. Livingston was unarmed, and was called a “very kind man and an incredible carpenter”.

It would seem to me that John Livingston was not very secure.

This is precisely the practical purpose of the administrative restrictions that are placed on state agents. Without courts and other limiting institutions on state action, which we might also call liberty, citizens do not have security against agents of the state. We can dismiss the people who say that state agents only go after people who have done something wrong. The way they figure out if you’ve done something wrong is by investigating you, which involves all sorts of potential violations of the citizen’s dignity. And then they’re wrong (or biased, or just plain malicious) all the time.

It is not only that liberty contributes towards security, as the Reason post suggests, but liberty is security. Thus, when people (well, fools) say that we must “give up some liberty for more security”, they are actually suggesting a logical contradiction. They would be suggesting that invasions of our homes and privacy, or threats to our lives or freedom, somehow make us safer.


*Note: “terrorism” is not a word with any useful or precise meaning.

The Foundation of All Ills

Bertrand Russell wrote, in chapter two of his Political Ideals (1917):

Even in times of peace, most men live lives of monotonous labor, most women are condemned to a drudgery which almost kills the possibility of happiness before youth is past, most children are allowed to grow up in ignorance of all that would enlarge their thoughts or stimulate their imagination. The few who are more fortunate are rendered illiberal by their unjust privileges, and oppressive through fear of the awakening indignation of the masses. From the highest to the lowest, almost all men are absorbed in the economic struggle: the struggle to acquire what is their due or to retain what is not their due. Material possessions, in fact or in desire, dominate our outlook, usually to the exclusion of all generous and creative impulses. Possessiveness—the passion to have and to hold—is the ultimate source of war, and the foundation of all the ills from which the political world is suffering. Only by diminishing the strength of this passion and its hold upon our daily lives can new institutions bring permanent benefit to mankind.

Institutions which will diminish the sway of greed are possible, but only through a complete reconstruction of our whole economic system. Capitalism and the wage system must be abolished; they are twin monsters which are eating up the life of the world. In place of them we need a system which will hold in cheek men’s predatory impulses, and will diminish the economic injustice that allows some to be rich in idleness while others are poor in spite of unremitting labor; but above all we need a system which will destroy the tyranny of the employer, by making men at the same time secure against destitution and able to find scope for individual initiative in the control of the industry by which they live. A better system can do all these things, and can be established by the democracy whenever it grows weary of enduring evils which there is no reason to endure.

The Problem of Information Pollution

A section of Interstate 95 passes over the tracks of an old warehouse sector in Richmond. As you take the multiple curves of the highway, you face a blitz of billboards among the road signs. Once, you could tune these billboards out. In recent years, some latter-day Don Draper has added a lighted billboard that transitions from one image to another. Advertising is so useless that I don’t remember what either image is selling (at least, I don’t consciously remember it). But I do remember the billboard and the distraction it provided as I looked for the correct exit. A lot of our “information environments” – the spaces where we look for information – are becoming cluttered with information that hampers our goals in our particular contexts. Highways are cluttered with billboards, streets with glowing signs, television, film, and radio filled with advertising. There’s the Internet, with its omnipresent, blinking ads. Now, there are so many apps competing for our attention on our smartphones that gadgeteers want to send those notifications to smartwatches. We can call this clutter information pollution.

Regular pollution degrades an ecosystem until it can no longer serve our needs; for example, a river so polluted its water cannot be drunk or bathed in. In the same way, information pollution is any information that interferes with pursuing our information goals in a given context. Those billboards make finding important road signs more difficult. Those ads on TV or Youtube waste your time while waiting to get back to what you are there to watch. You go to Buzzfeed for fifty pictures of puppies, but advertising and recommendations for other articles will interfere with reading what those puppies have to say. Advertising is not the only form of information pollution. There’s also just people’s poorly formed opinions. Conspiracy theories, falsehoods, and bad inferences are also information pollution, because they interfere with our ability to search out reliable and credible information. In an age of anti-vaxx, climate change denial, 9/11 truthers, and #Gamergates, this kind of pollution is becoming a significant problem.

At this point, we might reach for individual “self-protection” or “target-hardening” solutions. We can protect ourselves by tuning out distractions, turning off our phones, and practicing mindful meditation. We can block ads through programs like AdBlock and readers that declutter webpages. But this is like putting a water-filter on your kitchen sink. The filter doesn’t solve the problem of the degrading environment. And you are simply bearing the costs of doing so while the producers of the pollution benefit. You can protect yourself from too much or too false information, but you can’t protect yourself from the consequences. Anti-vaxxers will continue to reduce herd immunity, gamergaters will continue to drive women out of their homes, and climate change deniers will protect the destruction of our species.

There are some solutions available to us. Vermont, Hawaii, Maine, and Alaska ban billboards. The city of Sao Paolo in Brazil banned outdoor advertising. Sweden and Norway ban any advertising aimed at children, who are particularly vulnerable to ads. The United States bans television tobacco advertising. These are supply-side interventions on advertising, blocking out places where particular information might be placed. We could also block advertising on the demand-side. That is, we could charge the corporations for every dollar of spending on advertising, just like we might charge for their ecological pollution.

Some will claim that regulating advertising space is a violation of free expression, but it isn’t. You can still talk about how much you love those cigarettes, but that doesn’t mean you can write it just anywhere, or that corporations we charter should be allowed to pay you to say it. However, falsehood and bad inference is not so easy to clear out of the information environment. Plenty of bullshit-peddlers are just looking to get rich by selling books full of magical thinking to the gullible, and we know how to limit the ability of people to get rich. But we can’t prevent people from believing falsehoods, or of drawing illogical conclusions, or however we form bad ideas. I don’t know how to solve that one.

We can’t simply bear down and concentrate our way through information pollution. We have to clean the information environment itself, through collective action. Then, we might be able to think clearly.

Not Just Liberal or Conservative

Vox has a cool political calculator that will predict your political leanings on various issues. Just by sharing your demographic information, including race, income, gender and more, the calculator will predict how liberal or conservative you are on each specific issue. This reflects the ongoing tendency of political scientists and psychologists to view popular opinion as landing on a left-right scale going from “liberal” all the way to the left and “conservative” all the way to the right. The problem is that this is not how people actually think politically. Individual persons hold all sorts of views that cannot be reduced to a single scale.

The calculator itself makes its predictions on the basis of answers to questions with two, maybe three, choices. For example, the authors (Weeden and Kurzban) use the question, “should same-sex marriage be allowed?” with the answers “yes”, “no”, or “unsure”. We’ll leave aside that the question is ambiguous – you might think that the marriages should be allowed but not that they should be legally recognized. Different people have different ideas about what this means. Some libertarians hold that there should not be any civil marriage laws at all, for example, and no special rights given to married couples. How do these libertarians answer this question?

Is the author of this statement liberal or conservative?

The people must learn, one and all, how to use arms, they must belong, one and all, to the militia…

This sounds like a real gun-nut, militia-type, but is actually Lenin discussing the universal arming of the people to replace the police and the military. Is Lenin really conservative on this issue?

I will grant that’s not really fair to the authors. They are looking at demographic variables for contemporary America, and have no doubt made some simplifying assumptions. But individuals have much messier political thinking than associations with poles on a one-dimensional spectrum. How much is this a result of the way we discuss politics in modern America? We are given two options on an issue that divide us into two arbitrary groupings with make-believe connections between those issues. People do, in fact, glean their political positions from ideological elites that mark their group. But we don’t reason about these political issues because we do not have the opportunity to do so. When given that opportunity in experiments in political deliberation, we have proven the ability to overcome our tribal divisions and produce adequate and even sophisticated public reason.

The Ostrom Equation for Social Power

Kings, queens, supervisors, capitalists, priests: some have more power than others. This is not only political power; even dethroned monarchs have more purchasing power, more influence, and more capacity to alter people’s behavior than the rest of us. Let us call this power “social power”. The concept of “power” is central to any discussion of liberty, equality, and democracy, but the concept remains ill-defined and unmeasurable. If we could provide a precise definition of the power that one person has over another, we could begin to likewise precisely define liberty and equality. Let’s give it a try!

Elinor Ostrom, in Understanding Institutional Diversity, analyzed social institutions into several components, and in the process offhandedly gave an equation that calculates the “power” that any individual would have in an institutional context. First we need those components of social institutions.

Social institutions, according to Ostrom, are composed of their participants occupying certain positions in those institutions. Different positions have different sets of actions that are permitted for the people occupying those positions. We could think of this as like chess: there are many different pieces, and each of them can only move in certain ways. The bishop is one “position” that a piece can have, and the bishop’s permitted actions are making any diagonal move.

In the real world institution of law enforcement, a police officer is permitted to enter and search a person’s home if in possession of a search warrant. The rest of us are not in an institutional position to do the same.

The actions permitted by someone’s position lead to outcomes of varying likelihood. Actions are “linked” to outcomes. The choices that participants make are based on the information they have about how actions are linked to outcomes. To continue the example above, searching a suspect’s home is an action that has a variety of outcomes. If the officer calls in a SWAT team to search the house, the homeowners may respond with violence to the forceful entry of their home. That’s one “action-outcome linkage”. If the officer acquires and presents a search warrant, then the homeowner may peacefully allow the search. That’s a different linkage.

Some outcomes are better than others. Some, like calling in a SWAT team, may be dangerous to the police and the homeowner. Peacefully presenting the search warrant is more likely to produce a better outcome. Each outcome has a value attached to it for each participant, calculated by adding up its benefits and subtracting its costs.

The more values of outcomes (or the greater the range of outcome values) that are available to the participant, the more opportunity the participant has. A police officer is institutionally permitted to kill without punishment in a greater range of situations than the rest of us are. If I kill someone because I was afraid of them, I would probably be locked away. The range of costs and benefits to my action are very limited. But for a police officer, killing may receive a commendation, indifference from the community, or justifiable riots. Thus, the police officer has greater opportunity than most of us in this regard.

Finally, we have the control that the participant has over the outcomes from their actions. The control a participant has is equal to the conditional probability of a given outcome value given the action taken. In other words, the more control one has, the more one can chance one has to change the value of an outcome. Back to our police officer: he has more control over a situation, say a traffic stop, because he has more choices of action than the citizen to produce a beneficial or burdensome outcome.

Ostrom gives the equation this way:

The “power” of an individual in a situation is the value of the opportunity (the range in the outcomes afforded by the situation) times the extent of control.

So, how powerful someone is in a particular situation is a product of how much better or worse they can make the outcome in that situation. Having power means being able to produce a large number of outcomes, or producing outcomes with very different values, or having great control over the outcome, or all of the above.

The powerful person in our example situation is the police officer, obviously. But now we can say why he is more powerful, and just how much more powerful. The position of the police officer creates a set of actions permitted by law in any situation. Let’s say our situation is a traffic stop with a citizen. From that set of actions, the police officer can bring about an outcome that either:

  • has the same value as the status quo (police officer and citizen go their separate ways),
  • a radically bad outcome (the police officer freaks out and kills the citizen),
  • or something in between (a warning, a citation, or an arrest).

The police officer has the additional outcome of being rewarded for meeting an assigned quota for stops or citations. Thus, the citizen has limited opportunity compared to the police officer.

Also, the citizen can do little in that situation that could affect the quality of the outcome, while the police officer has significant discretion. Without police body cameras, it’s the word of the police against the word of a citizen. So the police officer has a great deal of opportunity and control, and thus power. The citizen has little of either, and thus little power.

Ostrom’s equation only provides us with a calculus of relative social power in particular situations, however. To determine the objective social status of individuals, and thus the groups that those individuals compose, we need to calculate the power of individuals across situations. A good start would be to take the value of the power of an individual in separate situations and average across situations and institutions. To find the power of groups of individuals, we can take the average of the power of the individuals in those groups. (Perhaps, as with income, we should take the median, to prevent powerful outliers from skewing the results.)

We can also determine how much power each individual should have. In a democratic republic, people should have equal liberty. If Ostrom’s equation is a good model of power, then we can define equal liberty.

A person is free if and only if the social institutions that person participates in grants as much power as possible (either by having a great deal of opportunity, or a great deal of control, or both).

People are equal if and only if the social institutions those people participate in grant the same value of power. Note that this does not mean that each person must have the same opportunities, or the same extent of control, only that the resulting product is the same.

Thus, people are equally free if and only if the social institutions those people participate in grant the greatest value of power that all those people can have equally.

Nice. Can any readers spot any problems?

Libertarian Confusions

I’ve been engaged in a pleasant discussion with a libertarian in the comments section over at Matt Bruenig’s website. Bruenig himself is a practiced expert at destroying libertarian arguments. There is one common libertarian claim in particular that I find odd. Libertarians (or at least some brand of libertarian) categorize all rights as property rights. Thus, any infringement on one’s property rights is an infringement on the fundamental freedom of that individual. If laws exist to regulate my behavior, then that means if I violate those laws, the state will march in to take away my property. For example, if I violate the law against drug use (never!), then the state will come and throw me in prison. In this case, the property removed from me is… my body. My body is my most important piece of property of all!

The libertarian error is inherited, in a mutated form, from John Locke, the 17th century English philosopher. According to Locke, my first possession is my body, and anything my body “mixes with”, through its labor, becomes my property. This core concept of self-ownership is meant to explain how we have a moral right to our property. All of my original rights are property rights regarding my body. From this it follows that all property is an extension of those original self-ownership rights. Thus, any violation of my property is a violation of me.

Philosophers like Locke were looking for a way to create a “natural” right to property. His solution, almost alone among early modern political philosophers, makes property a moral right that predates a civil, organized society. Before human beings formed societies, with all the laws that follow, we recognized each others’ claim to pieces of the world because of the work performed on those pieces. Locke claimed that this was a rule that we recognized without the need for government. But this cannot be the case.

I will leave aside the empirical fact that Locke’s rule is not found among existing paleolithic peoples. Human beings closest to our natural state share in common.

Instead, we can just look at this logically. If self-ownership is the most fundamental sort of property, then every property right should be true of my self-ownership rights. Property is not a simple concept, but is actually composed of a number of rights, such as the right to use property, or the right to benefit from the property. One of these rights is the right of transmission. This is the right to transfer property from me to another. However, my body cannot be transferred. That is, my body cannot be removed from me and given to someone else. Therefore, because rights to my body cannot encompass all property rights, my body cannot be my property.

The response here is that, when I sign a contract obligating me to perform some action, I am transferring at least a share in my body to another party. I can even sell all my actions, into the future, to someone else, thus becoming a slave. But then other property rights will go unfulfilled. A person by their nature makes decisions, but property is subject to the decisions of its owner. This is the right of the owner to manage his property. But the slave-owner only manages by ‘consultation’ with ‘the previous owner’. Thus, the slave-owner never truly owns. Owning another person, in the sense of having all the rights of property in that person, is impossible.

This belief in the body-as-property is the source of many of libertarianism’s theoretical confusions. Of course, I do not “own” my body – I am my body. Violations against my body are violations of me as a person, not my property. We dislike violence and slavery, not because they are violations of property, but because they are violations of persons. Property, as philosophers after Locke recognized, is a social arrangement about objects, and as such, we can make new arrangements as we think are beneficial.

Locke on Authority

Locke was referring to absolute monarchy, with an eye to Hobbes, but he could have been talking about the employment relation:

[A]bsolute monarchy, which by some men is counted the only government in the world, is indeed inconsistent with civil society, and so can be no form of civil-government at all: for the end of civil society, being to avoid, and remedy those inconveniencies of the state of nature, which necessarily follow from every man’s being judge in his own case, by setting up a known authority, to which every one of that society may appeal upon any injury received, or controversy that may arise, and which every one of the society ought to obey; where-ever any persons are, who have not such an authority to appeal to, for the decision of any difference between them, there those persons are still in the state of nature; and so is every absolute prince, in respect of those who are under his dominion (Second Treatise on Civil Government, Chapter VII).

This passage reflects the republicanism of the earlier English Revolution of the 17th century. Hobbes’ insistence that we contract all of our rights to an absolute sovereign to escape the state of nature is a terrible deal. Locke characterizes the main problem of the state of nature as a state in which each man is a “judge in his own case”. That is, each person judges their own treatment of others. A Hobbesian tyranny only recreates that state of nature, with one man being the judge in his own case, as well as that of everyone else. In a similar way, the private tyrannies of the corporation or the patriarchal home reproduce the state of nature. Unless there is an appeal to a judge outside of those private tyrannies, to the labor union or the state, then we only reproduce the state of nature.

Saturday in the Park: People Learning to Be Citizens

(Please excuse the long absence, as Democracy in Principle has been having technical difficulties.  We now return you to your regularly scheduled democracy.)

Participation does make better citizens. I believe it, but I can’t prove it. And neither can anyone else. The kinds of subtle changes in character that come about, slowly, from active, powerful participation in democratic decisions cannot easily be measured with the blunt instruments of social science. Those who have actively participated in democratic governance, however, often feel that the experience has changed them. And those who observe the active participation of others often believe that they see its longrun effects on the citizens’ character.

Jane Mansbridge, “Does Participation Make Better Citizens?

The presentations at the Participatory Budgeting Conference all seemed to be timed so close together.  Surely I wouldn’t make it across even Loyola’s small Chicago campus in time for the session I had planned to attend.  And with my heavy bag, I didn’t really feel like trying too much.  This one, about “citizenship learning”, sounded interesting, and it’s right next door.

This turned out to be my favorite session of the conference; these little bits of serendipity are what life is all about.  The presentations on “Citizenship Learning” asked, “what do citizens learn from democratic practice?”  As we’ll see, I think we can express what we want to know in a way that is more testable.

Both Daniel Shugurensky and Jose Melendez are researchers in the effects of participation in democratic forums, particularly participatory budgeting, on the education and development of the participants.  Shugurensky conducts in-depth interviews and surveys to determine what the participants themselves believe that they learn from the experience.  Melendez records every participatory session and analyzes the change in language and behavior of the participants.

Daniel Shugurensky introduced the Mansbridge Challenge, which is captured in the first sentences at the opening of this article.  “Participation does make better citizens.  I believe it, but I can’t prove it.  And neither can anyone else.”  Both Shugurensky and Melendez offer evidence in favor of Mansbridge’s hypothesis.  Shugurensky recounted the story of a middle-class woman whose budget assembly was mostly in the slums.  She said that she was glad that the vote was by secret ballot, because she voted for the projects of the poor, and not those of her own class.  Once she had been afraid of the poor in the slums of her city, but now she empathized.  Likewise, both researchers see more confidence in the behaviors of the participants.  Both researchers see a change in the use of pronouns, as participants begin to use “I” less and “we” more.  And different classes of people learn different things – while the lower classes learn how the government works, the middle class learns to shut up and listen.

There are two main problems with the line of research pursued.  The first is that there are a lot of confounding variables that should make us uncertain about the relationship between democratic participation and education, learning, or personal development.  After all, most people form group bonds and identities if they work with others, and, in turn, they might feel more confident.  But this has nothing to do with democratic participation in particular; it is just as true of authoritarian groups.

The second problem is the formulation of the issue.  Education, learning, and development all point to the improvement and acquisition of knowledge or practical skills.  But people already have, say, empathy.  We just tend to have trouble using it until we’re staring someone in the face.  Perhaps the woman in the story above simply found new objects for her empathy, but did not expand her empathy in general.  But the central problem here is the framing of the issue as one of improvement, which is a value-laden concept.  How do we know when someone has improved or grown, without first defining what is to be learned?

I propose that a better question is: how does someone’s thinking change as a result of democratic practices?  Psychology has well-established ways of testing changes in cognition.  Suppose we want to test whether a participant’s empathy has expanded more generally than simply towards the other participants  The sign of increased empathy would be the greater incidence of helping behaviors towards strangers.

The experiment would then introduce helping tests between experimental groups and control groups.  The experimental group would be persons having attended democratic assemblies (popular assemblies, not representative or other bodies).  For this, we can use the assemblies of participatory budgeting, but there are also other popular democratic bodies to engage.  The control group would be ordinary persons, or persons leaving other groupings of people.

The intervention would take advantage of an experimental confederate in distress.  The confederate would have to be placed just so, so that distance from the observed subject is removed as a confounding factor.  (Distance is a known factor in whether or not someone helps another.)  The confederate makes plain their fake distress and the subject either goes to see what’s wrong or does not.  This experimental method might be familiar, as it has been used to demonstrate that irrelevant factors, like finding a dime, will increase the likelihood of helping a stranger in distress.  Hopefully for democratic theory, participating in a popular assembly will have the same effect.

As an experiment in the field, such an experiment would also have challenging confounding variables to control.  For one thing, participants in participatory budgeting may be already more altruistic.  Meanwhile, the control groups will have their own psychological changes depending on the context of the administered test.  If we were to take our controls from persons leaving a sporting event, for example, the competitive nature of sport might cause its participants to be significantly less helpful.

The benefit of such an experiment is that we introduce an intervention that has the potential to determine causation, if the bugs can be worked out.  The pure observation that Shugurensky and Melendez undertake, while limited, provides us with a rich source of hypotheses.  They also have the benefit of tracking the development, real or perceived, of democratic participants over time.  My suggested experiment does not track the long-term effects of democratic participation.

In truth though, I actually doubt that such changes would be permanent.  Without the repeated exposure of participants to democratic conditions, any cognitive changes would atrophy.  If we are altered by our systems of institutional practices, as Mansbridge rightly claimed, then democracy must be a permanent feature of social life for our character to be transformed.

The remainder of the day was uneventful.  In the midst of final panel, I left, whispering my farewells to now familiar faces.  I walked along the streets forever trying to catch a taxi – how can Chicago call itself a great city if you can’t grab a taxi off the street?  But finally I found a cab to take to the nightmare that is the O’Hare airport.  Eventually… eventually, the plane arrived to take weary night-travellers back to Richmond.

(I took a Jet to leave Chicago)


Saturday in the Park: Ping-Pong versus Potholes

It was indeed an early morning in Chicago as the terrible gray light of morning dragged me from my brief sleep.  The night before I had joined a fellow democracy-enthusiast for drinks.  After a night navigating Chicago, we settled in a bar that hovered between beards-and-denim on the hand and collared shirts on the other.  Sleep didn’t settle into my bones until mid-morning, so I knew Saturday was going to be tough.  At some point that afternoon, I sat in a big comfy chair and fell asleep, right there in the middle of the university campus.

(This music plays in Chicago all the time… in my head)

I had come to Chicago’s Loyola University for the Participatory Budgeting Conference, to engage other people in the field of citizens governing themselves, or at least their city’s capital budgets.  The day’s conference began with an opening plenary that included Joe Moore, the city councilor who brought participatory budgeting to the United States, and the academics, organizers, and activists behind PB Chicago. read more »

Rousseau Sees the Future


From Rousseau’s Discourse on the Origin of Inequality:

“If one sees a handful of powerful and rich men at the pinnacle of greatness and fortune while the masses grovel in obscurity and misery, it is because the former value the things they enjoy only to the extent that the others are deprived of them, and they would cease to be happy if, without any change in their own state, the People ceased to be miserable.”