Category Archives: Uncategorized

Democracy in Principle Returns!

The triumphant return of Democracy in Principle is nigh! Tremble, tyrants! Celebrate, citizens! Our long nightmare of mysterious technical problems is over. Coming soon (this weekend?), I will post my long worked-on overview of the philosophical theory of republican liberty. (That’s little-r republicanism, folks.)

Stay tuned!

La Marseillaise signals the return of Democracy!  The Nazis represent my former hosting site.

Islamic Terror or Islamophobia?

Readers may find the question, “does Islamophobia exist?” a bit odd.  After all, we have just witnessed another terrorist attack just last week.  And the perpetrators seem to have some relationship, however tenuous, to Islam.  Dead suspected Boston bomber, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, had perhaps traveled to the Caucasus to meet with Muslim jihadists.  His still living brother and accomplice, Dzhokhar, does not actually appear to have been motivated by religious fervor.  So the Boston bombing is just another case of Muslim terrorism – case closed!  Or so much of our political class would have us believe. read more »

The Democratic Transformation of the State

Democracy is typically understood as meaning that the people as a whole have power or ownership over the state apparatus, the means of coercion.  In the short term, this is surely true; power must be wrested from the ruling class and remain in the hands of the whole people.  However, the transformation of the state cannot end there.  Democracy is not merely a form of government, but the form of our everyday experience.  We motivate each other to act by giving reasons to one another.  This is the purpose of all democratic assemblies.  Our lives are governed by discussion.  Rewards and punishments lurk in the background to make up for the failure of public reasoning.  Now they do not – reward and punishment are ever present in an out-of-control state and overwhelming corporate organizations.  The democratic transformation of state and society entails pushing back coercion and incentive and establishing, so far as is possible, a society governed by discussion, public reason, and moral suasion.

The Destruction of Iraq and Failures of Reasoning

The month of March is the tenth anniversary of the War in Iraq.  The facts of Iraq’s destruction at the hands of the Washington bureaucracy and its associated business interests are well-established, even if not largely well-known.  Tens of millions of Americans were led to believe that Iraq possessed or were seeking to acquire weapons of mass destruction.  Equivocating statements from the White House and its ideological base further caused many to believe that Iraq had some connection to religious terrorism.  The majority of Americans believed these lies, despite an abundance of information to the contrary.  This common failure of human rationality led to the destruction of a nation that holds the heart of human civilization.  Anywhere from half a million to one million Iraqi men, women, and children died from the war and the destruction of the nation’s infrastructure, and four and a half thousand American soldiers were killed.  David Swanson has compiled and evaluated more complete information here.

The War in Iraq was an amazing failure of reasoning on the part of the American people, who supported their government despite the approbation of many nations of the world.  The self-interested refusal of Continental Europe to join the war led to charges of their cowardice, rather than our self-reflection.  However, the reaction is predictable, once we realize that human beings are more apt use various “thinking shortcuts” (or heuristics) under stress, rather than evaluate the available evidence and derive conclusions using rational methods of thought.

A great deal of irrationality stems from the intersection of anxiety and group identity.  This is to be expected, given the role of both in improving the chances for survival.  Human beings under stress are more likely to use shortcuts than to more thoroughly weigh evidence and develop sensible predictions.  Stressful situations alter learning, for example, with persons under stress making over-optimistic predictions, rather than realistic predictions.  Thus, a nation told (and swallowing entirely) that a mushroom cloud might engulf their city might genuinely believe the ridiculous idea that American soldiers would be greeted as liberators in Baghdad after imposing almost a generation of crippling sanctions.

Happily, human beings are cooperative animals, and that our self-conception involves group identification is a mechanism for that cooperation.  Less happily, we don’t always have a healthy relationship with that faculty for group identity.  Self and group identity might involve believing facts about the world that are manifestly false; for example, the denial of evolution, or the known age of the universe, is required by many religious organizations.  Even worse, determination of proper belief may simply be initiated by the group leadership, as it was in 2003.  Group membership is necessary for survival, and certain beliefs are necessary for group membership.  Thus, facts that contradict those needed for group membership are themselves threats.

Group bias is why political dissidence, though not by itself a threat to anybody, enrages those who are not otherwise in danger of harm.  Challenges to socially dominant beliefs triggers “motivated reasoning”, the process of cognitively retrieving evidence that supports already held beliefs.  Cognitive dissonance can be an ugly scene.  At a protest back in 2003, I once saw a jogger erupt into purple rage at the presence of the demonstration.  Months before, just after the war began, a truck attempted to kill anti-war protestors.  Protestors, in declaring against an irrational war, had also declared themselves in the eyes of the fearful as “not-one-of-us”.  You can do anything to them.

This mental disorder is not confined to one political faction.  In 2003, Republicans were those most likely to name dissidents as traitors.  In 2013, Democrats decry anybody believing actual facts about Obama’s use of drones, or his war on whistleblowers, as conspiracy theorists or questionable patriots.  In the existing social structure, it’s never about reason, but which group (be it party, class, race, sex, etc) has power.

The combination of perceived threat and group identification was and is a disaster, mainly for Iraq and the Middle East, though America did not spare itself.  Unfortunately, many continue to believe that thoughtless action is the virtuous response to danger.  In reality, a situation of supposed danger most requires the courage of rational and deliberative citizenship, and large numbers of Americans did not find that courage.

We continue that failure by being unable to undertake sustained and consistent criticism of our current state organization.  We must take people as they are, cognitive biases and all; we can only craft principles of justice and social institutions for such creatures as we find them.  Democratic organization can make a rational being from the crooked timber.

Is Intellectual Property a Failing Enclosure?

The world of private property that we live in today was manufactured in Europe at the end of the Middle Ages.  The Middle Ages were marked by a mixture of feudal landlords and peasant commons.  “Commons” refers to a basket of subsistence-based property rights intended to permit the peasantry and other lower classes to satisfy their basic needs for fuel and game.  In the late medieval and early modern period, the European aristocracy and gentry began taking over common-areas and denying commoning rights, which would be approved by the state after the fact.  This process is called ‘enclosure’.  The result of enclosures was to impoverish the peasantry and create a growing underclass increasingly dependent on employment or government largess rather than independent labor.  This class eventually became the source of labor for the Industrial Revolution.  Enclosure is a process that continues to this day.  In every developing nation, the peasantry must be driven from their land to stuff foreign factories with the cheapest possible labor.  The computer and the Internet have given the developed world a new frontier of enclosure, called “intellectual property rights”.

The classic instruments of intellectual property have been copyrights and patents.  Copyrights are government monopolies created to allow artists to receive credit and the benefits of the sale of their work after transferring possession to a printer or a studio to copy and distribute that work.  Patents were created to provide an incentive to inventors to publicize their inventions, again by providing a government monopoly on the invention.  These, with trademarks and other rights over ideas and symbols, form the basis for today’s intellectual property rights.

The advent of the computer and the Internet has resulted in an unprecedented capacity to reproduce and distribute original works without the intermediation of publishers and recording studios.  These are the principal interests driving the increasingly insane world of intellectual property law.  The most obvious case of this insanity was the prosecution of the accomplished programmer, Aaron Swartz.  Swartz figured out how to download millions of articles from JSTOR (the academic journal archive), and intended to distribute them for free.  For this, US district attorney Carmen Ortiz charged Swartz under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, with penalties to include 35 years in prison and a fine of one million dollars.  Aaron Swartz committed suicide as a result of this punitive and attention-hungry prosecutor.  But the mad laws protecting so-called intellectual property formed the background of this abuse.

The enclosure represented by intellectual property seems untenable in the long-run.  On the one hand, the Internet simply makes sharing creative work too simple.  For every new method of locking work away, a method of breaking it open comes along.  On the other hand, the extent of the disruption necessary to enforce intellectual property laws is absurd.  As this author points out, private email communication would have to be eliminated to prevent sharing videos, music, or other protected material.  No society could sustain the amount of lunatic enforcement and criminal prosecutions that would be required to protect intellectual property.

Most importantly, the media corporations seem to be losing the ideological battle.  Most people know better than Carmen Ortiz, who claimed that “stealing is stealing… whether you take documents, data, or dollars.”  Private property is easy to protet because tangible property is “excludable” and “subtractable”.   Tangible property is excludable because people can be kept away from using it, by means of locks, walls, fences, and so forth.  Owners need these means of exclusion because real objects are also subtractable.  That is, once you use it or possess it, I cannot also do so.  These are the properties that allow markets to function, because objects can be exchanged only if other people cannot take it otherwise.  (In reality, it is not really the case that all real and tangible property is excludable, and markets are not appropriate for all objects.)

Intellectual property is neither excludable nor subtractble.  New means of acquiring protected software becomes freely available all of the time.  Nor does it cause a loss when the material is copied, because the information is not subtracted from the original possessor.  When Internet users are aware of simple and costless methods of acquiring free content, they use them.  However, most people do not abuse other private property in the same way if given the chance, because taking a real object actually deprives another person of its use.

Hopefully, the disrespect towards intellectual property will persist.  The battle for traditional enclosures was eventually won in the West by the twentieth century.  Perhaps the general public came to accept the private property regime was because labor struggles and social welfare states allowed them to hold a little bit of their own private property.  The general public will not benefit from intellectual property in the same way.  If someone chooses not to create and share work, then intellectual property laws will only be a cost to them.  If someone chooses to create and share work, then they will face such broad competition that they will not see much in the way of returns.  Most people will not be Hugh Howey.

The madness of intellectual property laws and its ideological impoverishment is no barrier to its persistence.  Worse things have persisted.  People must continue to organize against intellectual property law, before it destroys the Internet and culture.


Democracy: Talking or Voting?

We generally conceive of democracy in terms of voting, either for public officials to govern us, or even directly, for the laws or policies that we prefer.  The majority rules by counting up a record of each citizen’s preference and acting upon those preferences receiving the most (a plurality) or over half (an actual or “absolute” majority).  This has been the dominant conception of democracy since Aristotle, who, in Book Six (Part II) of his Politics, wrote that “democratic justice is the application of numerical not proportionate equality; whence it follows that the majority must be supreme, and that whatever the majority approve must be the end and the just”.  (Note that in Book Four, he claims that in a democracy the free rule, even if they are the minority.)

In the history of philosophy, I think only Rousseau conceived of democracy in terms other than majority rule, and in that case he did not consider himself to be describing democracy.  He believed that the law made by popular assembly was the only basis for a rightful state, even a monarchy.  Furthermore, he was more inclined towards an “elective aristocracy” than what he considered to be democracy (a city something like Athens).  In Rousseau’s vision, popular assemblies were expressing the general will of the people.  Do not confuse this with “the will of all”, which is the summed preferences of every citizen, as voting is supposed to reveal.  The general will is something more like the objective public good of the community.  The general will may be identified by a single citizen, which thought spreads through the assembled community.  Voting and majority rule only affirms the general will.

In other words, the general will is assessed not by counting up preferences, but by discussion.  The role of discussion has been the overlooked aspect of democracy, and only corrected in the last half-century.  In philosophy, Jurgen Habermas developed the concept of communicative action from the philosophical schools of pragmatism and hermeneutics.  “Communicative action” refers to the fact that language has a coordinating function.  If I tell you that there’s a bucket by the well, the well will be one of the places you look for a bucket if you want a bucket.  In our everyday life (which Habermas calls “the lifeworld” for short), we coordinate our actions through communicating with one another, specifically by ‘discourse’, the act of reason-giving.  Psychology confirms this: we are motivated to act by the reasons that others give, at least when we can identify with them.  (One study shows that we may even act when the reasons are ridiculous, such as when an experimental plant asks to use the copier ahead of someone else, “because I need to make copies”.)

In political science, attention has been given to the effects of deliberation on the preferences of deliberating individuals.  Voting is premised on the idea that we bring stable and consistent preferences to the voting booth that are all our own.  Research on deliberation (for example, from James Fishkin) has shown that people’s political and social beliefs and preferences are altered by the process of having to give reasons for their claims.

Discourse and deliberation are necessary to democracy – people assemble for a reason.  Ideally, the democratic state would reproduce the Habermasian lifeworld of coordination through public reasoning.  However, we just don’t know how to structure such a society.  This is why we have what Habermas calls “system” – institutions providing roles, assignments of rights and duties, and rewards and punishments.  These are non-discursive methods of organizing behavior.  Voting is a part of ‘system’; it is a means to deciding specific action on the basis of the majority perception of where the current dialogue is.

So we find that what is fundamental to democracy is talking to one another, and voting is simply a convenient mechanism among others for promoting that.  The aim of the democrat is to promote, as far as our knowledge of society is capable, the organization of society as a forum for public reasoning.

History is Not Made by One Man

The President of Venezuela, Hugo Chavez, has died at the age of 58, after a long struggle with cancer and repeated visits to Cuba for treatments.  After being imprisoned for a failed coup against the Venezuelan oligarchy in 1992, he was released in 1994.  He went on to be elected president in 1998, and led the country to adopting a radically democratic constitution the following year.  Under Chavez, Venezuela became a hotbed of democratic experimentation, including communal councils, communes, worker-managed enterprises, popular militias, land reform, and other forms of popular participation.  Not only these, but Venezuela has seen poverty plummet and basic needs met for all its citizens.  Hugo Chavez shares in the democratic triumph of the Bolivarian Revolution, and bears a good amount of responsibility for it.  But he is the face of the Revolution, not its heart.  Only the Venezuelan people have made their Revolution.

Despite the dubious pronouncements of Western media, Chavez was not a dictator.  When pressed for evidence of dictatorship, they point to things like the expropriation of corporate property.  This means turning abandoned buildings over to the poor, or seizing uncultivated land and distributing it to tenant farmers.  At the worst, critics point to the denial of a license renewal for a television network that was critical of Chavez.  A dubious assault on press freedom, considering that 90% of Venezuela’s media consists of privately-owned outlets critical of Chavez.  That he cooperated with actual dictators – Libya’s late Qaddafi – is a more justified criticism, though it’s to be expected that he work with other OPEC members.

However, Chavez was no Solon, laying down the new constitution and then leaving for ten years to prevent Athens from becoming dependent on his leadership.  For example, he had an hours-long television program, Alo Presidente, where he personally addressed the nation.  This sort of thing is conducive to leadership of the people, but not leadership by the people.  Democratic republics must destroy cults of personality, but presidential republics like Venezuela (or the United States) are more likely to affirm it.

Some of his reforms were undesirable as well.  In 2007, the Chavez government held a referendum on an omnibus package of constitutional amendments, most of which would have been excellent, had it passed.  It did not pass though, and the government followed up with a more focused proposed constitutional amendment.  Of all the great options to take from the 2007 omnibus amendment, Chavez chose to eliminate presidential term limits, and extend the term by a year.  I have already criticized the democratic failings of unlimited terms of office in this linked article.

Better to groom a successor, or even better, to progress faster towards the “communal state”, in which power is so distributed that it cannot be recaptured.  But the focus on the democratic reorganization of the Venezuelan state seemed to have been replaced by productivism, a focus on rapid expansion of the nation’s industrial base.  Of course, industrial expansion is desirable and necessary for an undeveloped nation like Venezuela.

Chavez was the catalyst for Venezuela’s Bolivarian Revolution.  But catalysts are not necessary conditions for a chemical reaction, but will speed that process.  Chavez was a remarkable man, who should be praised for his virtues and blamed for his failings.

If this post has a critical tone, it is because social movements have a tendency towards martyrology.  This tendency we all have – of investing individuals with historical purpose – is what demobilizes movements.  The men and women who are thought to make history are remarkable people, but they are carried to greatness on the shoulders of the rest of us.


What?  Too soon?

Liberty, Properly Conceived?

Quentin Skinner, one of the great contemporary philosophers of republicanism, has been interviewed a lot lately, and that’s got me thinking about republican liberty.  Note that when we use the term “republicanism” and “republican”, we are not talking about anything to do with the Republican Party.  In fact, the Republican Party would probably not have a positive view of republican liberty.

Republicanism is a political philosophy with a special emphasis on its conception of freedom and liberty.  Modern liberalism defines freedom and liberty as the absence of restraint to what you want to do.  But this definition is a deviation from the historical republican concept.  The republican concept of liberty is not the absence of restraint, but the absence of domination.  As the other republican philosopher, Philip Pettit writes:

The absence of domination may mean the absence of domination in the presence of other people: the status associated with living among other people, none of whom dominates you….  Non-domination is the status associated with the civil role of the liber: libertas is civitas, in the Roman way of expressing the idea; liberty is civil as distinct from natural freedom, in the idiom of the eighteenth century.  It is a social ideal whose realization presupposes the presence of a number of mutually interactive agents….  Non-domination in the sense that concerns us, then, is the position that someone enjoys when they live in the presence of other people and when, by virtue of social design, none of the others dominates them… no other has the capacity to interfere on an arbitrary basis in their choices.

More to come!

(Philip Pettit, 1997, Republicanism: A Theory of Freedom and Government, Oxford: Clarendon Press.)

Updates to the Site

Hey readers! We continue to improve Democracy in Principle for your reading pleasure.

On the sidebar, you can find some new additions. Now you can see my Twitter feed (follow me at @AlexSparrow2), where I will share only the best tweets with you, the readers. Also, there are a couple of link lists, a blogroll of some of the smartest people on the web, and another list of some great publications.

Stay tuned for some new material. And thanks for reading!

Response at “Notes on a Theory”

My Illustration of Democratic Efficiency versus Inefficiency

David Kaib, of “Notes on a Theory”, has written a response to my use of his phrase “democratic efficiency”.  Internet fame!

In my previous post, I discussed the idea of “democratic efficiency”.  Here’s what I wrote:

Participatory processes are intended to improve the democratic efficiency of representative institutions.  By “efficiency”, we do not mean that the benefits exceed their cost, as we usually might.  Instead, “democratic efficiency” refers to the degree to which the results of the democratic process reflect the will of the people.  If we conceive of the state as a system, citizens’ preferences are “inputs” and state action is “output”.  The most efficient system would translate citizens’ preferences into an act that accurately reflects those preferences taken as a whole.

For example, in the United States, our institutions are democratically inefficient.  As I wrote long ago in that linked article, there are many intermediaries between my vote and my legislator’s or executive’s decisions.  Campaign funding, think tanks, lobbyists, class interest, gender biases, racial inequality all distort the transformation of the individual will into collective will.  Those intermediaries reduce the democratic efficiency of the state.

Now, David Kaib has been using the phrase “democratic efficiency” as a critique and a myth.  He is responding to the type of people who say that “don’t blame the politicians, they’re just doing what the people vote for!”  (Even more obnoxious are the pundits who write, “if you want to see where the problems come from, look in the mirror!”).  And so recently he wrote a response to my interpretation of the idea.

Meanwhile, I’ve been trying to understand “democratic efficiency” in a normative way.  That is, what ought the state look like if it is democratically efficient?  And in my post on Participatory Administration, I admit that I oversimplified.  I claimed that citizens are putting their preferences into the political system to get something out that resembles their preferences taken as a whole.  But as David points out in his post on democratic efficiency, people don’t just have preferences built in that need to be aggregated.  People already live in institutions and occupy roles and positions that shape their preferences and perspectives.  However, this complicates a normative conception of democratic efficiency.

I wrote this in the comments on David’s post:

All of these are excellent points!

I do agree that we should not view people as having endogenous or pre-existing preferences that they bring to the voting booth.  People are embedded in social relationships and institutions, in positions and roles that shape their preferences, motivations, and perspective.  The economic viewpoint that entered political thought as rational choice theory has oversimplified complex social interactions into individuals interacting as atoms in the void.

In fact, my hope and expectation is that people will be changed by deliberative and participatory institutions.  The evidence from the participation literature, including the Baiocchi et al book I cite on my post, is that properly designed participatory mechanisms can improve civil society.  Meanwhile, the research on deliberation (Fishkin and such) reveals that people’s perspectives are changed through discussion.  On the assumption that some degree of “public virtue” is required for a democratic society, these are desirable transformations of preferences.

Of course, none of this is obvious in the article that you linked.  I am as guilty of oversimplifying the situation myself!  I used the term “preferences” in the absence of a more fully worked-out conception of how individuals should relate to an institution, in this case, the state institution.  However, once complexity is brought in, my positive view of democratic efficiency breaks down.  What, exactly, are individuals coming together to transform into collective action?  Will?  Action?  Power?

None of that is necessary for an empirical understanding of social institutions, of course.  But from a perspective of political philosophy, I want to be able to identify the legitimate relationship between the individual and the state.

My question for you, David, is: do you think that there can be a positive concept of democratic efficiency?  Or is it something that can only ever be a myth?