On Democracy: Against elections

Some readers of this blog with know my preoccupation with the shortcomings of Vox Pop Democracy. Here are some aphorisms from David Van Reybrouck who’s book Against elections does not appear to have been translated out of Dutch at this stage. They offer some interesting ways of understanding the difference between deliberative and representative democracy.

1. Democracy is not meant to make people happy, it is meant to teach people how to be unhappy.
2. Democracy is not meant to be exciting, but to be boring.
3. Democracy is not about solving conflict, it is about learning to live with conflict. (Luc Huyse)
4. A world in which conflicts are constantly being minimized is not a democracy, it is utopia.
5. A world in which conflicts are constantly being maximized is not a democracy, it is hysteria.
6. A world in which conflicts are valued as sources of insight into each other nurtures the culture of democracy.
7. Of all political systems, democracy is the one that celebrates conflict the most.
8. Democracy is not about consensus, it is about conflict.
9. A world in which conflicts are being dealt with before they turn into violence fosters the culture of democracy.
10. A world in which conflicts are neither buried nor blown up is in the process of becoming democratic.
11. Democracy is an early harvest of what otherwise would grow into war.
12. In order to remain democratic, the pursuit of happiness should go hand in hand with the acceptance of unhappiness.
13. Happy the society whose inhabitants are all slightly unhappy, for this may betray the culture of democracy.
14. Democracy is about the even distribution of unhappiness. This is its utopian ideal. In the absence of its full realisation, it teaches people to be moderately happy about their moderate unhappiness.
15. Democracy is government of the people (tick), for the people (tick), by the people (question mark).
16. Universal suffrage does not suffice to allow us to speak of ‘government by the people’.
17. If elections once belonged to the nature of aristocracy, universal suffrage was only a form of ‘quantitative democratisation’, not ‘qualitative democratisation’ (Bernard Manin). People got a right to vote, not to speak.
18. The person who casts his or her vote, casts it away. This is called: the principle of delegation. The only way of reclaiming that vote, is by sanctioning candidates at the next election.
19. Today, people despise the elected, but worship the elections. This is wrong: rather than being upset about politicians, parties and parliaments, they should be upset about the electoral
mechanism.
20. For the very first time in the history of representative government, the weight of the next election has become bigger than the weight of the previous election. The danger of the sanction has become bigger than the power of the delegation.
21. The theory of electoral democracy: let the past push the present (delegation). The practice of electoral democracy: the future hinders the present (sanction). This cripples action. We are being ruled by a misty void. This void is not the future, but the fear of the future.
22. Elections are not only outdated as a democratic procedure, they were never meant to be democratic in the first place. Elections were invented to stop the danger of democracy. This is not
blasphemy, but history.
23. Three thousand years of experimenting with democracy, and only two hundred years of playing with elections: and yet, we believe that elections are sacred.
24. There is nothing sacred about elections. They are only procedures, aristocratic procedures that people have tried to democratize, with considerable success, over the past two centuries.
25. There is nothing sacred about ‘one man, one vote’. It is only the historically contingent expression of a deeper democratic concern: the equal distribution of political chances.
26. If democracy is government through debate, electoral democracy is fairly mute: citizens wait, citizens listen, citizens cast their vote, citizens wait again.
27. In a world that is becoming increasingly horizontal, elections are an obsolete vestige of more vertical times.
28. In a world where information spins fast, voting once every four years is no longer enough.
29. In a world where technology empowers people, citizens not only want to vote, but voice their opinions, too.
30. Democracy through periodic delegation and sanction is rapidly loosing its legitimacy.
31. In a communication society like ours, it is natural that people want to engage in public discussion on the future of their society, it is positive that they want to take part in collective affairs and help shape the future of their communities.
32. People have the right to vote, they now ask for the right to speak.
33. How should the right to speak be organized? We have to avoid that only those with money, degrees and contacts get heard. We should not repeat the mistakes from the past: a new democracy should never become an elitist democracy.
34. The right to speak should be evenly distributed. The best way to do so is by sortition, i.e. by random sampling.
35. Sortition is the blind selection procedure by which a random sample of a population is drafted in order to get an adequate representation of that population.
36. If elections create representation on the basis of virtue, sortition creates representation on the basis of equality.
37. Both have their advantages: elections may guarantee more competences, sortition guarantees more freedom. Those who are drafted have to rotate after a while, their decisions will not be influenced by the need for reelection.
38. Two key notions for elections: delegation and sanction. Two key notions for sortition: equality and rotation.
39. If democracy is about the equal distribution of political chances, sortition guarantees that everybody has the same chance of being selected.
40. ‘One man, one vote’ now becomes ‘One person, one chance’.
41. Sortition is commonly used in contemporary democracies: it forms the basis of the entire polling business.
42. Opinion polls measure what people think when they don’t think; it would be much more interesting to know what they think when they had a chance to think (James Fishkin).
43. Giving a random sample of people a chance to think by letting them talking to each other and to experts and by giving them time to get at their own conclusions is the very nature of deliberative democracy.
44. Deliberative democracy is not about voting but about talking; it is not about avoiding conflict but about embracing it; it is not about consensus but dissensus.
45. Because deliberative democracy is both about the pursuit of happiness and the acceptance of unhappiness, it is a much needed complement to classical electoral democracy

Daniel Ellsberg on life and groupthink

HT Paul Monk who cites this as one of his favourite passages. It’s now one of mine. And a nice explanation of how easy it is – whether within an organisation or the caverns of one’s own riotous psyche - to slip into the pathologies of groupthink and self-deception. Somehow this doesn’t quite get the emphasis it should (if it gets any at all) in schools of management and/or government.

The urgent need to circumvent the lying and the self-deception was, for me, one of the ‘lessons of Vietnam’; a broader one was that there were situations – Vietnam was an example – in which the US Government, starting ignorant, did not, would not, learn. There was a whole set of what amounted to institutional anti-learning mechanisms working to preserve and guarantee unadaptive and unsuccessful behaviour: the fast turnover in personnel; the lack of institutional memory at any level; the failure to study history, to analyse or even record operational experience or mistakes; the effective pressures for optimistically false reporting at every level, for describing ‘progress’ rather than problems or failure, thus concealing the very need for change in approach or for learning. Well, helping the US Government learn – in this case learn how to learn – was something, perhaps, I could do; that had been my business.

Daniel Ellsberg Papers on the War, Simon and Schuster, New York, 1972, p. 18.

Vox pop journalism as a system of domination: Syriza edition

When the French and Russian Revolutions occurred, the existing order asserted itself through the intervention of foreign nations. Recognising this, and decrying it is not to endorse either revolution, but to note how powerful and self-reinforcing systems of domination are.

A much more trivial example is the minority government that emerged in Australia in 2010. I thought some of the things that occurred offered excellent opportunities to do some worthwhile resetting – of our parliamentary procedure for instance. They offered the prospect of restoring to Question Time some semblance of democratic utility. But somehow the surrounding forces that had produced the old equilibrium managed to wrest the same result from the procedures introduced by the new parliament.

This interview with Australian Greek Yanis Varoufakis shows us our bankrupt institution of vox pop journalism as a similar system of domination. The most basic cause of the simplistic bombast one sees in this interview is that it sells – it arouses emotions (which are the engine of engagement well ahead of reason) and it keeps things simple and personal. It’s Greece versus the Troika. Varoufakis verses Merkel. It’s ultimatums, struggle. Someone wins. Someone loses. It’s responsibility and fiscal conservatism versus naïve utopianism etc etc. Never imagine that some new kind of meaning might be forged in an exchange of views – the only task is that of fitting the interviewee – however reluctantly, however invidiously, into one of numerous pre-ordained pigeonholes.

In this interview with ‘broadsheet’ journalist of some intelligence and, one imagines repute – one who would imagine herself as a thoughtful, well briefed journalist not overly simplifying or sensationalising – Yanis Varoufakis tries to explain himself. He seems very lucid to me. But his attempt to put his case is constantly frustrated by the interviewers’ resolute instance on not listening to him and seeking to engage with him on his points – or to simply allow him to get his message across. Of course a good interviewer will help shape the conversation, but she’s going to dominate it. He’s going to have to answer her questions.

What’s the ultimatum? Will he deal with the Troika, etc et. Now in some circumstances this makes some sense. When the interviewee’s technique is built around obfuscation, some gotcha questions or insistence on ’yes’ or ‘no’ may be in order. Here Varoufakis is trying to explain a whole different way of seeing things (which it isn’t my purpose here to defend). My point is that he isn’t obfuscating. He’s seeking to explain himself – which he does with great clarity and according to the rules of journalism and political communication which is to say, he keeps things simple and illustrates with examples. So he asks the interviewer if she’d recommend that someone took the help of a friend if the friend was offering to lend them money to pay interest on a debt they couldn’t repay.

Anyway the interview goes on – Varoufakis is remarkably calm and lucid throughout. He does get angry, but it doesn’t contaminate the mood of the interview as it would if I were in his position. And the incomprehension just rolls on. How sad. How unfortunate that whole professions can manage to arrive at a modus operandi so antithetical to achieving what they would regard as their objectives. Still, journalists wouldn’t be the only profession in that position would they?

The interview of the blogpost: 

Shock! Good government improves wellbeing

Actually the magnitude of the effect is a bit of an eye-opener.

Empirical Linkages between Good Government and National Well-being
by John F. Helliwell, Haifang Huang, Shawn Grover, Shun Wang

Abstract:

This paper first reviews existing studies of the links between good
governance and subjective well-being. It then brings together the
largest available sets of national-level measures of the quality of
governance to assess the extent to which they contribute to
explaining the levels and changes in life evaluations in 157
countries over the years 2005-2012, using data from the Gallup World
Poll.

The results show not just that people are more satisfied with their
lives in countries with better governance quality, but also that
actual changes in governance quality since 2005 have led to large
changes in the quality of life. For example, the ten-most-improved
countries, in terms of delivery quality changes between 2005 and
2012, when compared to the ten countries with most worsened delivery
quality, are estimated to have thereby increased average life
evaluations by as much as would be produced by a 40% increase in per
capita incomes.

The results also confirm earlier findings that the delivery quality
of government services generally dominates democratic quality in
supporting better lives. The situation changes as development
proceeds, with democratic quality having a positive influence among
countries that have already achieved higher quality of service
delivery.

The middleware of democracy. Or from knowledge to wisdom: or at least knowledge 2.0

StyrelseSimon Heffer’s High Minds presents us with a portrait of the mid-Victorians in which they consciously set about building the world which became ours. A liberal democratic world.

To do so they recognised the need for all sorts of public goods. Those of education and health surely enough, an honest public service chosen on merit too (an idea they nicked from the Chinese who’d been at it for a millenium or so) and also civic virtue. It’s a stirring and a sobering story reflecting an age which I think had a more balanced understanding of the necessary ecology of public and private goods each reinforcing each other in building the Good Life.

Today for all manner of reasons – intellectual, sociological and economic - our contemporary vision is profoundly skewed toward private good and private endeavour as the paradigmatic category. That’s why I regard it as a happy hunting ground for low hanging policy fruit – a panoply of ways to drive productivity and economic growth that don’t even cost any serious government money.

But as Heffer makes clear, this Victorian quest was not just economic. It was a political project. As he argued in an interview with Geraldine Doogue – which I quote from memory because I can’t find on the ABC website – they knew that democracy was coming, so they needed to get The People a decent education before they used their vote to wreck the place. Continue reading

Paul Krugman the academic, Martin Wolf the economic journalist: Bottom line – read Wolf’s great new book

MartinWolf2011ByDaphneBorowski.pngPaul KrugmanI’m a big, though not uncritical admirer of Paul Krugman – of his straightforwardness and his aggression in what is almost always a worthy cause. And yet, reading Martin Wolf’s magnificent book rather inauspiciously titled The Shifts and the Shocks: What We’ve Learned-and Have Still to Learn-from the Financial Crisis, I’m struck by how modest Krugman’s achievement is.

Before his decisive turn with the coming of George Bush’s presidency and what Krugman saw as the rampant dishonesty of the campaigning and discourse of the right, Krugman styled himself as an aggressive defender of centrism, puncturing the fallacies of the heroes of the right and left. As he put it, he liked to catch them with their hands in the intellectual cookie jar and expose them in his pieces. Thus in his attacks on the ‘policy entrepreneurs’ of the Clinton era and before, like Lester Thurow and Robert Reich, he’d frequently ‘catch’ each of them not paying sufficient respect to the subtleties of comparative advantage and allegedly committing themselves to various other alleged intellectual fallacies.

While I was quite sympathetic to the points he was making on policy – these guys were often somewhere between little and a lot too slick in the way they presented their stuff - I didn’t really think that Krugman had demonstrated that they had in fact committed themselves to those fallacies. If you tried to read them ‘with’ the grain as it were, to get what they were trying to say – knowing also that they’re trying to communicate with people who are not steeped in economics – it wasn’t clear they were mistaken logically whether or not you ultimately agreed with them.

By contrast on the right we had all sorts of hijinks – massive tax cuts that paid for themselves, full Ricardian equivalence, modelling the Great Depression as a spontaneous holiday and various other grand themes thrown together with the flimsiest of evidence. In any event since Krugman has self-identified as a fighting Liberal, he’s been fantastically good at skewering his opponents – almost always when they need skewering, and at the same time he’s kept producing interesting academic(ish) papers. And in economics where models should be used to test, train and illustrate economic intuition and shouldn’t take over the show, academic(ish) papers are usually better than academic papers. Yet there’s been something missing. Continue reading

Managers wresting control from owners: it’s nothing new …

Contractual Freedom and the Evolution of Corporate Control in Britain, 1862 to 1929
by Timothy W. Guinnane, Ron Harris, Naomi R. Lamoreaux – #20481 (DAE)

Abstract:British general incorporation law granted companies an extraordinary degree of contractual freedom to craft their own governance rules. In this paper we study the uses to which this flexibility was put by examining the articles of association written by three samples of companies from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. We find that incorporators consistently wrote rules that shifted power from shareholders to directors, that the extent of this shift became greater over time, and that Parliament made little effort to restrain it. Although large firms were less likely to enact the most extreme provisions, such as entrenching specific directors for life, they too wrote articles that gave managers essentially unchecked power. These findings have implications for the literature on corporate control, for the “law-and-finance” argument that the common law was more conducive to financial development than the code-based systems of civil law countries, and for the debate on entrepreneurial failure in Britain during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Nietzschean evolutionary psychology

I have a strange habit of looking for bargain books. Why is this a strange habit? Because it looks awfully like a false economy. After all, even if you don’t read a book through, just reading a few chapters might take you an afternoon, the full book a few days. So it’s looking pretty silly to economise on the buying price of the book – and save, say $20 when the constraint that matters is one’s endowment of time not money. Ben Franklin rightly said that time was money, but it doesn’t work the other way round.

In any event, the thing is, it’s not working out too badly. Normal bookshops peddle the Latest Thing at high prices for a few months, then it disappears. And in the remainders bookshops like the Book Grocer – where everything is $10 or a tad over $8 if you buy five at a time – while there are quite a lot of duds (lots of the biographies are dreadful) there are some real gems, often about a decade old but which are no longer cool and recent enough to make it into the higher margin bookshops.

Recent highlights from this style of buying include, Non-Zero, Building Jerusalem, Paul and Jesus, Roads to Modernity. All really interesting reads. But right now I’m reading a great book written in around 2000 called The Mating Mind.  It’s thesis is adequately summed up in this review:

Evolutionary psychology has been called the “new black” of science fashion, though at its most controversial, it more resembles the emperor’s new clothes. Geoffrey Miller is one of the Young Turks trying to give the phenomenon a better spin. In The Mating Mind, he takes Darwin’s “other” evolutionary theory – of sexual rather than natural selection – and uses it to build a theory about how the human mind has developed the sophistication of a peacock’s tail to encourage sexual choice and the refining of art, morality, music, and literature.

Where many evolutionary psychologists see the mind as a Swiss army knife, and cognitive science sees it as a computer, Miller compares it to an entertainment system, evolved to stimulate [attract] other brains.

As I was reading the first chapter outlining his approach - which I find very persuasive, and more to the point pregnant with insight into all manner of things, not least how impoverished much contemporary social science is, I found myself thinking of Nietzsche. The word “Nietzsche” is typically associated with mad ‘superman’ theories of history. But what I’m thinking of is Nietzsche’s conviction of the ponderousness and self-importance of much enlightenment thinking: The lack of irony and self-reflection with which people imagine they are on a search for Truth. Of course the idea that human intelligence and its cultural accoutrements are not adaptations to the wild, an increasingly clever Swiss Army Knife, but rather the startling and thoroughly arbitrary outcome of a runaway process of positive feedback – peahens picked fancy tails and women picked humour, musical and story-telling smarts as markers for fitness? Well that’s a bit of a comedown.

As Nietzsche puts it in the brilliant opening of Beyond Good and Evil:

Supposing truth to be a woman – what? is the suspicion not well founded that all philosophers, when they have been dogmatists, have had little understanding of women? that the gruesome earnestness, the clumsy importunity with which they have hitherto been in the habit of approaching truth have been inept and improper means for winning a wench?

Or as he put it in less allusive terms early in his career:  Continue reading

All that was implicit was made explicit

Wendy Bacon Wendy_Bacon
Talk about clamping down on Pub Servants’ social media reminds me of how as journos we used to interview them before access to info stopped
10/04/2014 10:09 am

This tweet reminds me of something I’ve pondered for some time. The modern craze for making the implicit explicit. Its everywhere. Firms and other organisations didn’t have mission statements for most of time, and then began acquiring them starting around the 1980s(?).

Were firms hopelessly adrift before then? We introduced Freedom of Information legislation (about a decade behind the US) in the Fraser years. Has freedom of information improved. Well it’s hard to say – one’s formal rights to information have improved vastly – we had barely any before legislation like the Fraser Government’s legislation and its more recent replacement. And yet journos could ring up public servants and find out what was happening. There would have been strong (implicit) codes of conduct. Public servants wouldn’t be ‘outed’. They would likely have expressed personal views without having to explicitly go ‘on’ and ‘off’ the record as they talked.

Yet we are in a world where government is endlessly performed. And in this world the performer finds the velvet glove of formal transparency requirements the perfect accoutrement to the iron fist inside – the instinct for concealment. Today in most organisations any contact with the media will go through communications people who are trained not to answer questions. And who can blame the organisations? For on the other end of the phone acknowledge little common interest with those they interview beyond the commonplace narcissism which they may share with, or project onto their interviewee. The journalist on the other end is after something to entertain – a ‘story’ – not an explanation of what’s happening.  As Malcolm Turnbull puts it engagingly, they’re the hounds, he’s the fox, their job is to find and kill him and his job is to stay alive.

But the thing I always think of when I think of our mania for making things explicit is disability.  There are any number of ‘rights’ we’ve given the disabled. And we’ve done great things compared to what went before. We’ve made buildings, car parks, all manner of things more accessible to the disabled. We’ve passed laws to prevent discrimination against the disabled. But before all that, in a old world where there was no transparency,  the press engaged in a conspiracy of concealment – but one that was on behalf of the common good, of good government. Remarkably – it’s so far from our current circumstances I must say I can barely imagine it – in a world recognisably modern, in a world full of gutter journalism and dirty political tricks, no-one let on that Franklin Delano Roosevelt was a paraplegic. Continue reading