Did you miss previous parts?
The government exists for specific reasons and has certain powers that enable it to function and achieve its goals. However, the nature of its power is that it has to be contained, or else it will naturally want to expand. If a government becomes too strong it can lead to all sorts of problems and abuses. Government should therefore have no more power than what is necessary to carry out its duties, and the structure of government has to safeguard us from unwarranted acquisition of power.
The principle of separation of powers
It is almost universally accepted now that a democratic government needs to have separation of powers, which means that the government has to be divided into branches, each with separate and independent powers and areas of responsibility. The common division of branches is into a legislature, an executive, and a judiciary. A system of checks and balances that governs interactions between them ensures that no branch of government can become too powerful: they limit each other, at least in principle.
Of course, any government can become corrupt. Constitutional safeguards can fail, in which case the division of power into branches becomes a dead letter on paper. Therefore it is crucial that we don’t put all of our eggs in one basket. The second major principle of balanced governance that we should employ is subsidiarity – an organizing principle of decentralization.
The principle of subsidiarity
The principle of subsidiarity states that a matter should be handled by the smallest, lowest, or least centralized authority that is capable of addressing that matter in an effective way. This means that governance has to be distributed between the central, regional and local levels.
In the case of United States, which is a federal state, there is a balance of power between U.S. state governments and the federal government. The term states’ rights refers to political powers reserved for the states by the Constitution.
But no matter if a country is a federal or unitary state, we should aim for a strict adherence to the principle of subsidiarity – authorities of regional and local governments should be constitutionally protected and should cover all matters that could be effectively dealt with on a regional or local level.
Of course, there will always be a clash between central control and decentralization, and a trade-off between enforcing certain quality standards and having a freedom to do it your own way. But if we will choose to follow the principle of subsidiarity, we may find the optimal balance. And within that framework, people living in different jurisdictions could enact different solutions for the same problem, through a democratic process on a regional or local level. Local people often know best what is the right solution for their particular circumstances, and citizens could always vote with their feet and move elsewhere, to a different region or community, if they simply could not come to terms with the enacted solution.
The Goldilocks principle
The third major principle to consider is the Goldilocks principle. With regard to the power of government it means that a government should not be too powerful, and it should not lack the power necessary to perform its functions; its power should be “just right”.
When the power of government is just right we get an optimal balance between free market and government intervention. The same could be said for the balance between freedom and security. The government has the responsibility to maintain peace and order, but when it turns into an oppressive police state, then this balance is lost.
If we want to maintain a functional democracy it is absolutely essential that we preserve civil liberties granted by the constitution. In most modern states the constitution has supremacy over ordinary law, and the purpose of having such constitution is to set limits on government actions.
The government should be limited, not only to prevent tyranny, but also to minimize incentives for special interest groups to capture its power. The bigger the government is, the greater the possibilities for political corruption are. Of course, I’m not an anarchist or a libertarian, for reasons that I’ve already explained in previous posts, but I certainly don’t support full-fledged statism, either.
The great dilemma
So, we have a difficult situation now: probably all of us want that the power of government is “just right”, but we may not agree on the specifics of this arrangement. Some of us are more liberal, some are more conservative. Some people are afraid of terrorists, others fear police brutality. Some people want Big government to save them from Big business, others are convinced that Big business is the consequence of Big government. These differences are partially inborn, and partially result of different life experiences, which all leads to a biased outlook of the world.
And even if we could find and agree on “the sweet spot” (the Goldilocks zone), would that arrangement be stable? The real issue here is that the government is both the problem and the solution: one role of the government is to regulate corporations, so that they don’t engage in activities that cause collective harm, but this role becomes problematic the minute that special interest groups capture the government. Our quest for the optimal size of the government looks more and more like being between Scylla and Charybdis, and nothing like finding the sweet spot.
Many people have made similar observations as I have above, and some have even proposed radical solutions. The least radical proposal of all is the call for some form of direct democracy.
I think that direct democracy could eventually become extremely important on a local level, but a system of direct democracy on a regional and national levels would have some serious shortcomings to overcome: in a large political entity it is difficult for a system of decision making to include all three desirable characteristics: participation, equality, and deliberation (see Democratic reform trilemma). I believe that in the short run, a system of semi-direct democracy (representative democracy with instruments of direct democracy) such as the one in Switzerland, is more likely to be successful.
In the long run, electronic direct democracy (E-democracy) could perhaps prove viable, but I still wouldn’t prefer a pure form of direct democracy. First, I think that a much better option would be liquid democracy (a form of direct democracy where citizens can at anytime choose a proxy/delegate to vote on their behalf) – watch the video below for an explanation of liquid democracy, as well as a presentation of the Swiss model.
In addition, I believe that a mixed system that would also preserve some elements of representative democracy, would be the best of all, because it would provide a buffer against potential irrational swings of the electorate, and a safeguard against instability in the event that modern technology, on which E-democracy relies upon, fails for whatever reason.
Changing the paradigm
However, calls for democratic reforms in the direction of direct democracy miss the bigger picture. Direct democracy, no matter what its advantages may be, is still part of the concept of governance. As I have said, I’m not an anarchist, and I believe that there is a good reason for state to have a monopoly on the legitimate use of force. But, to expect that the problems associated with the misuse of governmental power could be completely solved within the framework of a government, is pretty naïve.
What is really needed is the strengthening of civil society, to act as a counterbalance to both the government and the Big business. That is going to be the focus of the next part.
Continue to Part 7. (coming soon)
Posted in Social change
Tags: balance, checks and balances, civil liberties, constitutional safeguards, decentralization, democratic process, direct democracy, free market, freedom, Goldilocks principle, government intervention, incentives, liquid democracy, political corruption, security, separation of powers, special interest groups, states’ rights, subsidiarity, trade-off
The Day We Fight Back is an upcoming protest against mass spying carried by the NSA that was revealed last year by Edward Snowden. On February 11th, thousands of websites will host banners urging people to contact their lawmakers over the issue of privacy protection.
It’s no secret that I’m deeply in favor of this event, as I have already written in this post that
“Privacy of communication and protection of whistleblowers are two of the pillars of democracy, because it’s very difficult to hold governments accountable without them.”
Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948, explicitly mentions people’s right to privacy:
“No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to attacks upon his honour and reputation. Everyone has the right to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks.”
And long before this declaration, in 1791, U.S. states ratified Bill of Rights, which is the collective name for the first ten amendments to the Constitution of the United States. Its purpose was to set limits on government actions with respect to personal liberties, and the Fourth Amendment specifically prohibits unreasonable searches and seizures, and requires any warrant to be supported by probable cause.
The Fourth Amendment goes hand in hand with the First Amendment which guarantees the freedoms of speech, the press, and the peaceful assembly.
Dilma Rousseff, the president of Brazil, best explained this connection in her speech at the United Nations General Assembly:
“In the absence of the right to privacy, there can be no true freedom of expression and opinion, and therefore no effective democracy.”
British rapper and vlogger Dan Bull recently made a rap song video appropriately titled “The NSA hate this song” in which he expressed similar concerns:
“PRISM is a prison and the prisoner’s your mind”
“When the NSA watches everything we say, we’ve got to make sure we say what we really need to say”
In other words: obliteration of privacy by government intelligence agencies can lead to self-censorship and stifling of political opposition and unconventional ideas. Watch Dan’s video below:
Some people in power of course want to stifle political opposition that is threatening their current authority. To prevent tyranny it’s therefore crucial that we preserve the ability to communicate freely in private as well as in public; as Steven Pinker puts it in The Blank Slate: “a network of freely communicating citizens can counteract the might of the individuals in government.”
I’m not against the practice of mass surveillance just because it can eventually lead us to Orwellian nightmare. The other reason is that the implementation of my Manifesto for sustainable living depends upon effective democracy and protection of human rights. Without the rights and freedoms that people living in modern democracies currently still enjoy, the establishment of a network of societies (associations) for sustainable living and self-actualization becomes impossible.
Even though I’m not an anarchist (or even a libertarian), I believe that the biggest future social advances will come through voluntary associations, not through the state.
With regard to the power of the state, I’m a proponent of the Goldilocks principle: the state should not be too powerful, and it should not lack the power necessary to perform its functions; its power should be “just right”.
If the state becomes too powerful, it can easily turn into a totalitarian dictatorship, but if it becomes too weak, then it cannot maintain peace and public order. The primary role of government is to defend citizens from outside threats and from each other, to maintain a legal system where disputes can be solved peacefully, and to protect the rights and freedoms of the people.
I see the state as a foundation, that makes higher levels of cooperation between people possible. It provides a playing field, rules of the game, and a referee – then it’s up to people how they team up and how they play. Of course, part of the whole thing is to make sure that the referee doesn’t get corrupt.
If this foundation works properly, then positive social change can occur either through democratic process (democratically utilizing state power to correct market deficiencies), or through people exercising their existing rights and freedoms and establishing voluntary cooperative associations: a new layer of cooperation can sometimes change the existing system even without changing the legal groundwork. Watch this video for an interesting example of this concept:
How to Change Society (short version)
The future of activism
This leads us to the final part of this post. Where does the future of activism lie?
I believe that activists need to realize that they can have profound impact only when they collaborate together. They need to form networks and associations and work together. Of course, they already do collaborate. The Day We Fight Back is an example of how different groups can join forces for a common goal. They already did it in 2012 with protests against SOPA and PIPA. However, such coordinated actions are rare.
The problem is that different activist groups have incompatible visions and ideas, so they don’t really want to work together.
The future of activism lies in bringing various groups together despite their ideological differences. They should learn to collaborate on a case by case basis – work together on goals that they agree upon, despite the fact that they may disagree on all the other issues. Finding common ground and making a few compromises is the only way to achieve the critical mass that is necessary for change.
The other important realization activists have to make is that some issues cannot be solved with a democratic process, because there is simply no consensus in society on how to solve these issues (and possibly never will be). That does not mean that I support violent revolutions or any other non-democratic option that would force the views of the minority upon the majority.
However, there is a solution to this deadlock. It involves the concept of voluntary associations – establishing a new layer of cooperation only between people that want it, and leaving others alone. For example, there may be no consensus for establishing universal health coverage in a particular country. Personally, I think that universal health coverage is a good thing, but the majority of voters in that country might strongly oppose this idea. So, rather than fighting for this cause through political means, why not establishing an alternative system: a network of health insurance co-operatives that could eventually grow big and become de facto universal health care?
It’s just a suggestion. You can choose to take it or not.
Posted in Social change
Tags: activism, Bill of Rights, Dan Bull, democracy, Dilma Rousseff, Edward Snowden, freedom of speech, Goldilocks principle, government, human rights, NSA, privacy, protest, spying, surveillance, The Day We Fight Back, United Nations, Universal Declaration of Human Rights, voluntary association, whistleblower
Who gives a crap about sustainability?!
Originally posted on Treading My Own Path:
The parcel I’ve been waiting for all week finally arrived on Friday. Oh the excitement! I don’t order things online much anymore, but it wasn’t the idea of receiving a parcel that caused my excitement. It was the contents of the parcel…
Yes. You did read that right.
View original 422 more words
Posted in Uncategorized
Recently, I engaged in a short discussion in a comment section of a blog post titled “For effective sustainability results, focus on systems and processes, not targets or goals.” (link) written by Simon Wild.
Now I want to share a short summary of that article and the subsequent discussion, and that’s going to lead us to another article titled “Theory of Change” by Aaron Swartz.
So, in his post, Simon Wild actually expands on the ideas put forward by James Clear (link), who wrote that having goals is not enough to achieve success. In his own words:
“I’ve found that goals are good for planning your progress and systems are good for actually making progress.”
What does Clear mean with “systems”? How are they different to goals? He explains:
“If you’re a runner, your goal is to run a marathon. Your system is your training schedule for the month.”
Personally, I thought that this may be a cool play on words, but how deep of an insight is it? I was not entirely sold on this concept, so I wrote this comment on Simon Wild’s post:
“I think that goals are a helpful TOOL. But they are only helpful if we use them wisely. For example, if your major goal is to run a marathon, that will only be useful if you follow up with a lower level goals: to run 10 miles every other day, for example. James Clear calls that “Your system”, which is your training schedule for the month. Whatever. You can call it anything that rings true to you.
So, completely ignoring your goals and focusing only on your system actually means that you focus on the lowest level goals, on a moment by moment basis. For instance, if you are a professional basketball player, you don’t think about the game next week – instead, you stay focused on your practice that you are doing RIGHT NOW. You stay present. Your current goal is to practice free throws. So, you stay focused on shooting free throws.
If you do this, then your current happiness is not reduced.”
The last sentence above is referring to James Clear’s statement that goals reduce your current happiness. As I explained, that’s true only if you lose your presence and constantly ponder about the future. Simon Wild agreed with that, but then he continued:
“I guess what I was postulating was whether a long term goal in relation to sustainability, like zero carbon by 2030, is something that drives us to long term change? Or is creating systems of change that focus on the task that is needed today going to be more effective in the long run?”
This was my answer to him:
“As I see it, this is not an either-or option. Having a “zero carbon by 2030” goal is absolutely useless if we don’t follow up with lower level goals, or if you prefer James Clear’s terminology, with a system for realizing that goal. It’s always both: the goal, and the system.
System alone won’t be of much use either. “Creating systems of change that focus on the task that is needed today” may do some good, but will not go very far.
For example, the system that we set up may be some carbon tax law. If you are a car company and your cars produce more CO2 than a certain threshold, then your product gets additional tax. OK, great. The companies will either work to reduce CO2 footprint of their cars, or their cars will cost more, fewer people will buy them, and the effect will be similar.
But, if you don’t have a higher goal, then what do you do next? How do you convince people that this carbon tax is not the final destination, if you don’t even have a higher goal to point to? You would have to continually come up with newer and newer systems, and continually to gather support for their implementation. The real danger is, that you may stray off the path toward sustainability during that process.
You can’t hit a target that you don’t see. That’s why long term goals are important, too.
P.S.: Also read Aaron Swartz’s (R.I.P.) post titled “Theory of Change” on his blog”
I have since embraced the concept of “systems”, as I realized that they include not only your lower level goals, but the entire spectrum of things that you consciously do or set up in order to achieve your main goal. Your system as a runner is not only your training schedule for the month; part of your system is also your running buddy who trains with you and gives you additional motivation, or your portable music player that you use while running. Your system is not only your training schedule itself, but also the format in which you keep track of your training schedule (could be a calendar, a spreadsheet, a diary).
So, James Clear was onto something after all:
“Goals can provide direction and even push you forward in the short-term, but eventually a well-designed system will always win. Having a system is what matters. Committing to the process is what makes the difference.”
It’s always both: the goal, and the system.
Now we’re going to jump to the blog post written by Aaron Swartz, which I have already mentioned above. Its title is Theory of Change and it inspects two different ways in which you can tackle a problem.
The first way he calls a “theory of action”: you act forwards from where you are, in the direction of your goal. Swartz gives an example of a professional writer who thinks that the size of the U.S. defense budget should be decreased, so he does what he knows best: he writes a book on this subject.
The other strategy is a “theory of change”:
“A theory of change is the opposite of a theory of action — it works backwards from the goal, in concrete steps, to figure out what you can do to achieve it.”
So, if we want a decrease in the defense budget, we ask ourselves: how do we achieve that? The answer: a majority of the House of Representatives and of the Senate has to vote for it and then the President has to sign it.
Then we go one level lower; we ask ourselves: what motivates politicians to support something? What would motivate us, if we were politicians? Swartz gives us some suggestions:
“Well, on the one hand, there’s what you think is right. Then there’s what will help you get reelected. And finally there’s peer pressure and other sort of psychological motivations that get people to do things that don’t meet their own goals.”
Then we go another level lower and inspect all of these suggestions, one by one. We may come up with a strategy of how to persuade politicians that cutting the defense budget is the right thing for the country. Or we may organize a constituency in their districts that would demand cutting the defense budget.
I believe you now have an idea of where this is going: we continually go to lower and lower levels, until we reach something that we are capable to do without much trouble.
Then we do it. And since we’ve already devised the whole blueprint for change, the path toward our goal is straightforward (unless new obstacles arise).
If you are interested in more thoughts from Aaron Swartz on social change then also watch this video.