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Liberal vs. conservative activism

As I have said in this post, I believe that the future of activism depends on bringing various groups together, finding common ground, and making a few compromises along the way.

So, I have been thinking then about finding the common ground between liberal and conservative activists. And to be able to find a common ground I had to first define what separates these two groups. Below is my best guess about the essence of liberal/left-wing and conservative/right-wing activism:

Left-wing activism: Government is the solution. We need better regulations and put in charge the right people to implement them.

Right-wing activism: Government is the problem. We need less regulations because only powerful people have enough means to jump through their hoops, which creates a system rigged against the little guy.

Add to this political corruption and you get even more unfair system, in which people with enough influence and resources can get preferential regulation and treatment from the government.

Anacharsis, a philosopher from the 6th century BC, said something very similar:

“Written laws are like spiders’ webs; they will catch, it is true, the weak and poor, but would be torn in pieces by the rich and powerful.”

Left-wing activists want to make spider web stronger, so that bigger flies could also be caught. Conversely, right-wing activists want to make spider web weaker and thus level the playing field.

The above are primarily observations about the outlook on the economic issues; many right-wingers have a different view on government regulation concerning moral and social issues. For example, they may be in favor of free market, but simultaneously support a state ban on marijuana. (Libertarians, though, are more or less consistently against any government regulation).

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I can somewhat understand right-wing position, because I believe that having a bad regulation is usually worse than having no regulation at all. However, I still think that a good regulation can in fact be the best option most of the time.

scaleConsider this analogy: if you want to weight two objects it is helpful to have an accurate scale. However, it is incredibly unhelpful if your scale is rigged. Indeed, you would be better off if you had no scale at all – that way you wouldn’t get false figures and you could still weight the objects by hand and roughly tell which is heavier.

So, the catch with government regulation is that it is incredibly difficult to foresee if a particular regulation will have a positive effect or not, and even small details can make a huge difference in the end. As they say, the devil is in the detail.

Since the effects of regulating certain activities are so unpredictable, we have to be prepared to constantly evaluate all regulations and adjust them through trial-and-error. And in some cases we may find that the best option is indeed to have no regulations in that particular field. In other cases we may be able to find a good one. Therefore I subscribe to neither the left-wing nor to right-wing way; I believe that the best option is to decide on a case by case basis.

The success or failure of a particular regulation depends on the nature of incentives and disincentives that are introduced to society with this regulation. And in some cases, or to some extent, the natural incentives of a free market may prove to be better than anything government could come up with.

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I don’t know if this can be a common ground for liberals and conservatives – the notion that we generally can’t make a priori assumptions on whether a government regulation will be good or bad. The details of any regulation and its implementation will determine whether it will turn out to be a good or a bad one, but we can hardly predict an outcome, if at all. It is therefore desirable to enact disparate solutions in different jurisdictions, observe the results, and adjust as needed.

Honestly, I doubt that this will convince many people, but I had to express my beliefs. I still hope that some other, more practical common ground between liberal and conservative activism will be found. Personally, I’m out of ideas – the split between them seems insurmountable. However, if you have any helpful suggestions, please leave a comment below.

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Changing the Paradigm of Being, Part 6: Principles of balanced governance

Did you miss previous parts?

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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.

Goldilocks zoneGraph: Trade-off between freedom and security.

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.

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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.

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Direct democracy

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.

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Continue to Part 7. (coming soon)

Changing the Paradigm of Being, Part 3: Cooperation and human nature

Did you miss previous parts?

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The power of cooperation

Let’s have a close look at how a new layer of cooperation can change the existing system, even though the underlying rules of the game are not eliminated or changed in any way. This doesn’t mean that this is always an option, but it sure does open a new way of looking at the world.

In the United States, the president is elected indirectly via the Electoral College, whose members are chosen by a unique set of rules. Each state is allocated a number of electors that is equal to the joint number of its senators and representatives in the Congress. The District of Columbia is given a number of electors equal to the number held by the smallest state.

The U.S. Constitution establishes that the way of choosing electors is determined within each state by its legislature. Nowadays, each state conducts popular elections to help choose their slate of electors. Most states use a winner-takes-all system, in which the candidate with the most votes in that state receives all of the state’s electoral votes (Maine and Nebraska allow their votes to be split).

Because of this system of indirect vote, presidential candidate can sometimes fail to get the most votes in the nationwide popular vote and still win that election. According to another criticism, the present system encourages political campaigners to focus on a few “swing states” (states in which the outcome of vote is uncertain or close) while ignoring the rest of the country. Polls show that a majority of Americans support the idea of a popular vote for president, and a number of constitutional amendments have been submitted in order to replace the Electoral College with a direct popular vote, but none has been successful so far.

Amending the U.S. Constitution is a difficult task: a proposed amendment must be passed by a 2/3 vote of both houses of Congress (or by a convention called by two-thirds of the states), and then ratified in three-fourths of the states.

Due to lack of consensus for amending the constitution, several states took a different approach: The National Popular Vote Interstate Compact (NPVIC) is an agreement among several states that seeks to replace their current rules for allotting presidential electors with rules that would guarantee the election of the presidential candidate who won the national popular vote. The agreement will go into effect only when the participating states together have an absolute majority in the Electoral College. The participating states would give all of their electoral votes to the national popular vote winner, who would therefore win the presidency by winning more than half of electoral votes.

Currently, eight states and the District of Columbia have joined the compact. Together they have 132 electoral votes, out of 270 electoral votes needed to have a majority in the Electoral College (538 electors). So, NPVIC is almost halfway to being implemented. If and when enough states join the compact, the rules of the presidential race will change – by the virtue of added cooperation between the participating states – without changing the actual electoral process underneath (the Electoral College).

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Magna Carta MemorialThe above example should not be over-hyped. First of all, it’s still just a hypothetical arrangement that hasn’t been implemented yet. It will go into effect only when participating states hold an absolute majority in the Electoral College – realistically, that would require approximately half of the states to join the compact. Secondly, it can only work because states have a constitutional right to choose electors however they want.

Nevertheless, this example gives us a possibility for a whole new outlook on social change. Like U.S. states, which have certain states’ rights, people living in modern democracies have a whole set of constitutional rights and freedoms. They include freedom of thought, opinion and expression, freedom of peaceful assembly and association, and the right to own property alone as well as in association with others. Furthermore, virtually all modern democracies adhere to the principle of “everything which is not forbidden is allowed”.

Empowered with these essential rights and freedoms, a large group of ordinary citizens could theoretically alter the framework of a society, not necessarily by changing the laws of a country, but by establishing a new level of cooperation between them. In fact, implementation of my manifesto (Part 2) stands or falls by people’s ability and willingness to do so.

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Human nature and the limits of collectivism

However, for any group endeavor to be successful, it is essential to understand the psychology behind cooperation, as well as to differentiate achievable objectives from wishful thinking. If we want to avoid future disappointments, we should keep in mind that cooperation between people is not unlimited.

As Steven Pinker puts it in his book The Blank Slate:

“The idea that people are instinctively communal is an important precept of the romantic doctrine of the Noble Savage. It figured in the theory of Engels and Marx that “primitive communism” was the first social system, in the anarchism of Peter Kropotkin […] and in the writings of contemporary radical scientists such as Lewontin and Chomsky.”

He quotes Karl Marx, who wrote that a communist society would be:

“The genuine resolution of the antagonism between man and nature and between man and man; it is the true resolution of the conflict between existence and essence, objectification and self-affirmation, freedom and necessity, individual and species. It is the riddle of history solved.”

Pinker comments on the above quote: “It doesn’t get any less tragic or more utopian than that. Marx dismissed the worry that selfishness and dominance would corrupt those carrying out the general will.” As you can probably tell, Pinker sees the world in a much darker, down-to-earth shades. According to him, “all societies – animal and human – seethe with conflicts of interest and are held together by shifting mixtures of dominance and cooperation,” which leaves us in a state of permanent tragedy. He further explains his position: “The Utopian vision that human nature might radically change in some imagined society of the remote future is, of course, literally unfalsifiable, but I think that many of the discoveries recounted in preceding chapters make it unlikely.”

Throughout the book Pinker argues against “tabula rasa” models of the social sciences (the idea that the mind of a newborn is like a “blank slate”). He believes that human mind is substantially shaped by evolutionary psychological adaptations – the product of which is relatively fixed human nature. He seeks to investigate its characteristics: “Studies of altruism by behavioral economists have [… shown] that people are neither the amoral egoists of classical economic theory nor the all-for-one-and-one-for-all communalists of utopian fantasies.” Pinker exposes weaknesses and possible disadvantages of working in or as a group: “When people are part of a group, they pull less hard on a rope, clap less enthusiastically, and think up fewer ideas in a brainstorming session – unless they think their contributions to the group effort are being monitored.”

These findings speak against “sociological tradition” of social sciences, in which society is viewed as a larger superorganism and its individual citizens as mere parts. Pinker writes that “some radical scientists imagine that the only alternative is an Ayn Randian individualism in which every man is an island,” and then offers his solution to this dilemma: “The real alternative to romantic collectivism is not “right-wing libertarianism” but a recognition that social generosity comes from a complex suite of thoughts and emotions rooted in the logic of reciprocity.”

This logic can be illustrated with a quote from The Perfect Storm, a book written by Sebastian Junger. Much of the early part of this “creative non-fiction” book describes the daily lives of the commercial fishermen and their jobs:

“Sword[fish] boat captains help each other out on the high seas whenever they can; they lend engine parts, offer technical advice, donate food or fuel. The competition between a dozen boats rushing a perishable commodity to market fortunately doesn’t kill an inherent sense of concern for each other. This may seem terrifically noble, but it’s not – or at least not entirely. It’s also self-interested. Each captain knows that he may be the next one with the frozen injector or the leaking hydraulics.”

People can be generous – and sincerely so – but sooner or later most of them will ask themselves: What’s in it for me? Any social endeavor or ideology that refuses to recognize and accept this is likely to fail, eventually.

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Incentives and disincentives

Let me be clear: Pinker does acknowledge that social arrangements can change if we decide to change them, however, lasting change cannot be made without taking into account constraints of human nature. Not all human nature is bad, though: “For all its selfishness, the human mind is equipped with a moral sense, […] and for all its limitations, human cognition is an open-ended combinatorial system, which in principle can increase its mastery over human affairs, just as it has increased its mastery of the physical and living worlds.”

I pretty much agree with Pinker on this issue. I don’t think we should aim to change human nature, because this may be futile; maybe the best thing we can do is to think creatively and put in place the right incentives and disincentives that will change how people behave – because of their own self-interest.

This statement may seem contrary to the spirit of my manifesto, but it’s not. Firstly, we need to recognize that incentives are not necessarily monetary. People value different things beyond money and material wealth: we value our health, our relationships, nature, security, happiness and peace of mind. Besides, in my manifesto I clearly wrote that the purpose of the proposed societies for sustainable living and self-actualization would also be mutual support and assistance – this can have some monetary benefits for members as well.

On disincentives’ side, every social structure needs certain regulations to deal with people and groups who would want to game the system to their own advantage. Breaking the rules should never be tolerated. We can still hope that human race will eventually evolve above pure self-interest and won’t need “carrot and stick” anymore, but we should not rely on this, because we could be waiting for a very long time.

Our main focus should be on how to improve the society here and now. Theoretical debates about different visions of ideal world may be exciting, but can also be a distraction that prevents us from taking practical steps toward a better future.

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Continue to Part 4: Capitalism – A Love Story.