October 26, 2007
I think that it is commonly held that our system of government had been inspired by and bears a resemblance to, both in its ideology and in its machinations, the government of Ancient Athens. This idea is expressed and reinforced by the modern usage of the term “democracy” which was also used by the Athenians to describe their system of government.
In reality, however, the formal structure of our system of government – basically a system dominated by elected officials (Congress, the president), but with significant governmental power held by non-elected officials (the courts, especially the supreme court) – does not resemble the structure of Athenian government at all. It does, however, bear a striking resemblance to the government of Athens’ arch-nemesis, Sparta.
Western society, however, does resemble Ancient Athenian society in other, very significant, ways: In its ideology and in its economic structure. It seems that it is fair to say that Western society borrowed Capitalism from Athens, and elected government from Sparta. The result is a society that is much more oligarchical than that of Athens and much less communal than that of Sparta.
The government of Sparta relied on the following institutions: the Ephors, the lower magistrates, the Council of the Elders, the co-kings, and the Apella (the assembly). [All the information here is taken from Gilbert's "The Constitutional Antiquities of Sparta and Athens", 1895. Available from Google Books.]
October 24, 2007
Academic science, as it is today (and, it seems to me, for centuries past) is the industry of self promotion. The way the system works, academics must promote themselves. In order to get hired, promoted or funding – or even just not to be let go – they must present their work as being of great importance or novelty. Every new thought or wrinkle or nuance must be presented as a scientific advance worth telling to others, over and over again.
Researchers are thus driven toward emphasizing quantity over quality, toward over-interpreting their theory or data and toward unfruitful complexity (since complexity is harder to criticize and easier to produce than simplicity).
Under current conditions, these trends, which are harmful to the community, are driven by the need to survive of the individual researchers. This is then, the tragedy of the scientific commons.
October 20, 2007
Attention patterns in our society seem to be built around the assumption that it is much easier to detect or recognize greatness than to achieve it. Few people will ever achieve greatness, but we are all able to recognize the greatness of those who have achieved it.
This is held to be true in any area of achievement: sports, art, cooking, science, accumulation of wealth, politics, virtue, wisdom, etc. It is as easy to know a great scientist or artist as it is to measure who is the fastest bicyclist.
This assumption is a special case of the assumption that reality in general is self evident. In this special case, however, the facility of perceiving the reality of greatness is supposedly much more immediate and universal. It seems to require neither training, nor time, nor effort. Indeed, the ease of recognition of greatness is considered such a fundamental property of greatness, that greatness is often defined as being the characteristic possessed by someone who is recognized by others as being great.
Like the truth of scientific or legal positions, which are implicitly held to be self-evident, in some, rare, cases, recognition may take a while (van Gough, Gregor Mendel, JK Rowling) or may be delayed by powerful interests (Mozart), but it shall come.
There are 3 interesting corollaries to this way of seeing greatness:
- When approaching an issue, it is best for the average person to find someone great and follow their example or teachings rather than try to deal with the material directly. It is safe and easy to accept the ideas of great people.
- The sure way to find greatness (in people, objects or ideas) is to observe others and see who, or what, it is that they consider great.
- Greatness in people must be rare. According to some conceptions, this is simply a matter of definition. The commonplace cannot be great. But even when not explicitly defined as being extraordinary, the rarity of greatness follows from the requirement that it is widely acknowledged. Since cognitive barriers preclude the possibility that a large proportion of the population is well known to many people, it follows that there is a very low upper bound on the proportion of the population that may be seen as possessing greatness.
Those corollaries, it is easy to see, legitimize and solidify the position of accepted elites: their position at the center of attention validates their greatness and indicates that attention should continue to be bestowed (corollary 2), their views on matters should be accepted as correct (corollary 1) and the members of those elites possess highly unusual properties that differentiate them from the average person and justify their special status (corollary 3).
October 17, 2007
Gore’s Nobel prize win was an opportunity to tackle again some AGW issues. It was a much better opportunity to rally the troops again, and divide the world again into the pro-Gore camp and anti-Gore camp. It turns out that seeing AGW as a top priority issue puts you in the pro-Gore camp, at which point you have to justify anything Gore does – from Gore’s personal behavior (namely, what appears to be the Gore household’s high energy intensity), to Gore’s approach to tackling AGW (namely, what appears to be a purely technological approach, with an emphasis on Carbon-offsets).
My attempt to disentangle the bundle of positions associated with the pro-Gore camp, and to elicit responses on substantive issues concerning AGW mitigation policies remained unaddressed. As always, the points made by members of the anti-Gore camp were discussed at length (albeit, with hostility).
October 16, 2007
Any discourse expressed in natural language is informal. Legal discourse is no exception: any set of laws and any set of facts can be determined by a judge to be consistent with any verdict. Judges, therefore, wield power. Since in a democracy power can only legitimately be wielded to produce results that express the preferences of the people, it follows that in a democracy judicial decisions must be made by a representative body.
Classical Athenian democracy followed this pattern. In the Athenian system, there were no professional judges or lawyers: court decisions were made by a large jury chosen at random from the citizen population. Judicial power in present-day Western style government systems, on the other hand, is extremely concentrated. The single judge (or handful of judges) handling a case has enormous decision power. It is quite unlikely that any single person or small committee would see eye-to-eye with the majority of the population on a wide variety of issue.
In the first half of chapter 2 of “On Political Equality” Dahl spends 14 pages talking about the “Ideal Democracy“, “Actual Democratic Systems“, and “Democratic rights.” Then, Dahl moves on to describe what he sees as the forces leading to political equality – their causes and effects. I find this part of the book confusing and aimless – it is a mix of superficial historical, theoretical and psychological analyses.
It seems a fact of life that people are unhappy about inequality within a group of peers. This applies to inequality in general, rather than to political equality only. Dahl’s example of monkeys being upset when they are dealt with less generously than other monkeys (p. 37) is an example of this phenomenon. It is curious that Dahl does not notice (or at least does not comment) that the equality in question is not political equality, but economic equality.
It also appears, however, that the reference group that one compares one’s conditions to, the peers, may be only a subset of the people. Some people are viewed as not being comparable to oneself – often some are viewed as naturally deserving less and others as naturally deserving more. If not a matter of deserts, at least the situation where some others get less (of something) and some others still get more is seen as acceptable.
Instead of focusing, then, on the desire for equality, it would be much more informative to examine how and when someone comes to see oneself as superior, equal or inferior to others. How and why those views change over time, and how those views can be mobilized into action. Dahl’s description is much too sketchy and unfocused to be of much value.
October 7, 2007
The quality of an idea is an objective property, but it is one that we usually do not possess any direct way of measuring. Since any natural language argument is informal, it is impossible to make a definite objective determination of which ideas are good (or correct) and which are bad (incorrect). This does not mean that there aren’t good and bad ideas, and better and worse ways to think about issues and to reach conclusions. It does means that care must be taken when evaluating ideas, that every piece of an argument is open for dispute or reinterpretation and that all conclusions must be taken as tentative.
Review of Dahl’s “On Political Equality”, part 4: “Democratic rights” and limits on the power of the demos
October 1, 2007
The scheme of Ideal Democracy determines that the democratic group must be arranged in certain ways, so that the scheme can be followed. For example, all members of the democratic group must have enough time, resources and authority to obtain and analyze the information needed to gain an understanding of all the political issues on the agenda. These are the inherent “democratic rights”. Other things that are usually associated with “democracy” or with “open society”, such as freedom of religion or property rights, are not inherent democratic rights.
Two rules of Ideal Democracy, final control of the agenda and equality in voting, secure the omnipotence of the majority of the members of the group. Like any statement of omnipotence, the omnipotence of the group can come into conflict with any rule or structure, including self-conflicts.
It is easy to imagine situations where the omnipotence of the majority comes into conflict with the other rules of democracy, abridging the democratic rights associated with those rules. For example, a majority may decide that certain pieces of information, which may be relevant to gaining an understanding of some political issue (such as military intelligence reports), will not be made widely available. In such a case, the right to determine policy by a majority of votes conflicts with the right to gain an understanding of political issues.