There appear to be two main theories justifying elective delegation. These are the virtue-based theory and the rewards-based theory. Federalist Paper no. 57 presents both. It asks,

Who are to be the objects of popular choice?

and answers, first, with virtue-based arguments:

In the first place, as they will have been distinguished by the preference of their fellow-citizens, we are to presume that in general they will be somewhat distinguished also by those qualities which entitle them to it, and which promise a sincere and scrupulous regard to the nature of their engagements.

Those delegates will serve the interests of the people since they are virtuous and act at they perceive is right. Also, the paper argues, the delegates would feel gratitude toward their electors and honor-bound to serve them.

The paper then moves to a rewards-based argument – the desire to be re-elected:

All these securities, however, would be found very insufficient without the restraint of frequent elections. Hence, in the fourth place, the House of Representatives is so constituted as to support in the members an habitual recollection of their dependence on the people. Before the sentiments impressed on their minds by the mode of their elevation can be effaced by the exercise of power, they will be compelled to anticipate the moment when their power is to cease, when their exercise of it is to be reviewed, and when they must descend to the level from which they were raised; there forever to remain unless a faithful discharge of their trust shall have established their title to a renewal of it.

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Carbon inequality

November 24, 2007

Using US Energy Information Administration data for the year 2005, I have created a Lorenz curve for the world emissions of C02. The associated Gini coefficient is about 45%.

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Where are they?

November 21, 2007

Fermi’s paradox can be reasonably resolved in only two ways:

  1. Technological civilization is a nearly unique occurence. That is, very few technological civilizations (such as that of humans on present-day earth) have ever developed in the observable universe, or,
  2. There exists a space faring civilization that maintains our galaxy, or at least our area of the galaxy, in a pristine state.

If both 1. and 2. are false, then there would very likely arise at least one civilization that would create self-duplicating probes around the universe. Unless some entity was cleaning these probes out of our [area of the] galaxy, such probes would be ubiquitous and evident from (or even on) earth.

The paradox therefore implies that either

  1. Our existence is a miracle on a universal scale, or
  2. There exists a powerful body that has specific objectives and it manipulates our of space in order to further those objectives.

Either of these options takes us some significant step toward a theistic position.

Update: Some discussion at “Daylight Atheism“. It turns out those self-duplicating probes are called von Neumann probes.

The first 9 parts of this series present a review of Dahl’s “On Political Equality” which is focused on purely theoretical aspects of his arguments. I now wish to pick up issues mentioned by Dahl which are associated with the relationship between democracy or political equality and the reality of Western Style Government Systems (WSGSs).

Dahl groups WSGSs and the Athenian government system in a category which he calls “Actual Democratic Systems” (p. 10). He makes the argument that “no actual political system is likely to meet fully the requirements of the ideal” and presents both WSGSs and the Athenian system as being approximations to an Ideal Democracy (a system which achieves a high degree of political equality).

Although I find Dahl’s analysis of the barriers to achieving Ideal Democracy at a state level to be flawed, I think the conclusion is correct: Democracy cannot work in a large group in the same way that it does within a small group and thus alternative approaches are need. However, I see the Athenian system as being fundamentally different from WSGSs, and deserving separate treatment.

Dahl does not spend much time dealing with the Athenian system. He does indicate that in his opinion classical Athens’ smaller size made it possible to have a system that was closer to the ideal, and that it could function in much the same way as an intimate democratic unit functions.

This is a rather naive perception of the Athenian system. Having about 30,000 citizens (counting only adult males who were fully enfranchised) makes intimate-like dynamics impossible in theory, and in any case the historical record (see for example, H.M.Hanson, The Athenian Democracy at the Age of Demosthenes) shows that Athens was very far indeed from being a primitive intimate democracy.

The differences between the Athenian system and WSGSs are useful in the study of those systems, and it is therefore a drawback of Dahl’s text that he makes no such comparisons. I will use such comparisons when reviewing Dahl’s analysis of the WSGS model.

Athenian government relied heavily on random allocation of political power. Modern Western-style government systems are thus more similar to the government system of Sparta than to that of Athens.

However, in terms of official (and probably popular) ideology and the general structure of society, Athens is indeed a precursor of modern Western countries.

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The last two sections discussing Dahl’s list of barriers to political equality are titled “the need for non-democratic international systems” and “crises”.

I find the arguments in both sections unconvincing. Dahl is essentially trying to argue that phenomena that are observable when looking at existing national and international governmental bodies are inevitable and are inherent to democracy. Dahl appears to gloss over the flaws of his arguments because, despite his expressed qualms about those systems, he implicitly accepts Western government systems as the model of what a democratic government is, and thus sees the reality of those systems as being a logical consequence of democracy.

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The next item on Dahl’s list of barriers to political equality is the presence of a market economy.

Dahl argues that a decentralized economy is essential for political equality. His argument, when restated in terms of the conditions for Ideal Democracy, is that since it is virtually impossible for the people to participate in an ongoing process of economic decision-making on a group-wide scale, a centralized economy inevitably leads to a concentration of political power in the few hands of those who do manage the economy.

Having made this convincing argument, Dahl then equates decentralized economy with “a market economy” (i.e., the economic structure as it exists in Western countries today) and goes on to state two disadvantages of market economy: infliction of harm on many citizens (poverty, insecurity of livelihood, and associated miseries), and the creation of great economic inequalities, that, he argued before (unconvincingly, in my opinion), cause great political inequalities.

This second step – assuming that a decentralized economy must be similar to “market economy” – is, of course, false. For one thing, even within the existing range of economies in the West there is a wide variety, so the term “market economy” is not well defined. But also, it is quite easy to imagine some radical changes of “market economy” which would have the potential, at least, to resolve the main problems associated with it without introducing any significant centralization of the economy. An unconditional guarantee of a reasonable standard of living to any citizen would be one such possible change.

I therefore conclude that “market economy” (in the form we know it – i.e., with the associated poverty and almost ubiquitous economic insecurity) is not a necessary feature of a democracy, and that its harmful effects cannot, therefore, be seen as inherent barriers to democracy.

Next on Dahl’s list of barriers to political equality are “limits on time” and the “dilemma of size”. Again, unfortunately, the discussion does not refer explicitly to the interaction of these two issues with the five conditions of Ideal Democracy. Here are those arguments given by Dahl that can be restated (as far as I can see) in such terms:

  • Since time is a scarce resource for any person, the time most people invest in political participation (expressing themselves, trying to convince or organize others) is small. This reduces its effectiveness of the participation of most people, and gives an advantage to those who do put in more time.
  • Listening to the ideas and arguments made by all other citizens is unpracticable (over 80 hours) even if people make their point briefly (within 10 minutes) and the number of citizens is small (500 people). Thus, if gaining enlightened understanding of a matter depends on hearing the opinions of all citizens to on the issue, then inherent time limits make it is impossible to gain enlightened understanding on even a small number of issues.
  • Dahl claims that “[e]xcept in units of miniscule size, citizens must delegate considerable authority to others[.]” However, “[b]ecause delegates have greater opportunities to exercise direct influence over decisions than ordinary citizens, their authority poses problems for political equality.” To put it a bit more bluntly: delegation (at least the standard, mandatory, irrevocable delegation) is diametrically opposite to equality in voting, since on any specific issue the delegates have votes and the public at large does not. Secondly, delegation (and this point seems to hold for any kind of delegation) runs contrary to the notion of control of the agenda by the people. The delegates alone determine what comes up for votes, the people do not.

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The Golem

November 1, 2007

Following some heretical comments by me regarding the nature of scientific activity, I was referred by commenter “dsquared” to a book called “The Golem” by two sociologists, Harry Collins and Trevor Pinch. This fairly reasonable book makes the point that, despite pretenses by scientists and non-scientists, science is not a formal system in which crisp models generate crisp predictions which can then be neatly confirmed or refuted by experiments with unambiguous results. This is a good point, but the book somehow still manages to miss, or at least to obscure, the main issue – as dsquared’s summary of the “the basic conclusions of the literature” shows.

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Chapter 5 of “On Political Equality” – Political Equality, Human Nature and Society – discusses 6 items that Dahl sees as being barriers to achieving political equality. These are:

  1. The distribution of political resources, skills and incentives,
  2. Irreducible limits on time,
  3. The size of political systems,
  4. The prevalence of market economies,
  5. The existence of international systems that may be important but are not democratic, and
  6. The inevitability of severe crises.

The natural course for Dahl to take when establishing the effect of the barriers would be to show how each of them diminishes the possibility of achieving one of the 5 conditions of Ideal Democracy. Disappointingly, Dahl does not do that. His discussion is therefore unfocused and often unconvincing. I will review Dahl’s arguments and attempt to fill in the missing analysis as to how the issue bear on the conditions for democracy.

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