Democracy omnibus, part 2/2

February 17, 2008

Bringing the democracy omnibus to a conclusion.

Federalist and Anti-federalist arguments regarding the problem of scale in elections:

Anti federalist paper no. 55:

On the whole it appears to me to be almost a self- evident position, that when we call on thirty or forty thousand inhabitants to unite in giving their votes for one man it will be uniformly impracticable for them to unite in any men, except those few who have become eminent for their civil or military rank, or their popular legal abilities. It will be found totally impracticable for men in the private walks of life, except in the profession of the law, to become conspicuous enough to attract the notice of so many electors and have their suffrages.

Federalist paper no. 57:

The only difference discoverable between the two cases is, that each representative of the United States will be elected by five or six thousand citizens; whilst in the individual States, the election of a representative is left to about as many hundreds. Will it be pretended that this difference is sufficient to justify an attachment to the State governments, and an abhorrence to the federal government? If this be the point on which the objection turns, it deserves to be examined. Is it supported by REASON?

This cannot be said, without maintaining that five or six thousand citizens are less capable of choosing a fit representative, or more liable to be corrupted by an unfit one, than five or six hundred. Reason, on the contrary, assures us, that as in so great a number a fit representative would be most likely to be found, so the choice would be less likely to be diverted from him by the intrigues of the ambitious or the ambitious or the bribes of the rich.

Not a suicide pact: Any document expressed in natural language is infinitely malleable, open to unending interpretation and re-interpretation. The U.S. constitution is famously so, as has been proven again and again by supreme court decisions. (This is one reason why a favorite American pastime, constitution worship, popular especially among the opposition to the mainstream on the left and on the right, is misguided and unproductive, if not counterproductive.)

While arbitrary interpretation is often presented as a legalistic maneuvers (whose transparent self-serving nature is politely ignored in the media), occasionally judges find it convenient to explicitly impose the limits of their common sense on the extent of constitutional guarantees (meeting, of course, with general approval in the media, in legal circles and among the powerful). This is the case with the often repeated statement that the constitution is not a suicide pact, which several judges used to explain that the government should be able to break what appears to the naive reader to be constitutional rules.

This, again, demonstrates the falsehood of the doctrine which pretends that judges mechanically apply the law in, say, the same way that a mathematician applies a theorem. Judges are really in a position to make their own mind about any matter, and then either clothe their opinion in a legal argument or simply appeal to (their own) common sense. This is unavoidable, since, no set of laws could approach a system of formal rules that can be applied without resorting to personal judgment. This should be recognized, as should be the straightforward corollary – that in a democracy judicial powers should be exercised by representative bodies, i.e., a statistical sample of the population.

Hero worship on the left: Hero worship is a natural tendency in elitist ideologies. When certain groups of people are perceived as more valuable than others, then it is natural for some people to be perceived as epitomizing those properties of the preferred groups, and those people should thus be put on pedestals and serve as role models for lesser humans – such is the case with successful businessmen, politicians, scientists and artists. It is a much less explicable phenomenon when it is associated with nominally egalitarian ideologies. Paradoxically, heroes are often celebrated for supposedly promoting political equality: Jefferson, Lincoln and Martin Luther King are examples of such figures.

Libertarian socialism, hierarchy of representation: A major weakness of libertarian socialism and similar ideologies (going under names such as anarcho-syndicalism), advocated by formidable socialist philosophers such as Noam Chomsky, is that those ideologies do not present a convincing mechanism by which large-scale public policy can be determined in an egalitarian way. One strategy for the advocates to handle this gap is to claim that the matter should be postponed until conditions are such that various mechanisms can be experimented with. Another is to claim that large-scale policy is unnecessary (or is dangerous) and can (or should) be avoided altogether. To the extent libertarian socialists do offer sketches for large-scale policy determination mechanism, they are usually built upon a basis of small-scale, workplace or neighborhood, bodies, in a hierarchical structure – delegates from the small-scale bodies would form a larger scale body, with further delegation used to make ever larger-scale bodies if necessary.

All those answers are unsatisfactory.

  • Experimentation is of course a good idea, but it cannot be carried out in a theoretical vacuum. A dearth of a-priori ideas suggests that there may be no satisfactory solutions. If an “opportunity to experiment” does appear, the absence of a blue-print would be a recipe for failure – which makes it unlikely that popular demand for such an experiment could emerge to begin with. Concrete, credible ideas – even if schematic ones – are needed.
  • The idea that large-scale public policy can be avoided is misguided. Society is an interconnected system, and in modern society those connections run far. There are no large-scale-public-policy-free situations. Not having an explicit large-scale public policy is in itself a type of large-scale policy, and often not a good one. To create beneficial policy, various matters (e.g., environmental protection and resource allocation) need to be determined in a society-wide coordinated way. There is no reason to assume that palatable decisions on such matters would simply spontaneously emerge from small-scale decision making.
  • A hierarchy of (election-based) delegation is not any more representative than direct delegation – and is probably less so. The inherent problems with elections – having to elect someone whom the electors know virtually nothing of substance about, and the miniature impact the individual has over large-scale policy making – go into full effect with the second and higher level of delegation. To these can be added, in the case of a hierarchy of delegation, the indirect chain of influence between the masses and the top of the hierarchy. Such indirect influence increases the possibility of political maneuvering and dissembling and for the creation of distance between the delegates and the people. Standard fixes like recall procedures or referenda do little to alleviate those inherent problems. Historically, moves toward more direct delegation, such as the one made in the selection of the U.S. senate, were considered as promoting democracy. There is no reason to assume that a reversal of this trend would lead to better representation of the people’s interests.

    Failures of representation: There are two good sources for public opinion information that I am aware of: and Gallup has summaries of public opinion on various topics, that are generally good, and are always full of useful data. Data on those two sites show that there are quite a few areas in which solid majorities of Americans are consistently in favor of changing of public policy, but government remains unresponsive.

    • School prayer – About 75% of Americans want to have some sort of voluntary school prayer. Most would like to have this school prayer simply be “a moment of silence”.
    • Health care – The public sees the government as responsible for provision of health care for all, and is unhappy with the level of coverage provided at present.
    • Guns – Americans consistently want more gun control, although support for that issue appears to be eroding.
    • Parties In Congress – Much of the time, both parties have a majority in the public disapproving of the job they are doing.
    • Taxes – About two thirds of the public thinks that “upper income people” and corporations pay too little taxes.
    • Environment – Over 80% of the public would like to see more action taken to protect the environment.
    • Nuclear disarmament – It is truly heart warming to see how moral and sensible the American public is on the issue of nuclear weapons and disarmament. Despite decades of propaganda, the American people overwhelmingly support total global nuclear disarmament.
    Successful representation: abortion – Americans seem to like the current trend of keeping abortion legal, but putting various restrictions on access to abortion.
    Of related interest are Gallup’s articles about trends in public satisfaction regarding various issues: 1, 2.

    Survey contradictions, attention, incentives: When examining the record of opinion survey statistics, the contradictions in public opinions are sometimes striking. Here are some examples:

    • Americans think that the rich pay too little taxes and at the same time support eliminating the estate tax and reducing taxes on capital gains and dividends.
    • Americans feel revulsion toward Congress as a whole but are relatively satisfied with the local representative.
    • About 50% of Americans support withdrawal from Iraq within 12 month, but only 25% support immediate withdrawal. These proportions have been more or less fixed for more than two years (11/05, 3/06, 3/07, 7/07, 11/07, 12/07) rather than increasing as the time goes by.

    These contradictions indicate that Americans do not spend much time considering their positions, even on issues they feel rather strongly about. Since the positions of a single individual have infinitesimal impact on government action, there is very little motivation for the individual to put much effort into considering matters of government policy. Thus, among the barriers to effective representation through election is the rational ignorance and lack of interest that much of the population has regarding public policy.


    3 Responses to “Democracy omnibus, part 2/2”

    1. Daniel Says:

      I think you’re sadly mistaken viz a viz libertarian socialism. Decentralisation of power does not imply dissolution of power or atomisation of power. Rather, power is exerted from the bottom up in creating policy. Workplaces, communities, etc. federate on various levels to take care of various functions of policy making. So, for instance, a syndicalist train service would federate locally to maintain track,etc. in a local area; nationally, to maintain national train services; and regionally for the same reason. Quite simple.

      But whereas in democracy the individual and group elects power above itself, in a syndicalist society power is delegated downwards, with the individual and the free association as supreme.

      see these resources:

    2. yoramgat Says:

      Hi Daniel,

      I am sorry for not having responded earlier. Your comment got stuck in the spam queue and I just noticed that it was there.

      I don’t find your answer satisfactory, for the situation is not simple at all. Regarding federation: if federation occurs, then the federated body would require some decision making body. What is that body? If it does not include all the members of the federated groups (an arrangement that would quickly become extremely unwieldy), then we are talking about a delegation scheme. How are delegates selected? What are their powers? How is this different from having a democratic government?

      Also, and even more fundamentally, who determines what decision powers are available to the organic groups (workplaces, communities)? Can a community dump toxins into the river that flows in its area? Can a workplace release CO2 into the air? Can a community exclude non-members from using the roads it built? There seems to be a necessity of making these decisions at the super-group level. What is the arrangement for making them?

    3. […] 20, 2008 Daniel Owen, a syndicalist, responded to my comments on the lack of a convincing syndicalist blueprint for the coordination of a large […]

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