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On political ignorance

A commenter over at the Guido Fawkes blog, with the joyful name of “Rasta Pickles”, comments on the notion that the UK electorate is too thick to figure out the complexities of Brexit, and that such complex matters should be left to a political class that has done such a tremendous job down the years. He or she notes a flaw in this “argument”:

“99.9% of the UK electorate have no idea what they’re voting for every time they vote in a council election; they regard local elections as a popularity poll on what’s happening in Westminster. Your local Labour/Tory council might well be planning on a compulsory purchase order on your house and those around you in order to build a new mega-PoundLand store and you’d still have people voting for them out of sheer ignorance.”

Even so, there are libertarians/classical liberals who point out that democracy, unless hedged with checks and balances, isn’t compatible with liberty and can be harmful to it. Bryan Caplan’s The Myth of The Rational Voter is a good read, as is this recent effort by Jason Brennan. But my problem with the arguments they make is that what, realistically, can they propose other than the sort of return to oligarchy of “smart people” that, as history tends to show, descends into corruption pretty damn quick?

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53 comments to On political ignorance

  • TomJ

    We come again to the eternal truth that democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time. I’m with Popper on the virtue of democracy being not so much that it gets the will of the People[1] enforced, but that it allows for the ejection of those in charge should they get too full of themselves.

    [1] For the avoidance of doubt, I’m with Vines and so I assume with Pterry on the subject of the People and those who claim to speak for them.

  • bobby b

    TomJ, your last link ought to be to here.

  • bobby b

    And (sorry I didn’t catch this at the same time) your first ought to go to here.

    (Feel free to delete if fixed.)

  • Derek Buxton

    Unfortunately we have little in the way of democracy in this Country. I live in an area controlled by the Limp-dimocrats and they really are dim. They put out a plan to remove the non asbestos tiles from a primary School at a price of £991000 in 2013. I has now been more or less finished, contractors still turn up on a regular basis, and the last time I managed to get some idea of the final cost it was £4+m. At present we also have 3 lots of roadworks causing road closures, diversions and congestion. But they will claim higher Council Tax this year on the grounds that they are short of money. I am on an estate where there are at least one, usually more cars per house and yet my vote is worthless. I suspect a large proportion of the populace are benefitting from our Council, democracy or common sense is sadly lacking, said Council appearing to be dafter than our parliament.

  • Mal Reynolds (Serenity)

    Give the councils more power and the national government less. The extra power will attract more competent people to sign up and will mean voters care more about who they vote for. Also makes those elected closer (and therefore hopefully more responsive) to those who elected them.

  • From Amazon’s introduction to Jason Brennan book “Against Democracy”:

    On the contrary, a wide range of social science research shows that political participation and democratic deliberation actually tend to make people worse–more irrational, biased, and mean. Given this grim picture, Brennan argues that a new system of government–epistocracy, the rule of the knowledgeable–may be better than democracy, and that it’s time to experiment and find out.

    So, a book based on social science ‘research’. That and the belief in a an ‘epistocracy’: good new word I’m sure – but it’s just another one for a self-selecting elite that believes it is clever than it can possibly be.

    I think I prefer the democracy that we have. With all its defects, it at least knows of its own unavoidable fallibility – and hence the need for limits on government.

    Best regards

  • JohnW

    Johnathan’s point seems to confirm Breitbart’s New Conservatism that politics is “downstream” of culture.

  • Cal Ford

    You read the comments at Guido’s? Don’t think I’ve done that since 2008.

  • Watchman

    I always used to like the idea of epistocracy (not actually a new word Nigel) as it would discount the views of all the idiots who voted in a different way from me. Then I realised that despite my education (or because of it) I was still fallible. It seems anyone who supports epistocracy for honest motives (that might just be young idealists) has failed to have this revelation. Most people who support the concept have, however, probably realised this and are more concerned about controlling political discourse through control of educational qualifications.

    I particularly like the peculiar logic that it is for the good of the people that the people should not all have the same voting right. Because obviously anyone who has a degree education is ideally situated to understand the needs of someone who does not: it’s not as if recent electoral results have shown some sort of disconnect there or anything.

  • Stonyground

    I think that this might be relevant:

    “We do not believe any group of men adequate enough or wise enough to operate without scrutiny or without criticism. We know that the only way to avoid error is to detect it, that the only way to detect it is to be free to inquire. We know that in secrecy error undetected will flourish and subvert”.
    J Robert Oppenheimer.

    “Brennan argues that a new system of government–epistocracy, the rule of the knowledgeable–may be better than democracy, and that it’s time to experiment and find out.”

    I don’t think that we need to experiment any further to know how these kinds of things always turn out do we? Also, didn’t our oh so wise and knowledgeable representatives vote on mass, but for about five dissenters, for the climate change act?

  • “… a new system of government–epistocracy, the rule of the knowledgeable–may be better than democracy, and that it’s time to experiment and find out.”

    The experiment has already been done – several times actually. Mr Brennan appears to think a different outcome likely if it were done again. I wonder if his book explains why. As for the “wide range of social science” that shows democracy is bad for people, I’ll hazard a guess that the researchers think they belong to the epistocracy.

  • Charlie Suet

    If you don’t think the masses are capable of understanding complex political decisions then it’s eccentric to believe that it’s better for them to be made in the European parliament rather than at Westminster. After all, people voting in general elections are typically at least aware of the stances of the key policies on major issues. In European elections they are voting for parties that make up a fraction of the whole and who form alliances with more than a hundred other political parties whose aims and beliefs no one person comprehends. Being part of the EU makes things more complicated, not less.

  • the other rob

    Then I realised that despite my education (or because of it) I was still fallible.

    Precisely. Being a technocrat is a game for young people and fools. The rest of us abandon it upon realising that we’re not as clever as we thought we were.

  • Erik

    Rant coming through:

    But my problem with the arguments they make is that what, realistically, can they propose other than the sort of return to oligarchy of “smart people” that, as history tends to show, descends into corruption pretty damn quick?

    Object-level answer: Something along the lines of Mencius Moldbug’s corporate government. Formalize ownership of power; allow it to be traded. Convert every existing vote into something akin to a share of stock in AmeriCorp, making them saleable objects. A pareto optimization!

    Meta-level answer: To paraphrase Eliot, stop dreaming of systems so perfect that no one will need to be good. Or Adams: “…we have no government, armed with power, capable of contending with human passions, unbridled by morality and religion. Avarice, ambition, revenge and licentiousness would break the strongest cords of our Constitution, as a whale goes through a net. Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” I say this in full awareness that terrible things can happen when the government tries to inculcate popular virtue, but for the love of God, that does not mean one should fall into the opposite (and in my opinion worse) error of assuming that popular virtue or the lack thereof is irrelevant to governance! There is nothing other to propose, and there is not even democracy to propose. The electorate sucks, elected politicians suck, hereditary nobles suck, corporate boards suck, all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, though not in equal degree or even in commensurable manner. And as for that oft-repeated piece of propaganda:

    We come again to the eternal truth that democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.

    Bollocks and double bollocks to that. Against it I contend that “Democracy” is merely the form of government with the most positive affect around its name. Attempts to tease out its essence quickly lead into words which have not been subject to persistent glorification: “populism”, “mob rule”, “demagoguery”, “politicization”, and I put it to you that the general negative affect on most such terms is a more honest judgment of democracy. Whereas attempts to discover the supposed glory of democracy, I find, consistently finds elements like “rule of law” which are not only not unique to democracy, but arguably inimical to it. A theocracy with a final revealed word of God, I daresay, has more guarantee of rule of law than a democracy where any law can be voted away tomorrow and back in the day after that.

    To this last point, numerous American traditionalists have pointed out that they know full well democracy is bad and this is one reason why America instead is a “Constitutional Republic”. But where, then, has “democracy” been tried? What meaning would you put to “democracy” which makes it not vacuous, yet not rebutted by its implementation in Zimbabwe, yet also not synonymous with “good government”?

  • bobby b

    “I always used to like the idea of epistocracy . . . “

    I like the idea of hiring trained and competent City Managers to decide how many snowplows we need out on the streets after 13″ of snow, or to run the police pension system, or to make sure the garbage gets picked up. We the citizens have no particular expertise in such decisions, and our votes on those questions would be uninformed.

    But those managers always end up trying to tell me who I should sleep with, and which god I should make fun of, and which words I can use to describe people.

    “Epistocracy” implies enhanced power based on knowledge, but knowledge never gave anyone a better grasp of right and wrong. Who decides who gets extra votes because they know best with whom I should sleep, or which gods are best?

    An epistocracy would only ever work in a government solely designed to plow the roads and administer city workers and collect the garbage. Once we allow government to govern us instead of work for us, “expertise” is illusory.

  • Watchman

    Erik,

    I am not sure you understand democracy as an idea, rather than an ideal. It is hardly vacuous, and can be simply defined. The US is a democracy under the common understanding that all eligible citizens have an equal vote (at least at state level) in a system where the largest vote share or the largest share of an electoral college determined by the share wins. It is also a constitutional republic in the same way as the UK is a monarchy which is also a democracy on the same common understanding – democracy is a systemic feature, not a single form of government. I will admit that a democracy with limited franchise can happily exist, the obvious case being any country where women did not have the vote, so ironically epistocracy is not actually opposed to democracy but is simply a restricted form. But, be that as it may, it is the case a democracy is easily identified (albeit the exact point it becomes an oligarchy is probably ill-defined).

    And the point of rule of law is that law can be changed – it is a very dangerous thing to regard law as a holy text (yes, I do have issues with the US constitution on that basis). A rule of law with fixed ‘natural’ laws is indeed theological; but this is not what is meant by the use of the term which simply assumes the existence of laws without considering their origins – it is in effect a statement about the requirement to be able to work within a stated system without extra-legal considerations.

    I am also intrigued as to how you find democracy’s essense includes mob rule and populism, the latter of which may bean option in the system (I am not sure it is actually wrong, with the current trend towards demonising it being obviously due to the ‘wrong’ populism winning) and the former actually inimical to democracy and a symptom of failing democracies only (attempts at mob rule are a different matter – functioning democracies tend to defeat or even just laugh at these). As you indicate with your mention of Zimbabwe, democracy can fail, but they can succeed and grow as well.

  • pete

    Many people who run down democracy think of themselves as especially clever and rational.

    It irks them that they are not recognised as a modern day aristocracy, with a right to rule that is unquestioned by everyone else.

  • I prefer rule by owner over rule by bureaucrat. This looks more like an aristocracy than a democracy because democracy is a lie. I would like the most people possible to be private property owners, but the reality is there are those good at being owners, and those bad at being owners (probably myself included if the current state of my house is anything to go by).

    Private property leads to inequality- a good inequality, one we should not interfere with if we want future generations to be better at administrating properties than we are now.

  • John B

    “… what, realistically, can they propose…”

    You might want to consider that during the reign of the Plantagenets, a Government system without absolute monarchy run by ‘the People’ was unimaginable and would lead to chaos.

    Because you cannot ‘realistically’ think of a replacement to what is, does not mean there is none.

    There is!

    Economic liberty…Competitive Free market; replace criminal law with civil law; Common Law; Tort Law; property rights.

    Replace existing institutions with private enterprises in competition with one another.

    We mostly have that anyway and all institutions now under Government control were started and operated by private or voluntary enterprise… Government just nationalised them along the way and now we have been within this State system so long we cannot foresee a possibility without them, not least because we are constantly told without Government, chaos, anarchy, oligarchy.

    British citizens have been brainwashed to believe there can be no healthcare without the NHS, yet other Countries manage better without an NHS. We can get along just fine without Government.

  • Paul Marks

    I see – well let us just have a Remainer dictatorship then.

    Actually the vote was simple – do you want to leave the E.U. or not.

    Leave means that E.U. law (regulations) will no longer be valid in our domestic (internal) affairs.

    There is no “Hard Brexit” or “Soft Brexit” – there is only leave or not leave.

    Either E.U. regulations are valid inside the United Kingdom or they are not law here.

  • Laird

    I want an expert running the power grid. I want an expert running the cancer clinic. But I don’t want either of them running the other’s operation. We’re all experts in one or a few limited things, but that’s as far as it goes. There is no such thing as a “universal expert”; the concept is an oxymoron, irrational on its face. Even a wide-ranging knowledge base doesn’t automatically confer wisdom, and in no case can it embrace everything. That’s why the idea of an “epistocracy” is irredeemably flawed; there is no person or group of persons who could meet its requirements. But that doesn’t mean that I endorse the concept of “democracy” either.

    “Democracy is a pathetic belief in the collective wisdom of individual ignorance.” As with most things, H. L. Mencken got it right.

    The US is not, as Watchman would have us believe, a “democracy” (which would permit every member of the electorate to vote on every matter to be decided by the body politic), it is a constitutional republic employing a democratic system of selecting representatives. The term “democrat” should be used as an adjective, not in its noun form. “Republic” means that the electorate acts indirectly, through representatives; “constitutional” means that there are limits to what those representatives can do. Some things are simply beyond that legitimate control of the political system. The problem, as we’ve seen all too well, is that those boundaries tend to be exceeded and eventually obliterated over time, and those representatives arrogate more and more power until the cease to “represent” and start to rule. Which is largely where we are today.

    So I agree that not only is “democracy” (writ large) incompatible with liberty, even a democratic republic bounded by a constitution (written or not) is also incompatible with liberty because eventually suffers the same fate. The only solution is a periodic reset: wipe the slate clean and start over. Take Jefferson at his word: “That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.” Messy, to be sure, but we humans are messy creatures.

  • TomJ

    Erik: to falsify the proposition you need to point to a form of government that has been tried and has worked better. Of course there are myriad problems with democratic governments: that’s rather the point of the aphorism, particularly when used in the context of this article. But for all of its faults, people have been freer and better of under democratic systems than under any other. Probably for the no practical reasons Popper postulates than for any ideals you dismiss.

  • Julie near Chicago

    A rational voter is one who prioritizes the desirability of various political conditions and the value of various values the same way I do, and who responds with his actions (e.g., votes) the same way I do or would.

    The only person I know of who is both smart enough and sufficiently dedicated to the absolute best* for everyone to run the (any) country is me [sic].

    .

    *Absolute best. None of this “greatest good for the greatest number” hogwash, still less something wishy-washy like Pareto’s peculiar idea.

  • Runcie Balspune

    Eliminate exclusive membership of political parties and remove the legal rights they have on which candidates they can field under their banner. Once you remove the tribalism element to politics, and present them with a larger selection, people will start looking at the individuals rather than the non-binding policy document they wave around (and will shamelessly ignore around five second after they get elected) and the colour of their rosette. Oh, and approval voting too, so you can effectively select candidates you _don’t_ want. And mandatory attendance so only those who can be arsed should vote.

    Flexibility and choice, remove those and democracy is weak, they need to be brought back.

  • Snorri Godhi

    the notion that the UK electorate is too thick to figure out the complexities of Brexit, and that such complex matters should be left to a political class that has done such a tremendous job down the years.

    This notion is not without merit if properly understood: the UK electorate is NOT too thick to figure out the relative merits of In vs Out; but once they have decided for Brexit, the complexities are best left to a political class … although the political class which is currently available has done a less-than-tremendous job down the years, if the truth is to be told.

  • Rich Rostrom

    Runcie Balspune @February 20, 2017 at 5:37 pm:

    Eliminate exclusive membership of political parties and remove the legal rights they have on which candidates they can field under their banner.

    That’s what we have in the U.S. Anyone can file as a primary candidate by submitting petitions signed by a number of registered voters who do not have to be affiliated with a party. Primaries are open; though in most states one is limited to voting in one party’s primary. The party candidates are selected by the primary. “Party members” or “party officials” have very little control of this process (though considerable influence). In fact party “membership” is all but meaningless in the U.S.

    Note the rise of Trump, who was opposed by most long-time Republican voters, and by nearly all Republican party officials.

    (There are some regional variations in the process described above; California and Louisiana have “jungle” primaries, where all candidates of both parties compete. When a mid-term vacancy is to be filled, in some cases officers of the departed incumbent’s party select the replacement. In the South, the Democratic Party was a “private organization” and could exclude blacks from membership and from its primaries. But that was banned about 50 years ago.)

    There are no “private” primaries and no special benefits to “party membership”. Tribalism is reduced, and voters look more at individuals – but it doesn’t produce significantly better results, AFAICT.

  • Snorri Godhi

    Heartfelt thanks to TomJ and Bobby B for letting me get a digital copy of Popper’s 1988 essay. Even before re-reading it, i’ll take a shot at pointing out why it is relevant, starting with this line from the OP:

    there are libertarians/classical liberals who point out that democracy, unless hedged with checks and balances, isn’t compatible with liberty and can be harmful to it.

    The hidden assumption is that such a thing as “democracy”, ie rule by the people, is feasible.

    That is plainly wrong: ALL forms of government are oligarchies. The only differences are
    (A) how much power the oligarchy/ruling class has over the people (and over itself) and
    (B) who determines the relative power of factions within the oligarchy: in a “monarchy”, the relative power depends on the favor of the monarch; in a “democracy”, the relative power depends on the favor of the masses; and in a pure oligarchy, the relative power depends only on the favor of fellow oligarchs.

    Popper’s concept of democracy comes in when we discuss checks+balances. A Popperian democracy is one in which voting acts as a check on the oligarchy. (We had 2 wondrous examples of that in the last year.)

    That stands in contrast to Rousseauvian democracy, ie rule by the people (the concept was actually introduced by Herodotos afaik); which is unfeasible, and would be a disaster if feasible.

    It also stands in contrast to representative “democracy”, in which, as i said, the people do nothing more than determine the relative power of factions within the ruling class.

  • Paul Marks

    No – not all government is an oligarchy. That is a council of despair – and it is false.

    As Aristotle explained what matters is whether the ruler or rulers are above the law or below it.

    If there is one ruler but he (or she) is below the law – then one has a monarchy, if the ruler is a above the law then one has a tyranny.

    If there is a group of rulers but they are below the law then one has aristocracy – if they are above the law then one has oligarchy.

    And a polity may have most people having the vote without mob rule.

    If the fundamental laws are above the majority then one does NOT have a mob rule form of democracy.

    The “legal realist” view that judges just impose their personal preferences (rather than uphold the law) is wicked – evil (in the full sense of the word evil). It (the doctrine of “legal realism”) leads to “Progressive Judges” – a Satanic abomination.

    The late Justice Scalia used to have a stamp on his desk saying “stupid but constitutional” – he could understand that he might disagree with a law, but it could still be law.

    And (even more importantly) Justice Scalia could also see that things he personally would like to ban, such as burning the American flag, were protected by the Bill of Rights (the First Amendment in this case).

    There really is no way one can compromise with people who reject the Rule of Law – and support the “Rule of Men”.

    Sir Francis Bacon claimed that judges should be “lions UNDER the throne” and his evil servant Thomas Hobbes agreed with him – and denied the very existence of natural justice (as traditionally understood) – indeed Hobbes based his entire “philosophy” upon this wickedness.

    However, Chief Justice Sir Edward Coke rebuked Sir Francis “New Atlantis” Bacon, pointing out that the most important function of a judge is to make sure that the King (or the Republic) stays within the law – and that this is nothing to do with enforcing the personal preferences of the judge.

    Hence “Dr Bonham’s Case” and other classics of the Common Law – the Common Law answer to “philosophers” of the stamp of Thomas Hobbes.

    A century later Chief Justice Sir John Holt (of the British Bill of Rights and all that) repeated the essential points.

    Nor it is a matter of Whig verses Tory – as Dr Johnson (the arch Tory) was just a much a defender of natural justice as any Whig.

    Both Whig and Tory went to see Addison’s play “Cato” (about Cato the Younger) and understood what it was about. Just as they understood the start of the “Meditations” of the Emperor Marcus Aurelius.

    As Marcus Aurelius makes clear – the will of the Emperor is NOT law, and those who claim that it is speak falsely (and commit a great wrong). When Emperors abandoned this position – seduced by the flattery of false councillors into thinking that their will was law, Classical Civilisation was doomed.

    To confuse law and will is a great evil – and to imply that the fundamental laws do not come from natural justice is another great evil.

    Be you ever so high the law (based upon natural justice) is above you.

  • Paul Marks

    What should one do in relation to people who believe in the rule of WILL (including the WILL of judges) not of LAW?

    Well one should explain to such people their moral error – but otherwise not act against them if they confine their error to words not deeds.

    And if they insist on taking their moral error and ACTING upon it by aggressing against others?

    In that case, and ONLY in that case, one kills them.

    Fortunately such writers as Thomas Hobbes and David Hume rarely try and put their ideas into practice.

    They may talk of such things as the “euthanasia of the constitution” – but they do not tend to have a sword in their hands for their proposed “mercy killing” of fundamental liberty (moral liberty, natural justice, found by the exercise of moral REASON).

    Therefore one does NOT have to use the sword against them.

  • Fred

    “Being an absolute ruler today was not as simple as people thought. At least, it was not simple if your ambitions included being an absolute ruler tomorrow. There were subtleties. Oh, you could order men to smash down doors and drag people off to dungeons without trial, but too much of that sort of thing lacked style and anyway was bad for business, habit-forming and very, very dangerous for your health. A thinking tyrant, it seemed to Vetinari, had a much harder job than a ruler raised to power by some idiot vote-yourself-rich system like democracy. At least they could tell the people he was their fault.”

    Terry Pratchett

  • Lee Moore

    I prefer asymmetrical democracy. I fear the mob, but I also fear the oligarchs and the bureaucracy.

    So, I want restrictions on liberty only when mob and elites agree*. But I want either the mob or the elites to be able to remove restrictions on liberty.

    * which will probably be more often than I would like myself, but I’m guessing that creating a Lee Mooreist junta will take more effort than I’m willing to put in.

  • Brian, follower of Deornoth

    Your local Labour/Tory council might well be planning on a compulsory purchase order on your house and those around you in order to build a new mega-PoundLand store and you’d still have people voting for them…

    How does he know this isn’t rational?

  • Snorri Godhi

    As Aristotle explained what matters is whether the ruler or rulers are above the law or below it.

    But Paul, that is what i said:

    The only differences are
    (A) how much power the oligarchy/ruling class has over the people (and over itself) and
    (B) …

    If you think about it, you’ll see that that is pretty much the same as what Aristotle said; and if you don’t see it, then think about it some more!

    (Incidentally, i believe that Plato said it before his pupil, in The Statesman.)

  • Chester Draws

    We mostly have that anyway and all institutions now under Government control were started and operated by private or voluntary enterprise… Government just nationalised them along the way and now we have been within this State system so long we cannot foresee a possibility without them, not least because we are constantly told without Government, chaos, anarchy, oligarchy.

    But next time it will be different? That’s the crappy line the maximalist Socialists trot out, and it’s bollocks every time.

    People want security, so without a state to organise it, they will organise it themselves. And so you get private police forces. Then, the biggest and best of these will slowly but surely eat up all the others, precisely because for some things people are not prepared to shop based on budget.

    People can’t afford individually to go to the law courts every time they have an individual problem. So they organise unions and friendly societies to protect themselves by security in numbers. And those organisations then work together, to increase the power of their members. And we once more have the centralised state.

    Which is why the things that people will not buy based on budget tend to be exactly the things we organise collectively via the state — defence, security, policing, education, health.

    It’s why the Anarchist dream of independent self-ruling statelets is doomed. Everyone will want to be in the most successful one.

  • PersonFromPorlock

    Laird
    February 20, 2017 at 4:56 pm

    Messy, to be sure, but we humans are messy creatures.

    You remind me of an idea I’ve been proposing with increasing seriousness for years, that ‘abuse of office’ should be an affirmative defense in all cases of bodily harm (including death) to government employees. In other words, if you and your friends decide to tar and feather the Mayor for, for instance, steering a town contract to his brother, you’ll be criminally charged but it’s up the the prosecution to prove that he didn’t do that.

    That would be a great motivator for governmental transparency, and it makes a lot more sense than depending on corruptible government to control government corruption. If there were something like that, I think the mechanism by which governments are chosen would be fairly unimportant.

    And no, it doesn’t encourage gratuitous violence, any more than the existence of a ‘self-defense’ defense does.

  • Laird

    Not bad, PfP, but as a technical matter I would style it a “mitigating factor” rather than an “affirmative defense”. That allows for the issue of proportionality to properly enter into the equation, either for conviction itself or for the appropriate degree of punishment. (The bodily harm you inflict might be wholly disproportionate to the actual offense.)

    And, incidentally, the ability of a jury to overrule the law and the judge’s instructions would accomplish much the same end, which is why I am passionate about restoring the ancient concept of “jury nullification.” It restores the jury to its proper place in the criminal justice system (which is precisely why judges and prosecutors hate it so: it diminishes their power).

    One more point: abuse of office is precisely what the phrase “high crimes and misdemeanors” means in an impeachment proceeding. It requires no commission of any overt crime, merely the abuse of authority. Few people really understand that.

  • Erik

    Watchman:

    I am not sure you understand democracy as an idea, rather than an ideal. It is hardly vacuous, and can be simply defined. […] I will admit that a democracy with limited franchise can happily exist, the obvious case being any country where women did not have the vote, so ironically epistocracy is not actually opposed to democracy but is simply a restricted form.

    This sounds quite vacuous to me. An absolute monarchy is now a special case of democracy with a particularly limited franchise.

    The US is a democracy under the common understanding that all eligible citizens have an equal vote (at least at state level) in a system where the largest vote share or the largest share of an electoral college determined by the share wins. It is also a constitutional republic in the same way as the UK is a monarchy which is also a democracy on the same common understanding – democracy is a systemic feature, not a single form of government.

    And, again, in the absolute monarchy all citizens have an equal vote: None. After all, you’ve already granted that a monarchy can be a democracy, and that a democracy can exist where only a minority of the citizens are eligible to vote.

    And the point of rule of law is that law can be changed

    I think I’m just going to back away slowly now and put our disagreement down to axiomatic differences, because to me that’s entirely the opposite of true: the point of the rule of law is that the law doesn’t change, that it’s predictable, that you can look up in advance and know whether something is legal before you do it (or not), that you have a stable foundation to build and plan on.

    TomJ:

    Erik: to falsify the proposition you need to point to a form of government that has been tried and has worked better.

    Absolute monarchy.

    Of course there are myriad problems with democratic governments: that’s rather the point of the aphorism, particularly when used in the context of this article. But for all of its faults, people have been freer and better of under democratic systems than under any other.

    I’m not entirely serious about the monarchy bit. I raise it mostly to fulfil my obligation to intellectual honesty: you asked for an alternative, and you got one, for which I have provided exactly as much evidence as for the “eternal truth” propaganda line.
    I think monarchy is somewhat underestimated, but more centrally, I think the subject is confounded to hell and that democracy should not get the benefit of being the null hypothesis. I will certainly grant that people have on average been better off under democratic systems; but note that people have also been better off after, say, the invention of electric lighting, which is when most democratic systems happened to exist. Democracy is free-riding on the back of the Industrial and Scientific Revolutions and going “it me, i did it!” Any new government invented on the Moon will be able to claim a similar better-off-ness victory over democracy by taking advantage of the technological prerequisites to mass human settlement of the Moon.
    I am extremely skeptical about people being freer under democratic systems; when my homeland was first unified under a single king, the law of the time was short enough that men made a career of memorising it.
    (I hear tell Iceland used to have a very nice sanity clause in this vein: The whole of the law must be read aloud at the opening of parliament.)
    Today it’s spilled beyond any one man’s measure here. Over in the USA I hear it’s so long they’ve lost track even of just how long it is. This seems less free. Percent of GDP collected in taxes has also multiplied since King Harald, which again suggests I am less free.

    Then there are further confounders such as the Dutch Elm Disease effect: something spreading out of the democratic world appears to frequently ruin competitors. “Be nice to America or we will bring democracy to your country”, goes the joke.

    Probably for the no [??] practical reasons Popper postulates than for any ideals you dismiss.

    If you mean to reference here, I have so much vehement disagreement with visible points in that article that I have difficulty taking the remainder seriously.
    Among others, he says the simplest solution to bad rulers is dismissal by majority vote. (By a smaller group would be simpler. By one man simplest.)
    He equivocates between how to dismiss bad rulers, and to minimise the harm of bad rulers. (On the latter count, have less powerful rulers.)
    He asserts that every government not democracy is not only evil, but also the same thing: dictatorship. (As a devil’s advocate monarchist, let me lump democracy in with communism as a class of demologic systems of government: those that legitimise themselves by appeal to the masses. Now, what do you prefer of monarchy and demology? Certainly demologic systems are responsible for the greatest evils in history…)
    I take further issue with his representation of history.

    He gets credit for mentioning unaccountable bureaucrats, but seems to have failed to foresee the scope. The USA has some two million unelected employees and Congress has delegated various grants of “rulemaking authority” to unelected regulatory bodies. I’ve seen estimates that the FDA’s restrictions, to take a particular item, cost hundreds of thousands of net QALYs a year; some from people who outright die for lack of medicine and some from people who merely live in hellish pain. If we say this is an evil of dictatorship in Popper’s terms, where be the nondictatorship? If we say this is an evil of Popperian democracy, what bad leader do I blame and in what election do I vote to remove him?

    Perhaps I’m demanding too much of a short column and a simple schema to expect answers to these questions, but my disagreements with the assertions that were given stand.

  • the other rob

    If we say this is an evil of Popperian democracy, what bad leader do I blame and in what election do I vote to remove him?

    I’d opine that any and every elected representative (at any level) who fails to at least attempt to rein in the excesses of bureaucratic power structures such as the FDA, the EPA, or even the local planning / zoning department is, ipso facto, a bad leader.

    Pick a few, target them and vote them out. Rinse and repeat. Eventually, the rest will get the message.

  • Ricky Doyle

    “A republic, if you can keep it.” Attributed to Franklin. A contitutional republic has done fairly well for over 200 years, even with its problems.

  • Paul Marks

    As for democracy – if most people really wanted smaller government in the United States they could have it, they could vote it (they really could).

    For example they could have flocked to vote for Ted Cruz in the primaries – some did, most did not.

    We (or at least the young – I am not long for this world) have to knuckle down and make-the-argument.

    Convince people of the case for more limited government.

    All the waffle is really a way of saying the following…..

    “I am too lazy to convince people of the need for more limited government – so I am going to pretend most people are too stupid to understand anyway, that way I do not have to make an effort to make-the-case”.

    Of course one needs to have access to people – the leftist power in the media and the education system is a read problem.

    And one needs to understand the case one’s self – but in the end one has to make-the-effort.

    Why did Alfred Landon lose 60% to 40% to Franklin Roosevelt in 1936?

    Well there were many factors – but the fact he did not really BOTHER TO CAMPAIGN was part of it. By the end of the campaign Governor Landon had become a joke – with people putting out “missing person” posters and so on, and offering ironic promises of a reward if anyone could find the Republican Candidate for President of the United States. Where is he? Has he been abducted? And on and on.

    If one side is making the effort – and the other side (our side) is not, then saying “the people are too stupid to understand anyway” is really a pathetic cop out.

    The same with the Remainers.

    Actually they did campaign – they made their case with endless lies (and then accused the pro Independence side of lying – “Projection” indeed).

    The people heard the Remainer case – and REJECTED it.

    The people wanted to get rid of the extra lawyer of government that is the European Union.

    The people wished to elect their own government. And hold it responsible for its actions – with no “we could not help it – the E.U. made us do it”.

    And the people are correct.

    We need to have a government we can hold to account – and vote out if behaves badly.

  • Laird

    I enjoyed Erik’s last post; he makes many valid points. I am a reluctant democrat, by no means certain of the merits of popular “sovereignty” but not yet persuaded that hereditary monarchies are superior, either. I await Shlomo Maistre’s entry into this discussion.

  • Erik

    The other rob: Trying to get a message across that way seems if anything even less practical than “petition the king” would be in a monarchy. The king, or his relevant minister, might actually read a petition long enough to absorb an argument. Whereas voting communicates its message at one bit a year in a noisy channel.

    Laird: I’m not persuaded either that hereditary monarchies are superior, or even monarchies in general. And I must confess, I’m mostly cribbing my points off Mencius Moldbug. You can read him in the original at Unqualified Reservations or various index/archiving sites – if you have a few weeks to spare, that is. The man is painfully longwinded and prone to breaking into bad poetry. He strikes me in many ways as a demonstration of a sociological counterpart to Clarke’s Third Law: sufficiently independent thought is indistinguishable from crackpottery.

    And yet we yearn for independent thought and advanced technology.

  • james g

    My opinion of this argument varies with election results.

  • I agree with some of the points of Erik (February 20, 2017 at 11:25 pm) and disagree with others.

    I agree, as did the Federalist Papers, that laws too long to know, or too rapidly changing to rely on, or too complex to predict judgements from, are just another form of arbitrariness.

    Another of Erik’s points can be illustrated by the John Adams quote: “While all the other arts and crafts have advanced, government is practically at a stand: little better practiced now than three or four thousand years ago.” IIUC, Erik is suggesting that it is the advancement of ‘the other arts and crafts’ that causes some to find Adams’ opinion surprising instead of obvious. (BTW, I note Adams said ‘practiced’, not ‘understood’. IMHO the English-speaking culture has made discoveries in the art of government – and today has regressed somewhat from even the best level of practice it ever achieved of those discoveries.)

    I disagree with – or at least qualify – his analysis of Popper.

    “[Popper] says the simplest solution to bad rulers is dismissal by majority vote. (By a smaller group would be simpler. By one man simplest.)”

    1) One way of understanding Popper’s approach is that you improve the average quality of rule by a process of removing substandard rulers. Equally, it is the idea that there is no known incorruptible process of spotting good rulers ahead of time, so removal after they have demonstrated their inadequacy is in practice the only option to consider.

    Another way of understanding it is simply to regard public loss of confidence in a ruler as more important than quality of rule – also/or as tending to equate to it over time. In that view, ability to remove such rulers is an axiom; only secondarily is it a means to achieve better ruling.

    2) The Ottoman empire worked by Erik’s ‘one man’ solution: the sultan had absolute power to appoint the vizier – and to sack him (and/or kill him) from time to time. Under some sultans, the vizier did all the work and under most sultans the vizier did much of the work. For obvious reasons, people regarded the sultan as the ruler (the irremovable ruler) and the vizier as not the ruler. Generally, whoever can dismiss rulers at their momentary pleasure is the real ruler. Popper is talking about a periodic, not momentary, opportunity to dismiss rulers, but still vests this power in the electorate because a lesser group would be akin to rulers themselves, raising the problem of how to remove them.

    The UK’s constitutional monarchy is a sort of one-man supplement to Popper’s idea of democracy for use in situations of extreme urgency. The monarch formally appoints and dismisses. In a crisis (more or less necessarily only in a crisis because other use – certainly other casual use – would threaten to bring on a crisis) the monarch can actually dismiss, thus causing an election in which the voters – in effect – either ratify or refuse the dismissal (this reverses the normal procedure in which the voters vote and then the monarch ratifies). IIRC, this was last done in Australia in the 70s (by the governor-general, the monarch’s representative) and was last done in Britain much longer ago (though George VI’s choice of Churchill, not Halifax, in 1940 has slight similarities).

    “[Popper] as regard’s minimise the harm of bad rulers. (On the latter count, have less powerful rulers.)”

    By all means let us have less powerful rulers. We have not had that recently – we have instead had powerful rulers who want to increase their power, not reduce it. So how to reverse that? Does any programme to do so necessarily include removing those power-loving rulers as a key element? If so, we’re back to Popper.

    Finally, if Erik wants to critique the idea of democracy as somehow a better form of government than all others, I offer these excerpts from Burke: “The people are the natural control over power. But to exercise and to control simultaneously is impossible. … A pure democracy must be the most shameless form of government in the world, for the majority’s approval of its own acts has to its members the appearance of a general approval.” (‘Reflections on the Revolution in France’, quoted from memory, probably not word perfect.) Burke saw democracy as needing constitutional restraints, just as Britain’s monarchy needed constitutional restraints, to avoid being evil, but thought the effective power to restrain would be harder to find in a pure democracy. (Burke has plenty on why absolute monarchy also has problems.)

  • Alisa

    The US is not, as Watchman would have us believe, a “democracy” (which would permit every member of the electorate to vote on every matter to be decided by the body politic)

    Watchman can speak for his own meaning, but the literal meaning of democracy is something like ‘rule by the people’. Although in the practical sense and in and of itself it does imply some sort of elections, it says nothing further on who can vote, for whom, where and under what circumstances. It also does not preclude any limitations on the will of the people as expressed through the voting process (AKA the Democratic Process). So in that fundamental sense, the US is and was very much established as a democracy. The ancient Greeks did it one way, the English did/do it differently, and the US has yet another way of implementing ‘the rule by the people’ (which I, like Laird, happen to favor over most others).

    I also like Erik’s comments, and get the feeling that the above somehow connects with his points, including the one on demology (a new one for me – food for thought).

  • Erik

    Niall:

    Another of Erik’s points can be illustrated by the John Adams quote: “While all the other arts and crafts have advanced, government is practically at a stand: little better practiced now than three or four thousand years ago.” IIUC, Erik is suggesting that it is the advancement of ‘the other arts and crafts’ that causes some to find Adams’ opinion surprising instead of obvious.

    I agree with the sentiment, but that wasn’t exactly the direction I was going in. I was thinking more about how democracy tries to have credit rub off on it from the products of other arts and crafts. Today is great, today is democratic, democracy must be great!

    The Ottoman empire worked by Erik’s ‘one man’ solution: the sultan had absolute power to appoint the vizier – and to sack him (and/or kill him) from time to time. Under some sultans, the vizier did all the work and under most sultans the vizier did much of the work. For obvious reasons, people regarded the sultan as the ruler (the irremovable ruler) and the vizier as not the ruler. Generally, whoever can dismiss rulers at their momentary pleasure is the real ruler.

    I take your point about a sultan. I had in mind something more akin to the Polish Golden Liberty, where any single member could cast a veto in the proceedings of the elected parliament. Thus the (separately) elected head of state had to craft grand compromises that made everyone happy, or at least contented enough not to stand up and say “I won’t have any of this!” Now that’s consent of the governed.

    Now, I do think some degree of sound judgment and common sense should temper this idea before any reimplementation. Partly for the historical evidence of Poland falling in part because foreign powers would bribe Sejm members[1] to veto everything, crippling the country in the face of war. (Do I hear someone snickering nonetheless at the thought of a legislature getting nothing done for a year?) And partly for the ineradicable “noise” in human interaction: the census-takers who write that they’re 1985 years old and were born in 32, the atheists who say they believe in a personal God who answers prayers, the flat-earthers, and other people who are perhaps ignorant, perhaps confused, perhaps misunderstood the question, or perhaps are just trolling. Government function should arguably not be dependent on the single worst member’s good behavior.

    But the Golden Liberty still lasted nearly two centuries, which is a decent accomplishment. So. Ten percent rather than a single man, perhaps? Let’s toss it to Jonathan. “Easy veto” seems a potential answer to the OP’s request for other proposals.

    [1] Which brings us back to the importance of a virtuous people, and arguably a homogenous people, in addition to a good system. You want members who have the rectitude to avoid taking bribes. And you don’t want to work around bribes only to wind up with a parliament of Humbert Wolfe’s men, either:

    You cannot hope to bribe or twist,
    thank God! the British journalist.
    But, seeing what the man will do
    unbribed, there’s no occasion to.

    No trolling, please!

    Alisa:

    I also like Erik’s comments, and get the feeling that the above somehow connects with his points, including the one on demology (a new one for me – food for thought).

    If you want more on it, try Mosca and his writings on the ‘political formula’: what kind of thing a government says to make its subjects accept its rule. Classifying government this way produces funny groups.

  • phil

    A rather obvious point, but the less stuff politicians do, the less it matters whether it’s a democracy or a proctocracy or whatever. Also the more stuff politicians do, the more your vote is devalued because it decides more things.

    Anyway, I rather like an idea from a Jamie Whyte article.

    From the electorate, you randomly select 12 people. They essentially become the jury for a court case to decide who should be elected. There’s a judge who can instruct the jury to ignore innumerate nonsense. Expert witnesses, who can explain complex things like when you toss a fair coin twice, the probability of two heads is 1/4, etc etc.

    It seems very nice in that rhetoric could be actually analysed and picked apart, and followed up with questions such as what is already being done about the terrible thing of which you speak? How would you know if you’re wrong? How would you measure progress? Should this even be something politicians care about?

  • Watchman

    Thanks Alisa. I maybe can speak for my own meaning, but you have done it much more clearly. It is a form of intellectual gamesmanship to try and argue that a system such as the US one which is widely understood as a democracy is not one because it does not meet a particular definition of democarcy.

    As Eric points out, this is a problem of definition in that democracy and oligarchy run into each other in a very ill-defined manner, although I will point out an absolute monarchy is not logically a democracy due to all citizens having the same vote as firstly their is one person (and in reality, many more close to that one person) who has different rights as the absolute monarch. It is also not a democracy in that sharing no vote is not the same as sharing a vote, in that not possessing something is not the same state as possessing something. The dividing line between democracy and oligarchy is however not so easily established.

    And to apologise for another lack of clarity (loudly, because Eric sensibly stepped away and I would like him to hear…), I accept that the rule of law requires the law at the time of the action to be the law applied – so seeking reparations for slavery is obviously against the rule of law, since you cannot seek damages for legal actions however unpleasant they seem now. My point was simply that the rule of law has to be either the rule of an unchanging book, becoming increasingly difficult to distinguish from religion (and this seems to be the case in the US sometimes), or it has to acknowledge that the supremacy of the people over the law exists, and that the law can therefore change to reflect the will of the people – with thanks to Paul I will further clarify that the people must remain under the law though, so that law is supreme at any given moment, but the people are supreme in the future through their willingness to change the law.

    Bluntly though, since humans are social creatures, until we reach a point where there is a clear surplus of resources, we need some form of governance (note that the human default seems to be warlords, not individual action). I can’t honestly see a better system than democracy with the rule of law guaranteed, although obviously such a system can contain its own downfall.

  • Laird

    Erik, I think you’re fairly new around these parts so you might not yet have come across the aforementioned Shlomo Maistre. He is also a devotee of Mencius Moldbug (and an unreconstructed monarchist), and has inspired me to dip my toe into those waters. They’re too deep for me. I agree with your analogy to Clarke’s Third Law! Well put.

  • Paul Marks

    I agree with those who say that the laws and the Constitution must be understandable by ordinary people.

    Contrary to what some here think – humans are not dogs or cats, humans can understand basic principles. They do not need a mighty dictator to rule them – especially not a dictator (or an oligarchy) that rule according to their WILL (not according to the law).

    I even agree with Luther Martin (at least in his prime – his end was cruel) that the Constitution should be written in such a way that a JURY can understand it.

    If the Constitution can not be understood by an ordinary person it is not suitable.

  • PersonFromPorlock

    Laird, the problem with being reasonable is that while unreasonable is easy for would-be tyrants to understand, reasonable and enough government lawyers gets you nibbled to death by ducks. I want a bright-line deterrent.

  • Nicholas (Unlicenced Joker) Gray

    Back to the original topic- I have stated elsewhere my belief that something like the Swiss Canton system is the better system. i would further wish to enact a Million-Maximum law, that if a local county has more than a million people, then it should split into two or more entities. Also, if a county has less than a hundred-thousand people, it should merge with one or more of the neighbours. Unless some principle is used, some counties might become unwieldy.

  • Paul Marks

    The Swiss Canton system has been in decline since the war of 1847.

    Every new Constitution has given more power to the centre and less to the Cantons.

    Many of the things people think they know about Switzerland are (sadly)not true.

    With hindsight (admittedly 20/20 vision) the position that no Canton could leave the “Confederation” (established by the war of 1847) meant the slow decline of the freedom of the Cantons, and thus of individuals and families in Switzerland. Although, on balance, the Swiss are still are a bit more free than other people – indeed before the last Constitution (put in place in the 1990s – and the worst yet) the Swiss currency even had a link to physical gold.

    It must be stressed that there was no question of slavery – unlike in the American Civil War.

    As with German and Italian “unification” (i.e. conquest) Liberals were just on the wrong side in the Swiss conflict.

    Too many liberals (even in the 19th century) were too interested in “unity” (even world government ideas – that goes back to Kant and pre Kant) and defined freedom too much as “freedom from the Church” or “freedom from ignorance and superstition”.

    Seeing the state (as long as it was in “enlightened” hands) as a “liberating force”.

    Very Frederick the Great.

    And such a view was becoming popular even in Britain.