Sister blog of Physicists of the Caribbean in which I babble about non-astronomy stuff, because everyone needs a hobby

Thursday, 28 March 2019

Pinker's democracy

I'm finally reading one of the notorious Stephen Pinker's books : Enlightenment Now. I'll have more general comments on this in the future (suffice to say that that it's really, really weird), but I thought the chapter on democracy deserved something by itself.
One can think of democracy as a form of government that threads the needle, exerting just enough force to prevent people from preying on each other without preying on the people itself. A good democratic government allows people to pursue their lives in safety, protected from the violence of anarchy, and in freedom, protected from the violence of tyranny.
He goes on to note that the great paradox of democracy is that it seems to work despite neither the voters nor the leaders acting in each other's best interests. Leaders often act only in their own self-interest while the voters are fickle, uneducated and capricious. Why, then, does this work at all ?
Karl Popper argued that democracy should be understood not as the answer to the question, "Who should rule ?", but as a solution to the problem of how to dismiss bad leadership without bloodshed. The political scientist John Mueller broadens the idea from a binary Judgement Day to continuous day-to-day feedback. Democracy, he suggests, is essentially based on giving people the freedom to complain... Women's suffrage is an example* : by definition, they could not vote to grant themselves the vote, but they got it by other means.
* A dreadful one as it happens - I'll return to this in a minute.
Clearly implicit in this is David Davis' message :


So we have three possible guiding principles of democracy :
  1. Rule by the people - enacting their will, no matter what.
  2. A peaceful process whereby the people decide who gets to rule.
  3. A process of giving the people a voice for discussion.
These principles are neither mutually exclusive nor automatically compatible. Option (1) is not much used in modern representative democracies - it's become subsumed by option (2). We get to decide policy only indirectly, by voting only for people who promise to carry out their stated proposals. This means that a modern, healthy democracy is really a blend of all three principles : discussions occur at all levels of society, which filters through to the policies of (potential) rulers, and we then vote on these. Rulers are elected and removed peacefully, knowing that everyone has a fair chance and a chance to change. This does not, however, mean that the process feels very pleasant to those experiencing it - the end goal is a maximum possible level of civic harmony, but in practise this amounts more to minimising dissatisfaction; more a process of working out what everyone is prepared to put up with than what would actually please them.

The possibility of change, however, is quite obviously common to all three options. You cannot use force to get what you want, but you generally don't need to - if things aren't going well for your cause today, perhaps they will improve tomorrow. You can continue to press your case in almost any eventuality. Yet you ultimately accept that your cause may not win because everyone else agrees to accept that too : you win some, you lose some. Democracy in all its forms implicitly acknowledges that situations can change and we are not bound to the mistakes of the past because we can always peacefully undo them. The people's mandate is something that must be listened too, not a stick to beat them with.

Sometimes, though, these principles are at odds with each other. The people may want something different from what their leaders want. They may be given a voice for discussion but the leaders dismiss or ignore them. The people may want (or feel compelled to enact, as the suffragettes were in Pinker's ill-chosen example) a violent process of change. The point is that none of the three principles are at all sensible if chosen exclusively. Rule by the people converges to tyranny by majority without discussion or peaceful implementation. A peaceful election does little good if it's for someone no-one wants. Rulers who hear people's grievances are no use if they don't at least try and address them or still use violence to stay in power even if they do.

So the only way is to seek a harmony between the three, knowing when to give preference to one and when to the others. The problem is that while all three of these principles are noble and well-intentioned, there is no such equivalent guiding light as to how to reconcile the conflicts that emerge between them. There is no meta, overarching principle to help decide which one is most appropriate given the circumstances.

As Pinker goes on :
The freedom to complain rests on an assurance that the government won't punish or silence the complainer. The front line in democratisation, then, is constraining the government from abusing its monopoly on force to brutalise its uppity citizens.
I would say rather that it's a key principle, though not the only one. Rather than tolerating dissent, in response to the violence of the suffragettes governments acted undemocratically to try and suppress the movement - a curious example of an undemocratic action leading to an undemocratic reaction that eventually led to a much more democratic system overall. Attempting to balance the three principles if often messy and sometimes it simply fails entirely, but the institution of democracy itself appears to be resilient, at least to some degree. Pinker provides another messy example :
Capital punishment was once ubiquitous among countries, and it was applied to hundreds of misdemeanours in gruesome public spectacles of torture and humiliation... The abolition of capital punishment has gone global. The top five countries that still execute people in significant numbers form an unlikely club : China, Iran, Pakistan, Saudia Arabia, and the United States. 
As in other areas of human flourishing, the United States is a laggard among wealthy democracies. This American exceptionalism illuminates the torturous path by which moral progress proceeds from philosophical arguments to facts on the ground. It also showcases the tension between the two conceptions of democracy we have been examining : a form of government whose power to inflict violence on its citizens is sharply circumscribed, and a form of government that carries out the will of the majority of its people. The reason the United States is a death-penalty outlier is that it is, in one sense, too democratic. 
The abolitionist elites in Europe got their way over the misgivings of the common man because European democracies did not convert the opinions of the common man into policy... It was only after a couple of decades had elapsed and people saw that their country had not fallen into chaos - at which point it would have taken a concerted effort to reintroduce capital punishment - that the populace came around to seeing it as unnecessary. But the United States, for better or worse, is closer to having government by the people for the people.
Capital punishment wasn't abolished through direct democracy but through the judgement of experts. Governments heard multiple different voices and opted against a simple majority choice. This was the correct decision, but on what principle was this based ? Again, there doesn't appear to be one. The prospect of change is not in itself a fourth guideline but implicit in the main three. But how to juggle those three - in particular how to decide which complaints to address, when to prefer that of experts to those of the masses - that is lacking. The messy, practical combination of the three does help somewhat, as it means inevitably that people must compromise and no-one is expecting to get everything they want all of the time. Everyone accepts that the laws won't always favour them, and that it is fundamentally possible and necessary to make choices that some people will disagree with. But this process is far from perfect.

Brexit is all this writ large. The people spoke in favour of a course of action at odds with reality, "something completely impractical" as May has (ironically) described the indicative votes. Perhaps even worse than this is that they spoke passionately, but indecisively. Strength of feeling isn't accounted for in most electoral procedures - doing so would risk creating a utility monster. How in the world could one judge the votes of a hundred casually in favour with that of one who was vehemently opposed ? There does not seem to be any answer to this.

Until recently, we've dealt with the somewhat less consequential choices of electing leaders, accepting the usual sort of compromises on the grounds that they were relatively easy to undo. But with Brexit we face a far more permanent choice, and that is at odds with the whole basis of the system. The very least we could do is check if we're really sure about this. Instead, government policy appears to be a bizarre attempt to selectively determine what the will of the people is and avoid any further discussion. It is not so much undemocratic as it is a gross perversion of the process; turning a responsible, progressive democracy into something more akin to a suicide cult. Sure, it's a democratic process. Is it one we should use in government ? Hell no.

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