Democracy on the Downhill
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There are a lot of reasons to write, but one of the biggest one’s for me, above even persuading others (assuming that actually happens) is the way in which it refines my thinking. The work of translating an idea from my head to being written in such a way that other people have some chance of understanding it clarifies it in a way that nothing else can. I experienced this phenomenon in my last post, when I finally articulated the difference between what I’m trying to do and the exhortations of your standard “prepper”. Though, as you may recall, I’m not opposed to that sort of preparation, but my focus is different. I’m focused on the more subtle dangers facing us. Dangers which are harder to see and thus more difficult to avoid.
As I pointed out in that last post some of these dangers are subtle because they come cloaked not as a danger, but as something beneficial. I gave the example of healthcare, which seems entirely unobjectionable but may be crowding out other spending with more long term benefits. In the most extreme case, you may remember a post from not that long ago where I talked about the Galactic Stomach Ache explanation of Fermi’s Paradox which hypothesizes that the reason the universe is silent is that inevitably life extension spending crowds out spending on everything else. And, as I mentioned in my last episode it may currently be running as high as 100 to 1.
Healthcare spending is of course not the only subtle potential danger we face, there are obviously dozens if not hundreds of them, perhaps thousands if we’re especially liberal with what level of probability counts as “potential”. What are we to do about all of them? It would seem obvious that the first step is to identify them, which I’ve already spent a lot of time doing. But in this post I’d like to focus more on what to do about them once they’ve been identified.
I’ve already talked about preppers and that is of course a very good way of dealing with a certain class of potential dangers. And, to reiterate, I recommend it. But there are other classes of potential dangers where having a multiyear supply of food is not going to help you very much. Let’s take the potential danger of social media. And remember I’m saying potential danger, I think the jury’s still out. But if it does end up being dangerous, having a stockpile of food and ammo, or even a large stockpile of wealth is not going to help very much if your kids are being irreparably harmed by, say, Facebook. Okay, then what would help?
Certainly one option is to withdraw from society completely. Homeschool your kids. Stay completely off the internet. Live like the Amish (or join the Amish, do they accept converts?) But let’s be honest, this isn’t an option for most people. Perhaps it should be, perhaps people just need to be stronger. But it isn’t and they aren’t.
Yet another option is for the companies to police themselves. I know there are a lot of libertarians who not only think that this is the way that it should work, but that it’s the way it will work, after there’s enough outcry from the customers. But there are several problems with this option. One, as was so eloquently pointed out, we are not Facebook’s customers we are Facebook’s product, the advertisers are its customers, and there’s every reason in the world to expect that they like all of the questionable things Facebook does, since Facebook is almost certainly doing it for them.
Two, even if we are Facebook’s customers, they are interested in keeping us happy and healthy only insofar as that makes us more likely to give them money or in the case of social media, attention. If they can get more money or attention by making us less happy and healthy that’s what they’ll do. Witness the tobacco companies. And of course there’s evidence that social media is making us less happy, and that the more you use it the worse you feel.
Finally, even if Facebook and other social media companies were willing to police themselves. If this policing makes them less profitable, which seems like a reasonable assumption, then some other company will come along which foregoes this policing and subsequently out competes them. (This may have already happened. Have you gotten a notice in your email recently informing you that Google+ is shutting down? Or maybe you’ve heard of MySpace?) On the flip side of that, if the current market leaders refuse to police themselves it’s unlikely that more circumspect companies will be able to challenge that dominance. This is not to say there’s not a niche for such companies. DuckDuckGo will certainly survive as a company, but they’re never going to pass Google in search volume.
If withdrawing entirely from society and self-policing are unrealistic then what’s left? As much as it pains me to say this, I think all that’s left is the government. I’m very much in favor of the principle of subsidiarity (i.e. issues should be dealt with at the lowest level possible) but part of the problem with technology is that it increasingly creates problems which can only be dealt with at the very highest levels. Which would be bad enough, but technology also create problems difficult even for experts to understand to say nothing of the average voter.
All of this leads me to the true topic of this post: democracy. In the broadest sense democracy is our tool for solving potential problems like social media, and I worry it’s not up to the challenge. This is the point where someone will chime in with the observation that the US isn’t a true democracy, it’s a republic. And insofar as I am making a recommendation in this space (and I’m mostly not) it would be a recommendation to make things more republican (in the system of government sense not the political party sense) and less democratic (ditto), but I’m afraid that even this small adjustment is unlikely to have any traction. In fact I’m worried that America is “over the hill” and that the only question is: how quickly are we picking up speed? Allow me to elaborate:
There’s a famous quote about democracy from Winston Churchill:
Many forms of Government have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.
This is all true, democracy is a bad form of government, it’s just that unless Christ returns to personally reign, or until we invent the AI equivalent of that. It’s the best form of government we’ve got in this world of “sin and woe”. As it turns out Churchill was not the only person to recognize that, the founders did as well, and they adopted various strategies to deal with the problems of democracy. There are checks and balances, separation of powers, enumerated rights, etc.
I would argue that all of these strategies have worked pretty well, but as I already alluded to perhaps the greatest weakness of democracy is that it is only as good as its citizens/voters. In particular it depends on the knowledge of those voters. This is one of the reasons why we have the aforementioned republic as opposed to a true democracy. The voters only need to educate themselves about the candidate, not about every individual issue. But what happens when the system of voter education breaks? Or changes drastically? Arguably at least one of those happened in the last presidential election and possibly both. The results, according to many people, were disastrous.
I’m not sure I’d go that far. Trump is a joke of a president, but that will end at some point. I still have faith that an election is going to take place next year. And yes, he’s a joke, but I’m a little unclear on what he’s done that’s so cataclysmic. I suppose, particularly if you’re a deficit hawk, which I am, that his tax cuts could qualify, but as someone who’s self-employed and pays what seems like (excuse my language) a shit-ton in taxes it’s hard for me to get too worked up about that. Mostly it seems like Trump hasn’t done much of any lasting consequence other than placing two justices on the Supreme Court. Which brings me to the next point.
As I mentioned the founders were well aware of the various weaknesses of democracy, and the constitution contains systems for mitigating these weaknesses, but it was written 230 years ago, and it’s starting to show its age. And by that I am talking less about the document as written, and more about the ways people have figured out how to route around it. No matter how gifted the founders were, any system is going to have weak points that only become apparent over time as the ebb and flow of politics pushes against the limits of what’s allowed. Returning to Trump’s Supreme Court picks, In our day it’s become apparent that deciding what the constitution means is the most important role in government. This is why the Kavanaugh fight was so contentious. It’s why Justice Ginsburg's health is constantly in the news. This is why a lot of people voted for Trump who otherwise wouldn’t have. Whatever his failings his Supreme Court nominees would be miles ahead of Clinton’s, for those people at least. There are obviously people who feel the exact opposite.
One would think it would have been obvious that under a constitutional system that the people deciding what that constitution meant would end up wielding considerable influence, but it wasn’t until 15 years after ratification that Marbury v. Madison came along and enshrined judicial review. Also I think it’s clear that the latitude exercised in constitutional interpretation over the last half century has been significantly greater than what was exercised previous to that point. Accordingly it’s not entirely surprising that in Federalist 78 Hamilton described the Judicial Branch as the “least dangerous” branch because it has “no influence over either the sword or the purse” and must ultimately depend on the Executive Branch to make its judgements effective.
I’m not sure what Hamilton imagined would happen if the Executive Branch started ignoring the Supreme Court, but I pretty sure if it happened today that the shit would hit the fan. (I guess it’s like they say, once you start swearing it’s difficult to stop.) Depending on who wins in 2020 we may get a chance to find out.
As I said, it may be that American democracy, such as it is, is beginning to show its age. Norms that have existed for a long time are being eroded. Weak spots in the system are being exploited, and it feels like we’re headed for a crisis. Something very similar occurred near the end of the Roman Republic. And it might be instructive, or perhaps just sobering, to look at that example.
Over the holidays I read The Storm Before the Storm: The Beginning of the End of the Roman Republic by Mike Duncan, the podcaster best known for his History of Rome series. It was a great book about a fascinating time in history, with, as Duncan points out, some possible lessons for our own time. One of those lessons concerned the gradual erosion of the Roman “constitution”, as people repeatedly did things that weren’t technically illegal, but broke with tradition.
What truly bound all Romans together, though, were unspoken rules of social and political conduct. The Romans never had a written constitution or extensive body of written law—they needed neither. Instead the Romans surrounded themselves with unwritten rules, traditions, and mutual expectations collectively known as mos maiorum, which meant “the way of the elders.” Even as political rivals competed for wealth and power, their shared respect for the strength of the client-patron relationship, the sovereignty of the Assemblies, and the wisdom of the Senate kept them from going too far. When the Republic began to break down in the late second century it was not the letter of the Roman law that eroded, but respect for the mutually accepted bonds of mos maiorum.
He goes on to give examples of individuals doing things which were technically legal but in violation of mos maiorum. Things like applying a permanent veto on legislation, serving more than one term as Consul or Tribune of the Plebs, not allowing things to come to a vote, etc. Now hopefully we’ve learned some things since then, like actually writing our constitution down, but given the debate over the second amendment, and the push to interpret the Constitution as a living document, I’m not sure how much it matters. Also the UK has an unwritten constitution and I don’t think they’re significantly worse off than we are on this point.
In any event it’s easy to see current examples of long standing conventions which are being ignored, and with increasing frequency. Examples in our own day include Merrick Garland and DACA, Obama’s executive action for Dreamers. But of course what counts as an example for you will probably entirely depend on your ideology. And it’s possible, even likely, that one side is more guilty of this than the other, but if the Roman example is any guide once one side violates an established norm the other side will quickly follow. I am convinced that if the situation had been reversed that Democrats would have also refused to vote on the Republican version of Garland. And, even if I’m wrong about that, now that it has happened I’m 100% certain they’ll do it in the future.
In addition to exploiting constitutional gaps, and the slow erosion of convention there is another weakness of an aging democracy which is becoming more and more apparent recently. This is one of those subtle dangers I warned about. This particular danger is not subtle because it’s hard to understand, but because it seems like a good thing. I’m talking about compromise.
As an example let’s turn to a recent blog post by a friend of mine. I mentioned this friend in a previous post and at the time he was running for office in British Columbia. He did not win, and, I assume in partial consequence of that, recently announced that he was done with compromising. I’ll let him explain:
In 2001, I decided to give progressive politics a try and for the next seventeen years, I subscribed to a utilitarian political project. By that, I mean that I stood behind organizations, electoral and non-electoral, that made sense in what is called the “hedonic calculus.” Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill, the authors of a particular theory of liberalism, argued that our choices should be based on choosing the course of action that causes the least harm and the greatest benefit to the greatest number of people. So, I joined the NDP and worked to elect candidates who had a shot at winning with the policies that did the least harm and the most good.
But in 2018, this stopped working for me: the hedonic calculus of progressive politics failed. Back in the 1980s and 90s when I had rejected this calculus, I articulated its inherent problem: progressive politics articulates that which we can reasonably expect to be done, not what needs to be done. Every day that passes, the gap between these things widens. Now, in the second-biggest extinction event of the last four billion years, with human beings having killed half the life on the planet in my lifetime alone, what we can reasonably expect to be done is to kill the planet ten to fifteen years later than our current trajectory will kill it. It is little more than making sure that we pay ourselves $15/hour for murdering all creation rather than $11/hour.
To be clear he doesn’t use the word compromise, that’s my word, but I think it fits. Democracy is all about compromise. All about, as he says, “that which we can reasonably expect to be done, not what needs to be done.” He gives an environmental example, and part of the reason I used this example is that, for those of you who think I’m too conservative, it’s an example from an exceptionally liberal perspective, but which nevertheless illustrates the potential problem of compromise: If something absolutely needs to be done, then compromise forever allows a minority to keep it from getting done. Beyond his example of environmental apocalypse, the right (or at least those worried about the debt) have their own example. It’s clear that continual compromise may have slowed the growth of the debt, but if, in reality, it needs to eventually be paid off, or at least kept below the rate of inflation, that will never happen as long as the sides are compromising. The same applies if you have the opposite view and believe debts don’t matter, we’re never going to go in that direction either if we continue to compromise.
Two posts ago I talked about the metaphor of the transit system, where it doesn’t matter what train you get on when you’re in the main metropolitan area because they all follow the same route and all hit the same stops, but once you leave the central area one route heads north and another heads south. Compromise can be viewed as keeping the trains on the same route for as long as possible but the longer you go the harder it becomes. And as I’ve been pointing out our system has been traveling for quite a while, and it’s becoming harder and harder to keep the routes together. I don’t think it’s impossible, and there are lots of benefits to staying on the same route, but what if we really need to go north? What if any other route other than north “kills the planet” as my friend is claiming. If so then going east is somewhat better than going south, but eventually we still won’t get to where we need to go.
Back in October I told the story of Air France Flight 447 which had essentially the same moral. The plane was stalling and needed to dive to pick up speed, one pilot realized this, but the other pilot thought it needed to climb. The plane was designed to average out the two inputs, and as a result of this compromise the plane crashed into the ocean killing everyone aboard.
Earlier I compared what’s happening in our own very old republic to what happened at the end of the Roman Republic, but there is at least one crucial difference, and it’s one I keep coming back to, technology. And it’s this that makes my friend’s example so interesting. The danger he warns about is something that can only happen at a certain level of technology. The Romans didn’t have to worry about global warming, and while they did have monetary issues they were both more localized and more straightforward. It should go without saying that the worldwide 2008 crisis is unimaginable in ancient Rome. Primarily what the Romans worried about were other Romans, or hostile nations on their border, and in those cases compromise was nearly always a good thing. They could also, and frequently did, go to war.
Turning to our day things are completely different, but only recently so. We have the power to radically change all manner of things for good or for ill. If my friend is right (you can read my own views on global warming here) we have the power to kill the planet, and accordingly compromise, if it allows catastrophe to proceed, just more slowly, is no longer always or even mostly a good thing. And war, that other tactic beloved by the Romans, is now also unthinkable, at least between two countries with nuclear weapons.
Tying all of this together we have an increasing number of subtle dangers which can only be dealt with by government at the highest level, but the government we have is suffering from various weaknesses, some obvious, some due to the gradual erosion of convention and tradition. And even if we could overcome all that and compromise, this may do no more than slow down the apocalypse, and actually work against preventing it. Finally even if we thought war was a good idea (and it might be) that’s not an option either.
The world is in need of some serious repairs and all of the tools we would normally use to fix it are either old and worn down, ineffective, or might actually make the problem worse.
Ancient Rome is a very interesting place, but make no mistake I wouldn’t want to live there. For one thing there was no way to ask for donations to niche but otherwise brilliant blogs.