This blog is part of an online learning platform which includes the Pathways to New Community Paradigms Wiki and a number of other Internet based resources to explore what is termed here 'new community paradigms' which are a transformational change brought about by members of a community.


It is intended to offer resources and explore ideas with the potential of purposefully directing the momentum needed for communities to create their own new community paradigms.


It seeks to help those interested in becoming active participants in the governance of their local communities rather than merely passive consumers of government service output. This blog seeks to assist individuals wanting to redefine their role in producing a more direct democratic form of governance by participating both in defining the political body and establishing the policies that will have an impact their community so that new paradigms for their community can be chosen rather than imposed.


Monday, June 12, 2017

Establishing a Foundation for Democratic Belief

Continuing the response to Caleb Crain's article The Case Against Democracy as part of The Active Citizen in the Digital Age course from the last post. Again, the order of ideas here do not correspond to the order of ideas in the article.

Brennan takes a third person perspective of ill-informed voters (them) on behalf of a second person perspective of the modern, cultured intellectual New Yorker reader (you). So when he says, “You are more likely to win Powerball a few times in a row” than making your one vote count making learning about politics not worth even a few minutes of time, he doesn't mean “you” the readers but the readers putting themselves in the shoes of the potentially lazy or self-sabotaging (them) but regardless still seen, for the purposes of a straw man argument, as rational actors who indulge themselves in more emotionally appealing approaches to democracy, as in you reason for the general welfare, they feel for themselves. The specious claim by Brennan, that not voting does a neighbor a good turn because “If I do not vote, your vote counts more,” is also conversely if you do not vote then my vote counts more.

Crain recognizes that gaining franchise or the right to vote is the primary means that historically disadvantaged groups such as blacks and women have been able to gain political leverage. The votes of blacks and women (well some women) served, as he says, as the defense against the most reckless demagogue in living memory supported by white men advantaged by the current system. While the defense was not sufficient, decreasing that defense even further does not make sense to me. 

I won't deny though general voter ignorance having a shape which can be manipulated but question the "balance" derived by political scientist Scott Althaus. A mix that although calculated doesn't actually exist in nature. I could also agree with Caplan that voters ignorant of economics tend to be more pessimistic, more suspicious of market competition and of rises in productivity, and more wary of foreign trade and immigration but the answer is not greater constriction of voting and ignoring the information derived from those votes. 

When Brennan reports on the advantage of knowledge about politics by more educated, higher income, Republicans, he is also indirectly referring to a rigged system of campaign contribution corruption and gerrymandering that by its own rules disenfranchise blacks and women. Disenfranchisement whether intentional or not is not incidental. Widespread failure to pass even a mild voter qualification exam should call into question the criteria for the exam and who has real access to establishing its rules.

The federal system feature of not paying too much attention to voters was designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the people from,”the artful misrepresentations of interested men.” In modern democracies, voters usually delegate the task of policy and administration causing Brennan to struggle, as Crain says, to reinvent the “representative” part of “representative democracy,” if instead voters need to know enough about policy to be able to make intelligent decisions themselves. It is as when they don’t know with some California’s ballot initiatives or the recent British Brexit vote, that disaster is especially prone to strike. The challenge is finding an optimal solution between the two.

Brennan and others seem to apply cognitive shortcuts of letting broad-brush markers like party affiliation stand in for a close study of candidates’ qualifications and policy stances to individual voters when it is actually a networked application among a group which can be helpful even if party stereotypes aren't well enough understood by particular individual voters. 

I can agree with Brennan who argues that voters would need to know “who the incumbent bastards are, what they did, what they could have done, what happened when the bastards did what they did, and whether the challengers are likely to be any better than the incumbent bastards,” to impose full accountability through “retrospective voting” or the simple heuristic of throwing out incumbents who have made them unhappy.  This is not only a very limited solution but a backward solution having both no real current benefit and no proactive future benefit unless the electorate makes a better guess about the future but then the system has four years to re-entrench itself. Such a process of getting backward applied solutions under our current entrenched political systems (plural) allows canny politicians to be cavalier about campaign promises and still be long-lasting resulting in perennial voter dissatisfaction and eventual disengagement. 

If all one values about participation are the chance to influence an election’s outcome for only one’s self then Brennan is right such participation is worthless as odds are, you won’t. He is also right as he has previously written that participation can be meaningful even when its practical effect is nil, because of the social bonding it creates. He assumes though that no comparable duty exists to take part specifically in voting, because other kinds of good actions can take the place of voting, believing that voting is part of what is termed a larger market in civic virtue. Those other components cannot though make up by themselves for the loss of voting from the total civic virtue or social capital created with the inclusion of voting. The overall capacity of civic virtue is diminished for the sake of administrative efficiency.

Democracy, according to Brennan is said to separately be analogous to either farming, as part of a larger market in food or to clean air, a commons seen as an instance of market failure, dependent on government protection for its existence but as Crain asserts if judicious voting is like clean air then it can’t also be like farming. 

When Brennan asserts that “It would be bad if no one farmed but that does not imply that everyone should farm,”  this is a false equivalency. We have to ask what if any is the difference between one’s duty to vote and one’s duty to farm? Farming was a specific agency for specific good when farming was largely self-supporting. So most had to farm or were forced by others to farm but such a specific agency would not have been adopted for protecting only one’s farm from invasion or for building a church.  Now farming is a more specific agency for general good within the marketplace. Voting is a general agency for general good that makes possible our individual specific agency and specific goods. 

Brennan also compares uninformed voting to air pollution which Crain sees as a compelling analogy. I don't.  While your commute by bicycle probably isn’t going to make the city’s air any cleaner, the joint effort of creating bike lanes and other means of getting out of cars can and does make an empirical difference. So even if reading up on candidates for the civil-court judge on Patch.com  still gets crooks elected, there are other civil sector actions that can be taken between elections. These don't, however, replace voting.

The civic or civil realm is not at all explored, the market realm is by way of analogy though how is both questionable and debatable. Saying that voting may be neither commons nor market but instead combat, even if gentle discounts the civil aspect.

The market's ability to weave self-interested buy-and-sell decisions of individual actors into prudent, collective allocation of resources is vastly overstated, so depending upon an “invisible hand” in politics comparable to Adam Smith's in economics is just as questionable. If there is an equation to explain how democracy works it isn't going to be tidy. It is going to be complex. This still doesn’t argue for top-down control by an elite, even a highly knowledgeable elite. 

The economist Joseph Schumpeter didn’t think democracy could function all that well whether or not voters paid too much attention to what their representatives did between elections, regulating voters as passengers having no thought of  “political back-seat driving.” Gears in the engine would probably be a better analogy. Voters, as passengers, could simply choose to take another bus if taken to a destination not of their choosing, again a backward solution.

The last presidential election could be seen as a result of the cost of shirking duty being spread too widely to keep any malefactor in line (assuming Madison’s ”the artful misrepresentations of interested men”). Interpreting the conscientiousness of the enlightened few being no match for the negligence of the many is more problematic. The designation of conscientiousness or enlightenment isn't a mantle that can be permanently applied to any one group. If the analogy of uninformed voting is air pollution, an overly negatively biased interpretation in my view, then the analogy for civic virtue should be air. A better analogy then may be nitrogen in the atmosphere, more inert but still dangerous if levels get too high, air pollution could then be corruption.

So why do we vote, for personal reasons or for social duty? Does voting enable one to take an equal part in the building of one’s political habitat and how does this impact one’s economic market habitat and one’s civic society habitat?
We don’t vote or participate to only define ourselves, we also vote to define our communities, be that at a local, state or national level. Voting should not be considered merely a form of pure self-expression limited to individualistic concerns expressed through multiple choice. Yes, as Brennan counseled, “If you’re upset, write a poem,” but one can write a poem to have others take action against human suffrage through different avenues including voting.  Multiple contributions are expressive.

Our current institutional system weakens the incentives for duty but it’s not clear that the civic duty itself is lightened. Crain states that “The whole point of democracy is that the number of people who participate in an election is proportional to the number of people who will have to live intimately with an election’s outcome.” 

I agree with Crain that what Brennan’s model omits is that sometimes democracy itself can be in danger because of an election. The combat analogy used by Crain sets the metaphorical contrast between soldiers worrying more about letting down the fellow-soldiers in their unit than about abstract allegiance against personal calculations of the cost of showing up at the front factoring in the chances of being caught and punished for desertion. Voters feel their duty most acutely toward friends and family who share their idea of where the country needs to go. It is for this that democracy should be designed to develop, encourage and protect, so for me the proper metaphor if we are going to use the idea of combat is Dunkirk


A Case Against the Case Against Democracy

Although still struggling to put together all that was learned through the Systems Practice Course, another Stanford Online course, The Active Citizen in the Digital Age has been started. 

It should be noted before starting on a response to The Case Against Democracy as part of The Active Citizen in the Digital Age course, that the article only deals with one of the three realms to be dealt with by the course, the political. It does not touch on civil society, an absence which is critical and only by indirect analogy, the marketplace. This is my interpretation and response which requires first reading the article and doesn't attempt to follow ideas in the same order. This discussion forms a philosophical basis for what is being attempted with new community paradigms so the response is extensive.

Caleb Crain's article first starts off appealing to the modern, cultured intellectual so that when he criticizes those who confuse the work of Marx with that of Madison they know he isn't talking about them, that others are to be blamed for failing democracy, not them. This deflects then from any notion that it was democracy or at least what was claimed to be democracy that may have failed those others. Instead, the New Yorker reader is asked to judicially question whether one shouldn't take on the entire burden because its readers will be assumedly included with the in-group. Let's keep in mind that Plato was an aristocrat. 

The basic problem is that elites, bad elites not good ones (and who are elites because they are neither poor nor immigrant), fearing the ignorance of both poor and immigrants restricted ballots to their own favor. In opposition to a more general altruistic ideal of “if a man is ignorant, he needs the ballot for his protection all the more." This lack of protection "helped racists in the South circumvent the Fifteenth Amendment and disenfranchise blacks." This is still occurring today though in different form so the form of democracy must also evolve to adapt to maintain any criteria of fairness. 

I don't see fairness being equated with randomness as in the flip of a coin so the claim that therefore, "It must be that we value democracy for tending to get things right more often than not, which democracy seems to do by making use of the information in our votes," is a conclusion requiring to big of a leap for me. Instead, for me it is also a question of agency, and in exercising that agency we can determine to be morally proportional in toto in allocating with our fellow citizens in our community. I don't understand the concept of a decision that is better without saying for whom but less fair without again, not stating for whom. Democracy should not be designed to be a zero sum, winner take all game defaulting then to gridlock when it isn’t in an ideal representative form. 

Epistocracy or “government by the knowledgeable," defined in the abstract first by Estlund's  then by Brennan versus the general notion of "democracy" only vaguely defined by suggested shortcoming, faced three valid philosophical objections which would only make the case why it shouldn't be rejected not preferred in what is set as an up or down vote as if you can't deny all three then you must choose epistocracy.

One, deny that truth is a suitable standard for measuring political judgment but to which of the two stated propositions does this apply, the administrative or the consensual? I would assert that the general proposals that, "Democratic procedures tend to make correct policy decisions," and  that, “democratic procedures are fair in the eyes of reasonable observers," involve two different distinct but paradoxically not separate multipurpose systems, one of administration and one of consensus, mashed together like forcing repealing magnetic poles in a generator. They are necessary together in seeking to attain a desired goal but do not naturally fit together. A demonstrably better administrative outcome resulting from decisions requires facts or empirical truth but the determination of what that outcome should be will necessitate debate which as Hannah Arendt pointed out “constitutes the very essence of political life,” but it should also include deliberation to reach consensus a part of civic life, an aspect of democracy absent from the article. 

Two, deny that some citizens know more about good government than others. It is not necessary to do so though. We often defer to others in our community based on their superior knowledge but we don’t surrender our own agency. Voting is a matter of general agency. In choosing a representative or expert, I am not necessarily giving up that agency as I would if others had absolute power to decide for me regardless of their own specific expertise in one area versus another area.

Three, deny that knowing more imparts political authority or the “You might be right, but who made you boss?” argument.  Except that we do impart authority for knowing more, just not absolute authority, political or otherwise. 

There are supposedly only two practical arguments against Estlund’s analysis of epistocracy. One, the possibility that epistocracy’s method of screening voters might be biased in a way that couldn’t readily be identified and therefore couldn’t be corrected for. Wait, what method of screening voters? Who screens them? Even Crain admits that, “Without more details, it’s difficult to assess Brennan’s (epistocratic) proposal.” It is not like we have absolutely no criteria now for whom should be allowed to vote but it isn’t determined by an elite or at least when it was we decided over time to change that. Historically, we have had a greater sense of suffering more from and therefore moving away from rule by the elites rather than extolling their efficiencies. 

Now let's turn to Brennan's argument that it’s entirely justifiable to limit the political power of the irrational, the ignorant, and the incompetent have over others as it would be to disqualify jurors who are morally or cognitively incompetent. Is this a valid practical equivalency though, could one actually be found incompetent to serve on a jury but competent to vote, considering a major supply for the jury pools are from the voter rolls? 

Brennan’s answer to demographic bias also seems weak to me. While empirical research may show that people rarely vote for their individual narrow self-interest, they are more likely to vote for their group or class. The division on Social Security may not be based on age, more likely income but Brennan cannot assure us that it isn't based on the means of selecting the epistocracy. Brennan also seems to assume that it is the bottom 80 percent of white voters who are oppressing blacks and the enlightened perspective of the top 20 percent of elites would apply crime and policing policies undoubtedly more favorable to poor blacks but leadership in Washington D.C. makes me seriously doubt that. 

Feeling more unjust in giving the knowledgeable power over the ignorant than in giving those in the majority power over those in the minority is an abstract and conceptual notion of universal suffrage as is Brennan’s assertion that the public’s welfare, or of the populace without consideration of the actual individuals making it up, considered by the epistocratic elite is more important than any other one theoretical or imagined individual's hurt feelings

Suffrage,  however, is not a matter so much of knowledge over ignorance which we actually do, teachers over students, doctors over patients, nor is it a matter of majority versus minority.  It is a matter of power over the powerless. Knowledge is a weapon for the powerful and ignorance is a prison for the powerless. South African apartheid provided the minority knowledge and power over the majority which had to be overcome.  This was a more heartfelt defense of democracy by those who were colonized as opposed to that made by those that did the colonizing.

So would a polity ruled by educated voters perform better than a democracy, and if not could some of the resulting inequities then be remedied after the fact? First, our current democracy is not absent of educated voters so it would be only selected educated voters who became responsible for remedying those inequities or at least some of the inequities based on an assumed utilitarian noble oblige. Who determines who makes the grade and then the choice? Underrepresentation is usually based first on group then on remedied through individuals deemed worthy by the group who has the abundance of representation. How many votes is the majority represented group going to be willing to give? How beholding will those being bequeathed those votes be to those who gave them? 

A group can also deliberate, something we hope for from among our representatives but that seems lost these days and something not really made apparent with epistocracy. Both Brennan and Estlund instead seem to be restricting democracy to an individualistic competition between political opponents on a debate field aggregated to the group or in this case a select group. Intellectuals galled by the ignorance of the many need to remember that democracy is supposed to be with other people. I don't agree with the article's author's view that democracy is fundamentally combat, albeit gentle. It needs to be far more and can be. Epistocracy seems a top down means of defining community that could be contrasted with bottom up approaches more akin to Charles Leadbeater's Pro-Am Revolution applied to the civic space.


Limiting faith in democracy to only the “ennobling power of political debate” is no more reasonable a proposition than the supposition that college fraternities are the only aspect of college that builds character. We may not respect corpse-eating any longer but many still strive to emulate sacrifice of body and blood for others. So we first must determine what signifies human dignity to us then determine if voting rights fulfills that in a way we finding meaningful. 

Part 2

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