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 pt 2

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 thereby 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. While you reason for the general welfare, they feel for themselves. The specious claim then 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 has been the primary means by which historically disadvantaged groups such as blacks and women have been able to gain political leverage. The votes of blacks and women (well some women as the 2026 electoral results demonstrated) 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, this time, 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 seem to 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. This includes the votes of those in red states.

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 or more likely resistance to passing even a mild voter qualification exam should instead call into question the criteria for the exam and who has real access to establishing its rules.

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

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 real proactive future benefit unless the electorate makes a better guess about the future but then the system has four years to re-entrench itself. It is not individual politicians that propagate the system but the system that propagates individual politicians. 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. 

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

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 though 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 only one 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 then 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, in this example as an instance of market failure, dependent on government protection for its existence but if, as Crain asserts, judicious voting is like clean air then it can’t also be like farming. 

So when Brennan asserts that, “It would be bad if no one farmed but that does not imply that everyone should farm,”  it 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 personal good when farming was largely self-supporting. 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 a system for our own individual specific agency and personal 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 make an empirical difference. Even if reading up on candidates for the civil-court judge on still gets crooks elected, there are other civil sector actions that can be taken between elections. These still don't, however, replace voting. 

The civic and civil society realms are not at all explored, the market realm is only by way of analogy though how well is both questionable and debatable. Saying that voting may be neither Commons nor market but instead combat, even if gentle discounts the civic and civil aspects.

The market's ability to seamlessly weave self-interested buy-and-sell decisions of individual actors into a prudent, collective and efficient allocation of resources is vastly overstated, so depending upon another “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, a poor advocate for democracy who thought far more highly of efficient economies, 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 at best simply choose to take another bus if taken to a destination not of their liking, again a backward solution.

The last presidential election could be seen as a result of the cost of shirking that duty being spread too widely to keep any malefactor in line (presuming Madison’s ”the artful misrepresentations of interested men”). Interpreting the conscientiousness of the enlightened few as 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.

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 personal 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, as a means of resilience through group effort by diverse individuals. 

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