Radical Democracy

Going to its roots, democracy is kratos, rule, by demos, the people. Pure democracy is the rule by all the people, not just some of the people. The only way to implement absolute democracy is for each participant to voluntarily agree to the governance structure, and be able to exit when one no longer agrees.

Democracy can be divided into mass democracy versus “cellular” or small-group democracy. Mass democracy occurs when the voting group is so large that the people cannot individually know the candidates. In a small-group democracy, the voters are able to join meetings with candidates in groups small enough so that every person is able to fully participate. In a small group, a candidate may distribute literature at a low cost. Although money can play a role in a small group, the influence of moneyed interests is limited by the ability of other candidates and promoters of propositions to counter large spending with personal contacts. A small voting group solves the problem of having both free speech and the will of the people.

The German sociologist Max Weber, writing in the late 1800s and early 1900s, wrote that “bureaucracy inevitably accompanies modern mass democracy in contrast to the democratic self-government of small homogenous units.” Mass democracy cannot be pure, radical, and absolute. “The demos itself, in the sense of an inarticulate mass, never ‘governs’ larger associations.”

A mass democracy is governed by how the leaders are elected. The politicians must use the mass media to send their messages to the public in order to curry their votes. These messages have to be condensed and simple, as most of the public will not pay attention to detailed issue analysis. The messages are often negative attacks on opponents. And the messages have to be paid for, which generates an inherent demand for large amounts of campaign funds. While individuals do send contributions to parties and candidates, much of the financing comes from special interests such as corporations, labor unions, lawyers, and the financial and real estate industries.

Economists use the odd term “rent seeking” for the seeking of subsidies, privileges, and protection from competition. The classical economists recognized that land rent is a surplus. They generalized the concept to “economic rent,” any payment beyond what is needed for production. Subsidies to special interests are economic rents.

Governments today practice imposed representative mass democracy. The implied ideology is the moral supremacy of the majority in each particular issue. The majority imposes its will by force on the minority. As Weber stated in his essay “Politics as a Vocation,” “He who lets himself in for politics, that is, for power and force as a means, contracts with diabolical powers.”

Many people think that democracy is based on equality, since each person has an equal vote. But Weber wrote, “The propertyless masses especially are not served by a formal ‘equality before the law.’” The poor believe that justice requires compensation for their economic deprivation. But the political process determines how this is done, and “under the conditions of mass democracy, public opinion is communal and born of irrational ‘sentiments.’” The sentiments of the poor tend to seek a forced redistribution of wealth in their favor, since that is the superficial solution.

The radical alternative to imposed mass democracy is voluntary small-group voting. The political body is divided into tiny neighborhood cells, just as the human body is composed of small cells. The population of a neighborhood cell should be about 1000, small enough to know the candidates and meet personally to discuss issues. Citizens vote only for a neighborhood council.

Then a group of neighborhood councils, say about 20 or 30, elect, from their members, representatives to the next higher or broader council. The second-level council elects the next higher level legislature, and so on, all the way to the highest level parliament or Congress. That legislative body then elects the president.

Such cellular democracy can replace the mass democracies that prevail today, and that would be a major improvement, in extricating money from politics. But radical democracy also requires another change: replacing imposed democracy with voluntary democracy. The neighborhood cells would be voluntary contractual organizations.

In law, the written contract is required for major decisions, such as the purchase of real estate. The American political philosopher Lysander Spooner wrote in The Constitution of No Authority:  “It is a general principle of law and reason, that a written instrument binds no one until he has signed it… The laws holds, and reason declares, that if a written instrument is not signed, the presumption must be that the party to be bound by it, did not choose to sign it, or to bind himself by it…. Neither law nor reason requires or expects a man to agree to an instrument, until it is written; for until it is written, he cannot know its precise legal meaning. And when it is written, and he has had the opportunity to satisfy himself of its precise legal meaning, he is then expected to decide, and not before, whether he will agree to it or not.”

If a signed contract is needed for real estate transactions, how much more important is the political transaction of governance? If one joins a residential or condominium association, the law requires a display of the laws governing that association, and the new member must sign if he is to join. How much more important, then, is this principle for general governance? Radical democracy requires the signed consent of each member to the written contract.

The rule of all the people begins with the recognition of individual sovereignty, a contract among equal sovereigns for governance, and then implements small-group multi-level governance to let the people govern and minimize transfer-seeking by special interests.

Of course, even radical democracy does not guarantee liberty. A free society must have a constitution that protects individual liberty from the tyranny of the majority. But without genuine democracy, a constitution is an unsigned document that becomes manipulated to provide the appearance of equality and freedom. Behind it is the reality of imposed “diabolical powers,” the tyranny of both majorities and minorities.

(This article is also at http://www.progress.org)

“Rand Paul’s Libertarian Lecture in New Hampshire”

That’s the title of this short piece of reporting by the Weekly Standard‘s Michael Warren (the Weekly Standard is a neoconservative outlet). I recommend the whole thing, but cannot resist sharing an excerpt:

Without mentioning his name, Paul took on fellow Republican senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, who may be running for president and who spoke to the conference just a few minutes after Paul. Paul and Graham were on opposing sides during a 2011 Senate debate on indefinite detention of American citizens accused of terrorism. Graham’s argument was that these Americans ought to be classified as unlawful enemy combatants, and that the rules of war apply so long as Congress has authorized military action. Enemy combatants can be detained for as long as hostilities continue or when Congress otherwise says so, goes the thinking. “And when they say, ‘I want my lawyer,’ you tell them ‘Shut up. You don’t get a lawyer. You’re an enemy combatant,'” Graham had said during the floor debate.

But Paul didn’t see it that way.

“One of them said, ‘When they ask for a lawyer, you just tell them to shut up.’ Really? That’s the kind of discourse we’re going to have in our country? Tell them to shut up?” Paul said. “You would send an American citizen to Guantanamo Bay without a lawyer, without a trial? He said, ‘Yeah, if they’re dangerous.’”

Paul cracked a smile as he launched into full libertarian lecture mode.

“It sort of begs the question, doesn’t it? Who gets to decide who’s dangerous and who’s not dangerous?” he said, pacing back and forth across the stage in blue jeans and without a jacket. “Has there been a time in our history when we decided who was dangerous based on the color of your skin? Has there been a time in our history when we decided someone was dangerous because of different beliefs, didn’t look like us, or had a different religion? Are we going to give up on our right to trial so easily?”

Say what you will about Paul, but you won’t see anybody else in the primaries discussing the issues he discusses. The rest of the article has a lot more great stuff, and not only about the battle for the soul of the GOP, but bigger issues – thanks in part to Paul’s initiatives in the Senate, but also to the work of libertarian theorists and activists for the good part of four decades – such as asset forfeiture. Also, more subtly, you can find a penetrating insight into democracy itself (and if you find it, brag about it in the ‘comments’ threads, as I’d like to discuss it further). (h/t James Parsons)

Harrington, Commonwealth of Oceana, and A System of Politics (Expanding the Liberty Canon): First of Two Parts

James Harrington (1611-1677) was synonymous with the idea of democracy in Britain for centuries, but is not much read now beyond the ranks of those with strong interest in seventeenth century British history or the history of republican thought. Republicanism was the word used for thought about a political system under law and in which power is shared, with some protection of individual liberty, until the word liberal started being used in the eighteen century, with more emphasis though on the idea of liberty of trade and commerce. The republican tradition certainly stretches back to Aristotle in ancient Greece and can be taken back to his teacher Plato, though that often troubles modern readers for whom Plato seems disturbingly indifferent to individual rights and hostile to change. That will be a topic for another post, but for now it is enough to say that Aristotle is likely to seem relevant to ideas of individual liberty for the contemporary reader in ways that Plato may not and Aristotle’s own criticisms of his teacher are likely to seem appropriate to such a reader.

Harrington’s texts are not an easy read in that their structure is not clear and he does not have much in the way of literary style. This explains to a large degree why he is not a familiar name now along perhaps with the appearance of more recent writers in English concerned with liberty and democracy who are both more readable and more concerned with liberal democracy as it has developed since the late eighteenth century, particularly John Stuart Mill. In comparison Harrington seems stuck in early modern idea of democracy and republicanism which are expressed through a knowledge of texts which though not forgotten now are less obviously known to the educated reader. That is the texts of the ancient Greeks and Romans and the Bible. The educated in Harrington’s time were likely to read Latin and often read Greek as well, with major classical texts forming a common frame of reference. The Bible was widely known in the seventeenth century because Christianity was a very dominant force, and Harrington was writing at a time when the Protestant Reformation which led to the translation of the Bible into modern languages and encouragement to the faithful to read the Bible carefully and frequent was still a very living force. Catholics of course read the Bible, but the Catholic authorities resisted translating the Bible into modern languages before the Reformation and gave comparatively less importance to the individual study of it than the Protestant churches. So in short, Harrington’s writing comes from a  time of intimate and shared knowledge of ancient and religious texts, and his way of writing is not too suited to expressing itself to those not acquainted with that culture.

In addition Harrington, assumes some familiarity with the British and European politics of his time, though much of it is of lasting interest with regard to understanding of the formation of modern European states and ideas about the most just form of politics for those states. Venice is a very important example of a republic for Harrington, reflecting its status as the longest lived and most powerful republic known to Europeans at that time. The formation of the Dutch Republic in the late sixteenth century promoted a possibly stronger republic, but Harrington regards it as a loose assembly of city and regional republics, so still leaving Venice as the most powerful republic with a  unified sovereignty. Italy was not united politically at that time and Venice had existed since the eight century as an aristocratic republic in which aristocratic government combined with merchant wealth to an extent that made Venice a leading trading and naval power in the eastern Mediterranean. The Ottoman Empire appears fleetingly as the model of monarchy, an image which dissipated in the eighteenth century when the Ottomans began to seem backward and despotic, and to be at the head of a declining power. The power and the sophistication of the Ottoman state applying a system of laws and justice across a large and diverse territory made a rather different impression in a seventeenth century Europe suffering from religious wars and internal conflict even within powerful states.

Harrington himself lived through the English Civil War (1642-1651), also known as the The English Civil Wars (because it was a series of wars), the Wars of the Three Kingdoms (because it comprised separate conflicts in England, Scotland, and Ireland), and the English Revolution (because it resulted in the execution of King Charles I along with a period of constitutional innovation in the commonwealth and lord protector systems), which included religious conflict between different forms of Protestantism and political conflict between crown and parliament. Harrington was himself part of the section of the gentry supporting parliament against the king, though he also appears to have had friendly relations with Charles I while he was detained by parliamentary forces.

Oceana was originally banned while being printed during the Lord Protector phase in which the head of the parliamentary armies, Oliver Cromwell had become something close to a king. The book was legally published after negotiations between the Lord Protector’s government and Harrington’s family, with a dedication to Cromwell. Harrington was however accused of treason after the restoration of the monarch and though he was released after a short period of punishment never recovered in mind or body. So Harrington’s life and publication history is itself marked with the historical traumas of the time and the failure to establish enduring republican institutions.

Fifty Years of Voting

I cast my first vote in 1964, shortly after turning 21, the legal voting age in those days. I voted for Barry Goldwater who, although he described himself as a conservative, didn’t fit that category by today’s standards. He was for free markets but he was not particularly religious and he held a laissez-faire attitude toward alternate lifestyles. He was, unfortunately, a war hawk, so he wouldn’t fit very well into today’s libertarian category, either.

Four years later I voted for Richard Nixon, sad to say. I somehow thought he was for free markets, being a Republican. I was cured of that delusion by a wakeup call at 8:15 AM on Monday, August 16, 1971. That was the moment I saw the headline in the L.A. Times announcing Nixon’s dastardly Sunday evening perfidy: price controls, closing the gold window, and an import tariff surcharge. All of these statist actions very quickly played out disastrously. Their personal import was to cure me of any notion that Republicans were necessarily friends of liberty. I became a libertarian that Monday morning and never looked back.

Of course that decision meant never again voting for a winner.  I voted for John Hospers in 1972, and he actually got one electoral vote from a renegade Republican elector, Roger MacBride, who was the LP candidate in 1976. Ed Clark’s 1980 campaign on the Libertarian ticket, generously funded by the Koch brothers, gave me brief hope for the new party, which we all know has come to naught. I’ve “wasted” my vote on Libertarian candidates ever since. Thanks to Proposition 14 in California, I can only vote for Libertarians in the primary elections; minor parties are shut out of the general election. In many races the general election is a contest between two Democrats. I resist any urge to vote for the lesser evil of the two so now I just leave most of my ballot blank and vote against all tax measures.

If we must have voting, I offer a couple of common-sense reforms:

  • Raise the voting age to 30. People under that age are clueless.
  • Require voters to pass a stiff qualification exam, something far more rigorous than the simple literacy tests of yore.
  • Institute a stiff poll tax, at least enough to cover election costs. Why force non-voters to pay?

I’m tempted to throw in land ownership as another criterion, but the foregoing should suffice. Of course this reform would leave many people feeling disenfranchised, but so what? Most people are far too ignorant to judge issues and candidates rationally and should be kept away from voting booths at all costs. Anyway, the system would leave a path open for people to earn enfranchisement by working hard to satisfy the above criteria.

Would I apply for enfranchisement under my proposed system?  No way; I have better things to do.  Will I vote this year?  I suppose so. I have no idea what will be on the ballot, but there will doubtless be some lame-brain propositions to vote against.

Economists are special, but what about Palestinians and American blacks?

I’ve got the post-Thanksgiving flu. I know which toddlers are guilty of infecting me, and which aunts and uncles are responsible for this egregious assault on my happiness. Revenge will be sweet.

I’d like to get to Warren’s smackdown of my reparations proposal and also to Matthew’s thoughts on justified violence against the state (which were indirectly related to my own post on Ferguson), but first I’ve got to get to two interesting topics that have piqued my interest.

The first is Irfan Khawaja’s recent critique over at Policy of Truth of Jason Brennan’s new book on voting. As usual, Khawaja brings up a number of great points (too many, actually, for a lowly ethnographic enthusiast like me), and they deserve to be read by all (be sure to check out the ‘comments’ thread, too).

Here is an excerpt (Khawaja has flipped the tired script of many American academics by bringing in a fresh perspective):

I can’t work through all the details here, but take a look at Brennan’s argument in light of the preceding. Either my East Jerusalem case is a counter-example to his thesis, or it’s a defeater for it. In the first case, it refutes the thesis as stated. In the second case, it suggests that the thesis is highly misleading as stated. Given that, my argument requires that Brennan qualify his claims about the ethics of voting in ways that take more explicit stock of cases like the East Jerusalem one–something that would substantially change the “flavor” of his theory.

Brennan’s work has, of course, gotten a lot of excellent treatment in libertarian circles because of both his blogging activities (hint, hint, slackers) and because libertarians have a long, storied distrust of democratic politics (though this is largely an anarchistic distrust rather than the conservative-aristocratic one we North Americans think we are familiar with).

Switching gears, I also need to comment on an interesting paper (pdf) about the “Superiority of Economists” I came across over at MR. It was written by two sociologists and an economist, and it has a number of excellent insights (MR‘s link to the paper was broken, but MR also provided a link to comments by economist Paul Krugman, and his link to the paper was unbroken).

Most of the paper is a rehash of arguments about economics relative to the other social sciences (and the humanities) that libertarians have been having for a long time. (In my anecdotal experience, libertarian economists are quickest to defend the profession of economics from detractors, but they are also the quickest to defend the other social sciences from detractors (and, more importantly, incorporate non-economics research into their own). Leftist and conservative economists, by contrast, condescendingly acquiesce to attacks from other disciplines, but are also very, very disdainful of The Others’ contributions to research.) Libertarian economists generally share the same suspicions as The Other disciplines about the ability of economics to imitate the physical sciences using mathematical models (or that these models are even indicative of how humans “work”). See Warren’s piece (pdf) in Econ Journal Watch for more on these suspicions.

The last section before the conclusion (“A life of their own”) is really good and totally worth the click. It’s about economists and their relationship to everybody else in their society (this paper is made better by the fact that it is written by French academics with an intimate understanding of life in both the US and France, just like some other scholar that we all know and loathe love).

On page 18 the paper cites a few studies and lab experiments which have purportedly shown that people who study economics are, on the whole, less likely to cooperate than everybody else. There are a number of implications that the paper goes over (“does economics attract a certain type of personality?”, for example), but I wanted to focus on what is not discussed in the paper: The fact that economists probably have a different (actually, a more coherent and precise) understanding of the meaning of cooperation. Many criticisms of economics are clearly made of straw. One of the things that initially attracted me to libertarianism was the intelligent, well-informed critiques of economics as I then understood it (“homo economicus“) that were given by libertarians.

I also learned, on page 19 and contra Dr Amburgey’s repeated assertions, that economists are politically (and decisively) to the Left of the average American voter.

Another fascinating page 19 insight is that there is more income inequality ($57k gap between the top 10% and the median) in economics relative to other disciplines, but on this point the authors lose a golden opportunity to do some real sociological analysis (the authors focus instead, and predictably, on the economics profession’s recent prosperity as a whole relative to other academic disciplines; that is to say, on the income inequality between economics and The Others within academia). Earlier in the paper (7-14) an organizational comparison between economics and The Others highlighted the fact that the economics community tends to be more hierarchical, more incestuous, and possesses a “unitary disciplinary core,” which means that virtually all graduate schools teach the same concepts. The Others, in contrast, are “more decentralized, less cohesive, and [possess] less stable prestige rankings.” (9)

The most basic insight that stood out to me when I read the data on incomes was that the disparities and organizational structures of the social sciences and humanities represent a microcosm of society as a whole (pick any ole society you’d like): When rigid hierarchies are enforced, conformity and parochialism (incestuous is too strong a word here) arise, income inequality is more prevalent, and the pecking orders are more entrenched.

In contrast, societies that are “more decentralized and less cohesive” have more variety, much less deference to an established authority (such as a pecking order), and less income inequality ($42k gap between the top 10% of sociologists and the median). There are less women in economics relative to the other disciplines, and the median economist almost has the same income as a top 10% sociologist ($103k to $118k, a difference of only $15k).

Well, this post has already gone on for far too long (I hope to use it as a springboard for future musings) but I will end by noting that on page 23 the paper points out that economics is a very moral discipline, which is something non-libertarian economists vehemently deny. Libertarian economists, on the other hand, have been pointing this out for centuries.

From the Comments: What *are* the institutions that promote rational ignorance?

Rick answers my question:

Let’s go a step further than institutions: Instincts.*

Our ancestors survived a dangerous natural environment by taking on genetic strategies that allow us to use our big-old-dolphin-brains in clever ways, but that falls short of perfect Spock-ness. We are easily excited by certain things and will often answer easier questions than the ones posed to us without realizing it.

So besides the fact that it’s genuinely rational to be ignorant, our psychological makeup creates a situation that exacerbates the problem. Voters ask the question “will I be better off in four years with that asshole in charge or this one?” but answer the question “which of these schmucks would drive me to suicide slowest if I were trapped on a desert island with one of them?”

Let’s get back to the institutional question… Rational ignorance is a thing because we are facing a collective action problem. Through repeated play the problem of rational ignorance has created an electoral institution that rewards showmanship (playing on the psychology of voters). There are two questions: 1) Why did things unfold so that this is the case? 2) How might we change them for the better?

I suspect the answer to 1) is that people genuinely thought voting was going to be about information. Perhaps it even was at some point. And if it was successful it’s only natural that its scope would be expanded. But as its scope expands the informational issues become larger and it becomes more rational to be ignorant. (That’s one possible story but not the only one.)

The status quo isn’t going to change without a major shift in the way people think. One way to get that shift would be to fix high school civics classes (Okay, where do I sign up for sea-steading?!). I think one of the higher marginal benefit things is satire (tangent: my introduction to satire was This Hour has 22 Minutes which I watched before I was a full-blown libertarian). One reason I like Jon Stewart so much is that he fights back against the non-role of information in the political-media nexus. If “the people” acknowledge that politics isn’t about making “the right choice” in some objective sense they will be admitting the problem.

*Now, if I remember my last anthropology class correctly instincts aren’t as real as we think they are… but what from what I’ve gleaned about evolutionary psychology and neurology there is hard-wiring, or something like it, that kinda-sorta stands between instinct and culture. So I’ll (perhaps incorrectly) use the word instinct as short-hand for psychological features of humans that arose from our evolution as a social animal.