Thesis Redux: The Competency of the Majority: Our Best Chance for the Best Society.

In July of 2005, I realized I was FUCKED! Capital F, capital U, capital C, capital K, capital E, Capital D, exclamation mark, FUCKED!

In six months, my funding would run out and I was expected to submit my PhD thesis. One problem: I had no thesis to submit.

Let me be clear: I was not FUCKED! because I had left everything to the last minute.

On the contrary. I had done a ridiculous amount of research, thinking, and writing. Unfortunately, after all that research, thinking, and writing, I was forced to conclude that contemporary political philosophy had gone down a blind alley.

John Rawls, a philosopher whose work I still admire, is credited with renewing an interest in political philosophy as a branch of moral philosophy. By the time I started studying political philosophy seriously, he had already begun to rethink that part of his work I would say is distinctively moral. By the time I was done thinking and writing about his rethinking, I realized that the moral part of his work was fundamentally flawed and so was the idea of a distinctively moral political philosophy.

To put it as simply as possible: if we don’t think it’s appropriate or effective to use the one true religious morality to organize society, why would it be appropriate or effective to employ any other kind of one true morality? Fortunately and unfortunately, I managed to make my point in a single chapter that would eventually become a peer reviewed article.

And I still had the damn thesis to write.

I thought very seriously about calling it quits then and there. Clearly, my philosophical journey had come to an end and, unfortunately, I hadn’t yet managed to produce a thesis. Mix into my malaise a whole lot of discontent about the university system and it didn’t seem to me like there was much point in finishing the thesis.

But then, for some reason, I thought about all the people who had supported me over the years with their encouragement and letters of recommendation and I couldn’t shake the feeling that I owed it to them to do my best to finish a thesis and submit it. Fuck.

So, I went to work, refashioning what I had produced up to that point. I had learned, during my extended tarry in university, that the tenor, tone, and point of a paper — and thus presumably a thesis — could be completely changed with only a few key revisions. After some gnashing of teeth, some pounding of head against wall, and several false starts, I stumbled upon my first good — and, in retrospect, totally obvious — idea.

The Government of Canada had provided me with fists full of cash to undertake my research and, thoughtfully, they had forced me to write down what I intended to do with that money in order to get it. I thought, “hey, I might as well produce the work I promised to produce five years ago”. I dug up my one page outline and it looked feasible. At least, I now had a plan of action.

Then, I had my second good idea. If I was correct to think that contemporary political philosophy had gone down a blind alley and if I was correct to think that I didn’t really want to become a part of the university system, I had absolutely nothing to lose by thinking big. If I was going to fail, I might as well go down in flames.

So, I rearranged the work I had done in such a way that it allowed me to do some good old fashioned first philosophy. That’s right, I decided to get all Rene Descartes up in here. I would assume nothing, start from scratch, and reason my way to the best approach to society’s organization.

Then, I had my third good idea. No more hobby horses! If you are going to start fresh, I said to myself, start fresh!

Because I had arrived at political philosophy via my fretting about the the existence of God and via my fretting about the nature of truth, I was predisposed to look askance at anyone who talked about truth, knowledge, and certainty. As a result, I had more or less ignored a vein of work in contemporary philosophy that had reexamined Condorcet’s Jury Theorem, which [take a breath!] demonstrates mathematically that a majority decision based on the independent judgments of a sufficiently large number of sufficiently competent persons is the best estimation of which of two or more proposed courses of action is the best available, and [breathe!] it was this theorem that would eventually be the keystone of my thesis.

I can’t say when I realized the theorem was the keystone of my thesis because I was coming to understand the theorem — and the new work on it — as I worked on the whole of the thesis. Six months of almost non-stop work later and contrary to my own expectations, I managed to submit a thesis. I even managed to submit the damn thing a few days early.

All in all, I was pretty satisfied with the thesis I submitted, however, I had included a lot of material simply because it was a thesis being submitted for a degree. There are certain expectations of what a PhD thesis is meant to look like and I dutifully met them. Then, to get my thesis past my examining committee, I dutifully added even more material. As a result, the document that was eventually accepted, bound, and deposited as my thesis, from my perspective, was unnecessarily bloated. I resolved to cut it down to a size that accords with my philosophical aesthetic rather than the one dominant in academic culture.

And, finally, after many fits and starts, I did!

And here it is, if you care to read it, distributed round about the sixth anniversary of when I first submitted it — the end of January 2006. Holy fuck! Has it really been six years?

After reading and rereading the text over these last few weeks, there are for me two lingering concerns.

First, the writing is a bit tortured and is, I think, characteristic of someone who spent far too much of his life earning “A’s” to pay the bills. If I had more patience, I would rewrite it word for word but, ultimately, my goal has been to create a text that is more like the version I would have submitted if I hadn’t had to meet the expectations of the academic community and, unfortunately for the courageous reader, that’s just the way I wrote back then. And still do sometimes, I will admit.

Second, and more importantly, in the years since completing the thesis, I’ve come to take much more seriously the idea that we human primates have a hard time thinking and acting independently. I still think that the level of independent thinking required for Condorcet’s theorem is possible and even feasible, but I now recognize that it is pretty tough for most people to think, judge, and act independently most of the time. We are, after all, tribal primates and it is, I think, the struggle between independent judgement and tribal groupthink that — for both good and for evil — is the engine of human history.

If you have the time and inclination to read The Competency of the Majority: Our Best Chance for the Best Society, I welcome all questions and comments. I should also say, if you read only the fairly short introduction and conclusion, you will pretty much get the gist of it.

Download The Competency of the Majority: Our Best Chance for the Best Society

Let My People Go, Part Deux: I Will Let You Help Me But On One Condition: Bend Over Please.

The demands of the auto industry continue to escalate. It really should come as no surprise but the audacity of it all continues to delight and disgust me in a curious way.

Auto industry executives who, through their own mismanagement, have killed the viability of their very own industry are now using that outcome as a way to leverage the government for concessions. How did this situation turn from an industry desperate for aid into an industry dictating demands euphemistically described as needs? Let’s say: political mismanagement and a complacent media. Although some of the coverage is improving thanks to good ol’ self-interest. The light bulb: wait a minute our industry is also suffering huge job losses but we aren’t getting help — what’s up with that !?.

This situation is a classic example of a distinction I taught my first year Intro to Political Philosophy classes classes back in Auckland. These auto executive certainly have “the right” to do what they are doing (trying to exploit the outcomes of their own mismanagement for their own gain), but it certainly isn’t right for them to do it either. I hope our politicians, workers, and citizens are bright enough and courageous enough to see what’s happening and let the industry go down in the flames they themselves let. 

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Strange Bedfellows : Fiscal and Social Conservatives

Since at least the Eighties there has been a paradoxical political allegiance between two groups of persons in the United States and Canada. I refer to the strange political allegiance between fiscal and social conservatives. The reason that the union between these two kinds of persons is paradoxical is because their political goals are diametrically opposed both in theory and in practice. Let me explain.

First, a fiscal conservative is a person who advocates limited government intervention into the exchange of goods and services between its citizens and those of other nations. A fiscal conservative also thinks government tax-funded expenditures should be minimized and focussed primarily on national defense and the operation of the justice system.

In contrast, a social conservative is a person who believes there are social roles, practices, and beliefs which all persons should adopt and that the roles, practices, and beliefs should remain more or less unchanged over time. Often, especially amongst North Americans, social conservatives will justify their claims with reference to a set of religious beliefs but this need not be the case. An atheist may, for example, think there is natural social ordering based on class, whereas a theist may demand social change based on the tenets of his or her faith.

The reason that the union between these two kinds of persons is paradoxical is because their political goals are diametrically opposed both in theory and in practice. There is no greater force for change in social roles, beliefs, and practice than allowing people to exchange goods and services as they see fit. Furthermore, as a matter of historical fact, the intervention of governments (or quasi-governmental institutions) into the exchange of goods and services between persons has been the most common means by which certain groups have tried to establish and perpetuate a certain set of social roles, beliefs, and practices.

Really, the only thing these two kinds of people have in common is the term “conservative” and the view that they share the same political enemy.


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Obama’s State Of The Nation Address And The Other Guy

Tonight, I watched President Obama’s State of the Nation address to a special joint session of Congress on The speech was rock solid — which should come as no surprise. It hit all the right notes, managed to grapple with some policy details, and still managed to be moving — especially by the end. For the complete text, click here.  

My first impressions :

1. I for one am not convinced that government spending can successfully stimulate an economy out of a paper bag much less a recession, but I do accept the principle of deficit spending for long-term investment. If you borrow money to pay for things which will also benefit those who pay the debt then such spending can be justified — much like spending on any other public good (e.g. national defense). Based on policy programs mentioned in this speech, it sounds like Obama’s administration is borrowing for long-term investment and selling it with the story of “stimulus” spending. If this is true, it will be much better for the U.S. but is, of course, not entirely honest. Moreover, if the rhetoric about the line by line elimination of wasteful spending is genuine then it could be very good for the U.S.. Of course, Obama’s administration may find itself in a bit of a communications jam if Senator X claims his little pet project should be counted as stimulus spending.

2. Immediate tax cuts for the middle and lower classes is sensible. This is probably the only kind of stimulus spending which has much chance of having some positive “stimulating” effect. Plus, from a matter of pure strategy it makes the Republican call for tax cuts sound a little silly (E.g. Why do they keep calling for something he has already done?). Increasing the pay to soldiers seems pretty sensible too. I recall reading an article some time ago that pointed out that one of the unaccounted costs of the war was the fact that a lot of reservists had to give up good jobs to serve overseas and make much less income. Give the soldiers more cash and they will spend it immediately and they probably deserve it too.

3. His rhetoric and policy objectives for health care and education sound very promising but it will be a huge battle in what has been a very long war. Hope is good. Turning it into reality on these issues will be a hard slog. 

4. I think bailing out the auto industry is a big mistake. In fact, I think the worst thing you can do for the auto workers is to bail out the industry. Obama’s administration seems intent on doing so anyway. He talks of being “committed to the goal of a re-tooled, re-imagined auto industry that can compete and win.” But really, the best way for that to happen is to let the big bloated companies collapse, for the government to spend money protecting and re-training workers, and for the government to lend and / or guarantee loans to auto workers (and others) to start new businesses. In time, other industry leaders will buy the undervalued infrastructure and they will provide the innovation. That’s how free enterprise is meant to work. I’m not convinced anyone in Obama’s administration or the U.S. Federal government has the know-how to re-invent the auto industry and the present leaders in the auto industry have more than aptly demonstrated they don’t either. Clearly, though, based on his remarks about the US inventing the automobile, the American people have too much ego invested in the auto industry to let it collapse and probably be taken over by foreign companies. Given Obama’s own commitment to the environment and energy conservation, when he says, “And I believe the nation that invented the automobile cannot walk away from it,” it sounds a lot like a drug addict refusing to walk away from his drug of choice because he also happened to invent it. Of course, if the American people are prepared to bear the costs of a specifically made in America Auto industry, so be it. 

5. My view on the bail-outs to the financial industry is pretty much the same as the bail-outs to the auto industry. Despite the rhetoric, Obama’s administration will be forced by circumstance  to reward and protect incompetence, greed, and fraud. I’m not sure any administration would be able to avoid it and hopefully his has enough political clout to be able to limit the inevitable looting. After all, if the American people are prepared to delay the inevitable hangover by having a bit of a hair of the dog, so be it.  The problem is that the bartender doesn’t care if and when the drinker dies because he always seems to get the tab paid and always receives a substantial tip too.

5. I think this little throw away on foreign policy may have raised a few eyebrows:

“And with our friends and allies, we will forge a new and comprehensive strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan to defeat al Qaeda and combat extremism. Because I will not allow terrorists to plot against the American people from safe havens half a world away.”

Not only is it implied that Pakistan is not really one of the US’s friends and allies, it also states pretty clearly that safe havens in Pakistan won’t be tolerated either. I’m no diplomat but that sounds like pretty loaded language to me. Sure, it’s no “Axis of Evil”, but it still is pretty strong stuff.

6. I liked the change of tone concerning the partisan battles between Democrats and Republicans. If my search function is working correctly, there is no reference to “ideology” and “ideological” in the text of the speech. More importantly, he emphasized a common love of nation as a foundation for bi-partisan negotiation which, I think, is a communications line that will sell well with both Red and Blue voters.

7. There were a few important bits especially relevant to Canadians too. The expressed commitment to avoid protectionism, the closure of Guantanamo, and the explicit promise not to torture stand out for me (more on this last one in another post). I also couldn’t help but think that a lot of Obama’s rhetoric around green technologies and his commitment to a market based carbon reduction plan sounds mighty similar to Mr. Dion, former Liberal leader. 

8. I was also amused to no end watching all the politicians swooning and / or fawning over Obama. The opening “pageantry” was amusing to watch because it so obviously has its roots in Westminster Parliamentary practice and “Speeches from the Throne.” All the glad-handing was amusing to watch too. A politician never misses an opportunity to shake a hand — even when an entire nation is waiting to hear a speech.

Now onto the other guy:

Governor Bobby Jindal of Louisiana provided the Republican response and it was a total hoot and delight for all the wrong reasons if you are a Republican. 

1. With Obama now front and centre, it is easy to forget how good he really is at giving speeches. Jindal’s jilting and unnatural cadence, patronizing tone, and simple minded repetition of the “buzz-line” renews my appreciation for Obama’s public speaking prowess and makes me feel a little bit silly for being so acutely aware of the minor glitches in his speech. 

2. The decision to try and position Jindal as a Republican version of Obama only shows how little their strategists get what Obama’s victory was about. 

3. The naked hypocrisy of Republicans was also on full display. How can any Republican talk critically about excessive government spending after the Bush years. To his credit, Jindal did apologize on behalf of Republicans for ignoring everything their party is meant to stand for but he couldn’t resist implying it somehow had to do with the vortex of Washington rather than a total lack of integrity on their part.

4. The actual laugh out loud gut buster was the attempt to re-characterize the travesty of the post Hurricane Katrina rescue efforts as an example of the perils of government bureaucracy and red-tape. I think everyone will agree that the failures of the aftermath of Katrina is an example of the need for a functioning and responsive federal government.

For more of my political commentary, click here.

Ideology Is Not A Four-Letter Word: A Follow-Up

In a previous post, I lamented the misuse of the term “ideology” and “ideological” in recent political debate.

Click here for the post.

After hearing Obama and Jon Stewart both incorrectly employ the word, it finally occurred to me why people are misusing it.

People are equating “ideological” with “partisan” which means, according to Merriam-Webster, “a firm adherent to a party, faction, cause, or person ; especially : one exhibiting blind, prejudiced, and unreasoning allegiance.”

It is easy to see how one might begin to use these words interchangeably but to do so is a mistake. All persons who are ideological are not partisans and all partisans are not ideological. A person may make decisions based on a certain set of values and not exhibit an unreasoning allegiance to anyone or anything. After all, she might change her goals or her opinion about the set of values she employs in the light of new evidence. Similarly, a partisan might justify her allegiance to some faction based on any set of values which will do the trick.

The confusion probably arises because of the word, “ideologue,” which means, according to Merriam-Webster, “an often blindly partisan advocate or adherent of a particular ideology.” In other words, an ideologue is someone who is a partisan to a particular ideology. Now, I agree partisans and ideologues are not very helpful to political debate, but the answer is to reject “partisanship” not “ideology.” Political people may have a hard time seeing this distinction because contemporary party politics remains primarily and lamentably partisan in nature.

This distinction, however, is important not only for politics but also for public education. For fear of ideologues, many public schools jettison all talk or debate about ideology and values — whether it be secular or religious — and this is a grave error. Children need to learn to share, defend, and debate their ideologies without becoming ideologues themselves and schools are the very place where this should happen, with the help and guidance of a teacher. If this were to happen, there is a much greater chance they will grow up to engage in non-partisan political debate and that would be good for everyone.

For more of my political commentary, click here.

Why Obama’s Election and Inauguration Is Important to Me (A Canadian)

It occurred to me that an American might wonder why Obama’s election and inauguration should mean anything to me, a Canadian. After all, I was not involved in his campaign and almost all of the important policy decisions he faces will have almost no direct effect on my life and well-being. Nevertheless, his election and his inauguration are very important to me.

There are three reasons why:

1. Obama’s election and inauguration demonstrate that a well-organized and committed group of people can in fact accomplish anything — even that which was previously thought to be impossible.

2. His election and inauguration also demonstrate that an effective leader can be intelligent and accessible, nuanced and populist, sincere and charismatic.

3. Together, these two facts irrevocably refute the culture of cynicism which descended in the early seventies and has ever since dominated everywhere.

It should also be noted that these three facts refer only to his election and inauguration. Whether Obama is a great, unremarkable, or mediocre President is irrelevant to the point I am making. The fact that he and his team managed to do what no person thought possible can never be undone. If they can do what they did, then I, you, we — anyone — can accomplish the impossible in our own lives. And that’s why Obama’s election and inauguration is important to me. It proves anything is achievable, if a person can imagine it and decides to pursue it in good faith.

For more of my political commentary, click here.

Ideology is not a four-letter word.

In December 2006, I returned to Canada, after living in New Zealand for five years, and was fortunate enough to find work as an Adviser to a Member of Parliament in February 2007. Having all but ignored Canadian politics in my time away, favouring Kiwi politics and political philosophy instead, I was immediately struck by the fact that some Canadian politicians and commentators were using the term “ideology” in a curious fashion. It has, for some reason, become fashionable to accuse the Conservatives of employing ideology to make policy decisions as if this was proof enough the decision was wrong and bad for Canadians. I want to call attention to this curious use of this expression because it represents a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of democratic politics. Let me explain.

The Compact Oxford Dictionary provides as good a definition of “ideology” as any other. It indicates that an ideology is 1. a system of ideas and ideals forming the basis of an economic or political theory; 2. the set of beliefs characteristic of a social group or individual. So, to accuse the Conservatives of ideological policy decisions is to imply, roughly-speaking, that they alone base their decisions on a particular set of ideas, ideals, and/or beliefs characteristic of a theory, group, or individual and that policy decisions should not be made in this fashion. This is, of course, nonsense. All humans–Conservative or otherwise–make decisions–explicitly or implicitly–based on some set of ideas, ideals and beliefs and it is simply impossible for humans to do otherwise. We are all ideological in some sense of the word.

Surely what the commentators mean to say, when they label certain decisions as ideological, is that the Conservatives are making decisions based on ideas, ideals, and beliefs not wholly representative of all or most Canadians. Now this is, I think, a fair observation but the Conservatives are not unique or at fault for doing so. Politics exists precisely because persons do not share the same ideas, ideals, and beliefs and because we often draw different conclusions about how those ideas, ideals, and beliefs are best realized in everyday life–including policy. Democratic politics, in whatever particular form it happens to take, is a set of social practices that have emerged to help us deal with our disagreements and party politics, in particular, have developed as a way to organize persons who more or less share certain ideas, ideals, and beliefs–that is, an ideology. All political parties are ideological and to accuse the Conservatives of making ideological decisions is simply to accuse them of making decisions in accordance with the ideas, ideals, and beliefs of their party which is presumably precisely what their supporters would have them do. Yes, of course, the Government of Canada should try to serve and represent the needs of all Canadians, whichever political party happens to be in charge, but different Canadians have different views on how that will be best accomplished and, accordingly, a particular policy decision will necessarily be more representative of the views or ideologies of some Canadians rather than others. There is nothing wrong with this; it just the nature of politics and democracy.

Of course, it is true the Conservatives govern thanks only to a modest share of the popular vote and they probably should, because of the nature of parliamentary politics, and as sheer matter of tactics and strategy, make some effort to be conciliatory to the opposition. Indeed, if they stopped acting like an alienated opposition party of protest, Canadians might be more inclined to see them as a party worthy of broader support. Nevertheless, whatever their rhetorical temperament may be, it is no great sin on their part to make policy decisions which seem to be more in accord with the ideas, ideals, and beliefs of their supporters than that of, say, the Official Opposition. In fact, it is plausible to say that the Conservatives are succeeding precisely because they have a group of supporters who steadfastly believe that their political leaders are making decisions which more or less accord with their own ideas, ideals, and beliefs. It is also plausible to say the Liberals are doing poorly precisely because they are presently incapable of convincing anyone–even their core supporters–that they will govern in a fashion which accords with the ideas, ideals, and beliefs of anyone but those Liberals who happen to belong to a tiny inner circle. The recent decision to bootstrap Mr. Ignatieff into the Leader’s position without a whiff of grassroots consultation will only bolster this impression. 

So, rather than trying to fault the Conservatives for being ideological, those political leaders and commentators who would like to see them return to the opposition benches should instead emulate their ideological tendencies. The imaginations of the vast majority of Canadians who do not support the Conservatives can be won but it will only happen when those Canadians are convinced that a leader and party share their ideas, ideals, and beliefs and are committed to acting on them once in power–that is, when a leader and party convince Canadians that they share–and will act on–their ideology. In the meantime, Canadians may just throw their support behind whichever politcal party seems the most ideologically consistent simply because–if nothing else–we will at least have some sense of what to expect in the future. The Conservatives, I think, should also keep this in mind, as they duck and weave from one opinion poll to the next.

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