Sunday, July 30, 2006

Quote of the week

…we need education in the obvious more than investigation of the obscure.’ -- Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes

Thursday, July 27, 2006

How libertarian are you?

Libertarianism is pretty much the same as European classical liberalism: the separate term was coined to differentiate it from the left-wing meaning of the word ‘liberal’ in the United States. If you’re interested in finding out how ‘pure’ or ‘hardcore’ your libertarianism is then take this test, or, if you’re pressed for time, this one. On the other hand, if you just want a general indication of where you stand in an Australian context, take the Palmer quiz instead.

When I took the ‘purity’ quiz last year I scored 57, probably because I resisted the questions supporting cuts in military budgets or propagating the withdrawal of a global American military empire. So the test leaves no room for complexities. My score makes me...‘a medium-core libertarian, probably self-consciously so. Your friends probably encourage you to quit talking about your views so much.’

But since then I’ve learnt a thing or two about the non-aggression principle, anti-trust laws and free banking. Thus, when I took it again last week, I scored 67. Hmmm.

One question (‘Is bombing civilians in an enemy country morally equivalent to murder?’) is phrased in such a way that it’s almost impossible to legitimately choose from the two options. Unless you like eating babies.

Another - ‘Should we abolish public schools and universities?’ - doesn't leave a choice. What if you want to stop universities being reliant on the public purse but keep public schools?

Not to mention “Is it morally permissible to exercise ‘vigilante justice,’ even against government leaders?” Well, as the question is asking for a moral - or value - judgement rather than a legal one, I guess it depends on the circumstances. However, I certainly wouldn’t advocate the type of vigilante justice depicted in the movie Summer of Sam.

P.S. If there are any communists reading this blog please do set aside a few minutes for the purity test and post your result here.

Monday, July 24, 2006

The ant and the grasshopper

Classic Version

The ant works hard in the withering heat all summer long, building his house and laying up supplies for the winter.

The grasshopper thinks he's a fool and laughs and dances and plays the summer away.

Come winter, the ant is warm and well fed. The grasshopper has no food or shelter so he dies in the cold.

Modern Version

The ant works hard in the withering heat all summer long, building his house and laying up supplies for the winter.

The grasshopper thinks he's a fool and laughs and dances and plays the summer away.

Come winter, the shivering grasshopper calls a press conference and demands to know why the ant should be allowed to be warm and well fed while others are cold and starving.

BBC, CNN, NDTV show up to provide pictures of the shivering grasshopper next to a video of the ant in his comfortable home with a table filled with food.

The world is stunned by the sharp contrast. How can it be that this poor grasshopper is allowed to suffer so?

Arundhati Roy stages a demonstration outside the ant's house. Amnesty International and Kofi Annan criticise the government for not upholding the fundamental rights of the grasshopper.

The Internet is flooded with online petitions seeking support for the grasshopper. Opposition MPs stage a walkout from Parliament.

Left parties call for a Bharat Bandh in West Bengal and Kerala demanding a judicial enquiry.

Finally, the Judicial Committee drafts the Prevention of Terrorism Against Grasshoppers Act (POTAGA) with effect from the beginning of winter.

The ant is fined for failing to comply with POTAGA, and having nothing to pay his retroactive taxes, his home is confiscated by the government and handed over to the grasshopper in a ceremony covered by BBC, CNN and NDTV.

Arundhati Roy calls it "a triumph of justice".


The ant dies of starvation, and the grasshopper dances away the winter and summer. Come next winter the grasshopper knows nothing about building or maintaining a home. He searches for the ant, but there are not ants anymore. So the grasshopper dies too.

Arundhati Roy comes back to claim an award for predicting the environmental collapse that contributed to the extinction of the ant, and then the grasshopper. She donates the money to build a centre for environmental justice.

(Thanks to Seetha Parthasarathy)

Sunday, July 23, 2006

Open Society Condensed Chapter 10

Chapter 10: The Open Society And Its Enemies

“In what follows, the magical or tribal or collectivist society will also be called the closed society, and the society in which individuals are confronted with personal decisions, the open society.”

The chapter begins with Popper’s quest for some mitigating factor that might have been missing from his analysis of Plato as “a totalitarian party-politician”. He identified this in Plato’s genuine hatred to tyranny and his desire to make the people happy by relieving the strain of social and political change.

The origin of western civilisation in the Greek states is depicted as a transition from a closed or tribal society in the direction of an open society. This transition caused strain and distress which Popper called the “strain of civilisation”, a problem that is liable to intensify at any time of social or political dislocation. Popper suggested that the possibility of reducing this strain by taking refuge in a more settled community is the hook that attracts people to fundamentalism and to cults and sects of all kinds. The believer hopes that this affiliation will eliminate the problems of freedom and individual responsibility that arise in dynamic and multicultural societies.

Sections II and III examine the conditions in the Greek states round about the sixth century BC, leading up to the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta, and the bitter and destructive divisions between democrats and others in Athens itself.

Section IV is an idealized account of the ideals of Pericles and the Great Generation of Athenian democrats.

Section V describes the contribution that the historical Socrates made to the debate on political principles in Athens ending in his trial and his death sentence.

Section VI to VIII address the political events after the death of Socrates with some speculation about the internal tensions in Plato’s mind as he drifted from the principles of the historical Socrates and transformed the Socrates of the later into dialogues into a mouthpiece for Plato’s program to restore the wholeness and stability of the state.

Plato and the happiness of the people

Popper felt that something was missing from his interpretation of Plato as “a totalitarian party-politician, unsuccessful in his immediate and practical undertakings, but in the long run only too successful in his propaganda for the arrest and overthrow of a civilization which he hated.” After a largely unsuccessful search for evidence to refute his interpretation he concluded that Plato was seriously opposed to tyranny, which he regarded as the very lowers form of government and he really cared about the happiness of the people.
The one point in which I felt that my search for a refutation had succeeded concerned Plato’s hatred of tyranny…In the light of my new interpretation, it appears to me that Plato’s declaration of his wish to make the state and its citizens happy is not merely propaganda. I am ready to grant his fundamental benevolence. I also grant that he was right, to a limited extent, in the sociological analysis on which he based his promise of happiness. To put this point more precisely: I believe that Plato, with deep sociological insight, found that his contemporaries were suffering under a severe strain, and that this strain was due to the social revolution which had begun with the rise of democracy and individualism. He succeeded in discovering the main causes of their deeply rooted unhappiness—social change, and social dissension—and he did his utmost to fight them. There is no reason to doubt that one of his most powerful motives was to win back happiness for the citizens. For reasonsdiscussed later in this chapter, I believe that the medico-political treatment which he recommended, the arrest of change and the return to tribalism, was hopelessly wrong. But the recommendation, though not practicable as a therapy, testifies to Plato’s power of diagnosis. It shows that he knew what was amiss, that he understood the strain, the unhappiness, under which the people were labouring, even though he erred in his fundamental claim that by leading them back to tribalism he could lessen the strain, and restore their happiness.
This points up the danger of adopting the greatest happiness as a major guiding principle for social reform, at the expense of freedom. Aldous Huxley made this point in his futuristic nightmare “Brave New World” where the people lived in an indolent drug-induced fug of contentment.

Closed and open societies

The distinction that Popper made here is practically the same as that advanced by the poet W H Auden in his 1941 essay on ‘Criticism in a mass society’.
1. There are two types of society: closed societies and open. 2. All human societies begin by being of the closed type, but, except when they havestagnated or died, they have always evolved toward an ever more and more opentype. 3. Up until the industrial revolution this evolution was so gradual as hardly to be perceptible within the lifespan of an individual.The evolutionary process is complicated by the fact that different sections of the community progress towards the open society at different speeds. At any given point in history there are classes for whom economic, political and cultural advantages make society relatively open, and vice versa, those for whom similar disadvantages make it relatively closed.No human community of course has ever been com­pletely closed, and none probably will ever be completely open, but from the researches of anthropologists and historians, we can construct a Platonic idea of both.
In Popper’s words
A closed society at its best can be justly compared to an organism. The so-called organic or biological theory of the state can be applied to it to a considerable extent. A closed society resembles a herd or a tribe in being a semi-organic unit whose members are held together by semi-biological ties—kinship, living together, sharing common efforts, common dangers, common joys and common distress. It is still a concrete group of concrete individuals, related to one another not merely by such abstract social relationships as division of labour and exchange of commodities, but by concrete physical relationships such as touch, smell, and sight.
Despite the slow evolution described by Auden, the transition has been uneven, and indeed may never be complete (as he said). That is not a criticism of the concepts because they are “ideal types”, designed to help with the analysis and explanation of phenomena such as the “stain of civilisation” and the very different responses that can be made to it.

Popper went on.Our own ways of life are still beset with taboos; food taboos, taboos of politeness, and many others. And yet…there is, between the laws of the state on the one hand and the taboos we habitually observe on the other, an ever-widening field of personal decisions, with its problems and responsibilities. As a consequence of its loss of organic character, an open society may become, by degrees, what I should like to term an ‘abstract society’. It may, to a considerable extent, lose the character of a concrete or real group of men, or of a system of such real groups. This point which has been rarely understood may be explained by way of an exaggeration.
We could conceive of a society in which men practically never meet face to face—in which all business is conducted by individuals in isolation who communicate by typed letters or by telegrams, and who go about in closed motor-cars. (Artificial insemination would allow even propagation without a personal element.) Such a fictitious society might be called a ‘completely abstract or depersonalized society’. Now the interesting point is that our modern society resembles in many of its aspects such a completely abstract society. Although we do not always drive alone in closed motor cars (but meet face to face thousands of men walking past us in the street) the result is very nearly the same as if we did—we do not establish as a rule any personal relation with our fellow-pedestrians. Similarly, membership of a trade union may mean no more than the possession of a membership card and the payment of a contribution to an unknown secretary. There are many people living in a modern society who have no, or extremely few, intimate personal contacts, who live in anonymity and isolation, and consequently in unhappiness. For although society has become abstract, the biological make-up of man has not changed much; men have social needs which they cannot satisfy in an abstract society.

Of course, our picture is even in this form highly exaggerated. There never will be or can be a completely abstract or even a predominantly abstract society—no more than a completely rational or even a predominantly rational society. People still form real groups and enter into real social contacts of all kinds, and try to satisfy their emotional social needs as well as they can. But most of the social groups of a modern open society (with the exception of some lucky family groups) are poor substitutes, since they do not provide for a common life. And many of them do not have any function in the life of the society at large.

Another way in which the picture is exaggerated is that it does not, so far, contain any of the gains made—only the losses. But there are gains. Personal relationships of a new kind can arise where they can be freely entered into, instead of being determined by the accidents of birth; and with this, a new individualism arises.
The strain of civilisation and the fear of freedom
In the light of what has been said, it will be clear that the transition from the closed to the open society can be described as one of the deepest revolutions through which mankind has passed. Owing to what we have described as the biological character of the closed society, this transition must be felt deeply indeed. Thus when we say that our Western civilization derives from the Greeks, we ought to realize what it means. It means that the Greeks started for us that great revolution which, it seems, is still in its beginning—the transition from the closed to the open society.
As soon as one is sensitized to the strain of civilisation it is of course a recurring motif in historical and sociological studies, although it is not usually articulated in a robust theory that provides both an explanation and some pointers for a rational response. Children of the sixties and seventies may recall a book by Erich Fromm called “The Fear of Freedom” which was a psychological explanation of the appeal of fascism, couched in Marxist and Freudian jargon, without mention of Popper.

The theory of the strain of civilisation in times of culture clash or rapid social transition could have provided a framework for subsequent work on the problems of social change and multicultural societies, however it has never, to my knowledge, been used by any well known or influential anthropologist, historian or sociologist. This may reflect the dominance of people in those professions who were scandalized by Popper’s treatment of Plato and Marx, or it may be, as Roger Sandall has suggested, that it became politically incorrect in progressive circles after WW2 to talk about tribal societies in any way that implied that they are inferior.

This is no part of Popper’s argument but it may be that the strain of civilisation is an example of what biologists call phylogeny mimicking ontogeny – meaning that the evolution of the individual from embryo to adult in some ways resembles the evolution of the species from earlier forms of life. On this account, the “primal” strain of civilisation is the separation of the child from the mother, the disruption of the very first tribe (of two) where the infant lives in blissful union with the other. This is where Suttie’s work on the origins of love and hate and early personality formation have so much more to offer than the theories of Freud which Suttie subjected to devastating criticism in his posthumous book The Origins of Love and Hate.

The Greek situation and Plato’s betrayal of Socrates and the Great Generation

After sketching the theory of tribal transition and the strain of civilisation, Popper returned to the causes and consequences of the breakdown of tribalism and isolationism in the Greek states.
Summing up our analysis so far, we can say that the political and spiritual revolution which had begun with the breakdown of Greek tribalism reached its climax in the fifth century, with the outbreak of the Peloponnesian war. It had developed into a violent class war, and, at the same time, into a war between the two leading cities of Greece.
Although the ‘patriotic’ movement was partly the expression of the longing to return to more stable forms of life, to religion, decency, law and order, it was itself morally rotten. Its ancient faith was lost, and was largely replaced by a hypocritical and even cynical exploitation of religious sentiments. Nihilism, as painted by Plato in the portraits of Callicles and Thrasymachus, could be found if anywhere among the young ‘patriotic’ aristocrats who, if given the opportunity, became leaders of the democratic party. The clearest exponent of this nihilism was perhaps the oligarchic leader who helped to deal the death-blow at Athens, Plato’s uncle Critias, the leader of the Thirty Tyrants.

But at this time, in the same generation to which Thucydides belonged, there rose a new faith in reason, freedom and the brotherhood of all men—the new faith, and, as I believe, the only possible faith, of the open society.

This generation which marks a turning point in the history of mankind, I should like to call the Great Generation; it is the generation which lived in Athens just before, and during, the Peloponnesian war. There were great conservatives among them, like Sophocles, or Thucydides. There were men among them who represent the period of transition; who were wavering, like Euripides, or sceptical, like Aristophanes. But there was also the great leader of democracy, Pericles, who formulated the principle of equality before the law and of political individualism, and Herodotus, who was welcomed and hailed in Pericles’ city as the author of a work that glorified these principles.

Protagoras, a native of Abdera who became influential in Athens, and his ountryman Democritus must also be counted among the Great Generation. They formulated the doctrine that human institutions of language, custom, and law are not of the magical character of taboos but man-made, not natural but conventional, insisting, at the same time, that we are responsible for them. Then there was the school of Gorgias—Alcidamas, Lycophron and Antisthenes, who developed the fundamental tenets of anti-slavery, of a rational protectionism, and of anti-nationalism, i.e. the creed of the universal empire of men. And there was, perhaps the greatest of all, Socrates, who taught the lesson that we must have faith in human reason, but at the same time beware of dogmatism; that we must keep away both from misology, the distrust of theory and of reason, and from the magical attitude of those who make an idol of wisdom; who taught, in other words, that the spirit of science is criticism.

Socrates was not a leader of Athenian democracy, like Pericles, or a theorist of the open society, like Protagoras. He was, rather, a critic of Athens and of her democratic institutions, and in this he may have borne a superficial resemblance to some of the leaders of the reaction against the open society. But there is no need for a man who criticizes democracy and democratic institutions to be their enemy, although both the democrats he criticizes, and the totalitarians who hope to profit from any disunion in the democratic camp, are likely to brand him as such. There is a fundamental difference between a democratic and a totalitarian criticism of democracy. Socrates’ criticism was a democratic one, and indeed of the kind that is the very life of democracy. (Democrats who do not see the difference between a friendly and a hostile criticism of democracy are themselves imbued with the totalitarian spirit. Totalitarianism, of course, cannot consider any criticism as riendly, since every criticism of such an authority must challenge the principle of authority itself.)

Plato’s strongest argument in this struggle was, I believe, sincere: According to the humanitarian creed, he argued, we should be ready to help our neighbours. The people need help badly, they are unhappy, they labour under a severe strain, a sense of drift. There is no certainty, no security in life, when everything is in flux. I am ready to help them. But I cannot make them happy without going to the root of the evil.

Socrates had refused to compromise his personal integrity. Plato, with all his uncompromising canvas-cleaning, was led along a path on which he compromised his integrity with every step he took. He was forced to combat free thought, and the pursuit of truth. He was led to defend lying, political miracles, tabooistic superstition, the suppression of truth, and ultimately, brutal violence. In spite of Socrates’ warning against misanthropy and misology, he was led to distrust man and to fear argument.
Popper ended the chapter with a call for courage and persistence in pressing on against the intellectual and psychological temptations to return to the tribal “womb”.
If we wish to remain human, then there is only one way, the way into the open society. We must go into the unknown, the uncertain and the insecure, using what reason we may have to plan as well as we can for both security and freedom.

Introduction to the condensed Open Society series.

Open Society - the architecture of the two volumes.

Introduction, Chapter 1 and Chapter 2.

Chapter 3 Plato's theory of forms.

Chapter 4 Plato's program to arrest social change.

Chapter 5 Moral philosophy, nature and convention.

Chapter 6 Totalitarian justice.

Chapters 7 and 8 on leadership.

Chapter 9 The disasters of utopian "canvas cleaning" social reform.

Chapter 10 The concept of the open society and the strain of civilisation.

Saturday, July 22, 2006

Libertarian hip-hop

Composer and programmer Mike Tyson (not the boxer) is officially sick of that canker on all societies prone to statist solutions: the bureaucrat. To disseminate his irritation, he's written this clever piece of libertarian satire, complete with cover art. Enjoy

Friday, July 21, 2006

OSE Condensed Chapter 9

Chapter 9 Aesthetism, Perfectionism, Utopianism

‘Everything has got to be smashed to start with. Our whole damned civilization has got to go, before we can bring any decency into the world.’ —‘Mourlan’, in Du Gard’s Les Thibaults.

‘All citizens above the age of ten must be expelled from the city and deported somewhere into the country; and the children who are now free from the influence of the manners and habits of their parents must be taken over.’ – Plato.

This chapter runs to only 12 pages and it contains some of the most important arguments in the whole book because countless millions of lives have been ruined by the application of the principles of revolutionary utopian social and political reform. It is helpful to read this chapter with the image of Pol Pot’s Cambodia and Mao’s China in mind.
Inherent in Plato’s programme there is a certain approach towards politics which, I believe, is most dangerous. Its analysis is of great practical importance from the point of view of rational social engineering. The Platonic approach I have in mind can be described as that of Utopian engineering, as opposed to another kind of social engineering which I consider as the only rational one, and which may be described by the name of piecemeal engineering.
As a general principle the piecemeal engineer will seek to ameliorate the most urgent evils of society, rather than aiming to achieve the greatest ultimate good.
This difference is far from being merely verbal. In fact, it is most important. It is the difference between a reasonable method of improving the lot of man, and a method which, if really tried, may easily lead to an intolerable increase in human suffering.
Recall that Popper was not fully aware of the extent of the Soviet disaster when he wrote this chapter, and Cambodia and Mao’s experiments in China were still some decades away.

The case for utopian engineering runs like this: to act rationally we need to have an aim (an end), and then actions can be classified as rational if they are consistent with that end. By this logic, political actions are rational if they pursue the final end that has been set for the reform of the state. In that way, actions are driven by our ultimate political ends. We have to be clear about these, and especially we have to have a vision of the best state of all because that must be the constant goal and inspiration for all political activism, however distant the goal might be and whatever obstacles are in the way.It is important to realise that the Utopian element in that chain of logic is the determination of the ultimate goal, not just intermediate or partial goals. But there is no scientific way to decide the ultimate ends of political action and so these things are a matter of ideology with the result that disagreements often resemble religious differences.
And there can be no tolerance between these different Utopian religions...Thus the Utopian must win over, or else crush, his Utopianist competitors. But he has to do more...For the way to the Utopian goal is long. Thus the rationality of his political action demands constancy of aim for a long time ahead; and this can only be achieved if he not merely crushes competing Utopian religions, but also as far as possible stamps out all memory of them.
It was probably George Orwell who pointed out that for the totalitarians, control of the past is essential to the control of the future and so history has to be re-written, even to the extent of airbrushing out important figures from group photographs when they fall from favour with some later regime.On top of that, criticism of failures on the way to the goal has to be suppressed, otherwise doubt may be cast on the very goals themselves, the people may cease to have confidence in the leadership.The rational alternative is piecemeal reform.
The politician who adopts this method may or may not have a blueprint of society before his mind, he may or may not hope that mankind will one day realize an ideal state, and achieve happiness and perfection on earth. But he will be aware that perfection, if at all attainable, is far distant, and that every generation of men, and therefore also the living, have a claim; perhaps not so much a claim to be made happy, for there are no institutional means of making a man happy, but a claim not to be made unhappy, where it can be avoided. They have a claim to be given all possible help, if they suffer.
At this point, recall the moral principles proposed in Chapter 5 – minimise suffering rather than maximise happiness, promote tolerance and avoid tyranny. These guiding principles fit like a glove with piecemeal reform, and with democratic government, because most people can agree on concrete steps to address suffering and the problems of people in need, whereas there are likely to be many conflicting views on the way that happiness should be sought.
In favour of his method, the piecemeal engineer can claim that a systematic fight against suffering and injustice and war is more likely to be supported by the approval and agreement of a great number of people than the fight for the establishment of some ideal. The existence of social evils, that is to say, of social conditions under which many men are suffering, can be comparatively well established. Those who suffer can judge for themselves, and the others can hardly deny that they would not like to change places. It is infinitely more difficult to reason about an ideal society. Social life is so complicated that few men, or none at all, could judge a blueprint for social engineering on the grand scale; whether it be practicable; whether it would result in a real improvement; what kind of suffering it may involve; and what may be the means for its realization. As opposed to this, blueprints for piecemeal engineering are comparatively simple. They are blueprints for single institutions, for health and unemployed insurance, for instance, or arbitration courts, or anti-depression budgeting, or educational reform. If they go wrong, the damage is not very great, and a re-adjustment not very difficult.
Bearing in mind the general principle of learning from mistakes, and the function of experiments in science, social reforms can be viewed as experiments and sensible politicians will monitor the results and look out for unexpected complications, unintended consequences, and even the discovery that the reform was simply misguided and should be reversed. The point is to ensure that the change is reversible and killing people is not a reversible process.
While piecemeal reform lends itself to democracy, Utopian reform lends itself to dictatorship. The Utopian attempt to realize an ideal state, using a blueprint of society as a whole, is one which demands a strong centralized rule of a few, and which therefore is likely to lead to a dictatorship. This I consider a criticism of the Utopian approach; for I have tried to show, in the chapter on the Principle of Leadership, that an authoritarian rule is a most objectionable form of government. Some points not touched upon in that chapter furnish us with even more direct arguments against the Utopian approach. One of the difficulties faced by a benevolent dictator is to find whether the effects of his measures agree with his good intentions (as de Tocqueville saw clearly more than a hundred years ago). The difficulty arises out of the fact that authoritarianism must discourage criticism; accordingly, the benevolent dictator will not easily hear of complaints concerning the measures he has taken. But without some such check, he can hardly find out whether his measures achieve the desired benevolent aim. The situation must become even worse for the Utopian engineer. The reconstruction of society is a big undertaking which must cause considerable inconvenience to many, and for a considerable span of time. Accordingly, the Utopian engineer will have to be deaf to many complaints; in fact, it will be part of his business to suppress unreasonable objections. (He will say, like Lenin, ‘You can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs.’) But with it, he must invariably suppress reasonable criticism also.
Another difficulty of Utopian engineering is related to the problem of the dictator’s successor. In chapter 7 I have mentioned certain aspects of this problem. Utopian engineering raises a difficulty analogous to but even more serious than the one which faces the benevolent tyrant who tries to find an equally benevolent successor . The very sweep of such a Utopian undertaking makes it improbable that it will realize its ends during the lifetime of one social engineer, or group of engineers. And if the successors do not pursue the same ideal, then all the sufferings of the people for the sake of the ideal may have been in vain.

A generalization of this argument leads to a further criticism of the Utopian pproach. This approach, it is clear, can be of practical value only if we assume that the original blueprint, perhaps with certain adjustments, remains the basis of the work until it is completed. But that will take some time. It will be a time of revolutions, both political and spiritual, and of new experiments and experience in the political field. It is therefore to be expected that ideas and ideals will change. What had appeared the ideal state to the people who made the original blueprint, may not appear so to their successors. If that is granted, then the whole approach breaks down. The method of first establishing an ultimate political aim and then beginning to move towards it is futile if we admit that the aim may be considerably changed during the process of its realization. It may at any moment turn out that the steps so far taken actually lead away from the realization of the new aim. And if we change our direction according to the new aim, then we expose ourselves to the same risk again. In spite of all the sacrifices made, we may never get anywhere at all. Those who prefer one step towards a distant ideal to the realization of a piecemeal compromise should always remember that if the ideal is very distant, it may even become difficult to say whether the step taken was towards or away from it. This is especially so if the course should proceed by zigzag steps, or, in Hegel’s jargon, ‘dialectically’, or if it is not clearly planned at all. (This bears upon the old and somewhat childish question of how far the end can justify the means. Apart from claiming that no end could ever justify all means, I think that a fairly concrete and realizable end may justify temporary measures which a more distant ideal never could.)
Some common misunderstandings of piecemeal reform need to be corrected. First of all, the piecemeal reformer does not have to be pessimistic or negative about the prospects for major improvements.
It is important to understand this criticism properly; I do not criticize the ideal by claiming that an ideal can never be realized, that it must always remain a Utopia. This would not be a valid criticism, for many things have been realized which have once been dogmatically declared to be unrealizable, for instance, the establishment of institutions for securing civil peace, i.e. for the prevention of crime within the state…. What I criticize under the name Utopian engineering recommends the reconstruction of society as a whole, i.e. very sweeping changes whose practical consequences are hard to calculate, owing to our limited experiences. It claims to plan rationally for the whole of society, although we do not possess anything like the factual knowledge which would be necessary to make good such an ambitious claim.
Second, the piecemeal reformer is not restricted to petty, trivial or small scale experiments, such as reforms of a single village. The reformer will mostly be concerned with social institutions which extend throughout the whole of society, like the legal system. In fact in the aftermath of the Fall of the Wall when the Russians were struggling to come to grips with a situation where the rule of law had been absent for several generations, Popper proposed that the French or German legal codes might be taken on board more or less in toto to plug the gap. The point was that plenty of people from France or Germany could advise on the operation and the modification of the system.
Piecemeal social experiments can be carried out under realistic conditions, in the midst of society, in spite of being on a ‘small scale’, that is to say, without revolutionizing the whole of society. In fact, we are making such experiments all the time. The introduction of a new kind of life-insurance, of a new kind of taxation, of a new penal reform, are all social experiments which have their repercussions through the whole of society without remodelling society as a whole… The Utopian engineer we are opposing is right when he stresses that an experiment in socialism would be of little value if carried out under laboratory conditions, for instance, in an isolated village, since what we want to know is how things work out in society under normal social conditions. But this very example shows where the prejudice of the Utopian engineer lies. He is convinced that we must recast the whole structure of society, when we experiment with it; and he can therefore conceive a more modest experiment only as one that recasts the whole structure of a small society. But the kind of experiment from which we can learn most is the alteration of one social institution at a time. For only in this way can we learn how to fit institutions into the framework of other institutions, and how to adjust them so that they work according to our intentions. And only in this way can we make mistakes, and learn from our mistakes, without risking repercussions of a gravity that must endanger the will to future reforms. Furthermore, the Utopian method must lead to a dangerous dogmatic attachment to a blueprint for which countless sacrifices have been made. Powerful interests must become linked up with the success of the experiment. All this does not contribute to the rationality, or to the scientific value, of the experiment. But the piecemeal method permits repeated experiments and continuous readjustments. In fact, it might lead to the happy situation where politicians begin to look out for their own mistakes instead of trying to explain them away and to prove that they have always been right. This—and not Utopian planning or historical prophecy—would mean the introduction of scientific method into politics, since the whole secret of scientific method is a readiness to learn from mistakes.
Further thoughts on Radicalism (with Cambodia and China in mind)

There is one element within Utopianism which is particularly characteristic of Plato’s approach and which Marx does not oppose, although it is perhaps the most important of those elements which I have attacked as unrealistic. It is the sweep of Utopianism, its attempt to deal with society as a whole, leaving no stone unturned. It is the conviction that one has to go to the very root of the social evil, that nothing short of a complete eradication of the offending social system will do if we wish to ‘bring any decency into the world’ (as Du Gard says). It is, in short, its uncompromising radicalism.

This sweep, this extreme radicalism of the Platonic approach (and of the Marxian as well) is, I believe, connected with its aestheticism, i.e. with the desire to build a world which is not only a little better and more rational than ours, but which is free from all its ugliness: not a crazy quilt, an old garment badly patched, but an entirely new gown, a really beautiful new world. This aestheticism is a very understandable attitude; in fact, I believe most of us suffer a little from such dreams of perfection. But this aesthetic enthusiasm becomes valuable only if it is bridled by reason, by a feeling of responsibility, and by a humanitarian urge to help. Otherwise it is a dangerous enthusiasm, liable to develop into a form of neurosis or hysteria.

Asked about the details of their draughtsmanship, Plato’s ‘Socrates’ gives the following striking reply: ‘They will take as their canvas a city and the characters of men, and they will, first of all, make their canvas clean—by no means an easy matter. But this is just the point, you know, where they will differ from all others. They will not start work on a city nor on an individual (nor will they draw up laws) unless they are given a clean canvas, or have cleaned it themselves.’

The kind of thing Plato has in mind when he speaks of canvas-cleaning is explained a little later. ‘How can that be done?’ asks Glaucon. ‘All citizens above the age of ten’, Socrates answers, ‘must be expelled from the city and deported somewhere into the country; and the children who are now free from the influence of the manners and habits of their parents must be taken over. They must be educated in the ways [of true philosophy], and according to the laws, which we have described.’ (The philosophers are not, of course, among the citizens to be expelled: they remain as educators, and so do, presumably, those non-citizens who must keep them going.) …This is the way in which the artist-politician must proceed. This is what canvas-cleaning means. He must eradicate the existing institutions and traditions. He must purify, purge, expel, banish, and kill. (‘Liquidate’ is the terrible modern term for it.) Plato’s statement is indeed a true description of the uncompromising attitude of all forms of out-and-out radicalism—of the aestheticist’s refusal to compromise. The view that society should be beautiful like a work of art leads only too easily to violent measures. But all this radicalism and violence is both unrealistic and futile. (This has been shown by the example of Russia’s development. After the economic breakdown to which the canvas-cleaning of the so-called ‘war communism’ had led, Lenin introduced his ‘New Economic Policy’, in fact a kind of piecemeal engineering, though without the conscious formulation of its principles or of a technology. He started by restoring most of the features of the picture which had been eradicated with so much human suffering. Money, markets, differentiation of income, and private property—for a time even private enterprise in production—were reintroduced, and only after this basis was re-established began a new period of reform.)

Thursday, July 20, 2006

OSE Condensed Chapter 7 and 8

Chapter 7 Leadership

The question "who shall rule the state?" has generally been accepted as a fundamental, if not the fundamental, question in the philosophy and practice of politics. Popper dissented from that tradition and suggested that it is unhelpful and misleading to start with that question, and it has resulted in permanent confusion about the realistic and rational objectives of democratic political reform.

The chapter has five sections. In the first Popper advanced two lines of argument against the idea that posing the question "who shall rule?" is a useful starting point for political philosophy.

In section II he briefly outlined his alternative approach to the theory of democracy.

In section III he presented additional arguments for an institutional approach to democracy, in preference to theories that place too much emphasis on the short-term problem of the immediate leadership.

In section IV he examined Plato’s theory of the leadership of the wise and in section V he launched an attack on the system of education that Plato proposed to prepare the philosopher kings for their role.
Plato’s theory of justice indicates very clearly that Plato saw the fundamental problem of politics in the question: Who shall rule the state? It is my conviction that by expressing the problem of politics in the form ‘Who should rule?’ or ‘Whose will should be supreme?’, etc., Plato created a lasting confusion in political philosophy. It is indeed analogous to the confusion he created in the field of moral philosophy by his identification, discussed in the last chapter, of collectivism and altruism...

First of all, such a reply is liable to persuade us that some fundamental problem of political theory has been solved. But if we approach political theory from a different angle, then we find that far from solving any fundamental problems, we have merely skipped over them, by assuming that the question ‘Who should rule?’ is fundamental. For even those who share this assumption of Plato’s admit that political rulers are not always sufficiently ‘good’ or ‘wise’, and that it is not at all easy to get a government on whose goodness and wisdom one can implicitly rely. If that is granted, then we must ask whether political thought should not face from the beginning the possibility of bad government; whether we should not prepare for the worst leaders, and hope for the best. But this leads to a new approach to the problem of politics, for it forces us to replace the question: Who should rule? by the new question: How can we so organize political institutions that bad or incompetent rulers can be prevented from doing too much damage?
He suggested that the notion that the basic question concerns "who shall rule" is based on the assumption that political power is essentially unchecked, so that the rulers or the ruling party can do as they like. If it is assumed that political power is essentially sovereign, the only important question left is indeed "who is to be the sovereign?".An alternative to this approach, which Popper did not mention at that point, is the Rule of Law, so that everyone, including the leaders for the time being, are subjected to a set of rules that apply to everyone, rulers and ruled alike.

Instead of pursuing that path, Popper spent some paragraphs criticising the theory of unchecked sovereignty, pointing out that even the most powerful dictators depended on their secret police, their henchmen and their hangmen.
My claim is that every theory of sovereignty omits to face a more fundamental question - the question, namely, whether we should not strive towards institutional control of the rulers by balancing their powers against other powers. This theory of checks and balances can at least claim careful consideration. The only objections to this claim, as far as I can see, are (a) that such a control is practically impossible, or (b) that it is essentially inconceivable since political power is essentially sovereign. Both of these dogmatic objections are, I believe, refuted by the facts; and with them fall a number of other influential views (for instance, the theory that the only alternative to the dictatorship of one class is that of another class). In order to raise the question of institutional control of the rulers, we need not assume more than that governments are not always good or wise.
He demonstrated that all theories of sovereignty are logically paradoxical, in that they do not handle the situation where, for argument sake, if we have a theory that the state should be ruled by The Good, what if The Good decide that the state should be ruled by The Wise. Or if a democratic state votes into power an anti-democrat (Hitler or Allende).

In section II he then proceeded to sketch a non-paradoxical theory.
And indeed, it is not difficult to show that a theory of democratic control can be developed which is free of the paradox of sovereignty. The theory I have in mind is one which does not proceed, as it were, from a doctrine of the intrinsic goodness or righteousness of a majority rule, but rather from the baseness of tyranny; or more precisely, it rests upon the decision, or upon the adoption of the proposal, to avoid and to resist tyranny.

For we may distinguish two main types of government. The first type consists of governments of which we can get rid without bloodshed — for example, by way of general elections; that is to say, the social institutions provide means by which the rulers may be dismissed by the ruled, and the social traditions ensure that these institutions will not easily be destroyed by those who are in power. The second type consists of governments which the ruled cannot get rid of except by way of a successful revolution — that is to say, in most cases, not at all. I suggest the term ‘democracy’ as a short-hand label for a government of the first type, and the term ‘tyranny’ or ‘dictatorship’ for the second.

If we make use of the two labels as suggested, then we can now describe, as the principle of a democratic policy, the proposal to create, develop, and protect, political institutions for the avoidance of tyranny. This principle does not imply that we can ever develop institutions of this kind which are faultless or foolproof, or which ensure that the policies adopted by a democratic government will be right or good or wise — or even necessarily better or wiser than the policies adopted by a benevolent tyrant. (Since no such assertions are made, the paradox of democracy is avoided.) What may be said, however, to be implied in the adoption of the democratic principle is the conviction that the acceptance of even a bad policy in a democracy (as long as we can work for a peaceful change) is preferable to the submission to a tyranny, however wise or benevolent. Seen in this light, the theory of democracy is not based upon the principle that the majority should rule; rather, the various equalitarian methods of democratic control, such as general elections and representative government, are to be considered as no more than well-tried and, in the presence of a widespread traditional distrust of tyranny, reasonably effective institutional safeguards against tyranny, always open to improvement, and even providing methods for their own improvement.

He who accepts the principle of democracy in this sense is therefore not bound to look upon the result of a democratic vote as an authoritative expression of what is right. Although he will accept a decision of the majority, for the sake of making the democratic institutions work, he will feel free to combat it by democratic means, and to work for its revision. And should he live to see the day when the majority vote destroys the democratic institutions, then this sad experience will tell him only that there does not exist a foolproof method of avoiding tyranny. But it need not weaken his decision to fight tyranny, nor will it expose his theory as inconsistent.
In section III Popper returned to his analysis of Plato to examine the way that he distracted attention from the institutional issues of keeping the leaders under control. In Popper’s view, Plato focused too much on the short-term question of the personnel who should be in charge, so the most urgent problem For Plato would be the selection of the natural leaders and training them for leadership. In contrast Popper insisted on the primacy of institutional matters.
All long-term politics are institutional. There is no escape from that, not even for Plato. The principle of leadership does not replace institutional problems by problems of personnel, it only creates new institutional problems. .. But it must be said that a pure institutionalism is impossible also. Not only does the construction of institutions involve important personal decisions, but the functioning of even the best institutions (such as democratic checks and balances) will always depend, to a considerable degree, on the persons involved.

Institutions are like fortresses. They must be well designed and manned. This distinction between the personal and the institutional element in a social situation is a point which is often missed by the critics of democracy. Most of them are dissatisfied with democratic institutions because they find that these do not necessarily prevent a state or a policy from falling short of some moral standards or of some political demands which may be urgent as well as admirable.

But these critics misdirect their attacks; they do not understand what democratic institutions may be expected to do… It makes possible the reform of institutions without using violence, and thereby the use of reason in the designing of new institutions and the adjusting of old ones. It cannot provide reason. .. Those who criticize democracy on any ‘moral’ grounds fail to distinguish between personal and institutional problems. It rests with us to improve matters. The democratic institutions cannot improve themselves. The problem of improving them is always a problem for persons rather than for institutions. But if we want improvements, we must make clear which institutions we want to improve.
This raises a fairly substantial budget of issues for the improvement of democracy, especially as too much is expected of the voting process itself, without regard to the way that the function of elections, as a control of the rulers, has been corrupted by a number of false ideas and corrosive practices which will be addressed in due course.

Obsession with voting rights precipitated many disasters in the Third World when the decolonisation process, driven by well-meaning Fabian socialists, resulted in widespread collapse of economies (under socialist principles) and reversion to tribal warfare due to lack of most of the institutional requirements for successful democracy. A rather large issue at present is how to make the process work better in Iraq. The remainder of chapter 7 is mostly devoted to a number of harsh comments on various approaches to education that Popper finds unhelpful. These include Plato’s idea of using the education system to prepare future leaders, progressive and romantic notions about educating for self development rather than learning, and the risk that a State monopoly on education will result in brainwashing and loss of diversity. This is taking us some way from sovereignty and political science and a compilation of Popper’s views on education can be found here.

Further thoughts on the limitation of State power

Hayek noted in section 3 of his essay ‘Why I am not a conservative’ that it was only when power came into the hands of the majority that further limitations of the power of government were thought to be unnecessary. “In this sense democracy and unlimited government are connected”. However he went on to say that it is not democracy but unlimited government that is objectionable, and he did not see why the people should not learn to limit the scope of majority rule as well as that of any other form of government. “It is not who governs but what government is entitled to do that seems to me the essential problem.” This is very much the line taken independently by Popper in his critique of theories of sovereignty. Of course there are other precedents for this view in the classical liberal tradition, including John Stuart Mill on his good days, and before him the German von Humboldt to whom one of Mill’s major books was dedicated.

It is implicit in Popper’s critique of sovereignty that majority rule is no better than any other tyranny unless it is limited. A dangerous extension of the theory of majority rule is the doctrine of Parliamentary Sovereignty. This is the idea that any law that a majority of bodies in the House at the time happens to pass by a simple majority is OK, regardless of the written or unwritten rules or conventions in place before the vote and regardless of the previous system of rights and conventions that are violated in the process. The process may be complicated if there is an upper house where a majority is required as well, but the point is that the capacity for revolutionary and destructive legislation is always on the cards as long as the doctrine of Parliamentary Sovereignty is widely accepted. For activist and interventionist politicians of course it is an huge temptation to abuse their power.

Popper on the danger of economic and other forms of state intervention.

Popper was a social democrat when he wrote the OSE and he considered that the government was obliged to intervene to control monopolies and unemployment. Unfortunately he didn’t have a clue about the causes of unemployment and he had nothing useful to say on the topic. He was a fast learner, however, and he picked up a lot from his correspondence with Hayek, which commenced in 1943 while The Open Society was still in manuscript form.

Hayek’s reaction was gratifying but he took fright at Popper’s language of social technology and social engineering because he (Hayek) had identified the enemy - even more than the historicist - as the constructivist rationalist (the coercive utopian) who thought he could impose a pattern upon the organisation of a whole economy, like an engineer working from a blueprint. Popper was concerned with freedom and he was equally concerned with human suffering and deprivation, after his formative years surrounded by the abject poverty in Austria after the Great War.

Like the Prince of Wales visiting the out of work Welsh miners during the Great Depression, he knew “Something has to be done!” For this reason he reserved the right of the state to intervene so that the economically powerless could not be exploited by the economically powerful. He was a free trader in goods because he recognised that under monopoly, the consumers may have to pay to cart away the rubbish produced by the monopolist. He was not a redistributionist and he was not unduly concerned about disparities of income, although he acknowledged that it was disturbing to see extremes of wealth. As a result of Hayek’s influence Popper emphasised that state intervention should take the form of laying down clearly formulated rules, and state officials should not be empowered to issue discretionary orders to achieve particular short-term aims. As he became more alert to the dangers of increasing state power, he insisted that social democratic policies should never be envisaged as a “cure-all” and he warned that socialists of good will should be alert to abuses of power that could result from increased state activity, however well meaning the original intention might be.

The following material may not have been in the first edition of the OSE but it turned up in a later edition. Popper warned that economic intervention, even the piecemeal methods that he advocated, will tend to increase the power of the state.
Interventionism is therefore extremely dangerous. This is not a decisive argument against it; state power must always remain a dangerous though necessary evil. But it should be a warning that if we relax our watchfulness, and if we do not strengthen our democratic institutions while giving more power to the state by interventionist ‘planning’, then we may lose our freedom.
He went on to say that 'it is not enough to insist that our solution should be a minimum solution; that we should be watchful; and that we should not give more power to the state than is necessary for the protection of freedom'. His remarks raise problems, but they do not show a way to a solution.
Under these circumstances it may be useful to remember our considerations of chapter 7 concerning the question of the control of political power and the paradox of freedom. The important distinction which we made there was that between persons and institutions. We pointed out that, while the political question of the day may demand a personal solution, all long-term policy-and especially all democratic long-term policy-must be conceived in terms of impersonal institutions.
Similar considerations apply to the control of the economic power of the state where there is a need to guard against an increase in the power of the rulers, and against the arbitrariness of politicians, bureaucrats and petty officials.
We thus arrive at a distinction between two entirely different methods by which the economic intervention of the state may proceed. The first is that of designing a ‘legal framework’ of protective institutions (laws restricting the powers of the owner of an animal, or of a landowner, are an example). The second is that of empowering organs of the state to act-within certain limits-as they consider necessary for achieving the ends laid down by the rulers for the time being. We may describe the first procedure as ‘institutional’ or ‘indirect’ intervention, and the second as ‘personal’ or ‘direct’ intervention.

From the point of view of democratic control, the first method is preferable and from the point of view of piecemeal social engineering (that is the method of trial and error, learning from our mistakes) the difference between the two methods is highly important.Only the first, the institutional method, makes it possible to make adjustments in the light of discussion and experience. It alone makes it possible to apply the method of trial and error to our political actions. It is long-term; yet the permanent legal framework can be slowly changed, in order to make allowances for unforeseen and undesired consequences, for changes in other parts of the framework, etc. It alone allows us to find out, by experience and analysis, what we actually were doing when we intervened with a certain aim in mind.

Discretionary decisions of the rulers or civil servants are outside these rational methods, being short-term decisions, transitory, changing from day to day. Generally they are not open to public inspection of discussion both because necessary information is lacking, and because the principles on which the decision is taken are often obscure.“But it is not only in this sense that the first method can be described as rational and the second as irrational. It is also in an entirely different and highly important sense. The legal framework can be known and understood by the individual citizen; and it should be designed to be so understandable. Its functioning is predictable. It introduces a factor of certainty and security into social life. When it is altered, allowances can be made, during a transitional period, for those individuals who have laid their plans in the expectation of its constancy.

As opposed to this, the method of personal intervention must introduce an ever-growing element of unpredictability into social life, and with it will develop the feeling that social life is irrational and insecure. The use of discretionary powers is liable to grow quickly, once it has become an accepted method, since adjustments will be necessary, and adjustments to discretionary short-term decisions can hardly be carried out by institutional means. This tendency must greatly increase the irrationality of the system, creating in many the impression that there are hidden powers behind the scenes, and making them susceptible to the conspiracy theory of society with all its consequences - heresy hunts, national, social, and class hostility. In spite of all this, the obvious policy of preferring where possible the institutional method is far from being generally accepted. The failure to accept it is, I suppose, due to different reasons. One is that it needs a certain detachment to embark on the long-term task of re-designing the ‘legal framework’. But governments live from hand to mouth, and discretionary powers belong to this style of living-quite apart from the fact that rulers are inclined to love those powers for their own sake.
Prescient words, written before the efflorescence of activism and engineering after WW2.

Chapter 8 The Philosopher King

Chapter 8 does not need to be treated in detail, it is a pendant to the chapter on leadership with more details on the breeding, training and modus operandi of the philosopher kings. The example of the physician is used to reinforce the imperative to maintain the organic unity of the state and the subordination of the individual to the collective. The concept of the ‘noble’ or ‘lordly’ lie is introduced as an important propaganda device to mislead the people or to impress them with useful fabrications such as the Myth of the Blood and Soil. According to this story the warriors who founded the city were suppose to be born of the earth instead of human mothers so they were completely dedicated to the defence of the city.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Indian government bans certain sites

The thing with socialism is that it gives bureaucrats and politicians a status higher than the average person. They then begin to think they are better than everyone else, because they have access to favouritism and can practise nepotism while the common man starves.

At some point - and that point has already been reached in India, a supposedly democratic country - officials stop explaining, or provide pitiful excuses as justification for their actions.

As India is, tragically, a socialist country it is not surprising to find another example of this perverse government action - in the news that certain websites have been blocked based on terrorism related concerns.

My uncle in Guwahati sent me an email today saying he could not access this weblog. I've only just made the connection between his troubles and the attempt at censorship.

Atanu Dey points out this is only an attempt, as you can't really block anything on the net. Or, if you do, human ingenuity will soon find a way to break the ban. Here's one way already worked out. Hat-tip to Heath over at Catallaxy for first bringing this to my attention.

Update: The Hindustan Times reports this was apparently a stuff-up, not a deliberate ban. The original intention was to prevent access to 17 sites. Follow the latest developments here and here. Incidentally, some info on a rule that I didn't know existed, banning the publication of foreign newspapers in India .

Monday, July 17, 2006

My friends all drive Porsches, I must make amends...

So please won't you buy me a Mercedes Benz?

Sunday, July 16, 2006

Interview with Michael Backman

Michael Backman has seen and heard so much of the inner wheeling and dealing of Asia that it is perhaps not a far stretch to suggest he’s seen it all. Backman is author of numerous books and writes a regular column for The Age. A former employee of the Australian Government, he has shed light on the inner workings of Asia – from corruption to trade politics – in a way few others have. This is the transcript of an interview I conducted in 2005:

Why specialise on Asia? Would you advise young people that Asia is a good subject to study given the growing importance of Asia in trade and diplomacy?

I decided to specialise on Asia because it Asia is close to Australia. It's our own backyard. It simply seemed logical. And yes, of course young Australians should study Asia-related topics.

Is it difficult to forge a career around writing, consulting and speaking?

I don't find it difficult but I know that many do. I spend more time writing books - so far I've written five - than newspaper columns. The consulting and speaking flow from that. But writing does mean long days working on my own. So you do need to be self-motivated, good at organising your time and especially good at controlling interruptions. The average book takes me about eight months of solid work. I keep the same hours as everyone else – I'm at my desk by nine in the morning and I stop around 6 in the evening and I do that every day except weekends. There's no rubbish about sitting under trees in nice locations to get inspiration to write. I'm not a poet. It's all about long hard days in an office location, being very focussed and concentrating hard.

Other than involvement in politics, is journalism one of the fields to be in, in order to make a difference?

Perhaps it is although I don't regard myself as a journalist. As a columnist I write about my opinions, whereas a journalist should write about the opinions of others. Journalists are important for bringing transparency to the world. After all, it’s information that is the key input now to any economy. But journalists should report the news; not make it or be a part of it. That's something I wouldn't like for myself. I prefer to have strong opinions and to make them public.

What do editors look for when commissioning a writer to produce a regular column in an influential daily?

You must be punctual, write clearly and not be wordy. Lots of short sentences are essential. And you must write in an engaging manner and not be afraid to be controversial but not irresponsibly so.

How difficult is it to build up sources for your stories?

I've been writing about Asia for a long time. Very rarely do I call anyone simply to get information from them. I tend to have the connections first and then let the stories and information flow. Actually, this is very Asian. I feel it's the only way to write properly about Asia. If you call up people in Asian business with whom you have no prior connection or relationship they almost certainly won't talk to you and even if they do rarely will they tell you anything useful. They will not be eager to talk about any topic. This contrasts greatly with business people in Australia who are normally very eager to talk to journalists and columnists.

What about the solid knowledge base you need as a columnist writing on topical issues? Is this best built up through an initial foray into academia or the government departments?

I get information from everywhere. I am very curious and spend a lot of time pursuing leads for no other reason than to satisfy my own curiosity. For example, very rarely can I eat in a restaurant without wanting to know who owns it and what other involvements they have. I'm always on the job. I have worked in Australian politics, academia and in Australia's Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. It has all provided useful background. I've also lived in various cities in Australia including Melbourne, but also in Paris, Jakarta and London. And I travel constantly and widely. Travel is essential for what I do. I learn so much simply by being in a place and looking around and talking with local people. Today as I respond to these questions, I'm in London and more bombs have been exploding. Most people might regard that as dangerous. To me it's an opportunity.

How effective have you been through your articles in holding Asia's governments accountable and what kind of feedback do you get?

My books and columns do sometimes pose a problem for governments in Asia. I am prepared to write about anything and I simply do not care who is offended in Asia. If politicians or business people in Asia are embarrassed by their deeds being written about in public then they should stop doing them. The answer is not to control the media. I recently wrote a column for a Singapore newspaper in which I said that the Singapore Government should relax its ridiculous media laws. The Communications minister gave a speech and accused me of intervening in Singapore’s domestic politics which simply was not the case. His remarks criticising me were reported around the world and were even the subject of an editorial in the Wall Street Journal. It made Singapore look even more ridiculous. Public embarrassment is a good way to bring change.

Saturday, July 15, 2006

What if God was one of us?

Traditionally, the law year commences with a church service. In a hangover from the law's English heritage, that service is always held in July. In Australia (and Queensland in particular) this is a good thing. Barristers, judges and clergy alike turn up in full kit - wigs, ermine fringed gowns, robes, the lot. Everyone in the local legal fraternity also fronts up. The most senior judge in the jurisdiction delivers a short address, as does the most senior clergyman. It is all very formal and ritualistic, a hangover from a bygone age. For a skeptic and atheist like me, it presents something of, ahem, a challenge.

Our law term commencement service was yesterday. I toyed with the idea of not going, but decided this would not only look churlish, but was churlish. Country towns with small professions are generally very collegial, and failing to front at an event social as much as religious would mark me out as someone with an unnecessary bug in my hat.

I gave religion the boot when I was about 13. Not for any particular reason, just that I found I didn't believe it, no matter how hard I tried. It was impossible to relate to such a distant God. I never got the sense that God was among us, and strongly suspected that Jesus Christ was a greatly misunderstood philosopher and freethinker, but most definately not God. As I was on a full scholarship at a religious school, this presented something of a quandary. So I did what countless non-believers in a similar setting have done in the past. I kept schtum and observed the bare minimum, floating (largely) under the radar. My family wasn't particularly religious, so this was no great burden.

In later years, I was grateful for the solid religious instruction I received. Apart from perplexing the door-to-door hawkers of various American-made beliefs, I'm generally fairly well-informed on religious debate, doctrine and scripture. I've noticed that those who know nothing are more easily snowed, particularly by some of the loopier fringe religions. Although operating out of a different tradition, I think David Hicks falls firmly into this category. A political and religious naif, he was easily persuaded into adopting a system that had neat, pat answers to everything within his ken, not to mention a few tasty conspiracy theories to boot.

The bishop, in his law term address, spent a pungent ten minutes talking about the separation of church and state, and how Christianity - in cooperation with parliament and the courts - had largely achieved this, while Islam had not. He pointed out that religious morality, when enforced by the state, utterly loses its power to persuade. The essence of true morality is choice. Legal 'right' and religious 'right' may often coincide, but that is an effect of history, not enforcement.

Needless to say, my discomfort at being in a place where everything was unfamiliar - the hymns, the procedure, the method - evaporated at least temporarily. I realised that to a very large degree, this Anglican clergyman was articlating what skeptics have been saying for years: if society is to function, religion has to be kept in its box.

Afterwards, scone in hand (yes, these churchy things are also characterised by devonshire teas and good, strong coffee), I sought out the bishop and complimented him on his talk (called a homily, I learned). 'Oh yes,' he said mildly. 'We are on the same side in this'.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Condensed OSE Chapter 6: Justice

Chapter 6: Totalitarian Justice


Plato promoted a highly influential and damaging theory of totalitarian or collectivist justice as an alternative to equalitarian or individualist theory.

He also created the myth that individualism is not compatible with altruism.

He effectively exploited weaknesses that are sometimes used to defend the protective state and equalitarian justice.

These weaknesses are the theory of natural rights and the social contract theory of human society.

The equalitarian theory needs to be described in the language of political proposals, in the context of the protective state.

Organisation of the chapter

The introduction to the chapter outlines Plato’s totalitarian program and notes how it has been idealized, even by some writers who were aware of its dangerous tendencies.

Section I describes how Plato recast the theory of justice to mean protecting the stability and the power structure of the state.

Section II raises and dismisses the suggestion that Plato’s theory of totalitarian justice corresponded with the customary Greek meaning of the term.

Section III restates the three key elements of the equalitarian theory and their opposites, which Plato defended. These conflicts are treated in the following three sections.

Section IV states the program (articulated by Pericles in his funeral speech) of rejecting all doctrines of natural privilege and shows how Plato attacked this.

Section V defends the principle of individualism versus collectivism and shows how Plato’s brilliant rhetoric managed to identify individualism with selfishness, and altruism with collectivism. This leads to totalitarianism when combined with other elements of Plato’s program, including his theory of leadership.

Section VI explains the theory of the protective state, in contrast with Plato’s theory that the state is all-important. It also explains the language of political proposals as an alternative to the defective and confusing methods of essentialism and historicism. Essentialism means trying to establish the true meaning of terms (such as freedom and justice) and historicism is the error of explanation by origins (the genetic fallacy).

Section VII shows how the equalitarian theory of justice and the protective state were expounded by a younger contemporary of Plato but the ideas only survive in fragments of Plato’s early work and in some critical commentaries by Aristotle.

Section VIII explains the rhetorical devices that Plato used in his later and most influential works on politics (Republic and Laws) to suppress or misrepresent the ideas of individual freedom and equalitarian justice in favour of his totalitarian program.

From the top of the chapter

The main elements of Plato’s political programme can be derived from his cardinal objective, to protect a stable state with rigid class rule.
The principal elements I have in mind are:

(A) The strict division of the classes; i.e. the ruling class consisting of herdsmen and watch-dogs must be strictly separated from the human cattle.

(B) The identification of the fate of the state with that of the ruling class; the exclusive interest in this class, and in its unity; and the strict supervision and collectivization of the interests of its members. From these principal elements, others can be derived, for instance the following:

(C) The ruling class has a monopoly of things like military virtues and training, and of the right to carry arms and to receive education of any kind; but it is excluded from any participation in economic activities, and especially from earning money.

(D) There must be a censorship of all intellectual activities of the ruling class, and a continual propaganda aiming at moulding and unifying their minds. All innovation in education, legislation, and religion must be prevented or suppressed.

(E) The state must be self-sufficient. It must aim at economic autarchy; otherwise the rulers would either be dependent upon traders, or become traders themselves.
The first of these alternatives would undermine their power, the second their unity and the stability of the state. This programme can, I think, be fairly described as totalitarian.

There are many objections to this harsh verdict on Plato, for example, what about his ardent desire for Goodness and Beauty, or his love of Wisdom and of Truth? What about his demand that the wise, the philosophers, should rule? What about his hopes of making the citizens of his state virtuous as well as happy? And above all, his demand that the state should be founded upon Justice?
Popper noted the tendency to interpret Plato in the best possible light, even on the part of writers who were clearly aware of the totalitarian tendencies in his thinking. In addition, the idealization of Plato extended to many translations of the works, so that drastic remarks of Plato’s which do not fit the translator’s views of what a humanitarian should say are frequently either toned down or misunderstood. This starts with the translation of the title of Plato’s ‘Republic’, which has a liberal or even a revolutionary tone. However it could just as well be translated as ‘The Constitution’ or ‘The City State’ or ‘The State’.

Popper defends Equalitarian Justice by which he means equality before non-discriminatory laws.
I think that most of us, especially those whose general outlook is humanitarian, mean something like this: (a) an equal distribution of the burden of citizenship, i.e. of those limitations of freedom which are necessary in social life; (b) equal treatment of the citizens before the law, provided, of course, that (c) the laws show neither favour nor disfavour towards individual citizens or groups or classes; (d) impartiality of the courts of justice; and (e) an equal share in the advantages (and not only in the burden) which membership of the state may offer to its citizens.
Plato’s Republic is probably the most influential book on justice until Rawls' big book in 1972. It underpins the programs of both outright totalitarians and also the warm and cuddly program of social justice, which also undermines equalitarian justice in a slower but equally deadly manner. For example, affirmative action policies for various ethnic or racial groups in the US represent the most obvious form of official racism in that nation since slavery was abolished.

The presentation of Plato’s argument is very interesting because he chose to avoid any mention of equalitarian justice, though in previous dialogues such as Georgias he had actually defended it. This is an interesting and illuminating oversight which Popper subjected to close investigation, noting that the equalitarian theory had been well formulated by Lycophron, a younger contemporary of Plato (nowhere named by Plato) and reported by Aristotle (himself no friend of equality and freedom).

The Platonic theory of justice as keeping your place in the social hierarchy
The city is founded upon human nature, its needs, and its limitations. ‘We have stated, and, you will remember, repeated over and over again that each man in our city should do one work only; namely, that work for which his nature is naturally best fitted.’ ‘The city is just .. if each of its three classes attends to its own work.’ But this statement means that Plato identifies justice with the principle of class rule and of class privilege. For the principle that every class should attend to its own business means, briefly and bluntly, that the state is just if the ruler rules, if the worker works, and if the slave slaves (...)The state is just if it is healthy, strong, united — stable (...) Behind Plato’s definition of justice stands, fundamentally, his demand for totalitarian class rule (...)The humanitarian theory of justice can be summarised in three main demands or proposals, namely (a) the proposal to eliminate ‘natural’ privileges, (b) the general principle of individualism, that justice applies to individuals rather than groups and (c) the principle that a major function of the state to protect the freedom of its citizens.

Plato, in opposition, supported (a) the principle of natural privilege, (b) holism or collectivism, and (c) the imperative of maintaining the stability of the state.
Equalitarianism is the demand that the citizens of the state should be treated impartially, that is, they should be equal under the law. It is important to note that his is a proposal and if it is not realised in fact, it still remains an objective and it is not a criticism of the principle to point out that there may be “one law for the rich and another for the poor.”

Plato’s principle of justice was, of course, diametrically opposed to all this. He demanded natural privileges for the natural leaders. But how did he contest the equalitarian principle? And how did he establish his own demands?

This is where Plato exploited some of the best-known formulations of the equalitarian demands. These were spelled out in the language of ‘natural rights’, and the ‘natural’, meaning biological, equality of men. This is unhelpful because people are equal in some respects and very unequal in others. Further, as explained in the previous chapter, nothing follows from the facts of the matter in any case.
Plato quickly found that naturalism was a weak spot within the equalitarian doctrine, and he took the fullest advantage of this weakness. To tell men that they are equal has a certain sentimental appeal. But this appeal is small compared with that made by a propaganda that tells them that they are superior to others, and that others are inferior to them. Are you naturally equal to your servants, to your slaves, to the manual worker who is no better than an animal? The very question is ridiculous.

Summing up, it can be said that Plato never underrated the significance of the equalitarian theory, supported as it was by a man like Pericles, but that, in the Republic, he did not treat it at all; he attacked it, but not squarely and openly.
Individualism and collectivism

The problem of individualism and collectivism is closely related to that of equality and inequality. Before going on to discuss it, a few terminological remarks seem to be necessary.

The term ‘individualism’ can be used (according to the Oxford Dictionary) in two different ways: (a) in opposition to collectivism, and (b) in opposition to altruism. There is no other word to express the former meaning, but several synonyms for the latter, for example ‘egoism’ or ‘selfishness’. This is why in what follows I shall use the term ‘individualism’ exclusively in sense (a), using terms like ‘egoism’ or ‘selfishness’ if sense (b) is intended. A little table may be useful:

(a) Individualism is opposed to (a') Collectivism.
(b) Egoism is opposed to (b') Altruism

Plato’s gambit at this point was to collapse the table and make out a case for the inevitable conflict or tension between individualism and altruism.

Now a glance at our little table will show that this is not so. Collectivism is not opposed to egoism, nor is it identical with altruism or unselfishness. Collective or group egoism, for instance class egoism, is a very common thing , and this shows clearly enough that collectivism as such is not opposed to selfishness. On the other hand, an anti-collectivist, i.e. an individualist, can, at the same time, be an altruist; he can be ready to make sacrifices in order to help other individuals.

Now it is interesting that for Plato, and for most Platonists, an altruistic individualism (as for instance that of Dickens) cannot exist. According to Plato, the only alternative to collectivism is egoism; he simply identifies all altruism with collectivism, and all individualism with egoism. This is not a matter of terminology, of mere words, for instead of four possibilities, Plato recognized only two. This has created considerable confusion in speculation on ethical matters, even down to our own day.

Plato’s identification of individualism with egoism furnishes him with a powerful weapon for his defence of collectivism as well as for his attack upon individualism. In defending collectivism, he can appeal to our humanitarian feeling of unselfishness; in his attack, he can brand all individualists as selfish, as incapable of devotion to anything but themselves. This attack, although aimed by Plato against individualism in our sense, i.e. against the rights of human individuals, reaches of course only a very different target, egoism. But this difference is constantly ignored by Plato and by most Platonists.

The humanitarian, protective theory of the state
In a clear presentation of this theory, the language of political demands or of political proposals should be used; that is to say, we should not try to answer the essentialist question: What is the state, what is its true nature, its real meaning? Nor should we try to answer the historicist question: How did the state originate, and what is the origin of political obligation? We should rather put our question in this way: What do we demand from a state? What do we propose to consider as the legitimate aim of state activity? And in order to find out what our fundamental political demands are, we may ask: Why do we prefer living in a well-ordered state to living without a state, i.e. in anarchy? Now if we ask our question in this way, the reply of the humanitarian will be: What I demand from the state is protection; not only for myself, but for others too. I demand protection for my own freedom and for other people’s. I do not wish to live at the mercy of anybody who has the larger fists or the bigger guns. In other words, I wish to be protected against aggression from other men. I want the difference between aggression and defence to be recognized, and defence to be supported by the organized power of the state (...) I must give up my ‘freedom’ to attack, if I want the state to support defence against any attack. But I demand that the fundamental purpose of the state should not be lost sight of; I mean, the protection of that freedom which does not harm other citizens. Thus I demand that the state must limit the freedom of the citizens as equally as possible, and not beyond what is necessary for achieving an equal limitation of freedom.
Among the critics of the protective theory, Popper refers to Aristotle, Burke and modern Platonists who think that the state has more important things to do than just protection, it should be a moral guardian as well, and maybe also an object of veneration. However Popper suggested that the demand for the state to act as a moral custodian would be the end of the individual’s moral responsibility, and that it would not improve but destroy morality. It would replace personal responsibility by various moral fads and fashions that prevail among the rulers for the time being, so it is better that the morality of the state should be controlled by the citizens than the opposite. “What we need and what we want is to moralize politics, and not to politicize morals.”
Plato seems to have succeeded in persuading most of his readers, and at any rate all Platonists, that the protectionist theory here developed is identical with the ruthless and cynical selfishness of Thrasymachus; and, what is more important, that all forms of individualism amount to the same, namely, selfishness. But it was not only his admirers he persuaded; he even succeeded in persuading his opponents, and especially the adherents of the contract theory. From Carneades to Hobbes, they not only adopted his fatal historicist presentation, but also Plato’s assurances that the basis of their theory was an ethical nihilism (...) Now it must be realized that the elaboration of its allegedly selfish basis is the whole of Plato’s argument against protectionism; and considering the space taken up by this elaboration, we may safely assume that it was not his reticence which made him proffer no better argument, but the fact that he had none. Thus protectionism had to be dismissed by an appeal to our moral sentiments — as an affront against the idea of justice, and against our feelings of decency.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Some readings on animal rights/welfare

Good arguments 'for' greater animal rights

Peter Singer, Animal Liberation, London: Pimlico, 1995, ch. 1.

Karen Davis, 'Thinking Like a Chicken: Farm Animals and the Feminine Connection' in C. Adams and I. Donovan (eds), Animals and Women: Feminist Theoretical Explorations, Durham: Duke University Press, 1995, pp. 192-212.

A story that will resonate

Raimond Gaita, 'For A Dog', from his The Philosopher's Dog (Text 2002).

A good case 'against'

Brian Scarlett, 'The Moral Uniqueness of the Human Animal', from Human Lives: Critical Essays on Consequentialist Bioethics, eds D. Oderberg and J. Laing (Macmillan 1997).

Animal rights #3: a tentative conclusion

Animal Liberation Victoria states that its 'underlying to abolish the property status of animals.' This is a far stronger position than merely arguing for animal welfare policies (with which most decent people agree) because it argues that 'all sentient beings, regardless of species, have the right to be treated as independent entities...'

The ALV recognises they 'will not abolish animal exploitation and the property status of animals overnight, but will encourage at all times the adoption of a vegan lifestyle as the most appropriate course to achieve these aims.'

I think they are on far stronger ground in trying to change social norms through education, exposing unethical practices and caring for discarded animals than they are trying to 'abolish' the property status of animals.

This is the 21st century. When humans own animals, we give them their worth. If a dog has no owner it will be sent to the pound. From there if no one claims it the dog will be humanely killed. So policies that recognise the need for animal welfare - as opposed to animal rights - give due credit to humans as the superior species. Until animals evolve into talking beings that can take on intelligent responsibilities, they will be used for our purposes.

There is a limit to animal welfare, too. It must be set at a reasonable standard that does not impose great burdens. Ideally, laws should only be passed to prevent extreme cruelty. Everything else should be resolved through negotiation with the aim of instilling codes of practice. I suggest five courses of action to concerned individuals:

  • Exercise consumer pressure on businesses through exercise of choice, of the type used with 'fair trade' coffee. Businesses are not full of morally bankrupt individuals: just look at what Pepsi did when it was offered Coca-Cola's trade secrets.

  • Join a lobby group for animals that does not partake in breaching the law. If Western nations are to have even more enlightened views on animal welfare than they currently do it would be best if these were achieved through debate leading to voluntary cooperation from the people involved.

  • Domestication of animals from shelters is a great way to treat the 'unwanted' well.

  • Become a vegetarian or try to persuade others. But remember you are not promoting a morally superior view; the human capacity to express compassion might be a reason to extend consideration to animals, but it does not follow that we have any moral obligation to stop eating meat. There is also a related question of limits to this line of thinking, and the issue of a clear hierarchy in animal welfare. Who can say with certainty the levels of pleasure and pain that snails, for instance, experience?

  • Support a free society based around capitalism. A rich society with world-class institutional frameworks has resources to tackle such issues. Animals in first world nations like Australia are treated far better than animals in third world countries.

    Social norms do change without heavy-handed regulation. Remember it was not so long ago that experimenters at Stanford University conducted possibly the most unethical prison experiment on record. Yet today psychological testing has made much progress in understanding the need for ethical practices.

    A final thought: the world today is full of conflicts and problems - like poverty - that are responsible for the suppression of the potential of millions of Thomas Edisons, Mahatma Gandhis, Mother Teresas and others who could make this world a better place. This is the main reason I suggest expending energy on improving the lives of humans first. Along the way we just might see an improvement in the lives of animals too.

    Update: Steve Edwards puts it more bluntly.