» democracy ¦ What You Can Get Away With

The Time Everyone “Corrected” the World’s Smartest Woman – Marilyn Vos Savant solved the Monty Hall Problem, even if a lot of people wanted to tell her that she hadn’t.
Is Work Good? – “the problem that comes with this one-eyed focus on paid work is that there is a grave danger it reinforces the value of paid work only at the cost of reducing the value of other human activities and social roles. Paid work is only one kind of work; and doing paid work is only one way of being human.”
Are You Man Enough for the Men’s Rights Movement? – GQ meets some of the MRAs, and it’s not an edifying spectacle. (Warning: article contains discussion of rape and abuse, as well as the usual MRA bullshit)
Why Natalie Bennett should shrug off this ‘humiliation’ – “Therefore, nobody in opposition – not Bennett, not Ed Miliband, not Nigel Farage – should ever get into a conversation about how they will fund something without first underlining that the way things exist at the moment is completely wrecked. The status quo is broken; it’s not even static, it’s constantly worsening.”
Democratising the Scottish NHS: A recent experiment in electing Health Board Directors did not prove successful – Relevant to my last post: just making a position elected doesn’t magically create more democracy.

, , , , , , , ,

One thing that surprised me when I first lived in the US, and continues to stand out as an oddity to me is the election of judges. It confuses John Oliver too, leading to this segment on Last Week Tonight:

For me, it’s a great example of an idea I’ve talked about often, that democracy is not just about having elections, and having more elections doesn’t automatically make things more democratic. Democracy is an ongoing process, not a single event, and that process needs lots of different parts to work together to ensure it succeeds.

Electing judges is a pretty extreme example (from the land of extreme examples) but it does get to the point that judges and politicians have different roles within the democratic process, and electing judges starts to confuse the roles. Roy Moore, the Alabama judge at the start of that LWT item, has run for several political roles while serving as a judge, and that sort of confusion between the judicial and the political is common in US politics.

The point is not to say that judges should be free from and challenge or oversight, but that within a democracy not every post needs to be appointed in the same way. Every post in a democracy is appointed in some way, the question is who does that appointment and how – elections are perhaps the most obvious way of doing it, but that doesn’t make them the best or most appropriate in all circumstances.

We’ve seen it in Britain with Police and Crime Commissioners who were brought in to supposedly make accountability of the police more democratic than the existing system of Police Authorities because direct election, rather than appointment through other elected bodies was seen as ‘more democratic’. What we’ve ended up with, however, isn’t any better scutiny or accountability of the police, but a network of what appear to be very well paid spokespeople for the police, who now get brought out instead of the chief constable when the media need someone for a comment.

Democracy is a complex process, and not one that’s easily solved by simply electing everyone and hoping for the best. Sadly, that’s the message we keep getting sold, where an elected mayor trumps a complete lack of democratic accountability. We’re not likely to be electing judges here, but we need to keep making the arguments for real democracy.

, , ,

Anti-Business – Chris Dillow on why being ‘anti-business’ isn’t a bad thing, and the difference between business and markets.
Universal Basic Income as the Social Vaccine of the 21st Century – An interesting new way of thinking about the idea of basic income.
The narrow politics of slogans and symptoms – Alex Marsh follows on from one of my posts and looks at the lack of content behind the slogans.
The tyranny of the short-term: why democracy struggles with issues like climate change – Not sure how much of this I agree with, but an interesting look at some of the problems with our current mode of democracy.
The mystery of Mingering Mike: the soul legend who never existed – Fascinating tale of a made up musical career that’s now an art exhibition.

And as a visual bonus, take a look at this graphic of exploration in the Solar System.

, , , , , , ,

postdemocracyIt’s still only February, but we may have a winner in the Silliest Idea Proposed In A 2015 Political Column contest. Step forward Australian Herald-Sun columnist Tom Elliott with this:

There is a solution. Let’s agree on a set of truly important problems — mounting debt, population growth, lack of jobs, rising health care expenditure, inefficient welfare and an inadequate defence force — and appoint a committee of eminent and competent Australians to sort it out.

A benign dictatorship if you will.

This committee would consist of experts in their fields without political axes to grind. It’d need at least five years to complete its tasks during which time elected governments could administrate, but take no major decisions.

There is of course a giant paradox in the middle of this proposal in which he fails to actually consider by what sort of process people might come to agree what the ‘truly important problems’ are, or how they might go about appointing the ‘committee of eminent and competent Australians’ who’ll do something about these problems. One might suggest that this could be done by a process in which those who want the job of running the country set out their idea of what they think the problems are, how they’d solved them and then the public – perhaps through some kind of voting process – could choose between them.

(He also appears to believe that Britain suspended elections several years before WW2 began, but we’ll let that slide)

The thing of interest here isn’t that someone who imagines he wants a dictatorship can only express that in democratic forms, but rather the discontent with the notion of democracy itself. It’s the sort of thing that flares up occasionally, usually in late night talk and often couched in democratic terms like this. The thought is usually expressed not in needing a coup or anything as vulgar like that but as a desire for a strong leader who’ll cut through the crap and get things done (the same sort of arguments that are often used to advocate for elected Mayors in Britain). It’s the typical frustration at ‘the system’ that somehow blocks problems getting solved, coupled with a belief that all problems are easily solved by putting the right person in place to do it.

In short, and perhaps fitting more with the times, what’s proposed isn’t so much a coup as the installation of a new model of management. It’s perhaps a legacy of the cult of management that pervades so much of our modern experience, that the assumption isn’t regarded as completely laughable. We hear so much about how a change in management will supposedly rescue an organisation, that it’s not too much of a stretch to assume that the same rules must surely apply to how the country is run – bring in some ‘experts’, and they’ll magically find the answers that no one else has been able to. (I think I’m obliged by blogging law to link to Chris Dillow at this point)

However, while this is a silly column, it doesn’t mean that it’s not revealing something interesting about the state of political discourse. It shows that we’ve reached a point in the cycle where it’s acceptable to muse on whether there may be more efficient ways to run things than democracy, which is something that often follows big economic crises (see the 1970s and 1930s for more). Just as we’ve seen European governments replaced by technocrats and overseen by troikas, the notion is that the forms of democracy can stay, but the actual distribution of power will be changed completely – or, in some views, the true distribution of power will be revealed as the deep state rises and exercises its power overtly. Just as Colin Crouch argues with his idea of ‘post-democracy’, we’re not likely to see any sudden, dramatic or violent end to democracy, more a gradual whittling away as the technocrats and the managerialists take more responsibilities away from the democrats for safe keeping. We’ll still get to vote for whoever gets to tell us the bad news, but the real decisions will be made far away from us.

Does it have to be like that? No, but I’m getting the feeling that we’re going to need to begin to properly fight that vision of the future if we’re going to prevent it coming about.

, , ,

David Cameron’s stomping around the North today, yet again trying to persuade people that having elected mayors is a good idea.

I’ve set out before why I don’t like the current system of mayors (and their related ‘democratic’ position, Police and Crime Commissioners). In short, by concentrating power in one person and then severely restricting the ability of others to have any checks on that power, they’re effectively anti-democratic. There are good arguments for separating executive and legislative power at all levels, but democracy is about more than just voting. Most of these proposals just seem to assume that having a named individual responsible for some area of government magically makes it more accountable, without paying any attention to how that accountability takes place. As we saw with the farce over Shaun Wright, Police and Crime Commissioners are so unaccountable in practice, there was no body with the power to remove him from office.

When David Cameron and others do their pitches for elected mayors – despite the public rejecting them twice as often as they accept them – there’s a simple way to test how much they actually believe the arguments about improved accountability and democracy. Simply ask him this – should the position of Prime Minister be directly elected?

Sure, the position covers a while country rather than just a local government unit, but the principle is the same. The PM has an important role to lead and represent the country, but the people have no direct say in who gets to fill that role, so is it truly accountable and democratic? If our cities and towns will flourish more because they can directly elect their leaders, who can say how much the country would flourish if its leader was directly elected?

I’m not convinced elected mayors are some magical panacea for the problems of local government, and I strongly doubt that directly electing the Prime Minister would solve even one-tenth of the problems that it would cause. However, those that advocate directly electing more and more posts in the name of more democracy and accountability are heading towards this, even if they won’t admit it.

As I said a few weeks ago, I think there is a strong argument for looking at how we can better separate Government and Parliament, especially the question of whether ministers need to hold a seat in Parliament to do their jobs. I don’t think a directly elected Prime Minister is the answer, but then I’m not the one arguing that electing a post suddenly makes everything better.

, , , ,

The personal tax statement George Osborne doesn’t want you to see – Some accurate data on where the British Government actually spends its money.
Norman Baker, political journalism, and hinterlands – “We expect politicians to be “real” and then lay into them when they are. That doesn’t seem terribly healthy to me.”
The ‘Devo Manc’ proposals represent centralisation on steroids – Is it time to coin ‘Osbornification’ to describe the centralisation by stealth they represent?
What commercial aircraft will look like in 2050 – Some interesting speculation on the prospect of electric planes. Those of you with a more technical bent than me may well have a different view on their likelihood.
Five minutes with Robert O. Keohane – Very interesting LSE interview with one of the world’s leading theorists of international relations about the difference between liberal constitutionalism and democracy at the transnational level.

, , , , , , ,

(not taken during today's vote)

(not taken during today’s vote)

As I said before, I couldn’t make it to Liberal Democrat Conference this year, but thanks to BBC Parliament I’ve been able to watch the debates so far, and thanks to Twitter I’ve been able to have some contribution into ongoing debates and discussions. I’m glad to see that Conference agreed the ‘one member, one vote’ proposal but with Mark Pack’s amendment that means some work has to be done before it’s introduced.

It was an interesting debate to watch, though the amount of straw man arguments and false dichotomies being put forward was somewhat dizzying to watch. As far as I can tell, there are very few people in the party who oppose widening democracy within it, but there’s a wide range of views on how to do it and so Conference made the right decision. We’ve agreed that we want the principle of one member, one vote, but now we have to agree on how to implement that before it comes into force.

The question I’ve been asking for a while – and no one supporting the proposals gave an answer to in the debate – was how are members who can’t be at Conference going to be represented under any new system? We’ve heard lots of tales of people who want to come to Conference but can’t be conference representatives under the current system, but nothing to suggest that the views of those who can’t make it to Conference because of time, money, other commitments or any other reason have any importance.

That got me thinking – why are we fixated on voting at Conference? Sure, Conference is a great event for party members to go to, and political party conferences have been around for a long time, but are they necessarily the best way of deciding a political party’s policies in 2014? If we were creating a political party from scratch, would we insist that the only way they can decide on that party’s policies is if they can get to a certain city on a certain set of dates, while paying quite heavily for the privilege of doing so? Shouldn’t we be looking at a system that suits the way people, technology and politics work now, rather than patching up a system based on the technologies and politics of decades ago?

That’s why one suggestion in the debate chimed with what I’ve been thinking over the last week or so – we need a full review and rewrite of the party’s constitution to review everything about the way the party works. The party constitution wasn’t set out in stone, and lots of things have changed in the twenty-five years since it was first written. There’s a lot that has changed since then – not least the party actually being in Government – and it makes sense to me for us to review everything about how we work in the light of all that experience. If we want a party that really empowers all its members, and gives them all an equal voice in running it, then we need to be prepared to make some real reforms to it, not just bodging together something to try and fix it up again and again.

, , , ,