A Persian Cafe, Edward Lord Weeks

Friday, 15 December 2017

We Already Have A Voting Lottery

When, on that fateful day last year, the UK voted to leave the European Union, there was a great deal left as yet undecided. There were a great many paths we could have pursued, ranging from the Norway+ options that would have removed us from the European parliament and little else, to the economists' nightmare No Deal scenario. None of these options could at that point be declared "undemocratic", since the referendum gave us an answer to only a single question. Theresa May - or whoever else might have become Prime Minister - could have, if they so wished, declared that "52% to 48% is no mandate for radical change. We will leave the EU, but smoothly and cautiously" and changed very little.

Instead, the narrative very quickly became that the referendum had ultimately been about immigration, and that the British People had ultimately voted to Take Back Control Of The Borders. It's not hard to see why the notoriously anti-immigration Theresa May wished for this narrative to prevail. Moreover, it's not totally absurd - the campaign for Brexit did, after all, emphasise this as a reason in favour of Brexit (though by no means the only one, or even the main one - remember that bus about the money which could go to the NHS?). What is puzzling, however, is the lack of pushback against this narrative. Theresa May may not have wanted to suggest the vote was anything less than an endorsement of radical change, but why have so many other actors, including many who are in principle in favour of immigration, colluded in this narrative and not challenged this interpretation of the vote?

The answer, of course, is that it is a correct interpretation. Not that you could tell this from the Brexit vote alone, of course - referenda are, much like general elections, a quite incredible effort to extract the minimal possible sliver of information from voters. But we have a great many other surveys and polls of public opinion, conducted with great regularity and on a much richer array of questions than the usual choices offered at the polling station. We know that Brits want less immigration, but this is not because given a choice of two highly uncertain prospects, they chose the one likely to involve less immigration: rather, it is because people from YouGov have asked them exactly what their views of immigration are.

An alternative to universal suffrage that almost only ever appears in the academic literature is the "voting lottery". The idea of this is that rather than collect votes from every single person, we select a certain much smaller number of citizens - say, 1000 - and only ask their votes. This would have three key advantages: firstly it would be cheaper ("But you can't put a financial value on democracy!" "Sure you can. In 2011 we rejected AV because it would be too expensive.") Secondly, by increasing the power of those who actually get to vote, it would give them more of an incentive to seriously consider their vote and its impact. Perhaps most importantly, it would provide an opportunity to stratify the sample of voters. Currently certain groups - in particular, the young and various ethnic minorities - are grossly underrepresented by democracy because of their lower turnout. A voting lottery would allow us to ensure that these groups are counted in accordance with their proportion of the total population, not merely the their proportion of the population that turns up to vote.

Now of course many people who encounter this idea have a strong aversion to it. The point of democracy, they say, is in the mass participation. But the fact that our assessment of public opinion comes not from five-yearly general elections but from weekly polls rather pulls the rug out from under this. Voting in an election is screaming into the void: real political participation is happening to be selected for a YouGov survey, and giving your opinion there.

Another common concern is that a sample of 1000 people cannot hope to fully capture the views of an electorate of millions. I'm not married to the 1000 number - in fact, I think it could stand to be more like 10,000. But the basis of all modern polling is the Law of Large Numbers, which in essence states that when you have a process consisting of many small things which are themselves error-prone, but whose errors can cancel each other out - the errors will tend to cancel themselves out. Hence a poll of 1000 people will be within 3% of the true values 95% of the time, and a poll of 2000 people will be within 2% 95% of the time, for example. Yes, the newspaper polls can be wrong, but this is more often due to bias in the way they have selected voters - asking by telephone, or at a particular time of day, or with certain incorrect assumptions about who is likely to vote - which we could eliminate by selecting voters directly from government records.

It ought to be clear where this is leading. How about, rather than maintaining our thin veneer of universal suffrage with all its attendant problems of unrepresentativeness, we acknowledge the fact that we already live in a political system dominated by the voting lottery, and adjust accordingly? Of course there are costs, but there are also real benefits, benefits which we would be much better equipped to realise if we were honest about our political system and learned to live with it.

People have every reason to worry about attempts to disenfranchise them. In the USA, very significant effort goes into attempts to disenfranchise black voters due to their tendency to vote for the Democrat party. But the voting lottery is different both in its intention and its effects: while we would stop even pretending to care about most voters as individuals (as though we ever could in a nation of 65 million!), we would give much greater weight to their views as members of groups. And voting is far from the only way to engage in politics: so long as we have free speech and a free press, those who are not randomly selected for the ballot will have the opportunity to influence the votes of those who do vote though force of persuasion.

There's a Chesterton-like paradox to the suggestion that we should improve our democracy by removing the votes of most citizens. But the idea, I maintain, is not ridiculous. Certainly no more ridiculous than the idea that rather than vote on every single decision, we should delegate this to some 650 people, mostly white men, all living primarily in central London. I urge you to consider being explicit about the voting lottery which we already have - and to consider how it might be put to better use.

Saturday, 7 October 2017

A Retraction and An Apology

Several months ago I wrote a mostly-serious essay arguing the cosmopolitan case for #SpendTheSix. In one line I claimed that:
Typical practice during the days of the old Empire, as best we can tell, was to spend around 7% of GDP on the military.
I can't remember if I made any attempt to check this claim at the time, but it seems unlikely. It was half-remembered from a book I read sometime in my teenage years - most probably Niall Ferguson's Colossus: The Rise and Fall of the American Empire. As my memory records it, the book was briefly discussing whether continuing US military dominance across the planet was financially viable, and argued that the US spends around 3.5% of its GDP on its military compared to the 7% or so which the old British Empire spent. Hence whatever barriers there were to continued US hegemony would not be financial, etc etc. It should be noted that not only I am only about 70% confident that Colossus was the book in question, it is entirely possible that either I misread it at the time or that in the seven or eight years since my memory of the factoid has become confused. Certainly I do not wish either to accuse Mr. Ferguson of making this claim, or to suggest that my failure to properly check the claim when I wrote the essay was in any way excusable.

My attention was drawn again to this claim when, browsing Andrew Sabisky's Curious Cat, I discovered that he had cited this essay for the claim that "we did in fact historically spend the six, & not just during the cold war either". It occurred to me that I perhaps ought to check the veracity of this claim, so quickly googled "historical british military spending". From the results it seems clear that I could not have done this when I wrote the original essay. First, this article on the BBC website:
"It's often thought the British army in the 19th Century just mowed down natives with a machine gun. This is a myth," says military historian Nick Lloyd.
"The most remarkable thing is that they often had no technical advantages and we managed it by spending only 2.5% of GDP on defence, which is not much higher than we have today."
Second, ukpublicspending.co.uk:
Defence began in 1900 at 3.69 percent of GDP but quickly expanded during the Boer War to 6.47 percent. After the war it contracted down to about 3 percent of GDP.
Third, this fascinating graph from ourworldindata.org:

The first part of Sabisky's statement is supported - we have historically spent the six. Technically the second holds up in that we also spent the six during various wars, but I think that it would be fair to characterise this as misleading.

For what it's worth, I don't think the overall thrust of either Sabisky's or my argument is hurt to any great extent by this fact turning out to have been false - neither of us was arguing that we ought to spend the six because the Empire spent the six, merely trying to suggest that in historical perspective the claim would sound less absurd than it does to people who have only known the world of today. Nevertheless, it is entirely clear that I ought firstly to retract that claim, and secondly to apologise - to anyone who read my piece, to Andrew Sabisky, and to anyone else who encountered the claim indirectly through him or some other intermediary. It was not my intention to mislead, but I ought to have practised higher standards of scholarship - and hope that in the future I will do so.

Thursday, 5 October 2017

The Cult of the Composer: in lieu of an essay

NB: This is something I want to write as a proper essay, but have no idea about how to phrase. For this reason, I am simply stating the main claims and arguments here, with a view to converting them into an extended piece of writing at a later date.

  • Music is like cookery, and different from most other art-forms, in that it is (a) reproduced from a "recipe", (b) generally not seeking to represent anything in particular - and even when it is, does so in a very abstract way
  • There are very good reasons for not messing with non-reproducible artworks (such as the originals of paintings). There are good reasons to be careful about how we treat many representational artworks (such as poetry).
  • However, when these do not apply, we are generally very happy to modify, deface, and do whatever we like to artworks. Example one: we are happy to adapt cooking recipes, even when they come from very good chefs. Example two: we are happy to deface posters and prints of paintings. (Remember the Joseph Ducreaux meme from a few years back?)
  • We should be more willing to carry out this kind of modification for music. By this I mean not just the kind of wholesale changes we already make (e.g. remixes, various classical pieces) but micro-changes.
  • By micro-changes I mean deciding that a certain chord is wrong and changing it, modifying a tune slightly, and all sorts of other small changes.
  • Composers are presumably good judges of what is good music, but the judgement of the composer is not infallible, and we should be willing to overrule them in cases where we think they have erred (or where tastes have simply changed!)
  • See for example these eight beautiful bars in Schubert's Unfinished Symphony, and the two-bar fart that follows them. (from 1:20 in) I don't have a ready suggestion for how to continue the tune, but am quite certain that there are option much better than what Schubert went with.
  • Obviously if you are performing pieces for the public then you should make changes only after careful consideration, but this does not mean you should not make changes at all!
  • A good performer or composer can definitely improve on an already good piece, and this need not entail any disrespect to the original composer. See, for example, Marc-André Hamelin's excellent cadenza to Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody no.2 (cadenza starts at 8:26, runs to around 11:40):
  • We're past the days in which books are the ideal medium for this, but it's sad that there's no book of "Mozart's piano works, as adapted by __". Nowadays, why not have a website of suggested micro-changes to pieces?
  • Try to come up with more suggestions for micro-changes. e.g. I reckon we could improve the descending lines at the climaxes of Finlandia (occurs more than once, e.g. at 3:56)

Saturday, 30 September 2017

The Sufficientarian Case for Feudalism

Most people thing there is something morally wrong with the existence of poverty, to the extent that those who are in poverty - or at least, the government which represents them - is entitled to forcibly extract resources from other people to end, reduce, or ameliorate poverty. This is what is meant by "social justice".

Views of this kind are often described as "egalitarian", but in fact one of the most plausible such views has nothing at all to do with equality. Sufficientarianism is the view according to which there exists a level which is "enough" for people; people below this line are entitled to the resources which bring them up to it, while those above are obliged to provide. Sufficientarianism has a lot of intuitive appeal: it is easy to see how a starving beggar might be entitled to the charity of a billionaire, but it is much harder to see how a comfortable homeowner, who while hardly a billionaire has no concern about where his next meal is coming from, would be entitled to this charity. We might still think a world in which the homeowner and the billionaire were more equal would be better, but this falls quite short of implying that the homeowner or his government has the right to forcibly redistribute from the billionaire to the homeowner.

Similarly we might think that the higher one lies above the line of sufficiency, the greater is one's obligation to bring others above the line; but again, this does not require one to take equality as any kind of fundamental value.

One consequence of sufficientarianism, often considered counterintuitive and sometimes considered damning, is what it implies in a world of people who are all or mostly below the line of sufficiency. If the measure of a society is the extent to which it brings people above this line, this seems to imply that we should worsen the lives of some of those who are already below the line in order to bring some others above the line. In extremis, with a world of 100 people narrowly below the line, sufficientarianism may require us to utterly ruin the lives of 99 of these people in order to marginally the life of the 100th so that she reaches the line.

There are of course ways to avoid this conclusion, but I sometimes think we are too quick to reject it. Suppose 100 people are caught in a prison camp, and all would rather die than continue to endure this miserable existence. To wit, they hatch an audacious escape plan which will enable a small number of their fellows to reach freedom. Those left behind will be heavily punished and tortured for their roles in the plot, so the plan could hardly be less egalitarian - yet it is still worthwhile going through with, and it is worthwhile for those left behind to suffer for their fellows.

Is there a clear historical example of this? Indeed there is, and for much of history it dominated our planet. The idea that most people could live good lives is a distinctly modern one, a product of the industrial revolution. Before that, poverty, starvation, and abject misery were the norm and indeed the only possibility 99% of the world's population. Simultaneously, however, there existed classes of knights who enjoyed lives vastly greater than any villein or serf could have hoped for: eating well (by the standards of the time), enjoying education (such as there was), and without having to engage in backbreaking labour in the fields.

It is my contention that from a sufficientarian perspective, such arrangements made perfect sense: almost everyone below what should be considered an acceptable level of wellbeing, but by the sacrifice of the many a few were enabled to live  genuinely worthwhile lives.

In the modern world, with abundant food and water, with indoor plumbing and heating, it is hardly necessary to impoverish the masses in order to create lives worth living. But in the complacent post-scarcity society, it is easy to lose sight of the kind of sacrifices which were necessary for our ancestors. Feudalism was not a system of brutal oppression; rather it stands as the greatest monument to the nobility of the human spirit: the willingness to sacrifice oneself for the creation of lives which are truly worthwhile.

Monday, 11 September 2017

The Rhetoric of Desert

There are two ways in which a person can fail to deserve what they have. The first is that they are actually undeserving of it: the prodigal son does not deserve his father’s welcome, Job did not deserve to be tormented with destruction and agony. The second is that the concept of desert fails to apply: thus neither James Potter nor Lily Evans deserved the love of Lily Evans, because in the decision of who she should marry desert is simply not a relevant factor.

These two situations are very different, yet we use the same phrase of “not deserving” to describe them both. This is liable to create dangerous confusion: when a good (or bad) is appropriate for distribution by deservingness, someone’s lack of desert generally provides a reason for taking that good away from them (and typically giving to them). Physical property is, in most naive views of the world, taken to be appropriate for distribution according to desert: thus a simple argument for economic redistribution would be that the poor are no less deserving than are the rich of worldly goods.

When a good is not appropriate for distribution according to desert - for example, love - the fact that someone is undeserving is no reason to remove the good from them. While most people naively think of private property as something to be distributed according to desert, this view is exceedingly rare among philosophers. The most obvious example of an anti-desert theorist is John Rawls, who argued that we cannot deserve anything at all: any good traits we possess are the results either of our environment or of our genes, neither of which we chose and therefore neither of which we can be credited for.

This anti-realism about desert does not - cannot - provide an argument for redistribution of goods. If desert is not real, then no goods can be appropriately distributed according to desert, and so the fact that the rich are no more deserving than the poor is no argument for redistribution. One may, of course, favour redistribution on other grounds, and this was Rawls’ purpose: to disarm desert-based arguments against redistribution! But if one only takes the conclusion of his argument - that the rich do not deserve their wealth - and puts it not into the context of Rawls’ wider theory, but rather the naive view that desert is real and is a moral basis for property, then one arrives at a rhetorically effective, but subtly self-contradictory, agument for redistribution. I suspect that many people who dabble in political philosophy without studying it in depth, including many politics undergrads ae liable to fall into this trap.

Tuesday, 22 August 2017

The Metaethics of the Harry Potter universe

The field of metaethics is broadly concerned with the following questions: are there any true moral facts? And if so, how can we come to know them?

As an example of what this would mean: take natural-rights libertarianism, as espoused by Robert Nozick, Murray Rothbard, and legions of spotty teenagers. According to this theory, there exist certain facts along the lines of the following:

(a) The copy of Anarchy, State, and Utopia upstairs is my property.
(b) For any entity X, if X is my property then others ought not to interfere with my usage of X unless my usage of X interferes with their usage of an entity Y which is their property.

Of course, a lot of attention in this kind of theory will be devoted to exactly what it means to say that an entity is someone's property. A standard response made by a non-libertarian philosopher would be to observe that the notion of property is entirely socially constructed. To bring out the difference between socially-constructed and non-socially-constructed features of things, compare the properties of belonging to a person and of being less dense than water. Whether something belongs to me or my neighbour is determined entirely by the beliefs of society: if everyone believes the copy of ASU upstairs belongs to my neighbour, it's not that everyone is wrong - it's that the book actually is my neighbours, and I will be obliged to return it to him at the next opportunity. If something is less dense than water, however, it matters not one jot what any of us believes - it will float, and all the assertions in the world will not change that.

Since property is socially constructed, then, perhaps we ought to construct it strategically so that it operates to the greatest advantage of all. Thus we might decide to agree that notions such as taxation are baked into the very notion of property: taxation is not theft, but simply the proper functioning of the property system. (There's a more ambitious version of this argument which holds that no property would exist without a state and so submission to the state in general is part of what it means to own property, but this is silly because (a) property has existed throughout history without the existence of states and (b) even if that were not the case, it's not at all clear how the move from an is to an ought is supposed to be occurring here).

One thing that would support natural rights libertarianism, then, would be if facts about property somehow turned out not to be socially constructed but to be intrinsic features of the world in the same way as density. It turns out that there is a well-known fictional universe in which this is the case: the Harry Potter novels, in which a key reveal towards the end of the last book is that the Elder Wand, a weapon of deadly power, never truly recognised Voldemort as its possessor - despite him having wielded it for much of the last book, ever since he ransacked the tomb of Dumbledore, a previous owner of the Wand. Instead, the wand recognised first Draco Malfoy and then Harry Potter as its true owner, despite neither of them having prior to this point even touched the wand. In the Harry Potter universe, ownership is not a social construct but a real and tangible feature of the universe - and so it may well be impossible, even if desirable, to move to a more socially beneficial meaning of the notion of "property".

Libertarians should not rejoice too quickly, however: the way the wand passes between owners almost always involves violation of the Non-Aggression Principle. Grindelwald stole it from Gregorovitch, Dumbledore kept it after defeating Grindelwald, Malfoy ambushed and disarmed Dumbledore, Harry burgled and overpowered Malfoy. While there are substantial facts about property, which stand in addition to the facts which are known through science and empiricism, they are surely different from the facts which libertarians would have us believe. Perhaps not entirely different - wands aside, most objects seem to behave much as they do in the actual universe with regard to owners - but not the same either.

As a final aside, it is interesting to note that this universe also contains one of the more notable examples of a society with markedly different but non-utopian rules concerning property. I refer, of course, to the goblins, who believe all objects to truly belong to their makers: one cannot purchase an object, only rent it for life. To pass on to one's heirs something that one did not produce oneself is regarded by goblins as theft. Unless the original maker of the Elder Wand is still alive (and according to tradition, the wand was in fact made by Death Himself), this theory must surely remain live as a possible metaethical truth about property in the Harry Potter universe.

Tuesday, 15 August 2017

Two brief thoughts

Some thoughts that I really ought to write up properly, but don't presently have the time for:

-Many people appear to think either that (P) all social constructions are bad, or (P*) that belief in (P) is central to SJWism. Hence much mockery has aimed not to point to clearly beneficial social constructs (e.g. respect, love, money) but to suggest that almost anything can be a social construct (e.g. the penis).
A more sophisticated view is that something's being a social construct points not to it being bad, but to it being replaceable or at least malleable. But even this is perhaps too simplistic. Musical harmony is a social construct - while in the West we use a 12-tone scale, many other cultures (or composers within the West, e.g. Harry Partch) use different scales with greater or smaller intervals between notes - it is hard to see how we could overturn many aspects of harmony. (Though we could of course tweak it in particular ways, e.g. moving from equal temperament to just intonation).
(edited to add: this is probably old hat to anyone who reads my blog. I'm not trying to say anything especially original here, but it occurs to me that it would be useful to have something to point to, making this point, which isn't the length of a Slate Star Codex post or three)

-In a liberal society, we want both a principle of exclusion and a principle of inclusion. Thus our society can take in and integrate outsiders, but need not roll over in the face of those who threaten it. A "Propositional Nation" goes much of the way towards this - anyone who affirms the key propositions can become a citizen, people who do not affirm those principles cannot. Contrast this with historical or blood-and-soil nationhood, as exists e.g. in UK and Scandinavia. (France is a weird case - it ought to be a kind of propositional nation given the way French nationhood developed after the revolution, but it's still more of a blood-and-soil nation). Blood-and-soil has practical advantages - among other things, a country can hardly expel native-born citizens for their political views - but lacks such an easy criterion of inclusion. Should places like the UK aim to become more "propositional" in terms of their national spirit? Can they do so without abandoning their present identities? (Can "loyalty to the queen" function as the kind of proposition that would bind a nation?)