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Thursday, May 24th, 2007
I'm sure I have not reached the apex of knowledge on my subjects of choice. But I want to jot down some observations and offer a very brief intellectual autobiography on this subject.
As a child, "democracy" sounded like the most important word in politics. We wanted democracy spread around the globe. We knew we were citizens of a good country because we could vote. The first time this was questioned was in an American Government class in high school. The teacher brought up how democracies can be detrimental to the rights of minorities if their powers are not carefully delineated. In short, you shouldn't be able to vote on just everything.
This made sense to me immediately. Why would a majority vote be the supreme test of everything?
I liked it when later on I heard a cynical definition of democracy: "Two wolves and a sheep deciding what's for supper." Around the same time, a good friend of mine, the one who introduced me to the Libertarian Party, made a big deal about the difference between a democracy and a republic.
But another aspect of democracy came to my attention. Many political theorists believed in something called "Consent Theory." This is found in that line in the Declaration of Independence, "That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed." Consent Theory was one part of Social Contract Theory, the idea that you had to give a rational account of how authority came to be. While Social Contract Theory has often been faulted for positing an historical beginning to government that probably never took place as imagined, I think that it can be framed such that it is not subject to that problem. The real point is that it places a burden of proof on existing authority. Could an existing authority offer an account of itself whereby it could have legitimately derived control over the people and matters it claims to.
Another blow to the importance of democracy in my political philosophy came from G.E.M. Anscombe. She was a disciple of the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, and the only person recorded to have bested C.S. Lewis in a debate. (It was on the subject of miracles. She was a believing Roman Catholic. She thought his philosophical account of them to be flawed, without disbelieving in miracles herself.) Miss Anscombe wrote a piece titled "On Frustration of the Majority by the Fulfillment of the Majority's Will" where she showed how in many instances of voting, majority rule means that most people are unhappy with the outcome. The piece was devastating for many arguments as to why democracy is best. It doesn't even necessarily work on the grounds of making the most people happiest.
Then there is the whole question of which questions should be political in the first place. I have seen this as President of a church council. Whenever a matter was defined such that it came up for discussion, there was a high likelihood of upset. If the council had to vote on every matter where over 200 dollars was spent, then every matter like that required hearing everyone's opinion. Even when you all agreed on things, this could be time-consuming, let alone when you did not. What I always wondered was why this was considered a good way of making decisions.
Anscombe phrased the often unasked question thus: "Note that that way of looking at the merits of a majority decision starts off with the assumption: namely, that a decision has to be made which determines what everyone does or has in some matter....Here one might say: "Why not let each choose his own activity?" adn teh argument I have given purporting to show that the will of the majority should prevail will have no force." (G.E.M. Anscombe, Ethics, Religion and Politics: Collected Philosophical Papers, Volume III, p. 126) That is, it is understandable why when we must decide things collectively, majority rule can be a good way to have the least number of losers—though there are many exceptions even to this. But that this may be a good way to decide things collectively is no answer as to why things ought to be decided collectively in the first place.
In some sloppy sense, I'm sure it would be more "democratic" if the color of your carpet were decided by more people. Let's have the whole country vote on it, if "democracy" is the be-all end-all consideration. "But that's silly!" Of course it is. But just think about it. If someone announced that the color of your carpet was a collective decision, how much debate would you be tortured by from people who had no real interest in the decision? People from other states who would never visit your house would want to talk about their opinion on television. Some busybody would hear of your opinion as to what color you had wanted the carpet to be and say, "That's disgusting! Why would anybody want x color carpet? That should be illegal." You would hear them go on and on about it, without that person stopping to ask why they should have any right to say anything about it at all. If you worked up the courage to tell them to butt out, you would hear an incensed complaint that you had taken away their "right to vote." University students around the country might even cut class to hold protests against your attack on democracy.
Your greatest freedom in this country is not your right to vote. Your greatest freedom is to live much of your life in ways that are subject to you alone, with no one else voting on the matter.
12:03 pm Pacific Standard Time
Tuesday, May 22nd, 2007
Jeremy posted some great Anti-Federalist writing over at Eating Words, so I was inspired to dig up some worthy material.
I have been a fan of the Anti-Federalists for some time. I bought my Federalist Papers before this. And I will admit to admiring much that is found there, too. Our current Constitution is a compromise between Federalist and Anti-Federalist thought. The Anti-Federalists are often given short shrift. We accept without argument the idea that the Articles of Confederation failed. (One argument I read was that under the Articles, you couldn't get a decent road built. Next time someone talks about how we need a greener America, I'd like to cite this as proof that the Articles promoted environmentalism. Wendell Berry ought to be promoting a return to the Articles of Confederation, rather than an increase in protective legislation.) I think that much of what we see now would fit Eighteenth Century ideas of despotism.
I'm including a link to The Address and Reasons of Dissent of the Minority of the Convention of Pennsylvania to their Constituents from December 18, 1787. Among other things, the address faults the proposed Constitution for failing to contain a Bill of Rights. Many of the minority's proposed propositions sound very much like amendments in the later written Bill of Rights, for example "That the people have a right to the freedom of speech, of writing and publishing their sentiments, therefore, the freedom of the press shall not be restrained by any law of the United States."
I find its parallel proposition to the Second Amendment intriguing: "That the people have a right to bear arms for the defence of themselves and their own state, or the United States, or for the purpose of killing game; and no law shall be passed for disarming the people or any of them, unless for crimes committed, or real danger of public injury from individuals; and as standing armies in the time of peace are dangerous to liberty, they ought not to be kept up: and that the military shall be kept under strict subordination to and be governed by the civil powers." An argument against standing armies follows an expression of why we need to be able to bear arms.
11:54 pm Pacific Standard Time
Tuesday, May 15th, 2007
I was a fan of the movie Titanic, and I still admit it. The movie broke all kinds of box office records, and is often spoken of in derision. One person snickers, and suddenly nobody wants to admit admiration.
But my interest in the Titanic has broadened in subsequent years. Rod Rosenbladt told me that in his generation, Walter Lord's A Night to Remember was a very popular account. I found a two cassette audio version of the book, and enjoyed it immensely. Around the time that was growing stale, the audio of The Night Lives On, which Lord wrote in the mid 1980's, showed up at my local used book store.
What immediately endeared Lord to me was the fact that he began A Night to Remember by telling of all the dogs on board:
This was the fifth night of the Titanic's maiden voyage to New York, and it was already clear that she was not only the largest, but also the most glamorous ship in the world. Even the passenger's dogs were glamorous. John Jacob Astor had along his airedale Kitty. Henry Sleeper Harper, of the publishing family, had his prize Pekinese Sun Yat-sen. Robert W. Daniel, the Philadelphia banker, was bringing back a champion French bulldog just purchased in Britain. Clarence Moore of Washington also had been dog-shopping, but the 50 pairs of English foxhounds he bought for the London hunt weren't making the trip.
[Walter Lord, A Night to Remember, page 1]
Lest you think this is totally morbid, I did discover from Googling that Sun Yat-sen did survive the disaster, with his master, in Lifeboat 3. (Apparently someone else finds such facts interesting like I do.) And it is a relief to know that most of the dogs mentioned were dogs who didn't actually make it on board ship.
12:17 am Pacific Standard Time