Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Political Systems as "Arrangements"

Many (perhaps most) people view politics through the prism of their personal preferences, which they arbitrarily regard as "true," "right," "good," "beautiful," etc. People with different premises are summarily dismissed as "wrong," "bad," "selfish," "naive," "stupid," "bigoted," etc. The tendency of all such ideologues is to believe that if everyone were smart and decent, they would all hold essentially the same political beliefs, and we would consequently have a government based on the "correct" principles. Such is the world as imagined by individuals with agendas.

The problem with these agenda-based belief systems is that they don't altogether accord with the facts. It's not entirely selfishness or naivete, stupidity or bigotry that cause people to disagree on political subjects. According to social psychology (see Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind), an individual's intrinsic wiring (i.e., their DNA) will, more often than not, predispose them to accepting certain political ideals at the expense of others. This doesn't mean that political convictions are entirely founded on DNA. Obviously, personal experiences, as well one's immediate peer group, can count for a great deal as well, particularly when people are young and impressionable. But hardwiring often counts for more in the long run.

In terms of practical outcome, what this means is that an individual's political convictions are more likely to be formed on the basis his own (perceived) interests and sentiments, and not on the basis of
"the facts" and/or "reason." Political allegiances tend to contain a fairly large non-rational component. And they tend to be rather rigid in the sense that, once formed, it's hard to change them through "rational" persuasion. Simply attempt to convert a "progressive" to "conservatism," or a "conservative" to "progressivism," and you will see how things stand. It's very difficult to get people to change their political ideals. Human beings can be very stubborn in that way.

The conclusion I wish to draw from this is the following: since many people cling to political ideals that are, at least in part, founded on aspects of their personality that is hard-wired, it's naive to believe that, in a democratic social order, any political ideology will become so dominant that it can pretty much do as it pleases, without fear of opposition. Human nature is not homogeneous. Not everyone has the same innate sentiments. Nor do they all have the same interests. For this reason, a democratic society will always be divided by various factions animated by opposing sentiments and interests. There can never be a complete unity on every important challenge or issue facing a nation or its political system. Consequently, a government, particularly in a democracy, is "an arrangement"; that is to say, it is not the consequence of any single person, or ideology, or consensus. It's rather the somewhat random outcome of various factions attempting to pursue their unique interests and satisfy their particular sentiments within the parameters of the political system. The actual government that results from this process rarely accords to anyone's political or ideological ideal.

Putting this another way, there is no such thing as "The People." Ideologues are fond of saying that "The People" want this set of policies or believe in that set of ideals. But this is all nonsense. There is no "The People." Instead, their are many different peoples with different emotions, sentiments, biases, interests all competing within the social order for influence, power, and "social preeminence." Out of this competition (i.e., the political process) emerges both the governing elite and their policies. This process is, of course, rather kludgy. It can't be counted on to create optimal solutions (even when, as now, they are so badly needed). Often the political process leads to policies that all but the most partisan commentators have to admit are blatantly dysfunctional.

For example, consider the national debt of the U.S. It stands at $19 trillion (and that's not counting all the unfunded, perhaps even unfundable mandates that are facing the U.S. in the future). How could the federal government allow the nation to reach such an untenable position? It's not in hardly anyone's interest to have so high a debt. It's not in the interest of most people on the right, because it almost invariably guarantees higher taxes and less money for the military; and it's not in the interest of most people on the left, because it will inevitably put a fiscal squeeze on social programs. Yet there it stands, all 19 trillion of it, and continuing to grow at an alarming rate.

Then we have the whole corporate welfare/crony capitalism cancer that's eating away at the productivity of the nation, to the detriment, mostly, of the middle class. Admittedly, there are people within the political and economic elite who benefit from this sort of thing. But most people outside these elites, regardless of their political ideology, don't benefit from it and, for the most part, are against it. And yet it persists despite any kind of political "will" to change it. Why is that? The huge political advantages which elites enjoy over the non-elites plays a big part in this. But it's also a consequence of the fact that are political system is a mere "arrangement," not a rational application of a given system or ideology.

Friday, July 15, 2016

Terror Attacks in France and the Far Right

The head of France's intelligence agency, Patrick Calvar, in the wake of the Paris attacks last November, warned that his country might be on the verge of factional violence between various groups:

I think we will win against terrorism; I am, however, more concerned about the radicalisation of society and the basic movement that drives it. That’s what worries me when I talk with my European colleagues: we will have, at one time or another, to provide resources to deal with other extremist groups because confrontation is inevitable.

By "radicalization" Calvar means far-right groups. Further large scale acts of terrorism, Calvar fears, could lead to a "confrontation between the far right and the Muslim world – not the Islamists, but the Muslim world." Presumably, Calvar envisions far-right groups conducting random violence against French muslims in "retaliation" for terrorist attacks.

Calvar admits that, with the rise of Islamic terror, surveillance of far right has diminished. So the question arises: are Calvar's suppositions based on solid data, or is he merely making an educated guess?

I ask this question for two reasons. To begin with, whenever you talk about this or that group engaging in violence, you have to ask: are the members of that group, including its leaders, good at violence? Do they have experience committing violent acts (i.e., in the military or criminal gangs)? Because most people, irregardless of stated ideology, don't have any experience committing violent acts and are probably not any good at it. The other issue has to do with whether the group in question is well or ill led (i.e., whether the groups leaders are shrewd or clueless). For the radical right to engage in random acts of violence against miscellaneous Muslims in France, you would need a radical right group that is good at violence led by leaders exercising poor judgment. If the radical right group is poor at violence, they either will not have the courage to go through with the violence or they'll get themselves slaughtered. If the radical right group is well led, they won't engage in random acts of violence against miscellaneous Muslims, because such acts will only engender sympathy for Muslims, most of whom are not involved in terrorism.

The fact is, the radical right has nothing to gain from committing acts of violence against Muslims, yet everything to gain from acts of violence committed by radical Islamists. This is why the best way for the more moderate factions in society to prevent the growing influence of the far right would be to prevent and ultimately defeat radical Islam. The dilemma for the moderates is whether radical Islam can be defeated without using the rather unsavory methods advocated by the far right (i.e., deportation of Muslims).

Thursday, July 7, 2016

Clinton Email Scandal

On this blog, I will try something completely different. Instead of advocating a specific political ideology or specific government policies, I will attempt to study political reality objectively and impartially. My focus will not be on what "ought to be" in the political and social world, but the way things actually are or will or might be. We don't live in an "ought" world; rather, we live in an "is" world. And if you want to understand politics, rather than just advocate a specific position, nothing is more requisite than to set one's personal ideological preferences aside. Ideological commitments inevitably thwart independent judgment.

I will at a later date write up some posts covering some of the basic principles of an objective analysis of the political landscape. In this introductory post, however, I will leap straight into the big story of the week, namely, the decision by the FBI not to recommend an indictment against the Democrat's presumptive nominee for the Presidency, Hillary Clinton.

Reactions to FBI Director James Comey's insistence that no charges should be filed against Clinton have been as one would expect: fiery indignation from Clinton's foes on the right; a sense of relief (mixed with anger over Comey's harsh criticisms of Hillary) on the left. But all such reactions are neither here nor there. The question I'm interested in is: who has the most to gain and who has the most to lose as a result of this decision?

I would argue that the Republicans have the most to gain, and the Democrats have the most to lose from the FBI's decision not to press charges against Hillary Clinton. This is not obvious at first glance, because the tendency is to view this in terms of how it affects Hillary Clinton, and not being indited is obviously a huge positive for her; Republicans, on the other hand, are bitterly disappointed that Hillary Clinton has escaped the clutches of law. However, neither side is really looking at the issue coldly, in terms of probable practical consequences. The fact of the matter is that Hillary Clinton is not an especially good Presidential candidate, and if she had been indited, she would likely have been pressured by the Democrat Party to drop out of the race. This would presumably allow the Democrats to advance a better candidate for President --- perhaps someone like Joe Biden, who would almost certainly defeat Trump in a general election. So paradoxically, an indictment of Hillary Clinton might have helped the Democrats by making their victory in November almost certain.

The Republicans gain from this decision because (1) Hillary remains the Democratic candidate for President; and (2) Comey's harsh criticisms of Hillary are really quite damaging (as this AP story demonstrates), crippling her even further and giving Donald Trump's at least a fighting chance at pulling off an electoral upset. Many of Hillary Clinton's key assertions concerning her email practices have been found to lack credibility, which will provide Republicans with many opportunities to demoralize Clinton's base and win over independents.

Despite Clinton's prevarications about her emails, it remains to be seen how much of an affect this scandal, and in particular Comey's harsh criticisms of the former Secretary of State, will have on independents. Because that's really what matters. Clinton's opponents on the right will, of course, regard Clinton's conduct as appalling, and will advance it as evidence that she is not fit to be President. Clinton's supporters, on the other hand, probably don't care, regarding it as much ado about nothing. But for independents, for those voters who don't have a strong preference either way, how will this scandal affect how they vote in November? Will they regard Clinton's "extremely careless" (Comey's words) use of a private email server for State Department business as serious enough to render her unfit for the Presidency? Will they be bothered about her dubious statements she made regarding the server?

I suspect that, while Clinton's email scandal should cost her at least a few votes among independents, it won't cause her major damage. And the reason is quite simple: nearly everyone who's not already an avid supporter of Clinton knows, or at least suspects, that Clinton is corrupt. The Clintons, both Bill and Hillary, have been involved in one scandal or another since they entered national politics nearly 25 years ago. So this latest scandal with the private server in the bathroom hardly comes as a shock.

The biggest reason, however, that Clinton's email scandal won't hurt her all that much in November is Donald Trump, who has his own issues. If the Republicans were running a better candidate, Hillary Clinton might be in real trouble.

There's one other issue here that may be something worth keeping an eye on. Partisans can argue all day whether Clinton's use of a private email server is a serious matter or not, but it still seems, on the face of it, rather careless and not very smart. Why was Clinton use a private server for State Department business? And why, having been caught using it, did she make misleading statements regarding it, and delete 30,000 emails (which she declared were "personal") into the bargain? If, as her supporters have argued, it's not a big deal, why not just fully cooperate with the authorities (don't delete 30,000 emails) and refrain from making misleading statements? And why did Bill Clinton try to meet Attorney General Loretta Lynch in secret? Didn't he know that, if this meeting were discovered, it would not look good? The Clintons managed to turn what might have been a very minor matter into something much worse.