The Standing Invitation

Posts Tagged ‘Politics

Functions of State

leave a comment »

What one thing would you change about the world?

Restricting ourselves to changing just one thing makes us into scientists. A scientist might express it in this way: in an experiment in which all other things are held constant, what variable would you alter in order to maximise the happiness of the world?

Even the most naïve scientist acknowledges that there are not many problems that can be solved by changing just one thing. But even that is an interesting observation. Let’s consider it in more detail – with graphs.

Here are three graphs with, as a y-axis, some imaginary scale of ‘aggregated societal happiness’ – a grotesque utilitarian caricature, but bear with me, I’m trying to make a point. What we vary lies along the horizontal axis. We change the value along the horizontal, and watch to see how happiness goes up or down.

Graph A shows a simple relationship where the more you have of X, the better off everyone is. X might be something like availability of food, ranging from 0% to 100% – if one more person can eat, the world is a little bit better off for it.

Graph B shows the opposite, where the more you have of X, the worse off everyone is. X here might be prevalence of smallpox; under no circumstance does more X mean more happiness.

In graph C, there is a certain value of X that ensures a maximum of happiness, and too little X or too much is actually a bad thing. X here might be freedom of expression. If you object to this, then I’m sure you won’t object to me hanging a Nazi poster in your bedroom. There’s only so much freedom of expression you can have before it starts to clash with other freedoms you enjoy, like your freedom of privacy.

But really interesting to me is a graph like this one.

Here we have two happiness maxima – two clearly different ways of organising a society, one, perhaps, happier than another – but separated by a chasm of misery for some levels of X.*

What are examples of X that would generate this curve? They are instances where everyone benefits from acting the same way, society suffers a little more for every person that deviates… until the deviants become the majority, in which case everyone is punished for those people who choose not to deviate. One good example for such an X is the tendency to drive on the left side of the road: it’s great if everyone does it, great if nobody does it, but chaos if exactly half the people do it.

But what if you want to change from driving on the left to driving on the right? To move between one maximum of utility and another? It has to be done in one step – overnight – to avoid the dangers of the middle ground. It can be done, and indeed has. But in some cases, a simple transition from one stable state to another is simply impossible; it is simply too costly. Other things will have to change to accommodate it.


The argument about freedom of expression as pertains to Nazi posters was stolen from Chomsky, Understanding Power. Can’t find the page number.

* It’s important to be clear that this is separate from the idea that you have to make things worse now in order to make them better later – which is itself an important concept, but not under discussion here. Happiness levels at a given X are taken to be instantaneous and without memory; they are functions of state, not functions of path.

Written by The S I

November 6, 2011 at 11:59 pm

Who You March Beside

with 2 comments

I joined my first political protest march in 2009; I confess that while I agreed broadly with its principles, I knew even at the time that I didn’t understand the issues well enough to commit myself fully to it. I was there mostly to see what it was like.

It was not something I enjoyed. I found myself holding a placard that only approximately expressed my views, alongside people I disagreed with politically, chanting slogans I would have phrased very differently. I left after an hour or so feeling not enlivened and proactive, but rather ashamed at having lent support to people and groups whom I dislike.

Any mass political demonstration involves, by definition, a large and probably rather diverse crowd of people. In joining it – joining any movement – one hopes to gain more impact for your cause through strength of numbers; in doing so, one sacrifices individuality. You become part of a crowd. You lend your voice to its demands, and become responsible, in part, for the actions, good or bad, of those you march beside.

This trade-off is inevitable; and now, before joining any protest, I try to get as clear a picture as possible of what I will have to sacrifice, and to whom. As in any exchange, there are instances when the price is worth paying; when the cause is so important that it largely doesn’t matter what nutjobs you have to associate with to get the job done. But there is plenty that a movement can do to make itself more attractive to me as a customer in the free market of political activism.

It is easy to see why protests are often perceived as vehicles of free expression of alternative lifestyles. After all, they are strikes against authority – what better way of showing how little control the Powers have over you than by having a street party? There are rare cases when this is acceptable, such as when the right being defended is exactly the right to have a party. But for the most part it annoys me. It is never good for a movement’s credibility than for it to be seen to be frivolous.

The treatment of all authority as being some monolithic capitalised Authority is always a bad thing. I recently saw, at Occupy London Stock Exchange, a poster about compulsory vaccination causing autism. (It cheered me enormously that it had been vandalised by people signing their names alongside their qualifications in clinical psychology.) The two causes are unrelated; affiliation with one should never entail support of another.

A third thing is the presence of a manifesto. It doesn’t matter if it’s written on soggy cardboard, as long as it’s clearly stated. This goes a long way to mitigating the loss of individuality, because a statement of purpose lets people know exactly what they have signed up for.

It will always be in the interests of the authority protested against to portray the protesters as diffuse, disorganised, violent, unintelligent, and more interested in fun than in change. It is the responsibility of activists to make a pre-emptive strike, and make their motivations clear as a laser, and as serious as politics.

Written by The S I

October 23, 2011 at 11:59 pm


with 3 comments

Shortly before his execution for the crime of corrupting the youth of Athens, Socrates was visited in his prison cell by his friend Crito, who offered Socrates a chance to escape. To Crito’s surprise, Socrates turned him down, remained in his cell, and was made to drink hemlock soon after.

Socrates said that he saw all this coming. He knew at the outset that his determination to challenge presumed authority wherever he found it would make him powerful enemies; knew that the consequences would be dire, perhaps fatal. But because he knew what would happen – and because, motivated by a higher commitment to intellectual honesty, he went ahead anyway – he was duty bound to accept his punishment, however severe. He’d already made his decision. Now he was following through with it.

What we have here is a social contract: a citizen’s implicit agreement to abide by a society’s rules in order to benefit from the services it offers. Yes, Athenian society was corrupt and killed dissenters, but there were other societies to choose from, and Socrates had chosen Athens. He had made a free-market decision that this society offered the best cost/benefit ratio, and going to his death was, to him, keeping his end of the bargain.

Very noble, and very moving; but was his analysis correct?

The notion of accepting a society’s demands because you were free to choose another has a dangerous flip-side. It showed its face in a recent documentary about radical Islam, where a clear-eyed young man and self-confessed terrorist calmly stated that the government of the UK had committed terrible crimes; and because the British people voted for that government in a free election, they are directly responsible for its actions. They are enemy combatants, valid targets for military action.

This is an appalling doctrine. And yet it is only the social contract turned on its head. If you consent to benefitting from society’s gains, you also consent to culpability for its crimes.

That is my objection to Socrates’ acquiescence. He should not have taken it lying down. Contrast it with an assessment by Christopher Hitchens:

…as you read this you are in effect wearing a military uniform and sitting in a very exposed trench. You exist at the whim of people whose power does not derive from your own consent and who regard you as expendable, disposable. You merely failed to notice the moment at which you were conscripted. … I do not recognise the legitimacy of a government that puts me in that position.

No system of representative government perfectly expresses the view of any one person. Nor should it; that way lies dictatorship. Democratic government is a compromise reached between people with wildly differing views. I heartily endorse the machinery of government that takes as input suggestions for policies, and then modifies and improves them with bargaining and debate – but I reserve the right not to be happy with the result.

When Crito came to Socrates, I would rather Socrates had found the government that sentenced him guilty of gross negligence, and decided that the social contract no longer bound him. I would rather he’d escaped. But then, I do like a happy ending.


The Hitchens bit was from Letters to a Young Contrarian.

The dialogue of Crito can be found in its entirety here.

Written by The S I

October 13, 2011 at 11:59 pm

Ban This Blog!

leave a comment »

The SI recently had the pleasure of visiting an exhibition of banned books at the National Library of Scotland: a fond celebration of history’s greatest tyrannical despots and holier-than-thou moral busybodies.

Everybody in a position to ban books has a vested interest in maintaining the status quo, and no book is ever banned because it threatens to keep things as they are. Many of the books on show had constituted a direct threat against the authorities of the day. Their suppression was a readily comprehensible stratagem in the great political game where a government’s worst enemy is the ability of its own populace to have ideas.

But what are we to think of books banned for offences that, to a ruling elite, are relatively minor? Violence, sex, swearing, or the curious notion that homosexuals are people too – whom do these things hurt?

It might well be possible to cast this in terms of the erosion of a power base; conservative parties in a democracy depend on the support of well-defined family units that must be protected at all costs. It’s certainly an idea worth investigating, because ruling that out leaves us with the horrifying alternative that people who want to ban books for our own good might actually be sincere.

In a liberal, educated democracy, the only rational response to this ­– indeed, perhaps the only possible response ­– is wild, hysterical laughter. When Australia declared that American Psycho could only be sold in plastic shrink-wrap, presumably to prevent people from being offended accidentally in the bookshop, Bret Easton Ellis said it was “adorable”. And rightly so. It’s silly, and the people who advocate it are silly.

Is there any case at all to be made for banning books for our own good? Possibly. There are some kinds of information which, if scarce, nobody benefits from their becoming widely known. How to manufacture explosives from household materials, for example, or lists of undetectable poisons. But in an interconnected world such as ours, no one book could be banned that would hide such a information completely from the public eye. It would be on the internet somewhere, and the act of censoring the internet would be a much more catastrophic blow to freedom than anything that could result from somebody clicking a hotlink.

What else could justifiably be banned? Books advocating racism, homophobia, crystal healing? No to all the above. As Chomsky said, “If you’re in favor of free speech, then you’re in favor of freedom of speech precisely for views you despise.”

What about books that might cause a panic in which people might actually be harmed? Perhaps, but the blame here should never really be put on the books. Maliciously screaming “fire” in a crowded theatre is very wicked; but if the harm caused is really that serious, then maybe you need to look into having more fire exits.

And books that might offend us with their swearing? Don’t be fucking ridiculous.



The exhibition was held at the National Library of Scotland, and will be open till the end of October; well worth watching.

The Chomsky quote was from the film Manufacturing Consent.

Written by The S I

October 5, 2011 at 11:59 pm

Equality and Equivalence

leave a comment »

We are all born free. That is one of the central tenets of liberalism: that, in the natural order of things, our default setting is absolute freedom to do whatever we want to do and to be whatever we want to be. It is essential that we make this assumption, even if it is only a theoretical ideal, because it lets us do something extraordinary: it lets us look at one person having power over another person and ask: why should that be the case?

It is the presumption of liberty that makes authority look unnatural. Authority, not freedom, is the phenomenon that needs to explain itself, justify itself. It is the corollary to being innocent until proven guilty: the burden of proof is placed firmly on the shoulders of those who would tell you what you can and cannot do.

Those thinkers who accept this presumption of liberty are called ‘liberals’ in the technical sense, but many of them are far from what I would call liberal. Hobbes, for example, recognises that freedom is natural, but that it is also dangerous; and that the best form of government is a repressive tyranny that will keep us in line. For a liberal, this is not very liberal.

A liberal liberal knows that no authority, however noble its intentions, is wise enough to govern with absolute power; and so one of the tasks of liberal philosophy is to try to find the absolute minimum standards of coercion needed to make a society function.

Take the entire spectrum of human societies that exist now or have ever existed and arrange them in a row ­– a cultural police line-up. There will be a lot of variation: there will be monarchies, democracies, theocracies, there will be oppressed minorities, there will be enslaved masses. It will be a mixed bunch, and much that we see will appal us. But we know that nobody, least of all us, knows the right way to run a country. Recognising our own fallibility, we must respect their right to develop however they choose, as long as our minimum standards are met.

What should these standards be? It is an important and immensely difficult question.

How should we feel about societies in which certain groups are excluded from certain professions ­– say, women are barred from engineering, or men barred from childcare? I personally find this a barbaric arrangement. But I do not think it is necessarily below the minimum standard. There may be some ways of setting up a society in which all participants are better off if there is some regimentation of roles.

The measure of its worth would be in the equivalence of opportunity, not in the equality. If people in dramatically unequal roles can all find an equivalent happiness within those roles, then this society cannot be objected to on liberal grounds. To presume that absolute equality is the only way of ensuring equal happiness is to claim a degree of infallibility that no liberal should feel comfortable with.

Written by The S I

September 30, 2011 at 11:59 pm

Enforcing Freedom

leave a comment »

One of the central tenets of liberalism, perhaps the central tenet, is tolerance: letting other people go about their business, as long as it doesn’t affect you. But there are limits. If you look across the courtyard and see a scene of domestic violence through the window of a neighbouring flat, should you exercise tolerance? Should you respect the rights of self-determination for the abuser and his victim? Certainly not. To do so would be a moral failure. There are some things that no good liberal should tolerate.

This, then, is the dilemma of liberalism: how far should one’s liberal principles extend to people around you? In particular, should they extend to those who do not share your enlightened values?

Imagine you live in your country alongside a religious sect that oppresses some of its members. Pick any oppression of any group you like, as long as it appals you. Say, for example, that women are treated as objects and ritualistically beaten; they are forbidden from speaking to men until their parents have married them off, and they must spend the rest of their lives veiled, mute and obedient.

Imagine that you can be born into this sect; and imagine that the penalty for apostasy is death.

Should this state of affairs be allowed to continue? As long as that last paragraph holds, I say certainly not. If this is something you can be born into and can never leave, then it is a form of imprisonment. There is can be no more fundamental human right than the freedom to escape unjustified coercion, and it is the duty of a liberal society to facilitate this escape in others.

So a government can, I believe, justifiably enact laws that break down these barriers to freedom.

Imagine now that the death penalty for apostasy has been abolished. Anybody who feels oppressed and wants to leave the sect is now free to do so.

Imagine that there are some who choose not to. The women decide they prefer their traditional roles. They continue to be covered from head to toe. They remain ignorant of men and sex. And they continue to be beaten. They have chosen to remain oppressed.

Here we enter tricky ground. These women are oppressed, but since they are legally entitled to leave, is it wrong to do more? Should we respect their choice to remain enslaved? Or should we, essentially, force them to be free?

Ultimately, their choice must be respected; but it’s important to recognise that there are mental barriers to freedom as well as legal ones, and choice is only really choice when it’s an informed choice. You cannot force people to be free and should not try. But you can enforce awareness of the available options, by breaking down censorship and insularity, and by demanding good standards of education.

If, having been exposed to pros and cons of other ways of living, they go back to their traditional lives, so be it. It should be the duty of liberal societies everywhere to give people that option.


The SEP’s entry on liberalism is well worth a read, particularly section 4, which poses the question to which this essay is my attempt at an answer.

Written by The S I

September 8, 2011 at 11:59 pm

When Not To Let The Skies Fall

with 2 comments

The search for scientific knowledge is a glorious and essential enterprise. But is it always? Are there some topics for scientific enquiry that are morally wrong to pursue? Are there situations where it might be irresponsible or harmful even to ask a question?

This breaks down into two questions:

1) Are there some experiments the carrying out of which is harmful, even if it gives us the truth?

2) Are there some experiments the outcome of which is harmful, even if it gives us the truth?

The first question is so easy it’s uninteresting. Of course there are limits to how far a scientist can justifiably go in the pursuit of knowledge – just like there are limits to what a businessman can do in the pursuit of money, or a policeman in the pursuit of criminals. A scientist might want to know how long a virus takes to kill a child; but to deliberately infect the child and stand there with a stopwatch would be totally unacceptable. Being a scientist does not excuse you from social responsibilities and obligations.

So question 1 is easy. But what about question 2? Are there questions we should not answer, because it is better to be ignorant than know the truth?

One might be tempted to quote the phrase from antiquity, “Do justice and let the skies fall.” But this is a cop-out. Sometimes knowing the truth about something is actually measurably harmful. There might be good medical reasons for giving a patient a placebo for pain management; informing the patient that it is a placebo might inflict harm on the patient.

This is perhaps a special case. Nevertheless, a scientist must be aware of the consequences of his actions, even if the only action is inquiry. In a society in which racism is prevalent, investigation into correlations between race and intelligence might be used as ammunition for white supremacists. Investigation into the potency of a new strain of virus might cause a panic that harms more people than the knowledge saves.

Ultimately, the truth is worth knowing precisely because it is true. It is a deeply flawed society that can’t handle some unpleasant truths, or that misinterprets truths so badly that people get hurt for no logical reason; and yet that is the society in which we live, unjust, dangerous and full of misconceptions. To proceed blindly in any activity ­– scientific or not – without acknowledging this fact is deeply irresponsible.

Much is made of the need to educate the public about science, and I can’t agree more. Life is made so much richer by understanding, and knowledge is good for the soul. But I feel that what is needed today is not to teach people facts, but to teach people method – not what scientists know, but how they think. Facts about race or risk are less dangerous to a public that understands statistics, that knows what a randomised controlled trial is. There is no better armour for harsh truths.

Written by The S I

September 2, 2011 at 11:59 pm