Monday, 18 January 2021

Ideas Are Too Exciting; Arguments Are Too Hard

It is very pleasant to entertain a new idea, a new notion or concept to think about and to look at the world with. Indeed, it can have the exciting and intoxicating feel of discovering hidden treasure. 

Unfortunately, most ideas are bad - wrong, misleading, dangerous, or of very limited use or relevance. Even more unfortunately, that doesn't prevent them from gaining our interest and enthusiasm. The problem is that getting an idea is just a matter of understanding it (or thinking that you do) and this is just as easy in the case of bad ideas as it is for good ones. In contrast, checking the quality of ideas by interrogating the arguments for them is laborious and distinctly unrewarding - and so avoided as much as possible. The result is that the world is drowning in bad ideas and their dreadful consequences, from conspiracy theories to religions to academic bloopers like critical race theory. 

Thursday, 14 January 2021

How Is It No One's Job To Defend Democracy?

Why did it take until now for a critical mass of key players to take a stand against Trump's assault on democracy? Why wasn't it already enough when he pointedly declined to promise to accept the results of the election if he lost, during the 2016 presidential debates?

Liberal democracy is like capitalism, a game designed to make its players compete against each other for points and prizes. Competition is the driving force behind the real benefits such systems achieve, but the logic of competition also imprisons its players to stay within their roles. It is no one's job to defend the system of rules governing that competition. As a result, democracies are surprisingly vulnerable to take over, as we have seen from the recent examples of Turkey, Hungary, and (ongoing) India.

Saturday, 9 January 2021

Politics Would Be Less Crazy If Voting Were Compulsory

Democracies around the world are suffering paroxysms of populist rage. Obviously this has many contributing causes and individuals, from rising inequality to social media to political entrepreneurs like Trump. But here is one policy that might go some way to restoring normal functioning: Make voting compulsory.

Before politicians can do anything else, they must win election by getting  more votes than their opponents. This is supposed to ensure that only those politicians whose ideas and values are most agreeable to the most people have the chance to rule. One might naively suppose that democratic competitions would therefore focus on clearly communicating those ideas and values so that the voters can tell which candidate they most prefer. In practise that is not what happens. This is because voters must choose not only which politician they prefer but also whether to formally register that preference by voting. The politicians' challenge is that  while forming a political opinion is effectively free, voting is a mildly inconvenient task that it is entirely rational for most people not to bother with.

Sunday, 3 January 2021

Racism Is Global and Local - But Not Especially American

The passionate global response to George Floyd's killing showed that the world is as connected as ever, despite the hard borders and economic nationalism induced by Covid. Yet it also showed that America is still the centre of world politics and the problems that come with that. 

Racism is a global phenomenon that one can find everywhere from South Africa to Brazil to India to Japan, but it takes different forms in different places. Americans are too quick to assume that their particular experience of the oppression of black people and their stop-start struggle for equal rights provides a universal diagnosis and treatment plan for racism. The rest of the world is too willing to copy and paste America's provincial self-understanding, however poorly it fits their situation.