More Illusion

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about Democracy and thinking that the emperor is wearing no clothes, but in dialogue, I am having difficulty getting people to understand that I am talking about democracy as a concept—the very essence of democracy—, not how some place or another has implemented it. My point is that democracy is a silly system built on false hope, smoke, and mirrors.

Some get it, and they fall back to the Churchill quote:

‘Many forms of Government have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time…’

—Winston S Churchill, 11 November 1947

But this misses the point.

First, Churchill’s logic is limited to ‘forms that have been tried‘, a minuscule set to be sure.

Next, perhaps he is talking a position of not letting perfection be the enemy of the good. Except there is no one seeking perfection. The question is: what is good enough? Is Democracy in and of itself good enough? And it doesn’t end there, are there systems—even theoretically—better than democracy? And then, how might these systems fair when humans populate the model?

The problem is a systems thinking optimisation problem—and then there’s the question of what democracy is attempting to optimise. Clearly, this is a multifactor model, so what outputs are being optimised? It’s not likely that this would be a steady state model, and much of this relies on an unstable preference theory, so what is optimal today might no longer be optimal tomorrow—or in ten minutes.

how does one optimise a heterogeneous model?

As anyone who follows me know, I have a problem with the notion of progress as well, so participants can vote on various definitions of progress and various initiates toward that end, and, of course, other participants would prefer the comfort zone of the nostalgic and familiar instead. So, how does one optimise a heterogeneous model?

In the business world or entertainment, we are all familiar with the concept of death by committee, the slow deliberative process that mostly yields diluted results—results that might make the participants feel that they had a voice (perhaps), but—that would be ineffectual.

I am not eschewing coöperation.

I am not eschewing coöperation. I’m of the age where the Beatles were a big influence on me—and the Rolling Stones—, so I cherish the partnerships of Lennon-McCartney and Jagger-Richards. Their solo material paled miserably. The collaboration was synergetic. But there is a reason Ringo and Charlie were not asked to participate in the song-writing process. Their inputs would not have improved the output. Even imagine listening to an album of Ringo tunes: Act Naturally, Yellow Submarine, Octopuses Garden, What Goes On, Don’t Pass Me By, and Boys? Really? Right? And he only contributed to two of these anyway, save for lending his vocal instrument.

consider the concept of diminishing marginal returns

As I continue down this stream of consciousness, I consider the concept of diminishing marginal returns. So, even if there were a democratic system that could theoretically be optimised, it would have to face the human factor—and that would be subject to the diminishing marginal return of knowledge and information—, as we’d go down the participation pool from highly knowledgeable to low-information voters. And this doesn’t even address vested interests and conflicts of interest. It doesn’t even touch on the point that people are predictably irrational.

Plato’s Republic, in all of its elitist glory, offered a solution for this—aside from the philosopher-leader: a republic of the meritorious and virtuous (as if these were meaningful or measurable concepts). At least we wouldn’t be scraping the bottom of the barrel—or would we be?

merit being honed is how to gain and exert power and political competency

The problem with Plato’s meritocratic approach is that the merit being honed is how to gain and exert power and political competency—how to play the game of politics. And notion of virtue was nothing more than a façade, so rhetoric and the decorum of appearance is all that matters in this model.

Clearly, this stream is coming to an end, so I’ll disembark here and reembark later.

Democracy Now

Let’s face it and be honest: Democracy is not a great system of governance. In fact, it’s as mediocre as the outcomes it generates.

Plato hated it. He preferred a Republic, but all that does is kick the can down the proverbial kerb. A mob of demos voting for self-interested politicos with the gift of gab and self-promotion.

Alexis de Tocqueville noted that Democracy requires an education populace, but that’s the least of its shortcomings, and, man, was he spot on.

Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.

— Winston Churchill

Winston Churchill is to have said, “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.” Except he didn’t get out much and probably hadn’t survey all the others he demeaned. I don’t reckon he was very imaginative at the start.

Kenneth Arrow demonstrated with his Impossibility Theorem that no voting system would work even if the concept was otherwise solid, so that’s just adding insult to injury.

to what extent is democracy simply playing on the cognitive illusion of control?

Democracy sounds good on paper, but to what extent is democracy simply playing on the cognitive illusion of control? I’d imagine that the more one feels able to control outcomes (or happen to be in sync with the decided outcomes), the more favourable one feels towards it. But as much one might assume the disenfranchised to be disillusioned by it—and against all logic—, many still defend it.

The problem, is course, is people, so what are the alternatives? Besides Democracy, some people are easily enamoured by the Beneficent Dictator, but the shortcomings of that have been debated for centuries. For the most part, monarchies have run their historical course—at least as far as to demonstrate that they are not a solution either.

Some have raised Artificial Intelligence as a solution, but unless AI can unlearn the human elements, it’s not much of an improvement. It’s just faster and more efficient within a sub-optimal system. And humans are fearful of how another superior entity might treat them—especially given how poorly humans treat encountered ‘inferior’ entities.

To be fair, I don’t have an answer, but any system that outputs Vladimir Putin, Boris Johnson, or Donald Trump is in serious need of an overhaul—especially simultaneously.

* I included the Democracy Now!’s logo in this post. Democracy Now! is neither affiliated with this blog or this post. Still, I suggest you check it out.

What wrong with anarcho-syndicalism?

What’s an anarcho-syndicalist supposed to do in the advent of artificial intelligence, process automation, and robots?

Wikipedia relates anarcho-Syndicalism as follows:

Anarcho-syndicalism (also referred to as revolutionary syndicalism)[1] is a theory of anarchism that views revolutionary industrial unionism or syndicalism as a method for workers in capitalist society to gain control of an economy and thus control influence in broader society. Syndicalists consider their economic theories a strategy for facilitating worker self-activity and as an alternative co-operative economic system with democratic values and production centered on meeting human needs.

The basic principles of anarcho-syndicalism are solidaritydirect action (action undertaken without the intervention of third parties such as politicians, bureaucrats and arbitrators) and direct democracy, or workers’ self-management. The end goal of syndicalism is to abolish the wage system, regarding it as wage slavery. Anarcho-syndicalist theory therefore generally focuses on the labour movement.[2]

Anarcho-syndicalists view the primary purpose of the state as being the defense of private property, and therefore of economic, social and political privilege, denying most of its citizens the ability to enjoy material independence and the social autonomy that springs from it.[3] Reflecting the anarchist philosophy from which it draws its primary inspiration, anarcho-syndicalism is centred on the idea that power corrupts and that any hierarchy that cannot be ethically justified must either be dismantled or replaced by decentralized egalitarian control.[3]

As a matter of preference, I’ve leaned toward anarcho-syndicalism. I don’t have a lot of faith in humans or humanity to govern or self-govern. The arguments for this, whether monarchies, democracies, plutocracies, or even anarchies are each rife with its own sets of problems. Still, I favour a system where there is no class of governors, though I am more of a fan of Proudhon over Marx.

Mind you, I don’t think humans make very good judgements and are as bad in groups as individuals but for different reasons—and especially where complexity or too many choices are available. That we’ve survived this long is, quite frankly, a miracle.

This said, it isn’t my problem. My contention is with the syndicalist aspect. If all of this human as worker displacement occurs as some are forecasting, there will be precious few workers. I am not saying that this is inevitable or will ever happen. My concern is merely conditional. If this were to happen, the idea of a worker-centric system is daft.

Do we just defer to people categorically, where we arrive at simple anarchism? Without delving, there are different flavours of, and I have neither the time nor the inclination to debate, for example, the merits of anarco-capitalism (an oxymoron if there ever was one) versus anarcho-communism or anarcho-transhumanism for that matter.

Although, I like how Kant identified four kinds of government…

  • Law and freedom without force (anarchy)
  • Law and force without freedom (despotism)
  • Force without freedom and law (barbarism)
  • Force with freedom and law (republic)

…the whole notion of freedom is another weasel word, and laws without force are unenforceable—pun intended. At least the syndicalism felt like it was intentional or purposeful. I understand why Plato despised the rabble, but as with the sorites paradox in the heap-hill distinction, where to the rabble distil down to something meaningful?

What John Stuart Mill Got Wrong About Freedom

Graham Tomlin wrote a piece for Prospect, upon which I comment and whence comes the title of this post. Always the deconstructivist curmudgeon, it seems, I agree with Tomlin’s assertion that Mill was wrong, but so is Tomlin.

In a nutshell, Tomlin makes the argument that the Ancients had it right, and the Enlightenment derailed it. Tomlin wants to return to the days of yore when the artifice of character and virtue ruled the day, a time when men were men and women were women. A return to the good ole days.

Tomlin waxes poetic, nostalgiac to a time that never was, a time that the prescription was to chase windmills of virtue and amass the currency of character. But character as currency is more unstable than Bitcoin.

Don Quixote Tilting Windmills

Is there anything more capricious than the held perception of character? Is there anything more futile than chasing the vicious cycle of virtue, always searching for that deserving true Scotsman?

Character is a term especially bandied about by political Conservatives, although Progressives tend to play the #MeToo game because it’s a game of appearances. It doesn’t matter what you do; it only matters what it looks like you do.

And even this is a game. Time and again politicians ‘slip’ (read: get caught), they apologise for the temporary lapse, and ask for forgiveness. Whether or not they keep their position, they are still forgiven and may return to their position learning their lesson (read: don’t get caught again). Let’s just dispense with the formalities.

Perception is reality

In Plato’s day, he holds out four moral virtues to pursue: courage, temperance, justice, and prudence.

Courage: the resolve to act virtuously, especially when it is most difficult

Temperance: moderation in all things; the middle path

Justice: to render every man what’s due

Prudence: application of practical wisdom

Courage seems to be caught in an infinite loop, as it essentially says to exercise temperance, justice, and prudence in the face of danger. Typically, courage is associated with heroic acts, though I fail to see the connection to rescuing a baby from a burning building with any of these other virtues. Perhaps the definition has morphed over the years. Everyone needs a hero. Only Zeus needs a Hera.

Temperance is to find the middle ground: eat but not too much; drink but not too much; rape but not too much; kill but not too much. Is there really a middle ground for all things? In traversing a canyon, shouldn’t one stay close to the edge—or what about sidewalks? Is it temperance that led US President Donald Trump to declare that Nazis and white supremacists. are ‘some very fine people‘, or does he just lack prudence?

Justice is the constant and perpetual will to render to every man his due.

Justinian — Institutes 1.1

Justice I’ve written about at some length so I won’t spend any additional time here.

Common sense is not so common.


Prudence, which advises one to use common sense, relies on a rare jewel. As Voltaire wrote, « le sens commun est fort rare ».

Perhaps I’m just too hard on people, but I find that most people are pretty dimwitted outside of some small area of focus, and I have to agree with Voltaire’s position on common sense. This is why as an economist, I find it so difficult to accept the homo economicus assertion so key for modern microeconomic theory and why behavioural economics has become a bigger deal in the past 30 years as more and more social scientists realise that people are predictably irrational.

Thanks but no thanks. There’s got to be a better way.

Find Yourself

Find your self. What is this self you are searching for, and who is you in the first place?

You and self are taxonomical references—conveniences—, yet they don’t actually exist.

πάντα ῥεῖ : The only constant is change

Heraclitus of Ephesus

The Second Law of Thermodynamics states that entropy rules. Things decay. We can see this in the great structures of our ancient past. Try as we may, without energy, everything falls apart.

There is no you. The you that was born is not the same you that attended kindergarten, that graduated high school, dated, worked, or died. Even in a short span of time, you switch personae. Can you be multiple yous simultaneously? Are you only expressing some instance or another? I’m not buying it.

No one ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same person

Plato, attributed to Heraclitus

When Heraclitus said that no man ever steps into the same river twice, it’s not only the river that has changed; the person has changed, too. It’s not the same person.

Woman in River

For the sake of convenience, we create this sense of identity, whether for ourselves or for others we want to categorise in some form or fashion. But they aren’t the same either.

It’s like the physical object that appears to be solid and yet is more space than material. It’s a matter of convenience, but it’s a trompe l’oeil. Yet again, your senses have deceived you.

Does this impact survival or some evolutionary progression? Apparently not. Not if you are here to read this. But that doesn’t make it real. Perception is reality.

But what about identity politics? Can’t a person choose their own identity? Sure. Choose away. It doesn’t it real.

When you search for yourself, you may actually find something, but what you find is not likely you.

I’ve written about the difference between sex and gender. Both are taxonomical creations. Whether a society accepts the distinction between sexes, genders, or even of the distinction of sex and gender is up to that society.

One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.

Simone de Beauvoir, Second Sex

As with sex and gender, identity is a social construct. As such, its acceptance into a society is yet again a rhetorical effort.

Defending Democracy

Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time. 

Sir Winston Chirchill

I am not a defender of or apologist for Democracy. Any system is only as strong as its weakest link, but save for the rhetorical promises Democracy is nothing but weak links. Turtles all the way down. It’s another failed Enlightenment experiment. Sure, you can argue that the Ancient Greeks invented democracy—or at least implemented it at any scale—, but specious Enlightenment ideals pushed it forward into the mainstream.

The Achilles’ heel of Democracy is the principle-agent problem, the same one that separates management (CEOs) from owners (shareholders). Incentives are different.

Achilles’ Heel

Plato published his solution is Republic, but this proposal was naive at best. The notion that meritocracy is something real or that we can appropriately understand dimensions and measures in order to create the right incentives is another weak link.

Plato’s Republic

We see the same problem controlling elected officials. Time and again, we elect them, and time and again, they disappoint. We, the People, are the principles, and the elected are our agents. People in the US (and in so-called ‘democratic’ societies) have the vote, and yet—per the oft-cited definition of insanity—, they perform the same action and continue to expect different results; in fact; they are always surprised). At its core, it’s an incentive and accountability problem.

Kenneth Arrow wrote about the Impossibility Theorem, where he proved mathematically that no voting system would yield optimal results. Democracy is cursed with mediocrity. We like to soft-pedal the notion of mediocrity with the euphemism of compromise, another Ancient Greek legacy of moderation. If this makes you feel better, who am I to break the delusion? Cognitive dissonance is a powerful palliative.

μηδέν άγαν

Do Nothing in Excess, Delphic Oracle Inscription

Interestingly enough, many people clamour for term limits (a subversion of democracy) because they can’t help themselves from voting for the same shit politicians over and again. They rationalise it and say it is to defend against the other guy’s vote because they’d have never voted for shit representation.

This is often couched as ‘save me from myself’, but it is just as aptly cast as ‘save me from democracy’. I suppose a heroin addict might have the same thoughts.