Wednesday, November 24, 2004

Truth, Autonomy, and the Value of Democracy

There is, of course, good reason to be truthful. I’m strongly inclined toward Kantian deontology in moral theory, so I’m inclined to think that the most important reasons are of a non-consequentialist variety. But I’m not going to discuss those reasons. Instead I’m going to discuss some less philosophical, less fundamental reasons for being truthful in politics in particular.

What makes democracy valuable? Why, that is, is democracy a good (perhaps even the best) type of government? Here’s a suggestion: because it is the type of government that is maximally respectful of the autonomy of its citizens. Recognizing the inherent right of self-determination of every (adult) person, democracies attempt to maximize the degree to which such self-determination can be realized. Of course given that there are many individuals in any democracy, it is not possible for each one to completely determine policy. The best we can do, it seems, is to give each individual an equal say in determining policy, or at least an equal say in electing those who determine policy.

So what exactly—or, at least, approximately—is involved in respecting someone’s autonomy in matters of this kind? Let’s think about an analogy. Doctors are supposed to respect the autonomy of their patients. This does not mean that they leave all of the technical details of treatment up to the patient. Rather, it means that they must leave certain types of decisions up to the patient. In a case, for example, in which a decision must be made between undertaking a more effective but more painful treatment and a less painful but less effective one.

It is a mistake to think that what is important in a case like this is the mere act of making a choice, and hence a mistake to think that one is merely obligated to allow individuals to make choices. The doctor does not fulfill her obligations merely by allowing the patient to make a decision. Consider, for example, a doctor who lies to her patient. Suppose, in fact, that she lies to him about the evidence, exaggerating the likelihood that he has disorder A rather than disorder B, and using various rhetorical tricks to influence him to choose treatment 1 rather than treatment 2, even though an objective assessment of the evidence indicates that her diagnosis is wrong and her preferred treatment is sub-optimal. The doctor’s obligation to respect her patient’s autonomy requires that she allow her patient to make an informed decision. And that, of course, means that she fails to discharge her duty if she distorts the evidence she presents to her patient.

Similarly, political leaders are obligated to present the electorate with accurate information about important matters of policy. To distort the evidence in order to manipulate citizens’ decisions is no better than denying them all say about policy-making. If I agree to let you choose between A and B, but I lie to you about the respective virtues of A and B in order to manipulate you into choosing as I want you to, then I have not given you a genuine choice and I have not respected your autonomy. This is no better than giving you no choice at all.

Events of the last three years have made it important to reflect on matters of this kind. We have recently been asked to decide whether we respect our own autonomy enough to demand leaders who respect it. The majority of us seem to have answered in the negative. Which is to say that we seem to have autonomously chosen to give up our autonomy, freely chosen to give up an essential part of our freedom. By choosing leaders who routinely lie to us about even the most important matters of government, and about even those matters concerning which honesty is most crucial, we have, in effect, elected to (temporarily) cut the heart out of our democracy. We are like a man who re-hires a doctor with a history of lying to him about his most serious and life-threatening medical conditions. And of lying for the worst reasons and with the most disastrous results.

My countrymen have made a decision which, try as I might, I simply cannot construe as reasonable.

Wednesday, November 17, 2004

Condi Rice, Lying Liar

Don't miss this at the Daily Howler. It should be obvious by now that there is one set of rules for Democrats and a different set for Republicans. Clinton's irrelevant lie about the infamous blowjob warranted impeachment; Al Gore's unimaginably inconsequential honest error about which forest fire he inspected with James Lee Witt made him a liar and unfit for the presidency. On the other hand, Bush's patent lie to Congress about a matter of vital national security import--during the State of the Union Address, no less--doesn't matter. And apprently Rice's concerted effort to evade the 9/11 comission and then mislead them is inconsequential as well. She, like most of the rest of the Bush administration, is a liar, and her lies are not limited to small ones about private matters. She lies big and often about important things. And yet, somehow, it doesn't seem to matter to the majority of the American people.

[Link via Eschaton]

Friday, November 12, 2004

Did Illegal Overseas Absentee Ballots Decide the Outcome of The 2000 Presidential Election?

I've only had a chance to glance over this (grading, grading, grading...). But it looks interesting and important enough that I'm not going to wait to link to it. (And it comes highly recommended by the mighty Statisticasaurus Rex, who calls Gary King his "hero." (Note to SR: If a political scientist is your hero, then you are even a bigger geek than I am...))

Wednesday, November 10, 2004

Visual Representation of Election Data

This, from M. T. Gastner, C. R. Shalizi, and M. E. J. Newman is definitely worth checking out.

(Thanks to TRVA)

Monday, November 08, 2004

Ignorance or Intellectual Dishonesty?

That is the question.

This PIPA study indicates that [most!!] Bush supporters believe some crucial falsehoods about the Iraq [war] and related issues (e.g. that we have found "clear evidence" of a link between Saddam and 9/11). Anyway, I'm sure you've heard that already.

But what interests me is the question did they support Bush because they were ignorant or were they ignorant because they supported Bush?

(Euthyphro 10a, how I adore you...)

That is, do the majority of Bush supporters innocently believe falsehoods and support Bush as a result of those beliefs, or do they believe the falsehoods because they support Bush and indulge in wishful thinking?

Most in the nattering class seem to simply be assuming the former.

Me, I don't know.

If the latter, then they are epistemically (and morally) culpable. If the former, then they are not obviously so...but it's a tad difficult to believe that even a semi-well-informed person could still honestly believe that we have clear evidence of a Saddam-al Qaeda link...

Anyway, I hope it was mere ignorance. Ignorance, tenacious though it may be, is more easily cured than dishonesty--intellectual or otherwise.

I guess there's another option--that their false beliefs and their votes for Bush were unrelated...though that seems like the least likely option of all.

Sunday, November 07, 2004

Alas: News of News of the World

News of news of the world, via Alas, A Blog.

[Scroll down, genius.]

Friday, November 05, 2004

Saletan: What Democrats Should Do--And Be

I think Saletan hits pretty close to the bull's eye with this. I only disagree strongly with him when he writes:
People are voting Republican because they think you're weak. And, let's face it, you are weak. You say you'll defend this country, but then you go on about consulting other governments, cultivating goodwill, and playing well with others.

I do think there's a weak, wimpy, silly peacenik wing of the Democratic party. Before you reflexively bash me for that, remember that I sometimes call myself a quasi-pacifist. (By which I mean: I think that violence is rarely warranted, and that its consequences are almost always far worse than people think they will be. I'm not a real pacifist because, as part of the reality-based community, I recognize that breaking things and hurting (bad) people is sometimes the only way to defend what's right.)

So, yes, there's a wimpy wing of the Democratic party. But it's absolutely absurd to say that "consulting with other governments, cultivating good will, and playing well with others" makes us weak. Rather, doing all those things as much as possible makes you stronger in two ways: first, you have more allies and fewer enemies. Second, when you DO have to go it alone, as we did in Kosovo, you have built up moral capital which can be used to encourage others to follow your lead. So Saletan is just being silly there.

But if you want to know what kind of Democrat (or quasi-Democrat) I am, it's the kind Saletan describes in this article. What Democrats need to do, IMO, is to adopt the counterpart of Bush's "compassionate conservative" paltform. We need to be...well, don't ask me to make up a snappy term for it, but...resolute, tough-love liberals. We want to work with others and play nice so that war isn't necessary, but we make it clear that we'll use force if absolutely necessary. We want a strong social safety net, but we're not going to take money away from hard-working people to give to people who are unwilling to work or otherwise irresponsible. We know there are some things government does best, but we won't expand the reach of government unless we can't reasonably expect to achieve the relevant goal in any other way.

See, that's the way I've always seen the Democrats, and it's only of late that I've come to realize that, even if that's what they are really like, there are strong currents in the party that threaten to carry it in a bad direction, farther to the left, down what I think is the road to perdition. To some extent when people vote they are voting for the ideal that the party represents, voting with an eye to what the party would do for/to the country if it could completely implement its ideals. Elements of the Democratic party would, I think, enfold us all in the smothering arms of an all-pervasive nanny state if they got their political druthers. That element is not dominant in the party, but the stronger it is, and the more tolerance the rest of the party has for it, the less appealing the Democrats will be to many average voters. I myself become less sympathetic with the Democrats when they become more sympathetic with the nanny state ideal.

Republicans have their own problems, and their ideal has in many ways become a downright cruel and heartless one. But many Americans--including me--would rather, if we had to choose, have a government that was too indifferent to our suffering than one that smothered us with well-intentioned meddling in our affairs. I'd rather be starving and autonomous than well-fed and infantilized. At least in the former state one retains one's humanity. (Perhaps this is all easy for me to say, since I've always been well-fed...)

Before you freak out, remember that I'm more sympathetic with the Dems right now than I am with the Republicans. Obviously I don't think that the Dems really DO intend to institute a massive nanny state. All I'm saying is that there are elements in the party that would, and that much of the party's leadership is insufficiently averse to the idea.

Finally, let me note that one of the reasons that I am more sympathetic with the Democrats is that I think that the Republican ideal of government is in fact more meddlesome than the Democratic ideal. Republicans are more inclined to tell us whom we can have sex with, whom we can marry, what we can ingest, and in what ways we can express ourselves. They're also more likely to allow religions--well, their favored religion, anyway--to impose itself on us in the public sphere. So, I think, those who fear a nanny state (or a kind of "dorm monitor" state) should currently be more averse to the Republicans than the Democrats. Nevertheless, (a) Democrats have failed to make this clear and (b) they've got similar tendencies (noted above). If they're going to win--and deserve to win--they've got to take care of both of these problems.

Wednesday, November 03, 2004

Helps the Hurt Stop Hurting...

You really have to check out this, sent to me today by my good homie Canis Major.
The Morning After

Got done handing out Democratic propaganda at the polls last night, stopped by the office for a quick check of the internet around 7:15. Everything looked good. Tried (unsuccessfully) to ignore all the early exit poll numbers, and Zogby's early call for Kerry.

My trusty insomnia's been acting up of late (by which I mean "for the last six years"), so I was beat. Instead of going to the Democrats' (or as I affectionately call them behind their backs, "the losers"--as in "Hey, I'll be home late tonight--I'm going to work the phone banks for the losers.") "victory celebration," I decided it would be smarter to hit the sack super early and check numbers in the morning. After all, they'd probably still be counting in Florida, no matter how late I stayed up, right? Finished up the final chapter of Liddle-Hart's History of The Second World War (which I highly recommend), and managed to crash at about 9:30, with visions of a good night's sleep and a Kerry victory dancing in my head.

Woke up at 4. Reached over and hit the power on the radio. The voices of the NPR commentators didn't sound exactly chipper...but that could just be exhaustion, right? Then they cut somewhere. What was this? I didn't like the sound of it. Oh, crap, it was John Thune. Oh, shit, it was an acceptance speech. Lots and lots about how he prayed about whether to run again. (Obvious implication: God told him to do it. No wonder he won. Guess we know who's side God is on...)

Oh, shit. Inauspicious beginning, to say the least. Stumbled out of bed...or, rather, stumbled up from futon. Found pants. Turned on phone. Message from Johnny Quest: "I...cannot...believe...this. *click*". Not good. Legs in pants, books in bag, feet in shoes, grab quart of O.J., get to car, get to office.

(Note to self: Grow up. Get life. Way, WAY too old to continue living like grad student... Unseemly.)

Get to office. Turn on machine.

Oh, shit.

Shit, shit, shit.

It doesn't look good for the good guys, now does it? Jesus. Not good at all.

Democratic Underground is already alleging that They Saved Hitler's Brain and it directed some SS androids to steal ballots in Ohio or something like that...

Instapundit looks 100% gloat-free, god bless 'im.


Will it help to note that bad government is the human norm? Yet we survive. Is there any solace to be had by reflecting on the fact that, historically speaking, W is probably a far, FAR better and more honest leader than most? Cold comfort, of course, against a backdrop of Ghengis Khan et. al., but, hey, the guy isn't Satan. He's just a very, very, very bad American president. Which still makes him reasonably, well, o.k. by historical standards, right?

I should shut up now. We haven't lost yet, and, like you, I haven't thought about this enough to have anything intelligent to say about it.

Anyway, hang in there. It ain't over 'til it's over.

And even if it is over, we've survived Andrew Jackson, Harding, Hoover, Nixon, Ronald Reagan...and one term of Shrub. Surely we can survive one more.

Anyway, against the (admittedly largely tragic) backdrop of human history, this probably just ain't that bad.

I'm fairly sure about that, actually.

Tuesday, November 02, 2004

The bin Laden Tape and the Holmes-Moriarty Problem

I knew that if a new bin Laden tape emerged, people on both sides would try to spin it to support their candidate. The Bushies have been far worse about this sort of thing, in many cases straightforwardly asserting that bin Laden wants Kerry to win.

Since I believe that Bush has handled the war against al Qaeda about as badly as it could have been handled, I think that bin Laden should be rooting for Bush. But that really doesn’t matter here.

Here I’m interested in this question: what should we make of any bin Laden tape that seems to contain an explicit or implicit endorsement of either candidate? Let’s consider an explicit endorsement, since it’s easiest to think about and the same principles apply in the case of implicit or suggested endorsements.

Suppose OBL comes out and says “I want Bush to win.” What should we make of this? Certainly not that OBL wants Bush to win. OBL may be evil, but he is obviously not without a certain low cunning. He’s got to know that if he endorses Bush this helps Kerry because we Americans--though perhaps not the sharpest tools in the shed--are smart enough to figure out that if OBL wants Bush to win, that’s at least a little reason for us to want Kerry to win. So his endorsement of Bush would help Kerry.

But, of course, this game of trying to guess what the other person is thinking can be iterated forever. Recognizing that we’ll be inclined to do the opposite of what he wants, OBL should then—supposing he wants Bush to win—endorse Kerry. But, again, we're smart enough to figure out that he’s smart enough to figure that out, so we should conclude that his endorsement of Kerry is just a way of getting us to vote for Bush. And he, of course, is smart enough to figure that out, so if he really wants us to vote for Bush, then he should endorse Bush. But, again, we're smart enough to figure out what he's trying to do, so…well, you see where this is going.

This is basically a decision-theoretic problem of a kind known as a Holmes-Moriarty problem, as one version of it appears in a Sherlock Holmes story in which Holmes is trying to figure out which train station to get off at given that Moriarty is trying to catch him and so trying to figure out which station he (Holmes) will get off at.

There’s a lot of literature on this, but I’m not familiar with it. Besides, I’ve got to go give an exam now. But the rough-and-ready lesson seems to be the obvious one: you can’t—to say the least--take utterances like bin Laden’s at face value.

Monday, November 01, 2004

Operation: No Gloating
Anger and Immediate Response on the Internet

Several months ago (I'm too lazy to go look it up), I made a suggestion. I'm going to make it again now:

If we win, no gloating.

There'll be reason to celebrate, but there'll be no reason to gloat, and plenty of reason not to. Polarization has become a problem so serious that it's interfering with our democracy and our leaders' ability to govern. Gloating after a win is one of the surest ways to alienate the opposition even more.

It's probably too much to ask the losing side to avoid a spasm of grief and outrage. But it's surely not too much to ask the winners to be gracious.

Here's my prediction: this will be an extremely vicious post-election period, even if there're no legal challenges. The internet has given people the ability to express their anger immediately and in a relatively impersonal way. It's going to be really, really nasty in the 'Sphere for awhile after the election. It'll be worse if Bush loses, but it'll be bad either way.

I predict this because I've noticed a relatively new phenomenon associated with teaching: occasionally instructors now get extremely inappropriate and sometimes disrespectful e-mails from a student after he or she gets a lower-that-expected grade on a paper or exam. I've had to take several students to task about this. The problem, I think, is that e-mail gives them an opportunity to respond immediately, before they've had a chance to cool down, and allows them to respond with a degree of vehemence and lack of self-control that they'd never display were they speaking to me in person.

Me, I might just avoid the Blogosphere entirely for a couple of months after tomorrow...