Tag Archives: Democracy

The American Oligarchy

Money

Money (Photo credit: 401(K) 2013)

One of my lasting lessons from political science is that every major society has a pyramid structure in regards to wealth and power. The United States is no exception to this distribution pattern. However, the United States is also supposed to be a democratic society—which seems rather inconsistent with the pyramid.

While the United States does have the mechanisms of democracy, such as voting, it might be wondered whether the United States is democratic or oligarchic (or plutocratic) in nature. While people might turn to how they feel about this matter, such feelings and related anecdotes do not provide proof. So, for example, a leftist who thinks the rich rule the country and who feels oppressed by the plutocracy does not prove her belief by appealing to her feelings or anecdotes about the rich. Likewise, a conservative who thinks that America is a great democracy and feels good about the rich does not prove her belief by appealing to her feelings or anecdotes about the rich.

What is needed is a proper study to determine how the system works. One rather obvious way to determine the degree of democracy is to compare the expressed preferences of citizens with the political results. If the political results generally correspond to the preferences of the majority, then this is a reasonable (but not infallible) indicator that the system is democratic. If the political results generally favor the minority that is rich and powerful while going against the preferences of the less wealthy majority, then this would be a reasonable (but not infallible) indicator that the system is oligarchic (or plutocratic). After all, to the degree that a system is democratic, the majority should have their preferences enacted into law and policy—even when this goes against the wishes of the rich. To the degree that the system is oligarchic, then the minority of elites should get their way—even when this goes against the preferences of the majority.

Recently, researchers at Princeton and Northwestern conducted just such a study: “Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens”  using data gathered from 1981 to 2002.

The researchers examined about 1,800 polices from that time and matched them against the preferences expressed by three classes: the average American (50th income percentile), the affluent American (the 90th percentile of income) and the large special interest groups.

The results are hardly surprising: “The central point that emerges from our research is that economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on US government policy, while mass-based interest groups and average citizens have little or no independent influence.”

As noted above, a truly democratic system should result in the preferences of the majority being expressed in policies and laws more often than not. However, “When a majority of citizens disagrees with economic elites and/or with organized interests, they generally lose. Moreover, because of the strong status quo bias built into the US political system, even when fairly large majorities of Americans favor policy change, they generally do not get it.” As such, this study would seem to provide strong evidence that the United States is an oligarchy (or plutocracy) rather than a democratic state.

It might be contended that this system is fine since, to use a misquote, what is the preference for GM is the preference for Americans. That is, it could be claimed that the elites and the majority of Americans have the same or similar preferences.  However, the study found that the interests of the wealthy are not substantially correlated with the preferences of average citizens.” As such, the preferences of most Americans do not match the interests of the wealthy—but the wealthy generally get what they want.

One current example of this, which was not part of the study, is the fact that a very strong majority of Americans favor various gun control measures (such as universal background checks) yet bills that would make these measures into laws have failed. This provides a rather clear example of how the system works in general. Naturally, this example is merely an illustration—the statistical support is based in the 1,800 examined policies.

One possible objection is that the preferences of the majority are mistaken—that is, the majority wants things that are not in their best interest and what the elites want is what is actually best. For example, while most Americans might prefer stronger consumer protection laws when it comes to financial institutions, it could be claimed that they are in error. What is in their best interest is less consumer protection, which is what the financial elites want.

The obvious reply is that even if it were true that the majority is in error and the elites know best, this would arguing that the oligarchic system is better than a democratic system not that the system is not and oligarchic one.

Another possible objection is that the system is democratic in that people do vote for elected officials who then enact policies. Since the citizens can vote such officials out of office, they must be expressing the preferences of the citizens—despite the fact that policy and law consistently goes against the expressed preferences of the majority. This is to say that we have democratically created an oligarchy, so it is still a democracy (or at least a republic).

This objection is certainly interesting and raises a question about why people consistently re-elect people who consistently act contrary to their expressed preferences. One possibility is that the choices are very limited—you can vote for anyone you want, but a Democrat or Republican will almost certainly be elected. As such, the voters do get to vote, but they generally do not get real choices.

Another possibility is ignorance—people do not generally realize that what they get does not match what they claim to want. Such ignorance would put the moral blame partially on the citizens—they should be better informed.  Then again, given the abysmal approval rating for congress it seems that people do realize this. This creates a rather odd scenario: people really hate congress, yet generally keep re-electing them over and over.

A third possibility is that there are many strong propaganda machines that are devoted to convincing people that the laws and policies are good. So, while people have a preference for one thing, they are persuaded to believe that what is in the interest of the oligarchy is what they should like. People might also be distracted by other matters—for example, people who oppose same-sex marriage will support politicians who oppose it, even if the politician also supports policies that are contrary to the voter’s economic interests. In this case, the moral failing is on the part of the deceivers—they are tricking citizens with deceit and corrupting democracy.

Another approach to objecting to the study is to raise questions about the methodology. One obvious question would be whether or not the 1,800 policies are properly representative of the political system. After all, if the researchers picked ones that favored the wealthy and ignored others that matched public preferences, then the study would be biased. As such, a key question is whether or not the sample used in the study is large enough and representative enough to adequately support the conclusion.

Another obvious question would be whether or not the study had the preferences of the people correct. After all, in order to properly claim that the laws and policies do not generally match the preferences of the majority, the claimed preferences would need to be the actual preferences of the majority.

Naturally, addressing these concerns would require examining the study carefully and objectively, rather than merely dismissing or accepting it based on how one feels about the matter. Some might also be tempted to dismiss the study based on mere ad homimen attacks on those conducting it. For example, one might fallaciously reject the study by simply claiming that those involved are biased liberal intellectuals who are trying to advance a leftist agenda. If this were true and the study were thus flawed, then the evidence would lie in the defects of the study—not in the feelings of those attacking with ad homimens.

 

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Is the NSA a Fascist Tyranny?

Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini in Munich, G...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As anyone who follows the news knows, the NSA has been engaged in a massive spying program that seems to involve activities that are both immoral and illegal. However, it is interesting to consider whether or not the NSA is more than just a violator of the law and ethics. As such, I will endeavor to address the question of whether or not the NSA is a fascist tyranny.

While the term “fascism” gets thrown around loosely by both the left and the right in America, it seems best to defer to one of the experts on fascism, specifically Benito Mussolini. Mussolini claims that “fascism denies that the majority, by the simple fact that it is a majority, can direct human society; it denies that numbers alone can govern by means of a periodical consultation…” The NSA nicely fits into this model—it has operated without the approval or even the knowledge of the majority of the citizens of the United States.

It can be objected that the approval of certain elected officials and secret courts suffices to preserve the core democratic values of majority rule and consultation of the governed.  After all, there are many activities that are handled by representatives without the citizens directly voting.

This reply does have some merit: the United States is primarily a representative democracy and the will of the citizens is, in theory, enacted by elected officials. However, the NSA certainly seems to be operating largely outside of the domain of public decision and informed agreement. The extent of its intrusion into the lives of the citizens and the scope of its power certainly seems to demand that the NSA be subject to the open channels of democracy rather than allowing decisions to be made and implemented in the shadows.

One key aspect of fascism, at least according to Mussolini is that the “Fascist State organizes the nation, but leaves a sufficient margin of liberty to the individual; the latter is deprived of all useless and possibly harmful freedom, but retains what is essential; the deciding power in this question cannot be the individual, but the State alone….”

The NSA seems to, sadly enough, fit this concept of fascism. The NSA is literally organizing the nation and it is clearly denying citizens key liberties by its intrusions. Fittingly enough, these grotesque violations are defended in terms that Mussolini would appreciate: no important liberties are being infringed on…but it they were, it would be to protect the state from harm.

Rather importantly, the way the NSA has been operating shows that the deciding power has been the State (that is, secret courts and officials in the shadows of secrecy) and not the citizens.

Thus, it would seem that the NSA is fascist in nature. This is hardly a surprise given that this sort of police state surveillance system is a hallmark and stereotype of the oppressive fascist state. What remains to be seen is whether or not the NSA is tyrannical in nature.

As with “fascism”, people on the left and right throw around the term “tyranny” without much respect for the actual meaning of the term. To ensure that I am using it properly, I will go back to John Locke and make use of his account of tyranny. Given his influence in political philosophy and the American political system, he seems like a reasonable go-to person for this matter.

Locke defines “tyranny” as follows:

Tyranny is the exercise of power beyond right, which nobody can have a right to.  And this is making use of the power any one has in his hands, not for the good of those who are under it, but for his own private separate advantage.  When the governor, however entitled, makes not the law, but his will, the rule; and his commands and actions are not directed to the preservation of the properties of his people, but the satisfaction of his own ambition, revenge, covetousness, or any other irregular passion.

While the extent of the wrongdoing by the people at the NSA might never be known, it is clear that the power handed to them has generally not been used not for the good of the people. Those in charge have made their will and not the law their rule—despite being basically let off the legal leash by compliant courts and public officials, the NSA still engaged in illegal activity and thus acted tyrannically.

Some folks at the NSA even abused their power on the basis of “irregular passion.” One rather pathetic example is that some NSA personnel used the resources of their employer to spy on those they were romantically involved with or interested in.

As such, it would seem evident that the NSA is tyrannical—or at least a tool of tyranny. What remains is to consider the proper response to tyranny. Locke, not surprisingly, had a clear answer:

Where-ever law ends, tyranny begins, if the law be transgressed to another’s harm; and whosoever in authority exceeds the power given him by the law, and makes use of the force he has under his command, to compass that upon the subject, which the law allows not, ceases in that to be a magistrate; and, acting without authority, may be opposed, as any other man, who by force invades the right of another.

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Guardians of the future – Your chance to try it out

Reader of TP may already be familiar with my ‘guardians for future generations’ proposal. James Garvey gave a nice account of his evneing at the Parliamentary launch of the idea, here: http://jamesgarveyactually.wordpress.com/2012/01/11/guardians-of-the-future/
If you want to have a read of my speech that evening, you can do so by going to: http://rupertsread.blogspot.com/2012/02/parliamentary-launch-of-my-greenhouse.html
[And here is the message of support for the proposal from the world’s foremost official rep. of future generations anywhere in the world, the Hungarian Ombudsman for Future Generations: http://rupertsread.blogspot.com/2012/01/green-house-report-on-guardians-for.html ]
My reason for writing today is to let readers know that there will be an opportunity to come and not only debate this idea in person, but to have a mini-trial at the concept itself. I.e. We will STAGE a micro-mock-version of the guardians ‘super-jury’ concept, at the public meeting that will take place on April 25th, at 6.15pm, at King’s Place in London, in the Scott Room. Also speaking alongside me that evening will be Polly Higgins, on her proposal to make the prevention of ecocide part of international law.
Do come along! The meeting is hosted by the GUARDIAN newspaper, and I’m sure that a good time will be had by all… This will, hopefully, be philosophy in the public sphere in action… (James Garvey will be on the panel too, btw.)

What is a Fair Tax?

Comparison of progressive taxes

Image via Wikipedia

While no one wants to pay taxes, if they must be paid then we can at least hope that the taxes of fair. Obviously enough, what counts as a fair tax is a matter of considerable dispute. Stereotypically, political liberals are cast as being favorably inclined towards taxes while the political conservatives are cast as being against taxes. While I will endeavor to avoid falling into any specific political leanings, it is obvious that any discussion of fair taxes will rest on numerous assumptions. While this cannot be avoided, I will do my best to present my assumptions so that they can be properly assessed and criticized.

One way to approach the matter of the fair tax is to assume that the fairness of a tax rests (at least partially) on the nature of the relationship between the citizens and the state, as well as the relationship between citizens. For the sake of brevity, I will consider only two main types of relationships. These are, of course, not exhaustive and I welcome others being added into the discussion. I will also be assuming that the discussion is taking place in the context of a first world democratic state, such as the United States, the UK, or Canada.

One view is that the relations between citizens and the state (and between citizens) is essentially of the same type as the relationship between a business and its customers. On this model, the state provides goods and services to the citizens and the citizens provide such goods and services to each other on the basis of economic compensation.

On this somewhat minimalist view of the state (and citizenship), the concept of a fair tax seems to be easily defined. A fair tax would be, in essence, a payment for the goods and services that a citizen receives. So, for example, if the state provides me with $15,000 in legitimate goods and services over the course of the year, then I would be fairly and justly taxed $15,000. Paying the fair value of what I receive would, obviously enough, be the epitome of fair.

This would, of course, create some practical problems in terms of calculating the value of such goods and services. However, given that businesses are able to address the problem of how much to charge, this seems to be something that could be resolved. Even if this presents a practical impossibility (which seems unlikely), it would still seem to provide a paradigm of a fair (if impractical) method of tax.

While this system would seem to be eminently fair, the extreme income disparities in countries like the United States might be seen as creating some problems. One obvious point of concern is that while the wealthy could easily pay for their goods and services, those who are less well off would probably be hard pressed to pay their fair share for such things as education for their children, police protection, fire protection, and so on.

Of course, this could be seen as being no different from the situation the less well off always find themselves in. After all, they cannot acquire all the goods and services that the wealthy can acquire and if this is fair, it would seem to be equally fair that they would be unable to receive all the goods and services of the state. If they cannot afford these services, then they must either find more income or simply do without. To use an analogy, if Bill cannot afford to buy a car, then he will have to walk. If he cannot afford to pay for police protection, then he had best learn to run. This might seem harsh, but in a pay as you go system, that is the nature of fairness. After all, why should anyone be forced to pay the way for anyone else?

While the business model has a certain appeal, it probably strikes some as being unduly harsh. After all, it essentially abandons citizens who cannot pay for their goods and services and these are, obviously enough, the people who most often need the help of the state.

One (and only one of many) alternative is to see the relationship between the citizen and the state (and other citizens) as less in terms of business and more in terms of a community. On the simplified community model, fairness is not measured solely in terms of the goods and services an individual consumes. The individual’s responsibility to the community is also a factor in determining what is a fair contribution in terms of taxes. The influence of this factor might increase the amount the individual should fairly pay in taxes or it might decrease the amount. As might be imagined, sorting out how much an individual should be fairly expected to contribute to the community is a rather controversial matter. However, it does seem reasonable to at least consider that a fair contribution might exceed or be less than what the individual actually uses or consumes in terms of goods and services. After all, there seem to be clear cases in which it is fair and just for an individual to contribute more or less than what they use or what others contribute.

To use an analogy, consider a family. In general, the children in a family are not going to be able to pay for all that they use or consume in the household. As such, the parents will have to bear the cost of their children. This would not seem to be, on the face of it, an unfair burden on the parents (although such cases could be imagined, of course).

But, someone might object, our relationship with other citizens is not analogous to the family relationship. As such, it cannot be used to justify allowing people to pay more or less based on these highly suspicious community factors.

In reply, another analogy might be offered. Suppose I am camping with my friends and a storm destroys most of their gear. Rather than let them die in the woods, I share my food, water and shelter because they are in need and they are my friends. Leaving them to die because I was unwilling to give up my “fair share” (that is, my property) would hardly seem to be fair at all.

“Aha”, an objector might say, “you are willingly sharing with your friends and not being forced to give up your goods. Taxes are not like this. Taxes are like having someone force you to share your goods to help some stupid strangers.”

This does have some appeal. However, there is an obvious flaw. I do, in fact, have a choice in regards to the taxes. As a citizen of a democracy, I have a role (albeit a small one) in the government and hence the taxes I pay are paid from choice. If I do not like how my money is being spent, I can do something about it. As far as the “stupid strangers” part, that does raise an interesting question about what we owe each other. As a country, are we more like friends or more like selfish customers thrown together into the same store by the vagaries of fate?

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Health Care, Abortion and Moral Choice

One issue that has become part of the American health reform debate is that of abortion. Oversimplifying things a bit, some folks are very concerned that public money will be used to pay for abortions and they are fighting to prevent this.

It might be believed that the politicians who oppose using public money for abortion are acting on the basis of principle. After all, they claim to be taking this stance based on a moral opposition to abortion. Of course, the cynical might suspect that this stand is not such much a matter of principle as a matter of politics. However, let it be assumed that they are acting on the basis of principle. An important question is, of course, what principle is being used.

The obvious principle is that public money should not be used to fund things that are immoral. Alternatively, the principle could be that public money should not be used for what people disagree with.

The first option seems rather reasonable-after all, since immoral things should not be done, that it makes sense that public money should not be used to make such things possible. Of course, there is still the matter of whether abortion is immoral or not (the same would apply to all moral issues).

The second option also has some appeal. After all, people should have a say in how their money is being spent-this is a basic principle of democratic government. Also, an analogy could be presented by comparing this to a phone bill. If a get a phone bill that includes services I do not want and do not use, then I should not have to pay for those services. Likewise, the same should apply to tax money.

Of course, this principle has to be applied consistently: if people can insist that public money not be spent on abortion, then people can make the same insistence in regards to things that they oppose. For example, people who are morally against war can insist that no public funds be spent on wars. As another example, people who are opposed to using public money to pay for abstinence education could also insist that public money not be used in that manner. Of course, given that people are opposed to a wide variety of things on moral grounds, there would be very little left that public funds could be spent on. This would, of course, be something of a problem.

Of course, there is a way to address the problem of reconciling the right people have to choose and the need for public money to be used on things like defense, art, unemployment benefits, infrastructure and so on. That is to follow the decisions of the majority. Of course, this raises the concern that the majority might use its power to tyrannize the numerical minorities. However, allowing every numerical minority to tyrannize the majority based on their moral disagreement would probably be even worse.

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