Sunday, September 27, 2015

I'm no longer an atheist

Don't be silly: I still think the idea of god is utter bollocks.

I'm no longer an atheist because I no longer believe that religion, as a social, cultural, political, and economic institution, has any special or unusual characteristics to distinguish it from non-religious institutions.

Again, I don't think that religions are especially good institutions. But I see all the negative characteristics in religion appearing in non-religious and anti-religious institutions. It's not just Richard Dawkins, a person I once admired (as much as I admire anyone), but has now become a pathetic buffoon. I see the dogmatism, stupidity, hatefulness, and assholery — qualities that religion, while not quite having a monopoly, seemed to have adopted as its peculiar niche — have become entrenched far outside the sphere of religion: MRAs, gamergate, the Republican presidential primary campaign (where religion seems surprisingly low-key), zombie economics, etc. ad nauseam.

In a world where the Catholic Church is looking more progressive than the Clinton faction of the Democratic party (and while I'd love to be proven wrong, I can see no chance for Sanders as a Democrat), I can no longer believe that religion per se is a particular problem in our society: it's lost its dominance on the worst of human ideas. Religion is now just one place among many where we stick our stupid ideas.

I've long argued that atheism is a political label, and I no longer share the political view associated with that label. I understand those who do still hold that view, and of course I do not think religion should be exempt from criticism, but I no longer believe that religion is anywhere close to the most important problem in society.

The most important problem, of course, is capitalism.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Democracy and injury

I want to ask again: what is democracy? Previously, I talked about democracy and majoritarianism. I want to make it a little more explicit that majoritarianism is an expedient measure; I do not believe that democracy necessarily entails that the majority itself should be sovereign. It is presently infeasible for all the people to come to a decision, so when a democratic society need to make a decision, we resort to expediency.

And indeed, from a theoretical position, I see democracy as the principle of universal popular sovereignty: the sovereignty of all the people. This theoretical basis has a number of interesting implications.

First, it is not possible for a person to offend "The People." A person can offend other individuals, he can offend the government, he can offend the majority, but he cannot offend "The People": he is part of "The People," and he cannot offend himself. (Well, I suppose he can, but that's a matter for a psychologist or perhaps a rabbi, not a political theorist and economist.) The police power (a synecdoche for violent part of the political process: police, sheriffs, courts, prisons, etc.) cannot coherently be used in a democracy to make people "better." Better according to whom? Certainly not the "offender."

Because a person can offend and injure other people, the principle of universal popular sovereignty entails that the police should act to resolve and prevent offenses between other people. Things get complicated because we do want to not just resolve disputes, but also prevent them. In other words, we do want to act a little proactively against people who place others at risk of injury, harm, inconvenience, or unpleasantness. Thus, instead of just legislating for the general welfare (the traditional legal term for individual U.S. states' broad legislative powers), a democratic state defines what is or is not an injury or offense, and what objectively determinable behaviors put individuals at risk for that injury.

It's also important that under universal popular sovereignty, the actual police should not ordinarily go looking for "law-breaking." For even a potential offense to exist, it must usually be visible. (And where it's ordinarily hidden, such as building code violations, we can use overt inspection.) The police become people who hang around waiting for individuals to come to them with disputes.

Another implication of the conflict-resolution framework is that obedience to the law is not itself a virtue. Indeed, the law becomes something that cannot be "obeyed" under ordinary circumstances; it is invoked only when there is some conflict between individuals. Instead, the primary virtue is not injuring your neighbors, and not risking their injury. The law is invoked only when injury occurs or might reasonably occur.

To no small extent, I'm making a distinction without a difference. If for the public good, a majority wants to use its police power to prevent some behavior, they can simply declare it potentially injurious. However, discussing an issue on the basis of its potential for injury reframes the discussion. If, for example, we were to focus our discussion of gay marriage specifically on injury, the position of conservative religious people would at least be considerably weakened: gay marriage injures no one.

Such an attitude might make some beneficial laws, such as mandating seat belt usage, untenable. I would reverse my usual argument against libertarians: seat belt laws are trivial, one way or the other. Just as the infringement of seat belt laws against individual liberty are minor, their prohibition is also minor. There are still possibilities: under universal health care, you not wearing your seat belt places other people at risk for financial injury: other people will have to pay your medical care or support your dependents if you get hurt or killed in a car accident where the seat belt would have prevented the injury; thus a majority might reasonably declare refusing to wear a seat belt potentially injurious.

For centuries, the sovereign, whether it was the noble, the king, or the elite, has used its monopoly of violence to, at least in theory, improve the people. But under universal popular sovereignty, there is no part of society, not even the majority, that has standing to "improve" anyone.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Democracy and majoritarianism

What is democracy? Or, more precisely, what do we want democracy to be? Because, of course, democracy is a social construction; it doesn't have any reality independent of what we think about how we want to organize our society.

Linguistically, "democracy" joins "demos" with "-cracy": rule or sovereignty of the people. Sovereignty is pretty straightforward (final legitimate decision-making), but what of "demos"? What do we mean by "the people"? There is no such thing in itself as "the people"; there are only individual people who happen to be acting more-or-less cooperatively. We can use "the people" metaphorically or idiomatically, but analytically, we have to talk about things we can actually look at, e.g. people and institutions.

We could choose to define democracy as strict majoritarianism, the absolute sovereignty of the majority. In other words, when we have any social question, we take a vote, and whatever the majority decides is the final decision in the matter. Note that particular institutional arrangements might or might not just indirectly effect sovereignty of the majority. For example, delegated democracy closely tracks sovereignty of the majority of individuals; a democratic republic, however, can substantially alter or block sovereignty of the majority (which is its whole purpose).

In the context of the United States in the 21st century, people tend to reject strict majoritarianism, for pretty good reasons. There are a lot of issues that can be decided by a majority without too many problems, but although we disagree about the specifics, almost everyone agrees that some things — e.g. private gun ownership or gay marriage — should be immune from the will of majority, at least in the short term.

If we take the rejection of strict majoritarianism as a given, the only alternative is to institutionalize the exceptions. In the United States, there are three sets of institutions that provide exceptions to strict majoritarianism. The first, as mentioned above, is republicanism (and the whole political infrastructure, including political parties, campaigns, campaign finance, etc.). The whole point of electing trustees is that, in theory, the trustees will wisely pick and choose between the will of the majority (specifically, how a majority of people would vote on any given issue) and the "good of the country." As I've discussed before, I categorically reject this institutional arrangement; our present trustees do not choose between the majority and the common good, but between the majority and the class interests of the bourgeois minority.

The class interests of the proletariat will more closely track the will of the majority, just because proletariat is in the majority. But even though socialism can be more majoritarian than capitalism, there are still important things that a lot of people would not want to be subject to the short-term will of the majority. We do not — or at least I myself do not want — for the majority to just vote on whether I live or die, whether I have freedom of movement, what I say, what job I do, whom I can or cannot have sex with, what kind of food I eat, etc.

The second institution that creates exceptions to strict majoritarianism is the legal system. Instead of just voting on whether I'm executed or put in jail, the "majority" (to the extent that republicanism is majoritarian) has to create a rule, which can be more-or-less objectively evaluated, and kill or imprison me only if I objectively violate the rule. And whether I have or have not objectively violated the rule is determined by an elaborate system of courts, trials, rules of evidence, precedent, lawyers, judges, juries, (and the associated political psychology) that distances the verdict from the majority.

At its most abstract level, a legal system seems like a Good Idea. Even if we don't at all restrict the kinds of rules majority can make, I really would prefer that the majority of people not just vote on putting me in jail, but control my behavior by making rules I can choose to comply with, and to which my compliance can be objectively determined. (Of course, the bourgeois legal system has a lot of institutional characteristics that are completely incompatible with socialism. Indeed, one good argument against capitalism is that capitalist employers, individually and as a class, can and do regulate behavior in ways that the somewhat more majoritarian government cannot regulate.)

The third institution, which is technically part of the legal system, but is important enough to be considered separately, is the institution of constitutionalism: the constitution categorically restricts the "majority" from making certain kinds of rules. Again, implemented judiciously, constitutionalism also seems like a Good Idea. But constitutionalism raises the question: if constitutionalism immunizes individuals from the majority, who decides what's in the constitution? If the majority creates the constitution, the constitution would not immunize the individual from the majority.

The critical point, however, is that constitutionalism immunizes the individual from the short-term will of the majority. Essentially, constitutional limitations on the majority comprise a list of things that a short-term majority has once done that a majority has later decided were Bad Ideas. For example, a majority might want to punish Alan for saying vile and hateful things about Norwegians, but Socrates might note that a majority of us have decided categorically not to punish people for just saying things. A majority might change that constitutional prohibition, but just the idea of changing the constitution at least forces the discussion to consider the abstract principle, rather than the immediate behavior. And, of course, we can also decide, as a majority, that we have more restrictions than just a majority vote — e.g. two-thirds majority — to change the constitution.

Thus, I believe that democratic communism can have its majoritarian cake and eats its exceptions too, with a socialist legal system and a socialist constitution.