News day!

Hi everyone, lots of significant news stories today. Top of the line: the new Int’l Panel on Climate Change report is out. Or at least, the Summary for Policymakers; their web site is such an utter mess that I can’t find the actual report anywhere. Haven’t read it yet, will post once I do. (Maybe to ) Here’s pretty good news coverage from NYT. However, this report needs to be taken with a very serious grain of salt: Apparently they caved to political pressure and seriously damped the prediction about sea level rise, to basically assume that nothing bad ever happens to an ice sheet ever again. This is unfortunately total nonsense since ice sheets have been collapsing all over the place, and so it means that a lot of the predictions in this document are probably very off — in the conservative direction.

Next story, more fighting between Hamas and Fatah. Palestinians fall deeper into civil unrest. Subtext of this: After Arafat died, there was no central strongman. Hamas has been thoroughly infiltrated by Iranian agents and is working on its own little agenda, which is part of why it started shelling Israel a while ago and kidnapping soldiers (they did it before Hezbollah, when the latest Lebanese war started! These groups work in sync now) without bothering to ask the Palestinians if that was a good idea. And Fatah, Yassir Arafat’s old party, specializes mostly in corruption, despite what appear to be good intentions by its current leader Mahmoud Abbas. Fatah has the presidency and Hamas the parliament, and both have their own armed forces. So the two factions of Palestinian government are busily killing each other. If it weren’t for the fact that this is wholly destructive of any remaining bits of functioning civil society and infrastructure in the Palestinian territories, and thus one of the few ways left to make life systematically worse for the average Palestinian, I would say that these batch of idiots shooting one another is the best thing they could do with their time.

And yet another report on Iraq indicating that the place is a mess and deteriorating rapidly. (Shocking!) On the same day, a suicide attack in southern Iraq killed 60 and wounded 150.

OK, for anyone who hasn’t figured this out yet, something important to understand. Majority rule is not the defining feature of democracy; there have been plenty of dictatorships that had the support of the majority. The key feature is protection of the rights of the minority. This is the center of the “deal” in democracy: when group X loses an election, they relinquish power, because they trust that the group taking power will not use that power to, say, brutally kill group X, or take everything X owns, or change the laws so that X is never again allowed to be in power. Without that level of trust, any election is simply a sham. In Iraq, there has never been this basic level of trust, because the basic level of political alliance is to tribe (and sect, and so on). A Sunni would have to be out of his mind to vote for a Shi’ite candidate, or even to let a Shi’ite candidate take power, because they know that the Shi’ites would have no compunction at all about killing them if they had the instruments of power, and vice-versa. In a situation like this, hopping for democracy is utterly ridiculous; civil war is the only possibility, ended either by one group seizing power forcibly over the others or by stable partition.

Please, please, please, don’t forget that. Having elections does not make you a democracy any more than going to a garage makes you a car.

OK, back to work for me.

(PS: Sorry, I’m just linking to the NYT stories today; these are being covered everywhere, check your favorite news outlet for details. Except for the climate report, which I couldn’t find anywhere at all on Fox News’ web site; what a shock)

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Published in: on February 2, 2007 at 11:54  Comments (32)  
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32 Comments

  1. It’s probably semantics, but majority rule is the defining feature of democracy. Our system of government is a republic – a federalist republic, to be exact. With mechanisms in place to ensure a voice and the protection of the minority.
    But you’re right in your points. Without a system of laws that protect the minority, give a voice to minority political groups, rule of law, and equal protection under that law, there cannot be a peaceful transition of governments and a lasting freely elected government.

  2. It’s probably semantics, but majority rule is the defining feature of democracy. Our system of government is a republic – a federalist republic, to be exact. With mechanisms in place to ensure a voice and the protection of the minority.
    But you’re right in your points. Without a system of laws that protect the minority, give a voice to minority political groups, rule of law, and equal protection under that law, there cannot be a peaceful transition of governments and a lasting freely elected government.

  3. I’m not sure about that definition. Scanning through various definitions I can find, most mention rule by the people by means of elected representatives. Absent the guarantee that a loser will leave office, that turns into a democracy that lasts precisely until the moment when a transfer of power is supposed to happen, which is also precisely the moment when a democracy is expected to be different from another type of government.

  4. I’m not sure about that definition. Scanning through various definitions I can find, most mention rule by the people by means of elected representatives. Absent the guarantee that a loser will leave office, that turns into a democracy that lasts precisely until the moment when a transfer of power is supposed to happen, which is also precisely the moment when a democracy is expected to be different from another type of government.

  5. Mmmm…. if you’re going to split that particular hair, the defining feature is that the leader is elected. ‘Majority rule’ brings a lot of other baggage to the table.
    Interestingly, until fairly modern times, many kingships were elected, which I was quite surprised to learn.

  6. Mmmm…. if you’re going to split that particular hair, the defining feature is that the leader is elected. ‘Majority rule’ brings a lot of other baggage to the table.
    Interestingly, until fairly modern times, many kingships were elected, which I was quite surprised to learn.

  7. I’d be interested if you have comments on Boston’s bomb scare of the past week.

  8. I’d be interested if you have comments on Boston’s bomb scare of the past week.

  9. I really like that description of the place of the minority in the structure of Democracy.

  10. I really like that description of the place of the minority in the structure of Democracy.

  11. Elected by the nobility, though, rather than by the demos. (My nth-great-grandfather ended up being king of Poland briefly as a result of a stalemate in such an election…)

  12. Elected by the nobility, though, rather than by the demos. (My nth-great-grandfather ended up being king of Poland briefly as a result of a stalemate in such an election…)

  13. Not really. OT1H it was a pretty daft publicity stunt and attaching devices to bridges will understandably get people annoyed. OTOH, outside of the movies I’ve never heard of anyone putting brightly colored light shows on the outside of real bombs; bombers aren’t trying to be gay and decorative, they’re trying to strap a simple explosive to something.

  14. Not really. OT1H it was a pretty daft publicity stunt and attaching devices to bridges will understandably get people annoyed. OTOH, outside of the movies I’ve never heard of anyone putting brightly colored light shows on the outside of real bombs; bombers aren’t trying to be gay and decorative, they’re trying to strap a simple explosive to something.

  15. On caving to politics in the climate paper:
    I think it’s a useful political move. It’s definitely not good science, but it gives a leverage point when things get worse. Although it gives the opposite arguments a position where they could twist and turn the words around and say that it shows that there’s no credibility behind the argument that climatic change is happening (or if it is, that it’s our fault). But I think they’ll pretty much put whatever words they want into peoples’ mouths.
    I’ve gotten pretty jaded about that response. I know too many smart people that think we can’t possibly be having an effect on the climate, that it’s “too big”, and “might as well be an open system”. My brain normally goes “WTF?!?” when I hear that, and I can’t think of a decent countering argument.
    Although I’d be very curious to see what the person on the street in Europe thinks, vs. the person on the street in the US.

  16. On caving to politics in the climate paper:
    I think it’s a useful political move. It’s definitely not good science, but it gives a leverage point when things get worse. Although it gives the opposite arguments a position where they could twist and turn the words around and say that it shows that there’s no credibility behind the argument that climatic change is happening (or if it is, that it’s our fault). But I think they’ll pretty much put whatever words they want into peoples’ mouths.
    I’ve gotten pretty jaded about that response. I know too many smart people that think we can’t possibly be having an effect on the climate, that it’s “too big”, and “might as well be an open system”. My brain normally goes “WTF?!?” when I hear that, and I can’t think of a decent countering argument.
    Although I’d be very curious to see what the person on the street in Europe thinks, vs. the person on the street in the US.

  17. Seeing how much these lightboxes are going for on Ebay, the conspiracy theorist in me is pretty certain that a budding entrepreneur called in the bomb scare to drive prices on these things up.

  18. Seeing how much these lightboxes are going for on Ebay, the conspiracy theorist in me is pretty certain that a budding entrepreneur called in the bomb scare to drive prices on these things up.

  19. The only defining feature of a democracy is that power ultimately lies in the hands of the ruled. A democracy that requires a super-majority (such as 67%) to get anything done is still a democracy, so strict majority rule isn’t necessary. A federal republic is just a specific kind of democracy.
    Most actual democracies, past or present, aren’t “pure” democracies, because some portion of the population isn’t eligible to vote. (Even the USA denies minors and many former felons the right to vote.) They’re somewhere between a very inclusive oligarchy and a “democracy with exceptions”.
    An interesting question: How much of the population has to be allowed to vote for a government to qualify as a democracy? (Are you still a democracy if you deny women and slaves the right to vote, such as in ancient Athens or the early United States?)
    The point is that, usually, in actual democracies, some people are excluded. But the larger or more well organized excluded group(s) are, the more likely they are to disrupt the government, and also the less willing we are to call that government a “real” democracy.

  20. The only defining feature of a democracy is that power ultimately lies in the hands of the ruled. A democracy that requires a super-majority (such as 67%) to get anything done is still a democracy, so strict majority rule isn’t necessary. A federal republic is just a specific kind of democracy.
    Most actual democracies, past or present, aren’t “pure” democracies, because some portion of the population isn’t eligible to vote. (Even the USA denies minors and many former felons the right to vote.) They’re somewhere between a very inclusive oligarchy and a “democracy with exceptions”.
    An interesting question: How much of the population has to be allowed to vote for a government to qualify as a democracy? (Are you still a democracy if you deny women and slaves the right to vote, such as in ancient Athens or the early United States?)
    The point is that, usually, in actual democracies, some people are excluded. But the larger or more well organized excluded group(s) are, the more likely they are to disrupt the government, and also the less willing we are to call that government a “real” democracy.

  21. The rule by the people through elected representatives is a republican form of government. The definitions have been watered down by the misuse of terms by people who don’t know better.
    I’ve discovered that, more often than not, misunderstanding in the dialogue between people occur because of the misuse of words – or the imprecise application of words.

  22. The rule by the people through elected representatives is a republican form of government. The definitions have been watered down by the misuse of terms by people who don’t know better.
    I’ve discovered that, more often than not, misunderstanding in the dialogue between people occur because of the misuse of words – or the imprecise application of words.

  23. You raise very valid points. Ultimately, every system of government, even so-called democracies, attempt to place the responsibility of the sovereign franchise in the hands of those that are considered to be the most qualified or capable to exercise it. There will never be pure democracies where all citizens of a nation are able to take part.
    But any democracy – the rule of the people directly – is dangerous to individual liberty. True democracy is, ultimately, mob rule – tyranny of the masses. Without mechanisms to protect the voice and rights of the minority, democracies can easily become as totalitarian as systems ruled by corrupt individuals or oligarchies.

  24. You raise very valid points. Ultimately, every system of government, even so-called democracies, attempt to place the responsibility of the sovereign franchise in the hands of those that are considered to be the most qualified or capable to exercise it. There will never be pure democracies where all citizens of a nation are able to take part.
    But any democracy – the rule of the people directly – is dangerous to individual liberty. True democracy is, ultimately, mob rule – tyranny of the masses. Without mechanisms to protect the voice and rights of the minority, democracies can easily become as totalitarian as systems ruled by corrupt individuals or oligarchies.

  25. Actually, no. Republics also have elected leaders. A democracy, by definition, means that the people are directly involved in the political issues of the state. Much like in ancient Athens, despite the somewhat limited definition of citizen.
    That simply is not the case when a leader is elected to rule on behalf of the people, as you’ve stated.
    You may call is hair splitting, but the precise application of terms is crucial to constructive dialogue, particularly in the arena of law and politics.

  26. Actually, no. Republics also have elected leaders. A democracy, by definition, means that the people are directly involved in the political issues of the state. Much like in ancient Athens, despite the somewhat limited definition of citizen.
    That simply is not the case when a leader is elected to rule on behalf of the people, as you’ve stated.
    You may call is hair splitting, but the precise application of terms is crucial to constructive dialogue, particularly in the arena of law and politics.

  27. I think I’d say there’s a risk of hair-splitting if we don’t agree on our terms. 🙂 Let me suggest some things we can all agree on as common reference points:
    Democracies, in their various forms, are characterized by the demos (the people ruled) having some sort of direct say in their own government. Significant variations exist in whether this say is direct (through plebiscite and referendum) or through elected representatives, (“representative” or “republican” democracy) and in the limits of which groups have full citizenship versus being essentially captive to the rule of the government. Historically excluded groups have included minors, women, slaves, resident aliens, non-landholders, and in some cases everyone outside some hereditary group. There seems to be consensus that if the set of citizens becomes sufficiently limited, what you have on your hands is no longer democracy, but the boundary isn’t something I’d put in an agreed terms list. (For instance, the citizen body in late-18th-century America was restricted by age, race, sex, and property down to a pretty small fraction of the populace, probably not what would be called democracy if it were practiced today but something that is commonly called such when referring to that time)
    One model I’ve heard proposed for this boundary was that every person in the populace was either a citizen themselves or had a specific other citizen directly representing their interests in a type of guardianship; e.g., minors are represented by their parents, wives by their husbands, slaves by their masters, and so on. Obviously this actually works better in some cases than others, and cases where it really egregiously fails are probably a good indicator that democracy is breaking down. A healthy democracy will be able to adjust to this over time. (As e.g. the US did with the 14th, 15th, 19th, 23rd and 26th amendments)
    My original point was clearly only relevant (as stated) to representative democracies, but there is a slight generalization that I think can apply to any democracy: a key condition for a democracy to function is that the people agree to abide by decisions which go against them. Implicit in making such an agreement is the trust that no decision will be made which is so wholly unacceptable to some group that they cannot accept it, e.g. mass disenfranchisement or simply outright slaughter.

  28. I think I’d say there’s a risk of hair-splitting if we don’t agree on our terms. 🙂 Let me suggest some things we can all agree on as common reference points:
    Democracies, in their various forms, are characterized by the demos (the people ruled) having some sort of direct say in their own government. Significant variations exist in whether this say is direct (through plebiscite and referendum) or through elected representatives, (“representative” or “republican” democracy) and in the limits of which groups have full citizenship versus being essentially captive to the rule of the government. Historically excluded groups have included minors, women, slaves, resident aliens, non-landholders, and in some cases everyone outside some hereditary group. There seems to be consensus that if the set of citizens becomes sufficiently limited, what you have on your hands is no longer democracy, but the boundary isn’t something I’d put in an agreed terms list. (For instance, the citizen body in late-18th-century America was restricted by age, race, sex, and property down to a pretty small fraction of the populace, probably not what would be called democracy if it were practiced today but something that is commonly called such when referring to that time)
    One model I’ve heard proposed for this boundary was that every person in the populace was either a citizen themselves or had a specific other citizen directly representing their interests in a type of guardianship; e.g., minors are represented by their parents, wives by their husbands, slaves by their masters, and so on. Obviously this actually works better in some cases than others, and cases where it really egregiously fails are probably a good indicator that democracy is breaking down. A healthy democracy will be able to adjust to this over time. (As e.g. the US did with the 14th, 15th, 19th, 23rd and 26th amendments)
    My original point was clearly only relevant (as stated) to representative democracies, but there is a slight generalization that I think can apply to any democracy: a key condition for a democracy to function is that the people agree to abide by decisions which go against them. Implicit in making such an agreement is the trust that no decision will be made which is so wholly unacceptable to some group that they cannot accept it, e.g. mass disenfranchisement or simply outright slaughter.

  29. It’s hard to reply to multiple comments at once in LJ. Cross-reference to here.

  30. It’s hard to reply to multiple comments at once in LJ. Cross-reference to here.

  31. The smartest of people still suffer from selection bias–we’ll give more credibility to data which agrees with what we want to believe. This bias is especially dangerous when non-scientists look at climate science, where data is highly probabilistic, and if you look hard enough you can find numbers which meet any conclusion you want.
    Few global warming deniers, even smart ones, present anything scientific. A legitimate scientific argument would be “my global climate model is better than yours because of [these reasons] and it shows that global warming has only [X%] of happening at [Y] degrees per decade”. Instead, you generally see political criticisms like “environmentalists want us to live in caves” and people saying “climate models stunk in the 70s so why should we believe you today”?
    Finally you have global warming live-with-it people, who think that we should just deal with it as it comes. They ignore the tomes of global warming economic research and risk analyses that have been published.

  32. The smartest of people still suffer from selection bias–we’ll give more credibility to data which agrees with what we want to believe. This bias is especially dangerous when non-scientists look at climate science, where data is highly probabilistic, and if you look hard enough you can find numbers which meet any conclusion you want.
    Few global warming deniers, even smart ones, present anything scientific. A legitimate scientific argument would be “my global climate model is better than yours because of [these reasons] and it shows that global warming has only [X%] of happening at [Y] degrees per decade”. Instead, you generally see political criticisms like “environmentalists want us to live in caves” and people saying “climate models stunk in the 70s so why should we believe you today”?
    Finally you have global warming live-with-it people, who think that we should just deal with it as it comes. They ignore the tomes of global warming economic research and risk analyses that have been published.


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