WRONG QUESTION?

(Thorbjørn Mann overhearing a conversation in The Fog Island Tavern)

– What in three twisters’ names is wrong with you today, Bog-Hubert? How many times have I told you that reading those papers from the mainland in the morning will just ruin your attitude for an otherwise glorious foggy day on the island? And furiously stirring your weird habitual dose of crushed red peppers your coffee with nothing in it except will n o t improve its taste! At least let the grounds and the peppers settle to the bottom where they belong!

– Ah Vodçek, quit your nagging. But you’re right, I should have left reading the paper to the evening when a dose of guilt for imbibing too much of your Zin would balance out the outrage this so-called news creates in any righteously reading man’s mind. Well, too late now: What is wrong with these people?

– All right then, I’ll let you vent yer spleen this time. Let’s get this out of your system before the others come in so you won’t ruin their moods too. What dismal news gets your temper up today?

– Well, it’s not really news. It’s that they can’t come up with some useful new ideas. I was just reading this column, some right-wing think tank guy, pontificating about the stupidity of the leftists who want to overturn the capitalist system of free enterprise and replace it with socialism, big government and taxes for free welfare for everyone.

– Right, sounds like the old battle cries: capitalism versus socialism, less government, more government, old hat slogans, but they still work, getting people worked up, right? So can you really blame the politicians to use them? If they don’t have any better ideas?

– You’re putting the finger on the sore spot: better ideas. Or the lack of any.

– Well, if you are worried about the size and power of government, and the issue hasn’t been resolved yet – which I agree it doesn’t look like they have, yet – what’s wrong with hammering away on the question to get some better answers about it? Or are you finally deciding which side you are going to root for now? Which side you’re on?

– Vodçek, you know me better than that. There are well-intentioned ism-ists on both sides, equally exasperating. Isn’t the problem that they all, right and left, each blinded by the alleged flaws and misdeeds of the other side, are missing the real problems? Capitalism-socialism, big government – small government:  all

w r o n g   q u e s t i o n!?

– I see. I have some ideas about that myself. But please enlighten me: what, in your mind, is the right question?

Misrepresentation, polarization

– Or questions – there is never just one. The first problem – before getting to the better questions — is the way those issues are framed in the first place – both deliberately misrepresenting the other. Needless polarization. Nobody on the right really wants a regime with a government so feeble that it can’t effectively deal with any common problems we can’t address as the rugged individualists we are supposed to be; nobody on the left really wants a big government so big that it would tyrannical control every aspect of our lives, along the lines of older feudal, monarchist, soviet-style communist, fascist, maoist, militarist let alone mono-religious and other dictatorial regimes. So the first step would be to quit that misrepresentation and begin to focus on the underlying and shared problems.

– Shared problems? Ad several of those? Explain.

The control of power

– Just a few, for starters, should be enough. One main feature that truly bugs me is that none of those regime models have yet found a good way to deal with the problem of power.

– You don’t think the provisions of western really democratic constitutions are adequate?

– Yes and no. – Yes, I think it can’t be said too often that those provisions – based on the separation and balance of powers in the political governance system – are important and impressive achievements of civilization; the best we have seen in history. When they work properly.

– And you are saying they don’t?

– Yes. Compared to some regimes that emulated these trappings but ended up turning autocratic, the mechanics of which remain to be fully understood, I think you can argue they are still valid. But —

– I agree. The assumption of some revolutionary regimes that it would be enough to wrest the power away from the current powers and just proclaim that thereby power has been returned to ‘the people’, it is rather childish if not deliberately deceptive.

– Yes: they ignore that in whatever regime that needs positions of power – which every society does need, regardless of its policy-decision-making process: any ship at sea suddenly encountering an iceberg must have a captain who decides whether to pass it on starboard or port, the decision can’t wait for a lengthy deliberative process – such power becomes addictive and self-serving. And therefore must be controlled.

– But, you were going to say?

– Yes: Even in so-called democratic systems, the traditional power control provisions in the governance system are losing their effectiveness, because the military and private enterprise sector that has morphed into huge near–monopolistic, transnational corporate monsters, and financial entities, as well as the media conglomerates, where the governance system controls do not apply, have intruded and overwhelmed the governance control systems. To the point where legislatures can now without constraint pass laws that ignore and contradict even explicit popular opinion and referendum results. Do I have to give you more detailed examples?

– I get the idea. How did this happen?

– That is one of the questions that need to be asked and explored. But even the governance system based on the parliamentary principle of deliberation before deciding – remember, the old civilized gentlemen’s agreement of “let’s leave our weapons outside, sit down and talk, each side listen to the other, and then decide”, is fatally incomplete and flawed in one crucial respect.

– Ah, I see. Majority voting.

Voting as a decision criterion

– Yes. Majority voting; where votes are determined less by reasoning, communication and deliberation than by propaganda, partisan news reporting of the media, if not outright censorship, and ignorance. When voters are led by government and media misinformation and lack of adequate news reporting, to vote for going to wars in faraway countries they can’t even find on a map, let alone explain what threat those countries pose to our national interests, what is the value or merit of those votes? But that is what we get decisions based on the count of votes where there’s no distinction between the votes of well-informed people who have been listening to each other, getting the supporting evidence before making their judgment, and votes by totally uninformed folks who may just have been getting one side of the issues, if any.

– You’re getting yourself on thin ice there, my friend.

– I know, I know. As if all this global warming will even get us any ice on which to get ourselves in trouble. Yes, the last thing we should aim for is a system that denies any person the right to make their opinion count, however ill-or well-informed. But that does not mean that we should stop looking for better ways to inform each other, to get people involved in the discourse, to get a better overview of all the opinions on each side, to eventually get decisions better influenced by the merit of all entries into the discussion? To even refrain from looking for better ways?

– Calm down, Bog-Hubert. I applaud your exasperation. Yes, it’s curious that we don’t hear more about such improvement efforts.

– Yes, Vodçek – all we hear about is the constant battle-cry of ‘getting the vote out’ and the controversies about gerrymandering and other obstacles to people’s voting rights. But isn’t there another aspect to this that deserves attention and suggests looking for alternative measures of merit of discussion entries that should influence decisions?

– What’s that, besides the issue of finding out who can be trusted to make the decisions we don’t have time to even discuss?

Issues transcending traditional governance boundaries

– Well, think about it. The challenges we are facing, increasingly, are not neatly confined to the geographical governance boundaries where we can (if we really want to, which is another question) count voters and determine majorities. Where law-makers like those I heard about in North Carolina can make fools of themselves (and apparently even get voter support) for proposed legislation such as denying state funding for research on global warming and rising sea levels that might result in predictions of more that three or four feet of sea level rise. Which well illustrates your point about who to trust with such decisions…

– Yes, they may have very powerful legislators there? Or governors? That can stop global warming single-handedly?

– Don’t you wish? For one, that gets back to our power issue. But more importantly: when problems like global warming, or ocean pollution, transcend the borders of our arbitrary governance entities and their governing institutions – what are you going to do to get decisions based on citizen participation, with the majority voting system? Whose information – concerns, fears, ideas, votes or judgments — are going to be invited to contribute to the discussion, to the formation of decisions?

– I see. How do you determine who will or should have the voting rights, or even legitimate polling credentials, to calculate majorities. So you are saying that for such issues, there should be different decision criteria?

– Right. For example, criteria such as the plausibility measures we could derive from the systematic assessment of the pro and con arguments people raise in planning discussions, in policy-making discussions. As I said, for example: the abbeboulistic ideas we have discussed in this very tavern should be seen as challenges to all the better funded think tanks to come up with better ideas, if they don’t think these proposals are worth trying out?

– Hmm. I see. So what do you think should be done about all this? That you are so disappointed not seeing in your morning paper?

– Good question. Well, even with my fortifications, your coffee isn’t powerful enough to make me conjure up all the answers by my lil’ ol’ self, I’m sorry. But didn’t we discuss some ideas here in this very Tavern, that should be considered as first step items on a better agenda than trying to figure out how to get candidates elected to ensure party majorities – majorities by party discipline, by Abbé Boulah’s drooping mustache!! — in the bought and paid-for institutions that we have determined to be systemically incapable of dealing with the problems?

Agenda?
Discourse platform

– Agenda? Let me guess. The development of the better discourse for planning and political decision-making would be right on the top of that one, if I know you.

Participation incentives
Assessment of contribution merit

– Right. A platform that includes meaningful incentives for participating, and at least the possibility for a more systematic assessment of the pro and con arguments and their supporting evidence.

Overview display

– Is that complication really necessary? I’d have thought that a good, concise display of all the pertinent aspects and opinions would be the more important addition to current practice to inform participants?

Development of measures of proposal merit to guide decisions

– I agree – it’s an important item – but the key to develop different measures of merit of the information to guide the overall decisions is the combination of the incentive provisions with the assessment results. And …

Control of power

– I see where you are headed with this: These provisions are part of your Abbeboulistic schemes of having people in power p a y for the privilege of making power decisions?

– Right. At least that is one partial idea for getting at the problems. I don’t know if the fact that these provisions are all interrelated tools serving different purposes, if that is a problem or an advantage. But as I said before, isn’t it at least a challenge to come up with better ideas if you don’t like these suggestions? O buckle down and engage with this agenda, discuss them, work out the details, do some experiments?

– Bog-Hubert, I don’t know if I should congratulate or feel sorry for you guys who keep harping on this. Well, here’s a shot of Fundador to fortify your coffee. And give you the strength to do what needs to be done, as they say in Minnesota. Okay if I don’t light it first?

– By all means, if you join me. Cheers.

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