Monday, October 27, 2008

American Politics

I was just watching a very good MIT panel on Media coverage of the presidential election when I heard a quote (1:56:50) I just had to transcribe and post here. John Carroll says:
I would like to think that actual reasoned conversation and argument might actually have some effect on people's perceptions and how they vote. I mean, that would be a giant step forward I think. But I'm not sure that's actually going to happen because the two sides have hardened so much. I think Tom [Rosenstiel] writes about this in his book, that there used to be a shared set of facts that people would argue from. They would agree on some basic facts and then, they would argue from there. I think people don't agree on basic facts anymore and I don't think that anybody allows for the possibility that someone who disagrees with them can have a reasonable point of view, a legitimate point of view. I think it's all about delegitimizing the opposition. I think that that makes a very hard dynamic for anything positive to happen.
This inspired me to make a post I've been meaning to add for some time. I've been feeling more and more in the past couple of months that the political climate in the US is becoming fatally ossified and polarized. Political discussion seems to be pretty much dead.

I don't own a TV, and I don't feel that either of the major parties comes comes close to representing me, so I haven't been following the election closely. I do however do some occasional reading at the Economist, the Atlantic, and elsewhere. What has gradually given me this creeping, skin crawling, feeling that political discourse has fallen into the abyss, is reading the comments which are ubiquitously attached to online articles. These pain me deeply.

I've been a long time user of the internet. Trolling and flaming on boards, forums, and news sites are nothing new to me. That is, I have a baseline. Yet, of late, I've found the comments on site like those I mentioned above to be particularly discouraging. A very high percentage of comments are incredibly hostile, loaded with vitriol and ad hominem attacks. It really doesn't depend on the article. Left or Right leaning articles tend to draw the predictable attacks from the opposing side (though it's disappointing that these are being phrased less and less in constructive and reasonable ways), but the really scary thing is that the articles that draw the most fire are those that take a neutral or centrist position. That is, the sides have become so polarized that any viewpoint that does not openly align with one camp or the other is fair game for vicious assaults from both.

The above panel helped me to think about why this is happening. The proliferation of the media, the creation of new cable channels and the new media, while adding depth and breadth to the discourse available to the average media consumer, has actually had a tendency to narrow their field of view. There are so many sources of information from any given perspective that a person can read many blogs and news sites, and watch several political TV shows while never actually exposing themselves any alternative viewpoints. While, a few decades ago, there may have only been a handful choices in terms of channels and papers, the very universality of these media sources required that they cater to both sides of the political divide. Today's media sources are so extensively diversified that we can each choose to steep in a carefully selected set of opinions that precisely support the very perspective that we have already chosen to adhere to.

My gut feeling is that this is leading us toward further calamity. I think that this trend toward polarization and the disappearance of sincere public discussion and debate has been underway for some time. I think our current circumstances (the Iraq war and the financial crises, the biggest political and economic disasters in recent memory) are the fruits of this trend. We are reaping disaster, and yet what we are sowing today is far more corrupted and virulent than the seeds that brought us our current sorrows.

I think this relates to what I have described in the past as the anthropomorphization of our problems. That is, we tend to blame the problems we see on the direct action and intention of other people. We implicitly believe that, if we can counteract the actions of these evil people, we can undo the problems of the world. Hence it makes sense to mobilize the base of our party at whatever cost. In our all out war we sacrifice the truth for political expediency. But if the problems are in fact much more complicated than we appreciate, the ends do not justify the means. In fact, the means do not lead us to our ends at all, but rather to folly and destruction.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Opens Source government.

I just posted the following on a /. thread about the idea of an Open Source model of government.

In response to:
Open source is a much closer model for no government - or, in other words, anarchy. The last few years have been pretty clear to me that democracy doesn't produce government that works in the people's best interest. A linux model for government would allow people to choose how to organize themselves on a voluntary basis. Government, even the democratic version, rests on the application of force. So the two ideals really are mutually exclusive.
I replied:
Quite right.

Government, logically, is force. The government is that entity in a society which has a practical monopoly on the legitimate use of force. Insomuch as there are others able to ignore the dictates of the government or to use force to their own ends (think corruption/organized crime), the government is not sovereign.

In this sense the Open Source approach is not suited to government. The actions of government apply to everyone and are supported by the application of force (i.e if you disobey you will be arrested, if you resist arrest you will be shot) while an Open Source project is defined by voluntary action and a pluralistic, meritocratic, approach to system design. The two are inherently contradictory.

I think that to apply Open Source principles to government would require a Minimalist, Libertarian, style government. The Government Proper, the entity with the monopoly on force, would be restricted to ensuring that the various open development units don't attempt to use force against each other. Other than that policy would be left up to non-government units.

For instance, rather than having a monolithic federal welfare system, we could have a plurality of nonprofit organizations for the reduction and alleviation of poverty. If you have resources or skills and are concerned about poverty, you could join one of the existing organizations (the one which takes the approach that you find most appropriate) and contribute your time or money to helping them. Or, if you don't really identify with the approach of any of the existing organizations, you could get together with a group of like minded people and start an organization of your own.

Rather than taking a single ad hoc approach to solving civic problems we could have a diversity of parallel approaches being undertaken. Those that prove most effective will draw more and more contributors and donors, and, if they become too big and crufty, concerned members can fork off, or fledgling organizations can step in to break new paths and undercut the giants.

Under such a system, enlightened people would ask each other what organizations they work with, rather than what party they support. Instead of flaming each other in bars about which set of leaders should rule us, we could argue about which social projects take the best approach. Instead of sitting around reading the news and getting pissed, we could be designing new tactics and strategies for our favorite organizations. In other words, we could have real participatory "government" (as opposed to submitting a laughable, 0 = Democrat, 1 = Republican, every two years).

I think that this has been the major failing of the Libertarian movement. They've failed to paint a picture of a compassionate Libertarian world. Eliminating federal programs to assist the needy (poor, unhealthy, undereducated) does not mean that we'd all selfishly go around ignoring impoverished people begging on our doorsteps any more than legalizing drugs would mean that we'd all be out shooting heroin the next day. It just means that, instead of passing off our problems as a people to some faceless bureaucracy, we'd take responsibility for them ourselves.

Individualism isn't about greed. It's about standing on your own two feet and taking care of the world yourself, like an adult, rather than handing all of your problems over to our paternalistic government and then wallowing in childish self-pity when the world goes to shit.

I'd like to develop this sort of thing further. I definitely think that this sort of 'fleshing out the alternative' is a fruitful avenue for more writing. I think political discussion tends to be so frequently futile because we have such strong emotional associations around a lot of our ideas. If you associate your opponents ideas with images of bleakness, desolation, and misery and your own, with images of hope, enlightenment, and progress (and vise versa), then obviously there is virtually zero chance of either of you convincing the other of anything (because how could you possibly be convinced that bleakness is better than hope).

Unless we engage people at this deeper level of meaning, feeling, and association, (with images of how you feel the world could be) people will probably continue to talk past each other.