Is the Minaret Ban ‘democratic’?

Most readers will probably have by now that Switzerland has passed a referendum to ban the building of minarets anywhere in the country. This has prompted many musings, in particular on the relationship between democracy and liberty.

This looks, after all, like an example of an illiberal but democratic measure. This prompts Chris to say

“We have, therefore, a simple conflict of fundamental values, a vindication of Isaiah Berlin: …Some among the great goods cannot live together. That is a conceptual truth. We are doomed to choose, and every choice may entail an irreparable loss.”

By contrast, Left Outside tries to harmonise the two (and hence judge this decision undemocratic) by saying

“I don’t think it must be inherently democratic simply because it was a decision returned by a referendum. There are some things in a democracy more fundamental than simply voting for representatives or in referenda…equality before the law is essential, as is…freedom of conscience”

Dave argues for a similar sort of conclusion along different lines:

“If democracy is merely about the relationship of individuals to authority then [this ban is democratic], but if democracy is about associative relationships and how we collectively relate to authority, then the Swiss have weakened that associative relationship and its collective relationship with the Swiss state…

[D]emocracy is weakened, because democracy can only really proceed from a correct understanding of, for want of a better phrase, how things work.”

All of these are valid points, but I’m not sure they would convince Chrisiah Berlin (a composite personality insisting that ‘some among the great goods cannot live together’). Isn’t this just a redefining of the word ‘democracy’ to include various more substantive notions of freedom?

If we define ‘schmemocracy’ as ‘the will of the majority being effected’, regardless of whether that will is well-informed, or cohesive, or correct, then have we just replaced an apparent conflict between liberty and democracy with one between ‘democracy’ and ‘schmemocracy’?

To my mind, though, there’s a more basic argument for thinking that this event doesn’t show us a conflict between liberty and democracy/schmemocracy. Namely, that even if we define ‘democracy’ as ‘the will of the majority being effected’, this definition is still technically ill-formed.

Because what is meant by ‘the majority’? After all, the number of people who voted ‘yes’ in this referendum is a few million, which is less than 0.1% of human beings. That’s not a majority.

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Afghanistan is a Modern Society

Several months ago, I blogged a bit about the changeover of power in Guinea – at the death of a long-running ruler, the ‘official’ group of kleptocrats and authoritarians was suddenly swept aside by a new, up-and-coming group of kleptocrats and authoritarians, promising ‘democracy’ around the end of the year.

At the time I was cautious about writing off the new lot out of hand – though it was always likely that they would be indistinguishable from the previous group, it wasn’t impossible that from some anomalous personal scruple or (more likely) the continued pressure of the popular groups who had been struggling against the old government, there might be some change worth noticing – no prospect of a substantially non-shitty arrangement, but perhaps better, insofar as I’d rather live in a representative democracy with civil rights than not.

Turns out my caution was misplaced: protests banned, more than 150 shot, and the head of the military junta planning to stand for election.

Of course, any unwarranted glimmer of hope in my analysis is quite different from the sort of messianic optimism that so many people have displayed over these latest elections in Afghanistan: manifestly rigged, and besides run between rival coalitions of warlords, drug barons, fundamentalists and ultra-conservatives, who seem quite able to defy western pressure when it comes to enshrining the rights of rapists in law, but not when it comes to stopping Americans from setting off bombs in civilian areas.

Here’s an interesting thing though. There’s a certain reflex that I think many Western observers make, a mental knee-jerk which involves saying “of course, it’s terrible that these countries, like Guinea and Afghanistan, are so enmired in instability and corruption – but that’s because they are ‘less evolved’, more ‘primitive’, and over time they will build up the sorts of institutions and culture needed for democracy, like we have.”

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Healthcare, safety regulation, and incentives

To take a break from high theory, I thought I’d formulate a few thoughts on the current hot topic in Anglophone Blogtopia, the NHS and socialised healthcare.

It rather seems that there are two sorts of things going on. One is a nuanced, complex, open-ended discussion on the best ways of organising healthcare, and one is a shouting match. The sort of approaches that make sense in one are inappropriate in the other. And the fact that one is happening can get in the way of the other.

I certainly wouldn’t say one is better or more noble – it might be nice if politics was entirely a matter of calm and reflective discussions but in the sort of world we inhabit (in particular, a world of class conflict) it isn’t, and when one side is shouting there’s no point in the other side not shouting, or shouting less loudly than they can.

And when one side is loudly proclaiming that Stephen Hawking, in a socialised healthcare system such as the one he is in, would not be kept alive as he has been, in precisely such a system, it’s clear that shouting is in order.

And I have no doubts about which side of that shouting match I’m on. Yay socialised medicine, boo private health insurance. To put it another way, given that healthcare does need to be rationed (being scarce), how rich people are is not a rational factor by which to ration it. So yay and boo.

So having said that, I had some random thoughts about institutional design which shouldn’t be taken as implying anything about the yays and boos.

The observation, which is based partly on personal experience, and partly on an argument put to me by a prominent right-libertarian, concerns the approval of new treatments by safety regulators, and their subsequent use while still risky and untested.

There are two sorts of mistake that you can make – over-caution and over-confidence. You might hold back or not use a treatment which would be safe and save lives (error A), or you might go ahead and use a treatment which turns out to cause serious problems and cost lives (error B).

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What’s So Good About Equality?

An interesting part of Honderich’s attack on Conservatism is the discussion he includes of ‘the left’, in particular of the idea of ‘equality’. He rehearses a series of conservative arguments against ‘equality’, and rejects them, but then finishes with an argument often urged which he thinks it quite correct, what he calls the ‘mere relativities’ argument.

The complaint is that any principle along the lines of ‘people should have lives which are, as far as possible, equal in the satisfaction of their basic desires and needs’ fetishises a certain relative standard, fetishises people’s incomes being similar to other people’s incomes, independently of them being high or low. This seems a bit strange – why should this relative standard be so important?

What’s worse, it seems to generate absurdities. Firstly, it means that if everyone is equally well-off, and we have the option of making some people a bit better off, we have a good reason not to do so (to preserve equality), which seems perverse. Moreover, it means that if some people are badly off and others well off, but that the only way to make them equal would be to make them all even worse off than the badly off, then we should do so – we should make everybody worse off for the sake of equality.

As Honderich presents it, this is a formulation of ‘equality’ that has sometimes been put forward by socialists and liberals, and very often attacked by conservatives, but which is actually very clearly alien to the practice of the socialist and liberal traditions. As he says, nobody has ever seriously suggested taking measures to lower the life expectancy of the wealthy in order to bring it into equality with that of the poorest.

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Abolish Lawyers

This is going to be another post where I cast aspersions on the legal system from a position of relative ignorance. In fact, it’s that ignorance that I want to talk about in particular.

(also, I’m going to use ‘law’ to mean simply the standing rules and regulations of a society, including those of an anarchic society, although I’m aware that many anarchists are ‘against laws’ because they define ‘law’ slightly differently)

Because, why are we ok with the fact that we don’t really know what the law says? I mean, I could probably tell you a good number of legal facts, especially those most relevant to my life. But I doubt they would add up to 1% of the legal facts that there are, and even if we added in all those which I might have a chance of guessing based on common sense, I think it would still be a minority. And I don’t imagine many other people are much better off. In a word, law functions as a specialism.

Now we might be fine with that if we were dealing with a scientific discipine, or a complex craft – we’re not surprised that most people understand only a minority of medicine or of chemistry. But law’s not a scientific discipline, it’s a public creation, and it’s meant to be something that we all give assent to – indeed, which at some level exists because we all assent to it. And of course, it’s supposedly our responsibility to be familiar with it, because ignorance is not a defence.

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The Tyranny of the Majority

‘Tyranny of the majority’ is an interesting phrase. I’m going to throw out my thoughts on it, without saying anything particularly profound or complex. In particular, I’m going to talk about the role this concept sometimes plays in anti-democratic ideologies or in suspicions of democracy – where ‘democracy’ is defined as the ideal of collective self-rule that representative political systems such as are now fashionable claim to offer but don’t.

So I think there are two sorts of things that people often have in mind when they speak of majoritarian tyranny, two sorts of ‘victims’. One sort is the ‘deviant’, those who are, for whatever reason, in violation of society’s norms, such as nudists, schizophrenics, asylum-seekers, transsexuals, baha’is, etc. The other sort is the rich person who falls foul of ‘the mob’, and has their ‘freedom’ taken away when the baying crowd strip them of their property.

Now I think the first of these is a valid fear, while the second is not – but that the first, valid, fear, doesn’t require democracy and indeed thrives on its opposite.

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Priest Protests: I’m not condoning rape – just starving her until she says ‘Yes’

"I totally respect the autonomy of women and I want all the men listening to stop their women saying I don't."

Being the world’s top patriarchal religious dipshit (TPRD) is a tough competition. In terms of sheer numbers of people willing to listen and feel embarassed, Joseph Ratzinger is probably the top, but in the interests of fairness, here’s an up-and-coming talent.

Mohammad Asif Mohseni is, if I under aright, the (or a) TPRD for the Shia community in Afghanistan (a minority community in that Sunni country, but an electorally strategic one). He is also the co-drafter and an outspoken defender of the new laws which would make putting your penis in someone a right and going outside with a vagina a privilege.

He is also on record, prior to the recent demonstration against this law, as having instructed Shia men to prevent shia women from attending said protest – an instruction which did not fall on deaf ears, judging by the number of women reportedly prevented from attending by various thugs and self-appointed moral enforcers.

Choice quotes, on the subject of why men should be able to command their wives to have sex or put on make up, include:

“It is not possible for all women to pay the same amount of money as men are paying. For all these expenses, can’t we at least give the right to a husband to demand sex from his wife after four nights?”

“If she is not sick, and if she does not have another problem, it is the right of a man to ask for sex and she should make herself ready for it. This is the right of a man.”

He charitably explains that this doesn’t mean the man should rape his wife (though if he does, whose fault is it really? eh?) but simply that

“If a woman says no, the man has the right not to feed her.”

And also, presumably, the right to exercise his control of her movements to imprison her without food – wait, those sound familiar…

What I want to focus on though is “The Westerners claim that they have brought democracy to Afghanistan. What does democracy mean? It means government by the people for the people. They should let the people use these democratic rights.”

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