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Covid-19, politics, government – some observations

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No society can legitimately call itself civilised if a sick person is denied medical aid because of lack of means.

Aneurin Bevan, founder of the UK’s NHS

Dr Anastasia Vasilyeva, engaged in the dangerous task of exposing Putin’s lies

Let me look at Covid-19 cases and deaths in different countries in terms of the political persuasions (and gender) of their leadership, with some obvious caveats and reservations, e.g. that correlation isn’t causation, that there are a whole host of factors influencing how well or badly particular nations are faring, that the data coming from many nations is highly suspect, etc. My statistics come from the Worldometer site, which names a wide variety of sources, and notably tends to be slightly less conservative than the WHO and Johns Hopkins sites in terms of numbers. The differences aren’t great, but I think it’s reasonable to assume that the overall numbers are greater than even the Worldometer site has been able to confirm.

I’m doing this because I’ve been checking the stats on a daily basis for weeks now, and impressions have, not surprisingly, been forming about the relationship between national leadership and the impact of the virus. So here are some statistics, and some speculations on them, for what they’re worth.

The UK (I was born in Scotland) has fared worse than any other country, apart from Belgium, in terms of deaths per million. Conservative PM Boris Johnson, prior to catching the virus himself, seemed to suggest letting it run its course through the community, which of course would have led to a huge death rate, and generally the messages from the beginning were confused, and mostly of a softly softly nature, which has clearly proved disastrous. The NHS has suffered years of severe cuts under ten years of conservative government, and mixed messaging has continued to damage what has been a truly woeful governmental response to the crisis. Scotland, which has a female First Minister and a centre-left government, has a slightly lower ‘excess death toll’ than England, but it’s still high compared to most countries, and higher than those of Wales and Northern Ireland. England is, of course, by far the most densely populated of the four UK nations.

Belgium wears the shame of having the worst Covid-19 mortality rate of any significant-sized nation (of say, 5 million or more) on the planet. However, to be fair, Belgium appears to have an accounting system for the virus which is as anomalous as is that of Russia at the other end of the spectrum (a spectrum from inclusive, i.e Belgium, to exclusive in Russia’s case). This issue of accounting is too enormously complex and fraught to be dealt with here (though many are suggesting that measuring ‘excess mortality’ might be the best option), so I’ll take Belgium’s disastrous figures at face value for now. The country’s PM, Sophie Wilmès, is a member of the centrist Mouvement Réformateur, and heads a coalition government. In fact Belgium has long been so factionalised that coalition governments are a more or less permanent feature of government there, and internal squabbling in recent years has led to a lot of government inertia. Though clear information is hard to find, the lack of strong, supported central government is very likely negatively affecting the country’s Covid-19 experience.

Germany is generally regarded as the success story of Europe. It’s Europe’s largest country, and currently the 19th most populated country in the world. It is 12th overall in the number of cases, and 11th in the number of deaths. This may look bad, but we know that western Europe has been particularly hard-hit, and it’s worth comparing Germany to its neighbouring countries. Interestingly, Germany shares its border with no less than nine different countries, and in terms of deaths per million, which I think is a good guide of a nation’s internal handling of the pandemic, it is doing far better than its westerly neighbours (Switzerland, France, Luxembourg, Belgium, the Netherlands and Denmark), and considerably worse than its easterly ones (Austria, Czechia and Poland). Again I’m skeptical of some of the stats, especially in a country like Poland, which has descended into a quasi dictatorship under its all-powerful Law and Justice party, but there does seem to be a radical divide between the eastern and western halves of Europe in terms of the pandemic’s impact. Anyway, Germany’s centrist Chancellor Angela Merkel has been in power since 2005, and she’s recently suffered under the description, ‘leader of the free world’ in lieu of the USA’s absence of leadership. Being a former research scientist, she’s been credited, rightly or wrongly, with having shepherded the country through this crisis better than most. Wikipedia has this to say about the country’s response:

The country’s low fatality rate, compared to fatality rates in Italy and Spain, has generated a discussion and explanations that cite the country’s higher number of tests performed, higher number of available intensive care beds with respiratory support and higher proportion of positive cases among younger people.

Italy, a country renowned for its political instability, fared disastrously early on (in March and April) in terms of cases and deaths, but has reduced the numbers greatly in recent weeks. Even so, Italy’s deaths per million is one of the worst rates in the world, five times that of Germany. Italy has in recent years developed closer ties with China than any other country in western Europe, and evidence points to the virus arriving in northern Italy via a Chinese couple from Wuhan. It’s clear that there was early skepticism and government officials were caught unawares by the magnitude of the crisis, and the rapidity of spread. The wealthy and densely populated Lombardy region has been disproportionately affected. Italy’s PM, Giuseppe Conte, has held the position for two years, making him one of the longest serving leaders in Italy’s post-war history. The nation’s volatile political history makes co-ordinated strategic planning for pandemics very difficult. This article on Italy from the Harvard Business Review, aimed at an American readership, captures the problems that face individualistic nations who favour rights over responsibilities:

Consider the decision to initially lock down some regions but not others. When the decree announcing the closing of northern Italy became public, it touched off a massive exodus to southern Italy, undoubtedly spreading the virus to regions where it had not been present.

This illustrates what is now clear to many observers: An effective response to the virus needs to be orchestrated as a coherent system of actions taken simultaneously. The results of the approaches taken in China and South Korea underscore this point. While the public discussion of the policies followed in these countries often focuses on single elements of their models (such as extensive testing), what truly characterises their effective responses is the multitude of actions that were taken at once. Testing is effective when it’s combined with rigorously contact tracing, and tracing is effective as long as it is combined with an effective communication system that collects and disseminates information on the movements of potentially infected people, and so forth.

Clearly this information-collecting, when it isn’t coercive, requires compliance and collaboration for the broader good. Libertarians are reluctant, it seems, to admit this.

Sweden‘s record on the pandemic is worth comparing to the other four countries comprising Scandinavia – Norway, Finland, Denmark and Iceland. Sweden is certainly the most populous of the five, but its deaths per million tell a grim story – more than five times those of Denmark, around ten times those of Norway and Finland, and almost 20 times those of isolated Iceland. The rate is higher than that of the USA and France, and not far below that of Italy. Currently, the centre-left PM Stefan Löfven heads a highly unstable coalition, which clearly isn’t able to provide the co-ordinated response required in a pandemic. In fact the country deliberately took a ‘relaxed’ attitude to the virus, and are now paying the price, though some of the country’s epidemiologists are still standing by the nation’s approach, astonishingly enough. Around half of the country’s fatalities have occurred in nursing homes. Apart from Sweden, all of the Scandinavian countries have female leaders. Just saying.

Russia, which has recorded the third highest number of Covid-19 cases in the world, has a bizarrely low death-rate, which can’t be accounted for from an epidemiological perspective, as I’ve reported before. Dmitry Peskov, one of Putin’s favourite arse-lickers, defended the record, saying “Have you ever thought about the possibility of Russia’s health care system being more effective?” This in fact caused a spike in fatalities, as several thousand Russians immediately died laughing. A very brave doctor, Anastasia Vasilyeva, founder and head of the medical trade union Alliance of Doctors, is creating videos exposing Putin’s lies about Russia’s handling of the pandemic, showing run-down hospitals, sick and unprotected medical staff and a generally under-funded and unprepared healthcare system. She has, of course, been viciously attacked by Putin’s media thugs, arrested and generally harassed. It’s safe to say that nothing credible is coming out of Russia’s state reporting of Covid-19, and the same must be said of China, or any other state which has more or less complete control of its media. So the full truth of what is happening in Russia, and in other closed societies, will likely not come out for years.

Final remarks – from what we’ve seen so far, right-wing, limited government, libertarian-type governments do worse than strong, centralised governments, especially those led by women. Closed societies generally can’t be trusted on their reporting, so it’s virtually impossible to judge their performance vis-à-vis  the pandemic.

Next time I’ll look at some countries in Eastern Europe and the Middle East.


Written by stewart henderson

June 29, 2020 at 10:08 am

Covid-19: lies, damn lies and statistics

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Brazilian President Bolsonaro, explaining how government mismanagement and corruption is a good thing

Canto: So Russia is being described as a ‘late arriver’ with regard to Covid-19. It now has the second-highest number of cases, as everyone knows. Yet the mortality figure is astonishingly low. It’s only natural to be suspicious as there’s surely no obvious epidemiological explanation. It’s worth comparing Russia to Germany, whose figures few would quibble with, given its reputation for efficiency. It’s been treated as the European outlier in terms of its response, but nobody appears to be praising Russia for its tiny mortality rate. Why would that be?

Jacinta: Just looking at some reporting, various reasons have been given. Take this one from Dr. Elena Malinnikova, the chief of infectious diseases in the Russian Ministry of Health:

The low mortality is due to timely detection of infection as well as the fact that that Russians tend to see their doctor soon after symptoms appear.

Canto: Hmmm. Other nationalities don’t see their doctor, when there’s a killer pandemic on the loose? And ‘timely detection of infection’ sounds overly vague to me.

Jacinta: Let’s try another one. ‘Russian journalists have reported that more than 60% of all cases diagnosed in the country have been in Moscow, which has a younger and healthier population than rural areas’.

Canto: Yeah, but in the USA it’s the richer, more heavily populated regions of the north-east that have been hardest hit. The rural regions much less so.

Jacinta: Okay. In the article linked to above, Kent Sepkowicz, a physician and infection control specialist, provides good reasons why Russia’s mortality figures don’t make much sense on their face. And before I report on that, let’s look at rough reported mortality rates of a few countries, for comparison. I’ve just looked at total reported deaths as a percentage of total cases. As of May 20, the USA’s mortality rate is around 6%, the UK’s a horrendous 14%, Germany’s has gradually risen to 4.6%, and Brazil, another latecomer like Russia, and now with the fourth largest number of cases, is at 6.5%. Russia, on the other hand, is at 0.95% mortality. That’s a huge disparity, which we might call ‘Russia’s miracle’. But, as Sepkowicz points out, despite reports that Russia is doing well on testing (more than ten times that of Brazil, and somewhat more than the USA, and they might’ve started earlier too), Russia scores poorly on the comorbidity front, otherwise known as ‘pre-existing conditions’, such as heart disease, chronic lung disease, diabetes and obesity. It has an ageing population, and smoking is far more prevalent there than in European countries and Brazil. The testing regime is definitely not so much better than other countries to account for Russia’s apparent success – both Spain and Italy have done more tests per population.

Canto: Hello, are you saying there’s something shifty in the works? Vlad and and his charming circle would never lie to us, surely?

Jacinta: I don’t know that they’d gain much from fudging the figures…

Canto: Are you kidding? Isn’t that like saying Vlad wouldn’t gain much from rigging his election results? What he loses in international credibility, he might gain on the national scene, and that’s more important for him. But maybe there’s some less nefarious reason for the low mortality – I know they’re counting the numbers differently in some way. But the deaths from Covid-19 are the deaths from Covid-19. It should be a straightforward matter.

Jacinta: What about the deaths from x, y or z, exacerbated by Covid-19 infection?

Canto: I think that’s what they’re doing in Russia. Unless they’re certain that it was Covid-19 directly, they’re not counting it, even if they’ve tested positive for the virus, and then they die. They might be arguing that they were going to die anyway, Covid-19 just hastened the end.

Jacinta: Very dodgy if true. You could say that about anyone who’s a bit peely-wally.

Canto: Anyway let’s look at another country in this very complicated trans-national battle against the virus. Brazil’s an interesting one. I’m noting that countries with right-wing laissez-faire governments tend to be killing their citizens at a faster clip than leftist or centrist governments. Whadyareckon?

Jacinta: That’s a bit crude, but let’s look again at the reported figures and give number of deaths per number of cases as percentages. I’m going to leave out Russia and China, as I don’t trust what they’re reporting – which isn’t to say I entirely trust the other nations, but you have to draw the line somewhere. Britain, as mentioned, is very high at 16%, and has a conservative government. A very interesting country to look at is Belgium, which has the highest death rate per million of population of any major country in Europe. It’s death-to cases percentage is also high, at just over 16%. The country’s political situation is horrendously complex. They’ve had a caretaker PM for a year or so, and there’s basically a caretaker government after messy election results in March, in the middle of the Covid-19 crisis. This interim government is supposedly in place just to manage the crisis. Clearly it’s not going well. It would be reasonable to put their problems down to no strong central government, à la the US. Now, Brazil has a notoriously extreme-right government at present, and I’ve already given its deaths-to-cases ratio, but the number of cases is rising rapidly, as are the number of deaths. Now, let’s have a look at Scandinavian countries, often glorified as models of good government. I’ll include in that vague grouping, in order of population: the Netherlands (17m), Sweden (10m), Denmark (5.8m), Finland (5.5m) and Norway (5.4m), and I’ll exclude Iceland, which has all the advantages of a distant island re isolation (it’s 87th in the world for cases). On deaths-to-cases: The Netherlands 13%, Sweden 12%, Denmark 5%, Finland 4.7% and Norway 2.8%. On those statistics, it seems that the smaller the country, population-wise, the better managed it has been in terms of preventing mortality, which does make some sense.

Canto: Okay so I’ll look at their current governments. the Netherlands is clearly hard-hit, Covid-19-wise. It has a multi-multi-party system (that’s not a typo) and is currently governed by a centre-right or conservative-liberal party, VVD, presumably supported by the next largest party, PVV a right-wing nationalist group. The left appears to be divided amongst a number of smaller parties, and the current government has been in power for ten years. Sweden, also faring badly under Covid-19, currently has a minority government with a social democrat PM after a controversial and inconclusive election in 2018. So it’s a centre-left government relying on centre-right parties. The social democrats have been in power, mostly as a majority, since 1917, but there has been a movement towards the right in recent years. Denmark, doing better than the previous two, but faring much worse than we are here in Australia, where we have a death-to-case ratio of 1.4%, has again a multi-party system – and by the way, all of these Scandinavian countries, except Finland which is a republic, are constitutional monarchies practising parliamentary democracy like Britain, and, in a weird way, Australia, New Zealand and Canada. The leftist social democrats are currently in power in Denmark, and they have a far tougher position on physical distancing than the Swedish government. Finland Has both a President and a Prime Minister, somewhat like France. The Prime Minister, Sanna Marin, made news worldwide as the youngest PM in the world when elected late last year. She’s a social democrat and heads a coalition government, which seems to be the case with most Scandinavian governments.

Jacinta: Yes, They seem designed that way so the parliament is more or less forced to collaborate in order to get things done. It seems a much better way to run a country, a far superior system to that of the USA, much more team-based. Anyway, statistics seem to suggest that, overall, strong central governments that can co-ordinate efforts effectively, and have the support of the people, are doing better at saving lives. It’s not a conclusive finding though, and no doubt each country has its confounding factors.

Canto: Norway, finally, has handled things in much the way you would expect of the nation rated first in the world by the OECD. On March 19 this year, their federal government was granted emergency powers by parliament until December. That’s one way of creating strong central government, albeit temporarily. The current government is essentially right-centrist, within a multiparty system where the balance is usually held by left-centre parties. Clearly, though, this is a nation where people place more faith in government than, say, in the USA. And speaking of libertarianism and such, it’s interesting to look at Brazil more closely. When we began this post a couple of days, ago, Brazil was fourth in the world in terms of confirmed cases. Now it’s up to second, that’s how fast-moving things are.

Jacinta: And it’ll never reach top spot, surely – the USA is way way ahead of the rest of the world.

Canto: So Brazil is a republic, and currently has an extreme right-wing government under Jair Bolsonaro, who, according to this very recent New Yorker report, seems to be doing everything he can to exacerbate the situation. Brazil’s rise in cases has been more recent than most, and the death toll is now rising rapidly, now up to sixth in the world.Bolsonaro is shrugging it off and encouraging defiance of state restrictions in much the manner of Trump, whom he idolises. So it seems that when you get extreme anti-government government – negligence mixed with incompetence – as in the case of Trump and Bolsonaro, the death toll will likely be devastating, and will impact mainly the poor, elderly and disadvantaged. Who would’ve thunk it?


Written by stewart henderson

May 23, 2020 at 10:47 am

Empress Dowager Cixi: tradition and reform

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Canto: So we’ve written a piece on Cixi (to save time I won’t keep referring to her by full title), touting her as a reformer, within strict limits, but without actually mentioning and discussing any of her reforms.

Jacinta: Yes, there’s so much to write, to put her in context, that a few blog posts wouldn’t be enough. But before we begin I want to express my annoyance at the Wikipedia article on Cixi. It ends with this on Jung Chang’s book:

In 2013, Jung Chang’s biography, Empress Dowager Cixi: The Concubine Who Launched Modern China, portrays Cixi as the most capable ruler and administrator that China could have had at the time. Pamela Kyle Crossley said in the London Review of Books that Chang’s claims “seem to be minted from her own musings, and have little to do with what we know was actually going in China”. Although Crossley was sympathetic to restoring women’s place in Chinese history, she found “rewriting Cixi as Catherine the Great or Margaret Thatcher is a poor bargain: the gain of an illusory icon at the expense of historical sense”.

Canto: Yes, this is a travesty of the book, which at no point makes comparisons with the other leaders mentioned, or ever hints at such comparisons. Having said that, Chang’s book was a biography, not a history of China during this period, which of course would’ve been a far more monumental task. The book focuses particularly on the court and the Forbidden City, and the struggles and machinations there, and only occasionally, but effectively, expands outward to the nationwide repercussions. As to being ‘minted from her own musings’, the book is clearly massively researched, with primary sources linked to almost every page of the book. Of course some decisions and actions require speculation, all of which, it seems to me, fits with a coherent description of Cixi’s character – that of a proud and often ruthless, baggage-laden Manchu aristocrat with progressive tendencies in keeping with her love of knowledge and innovation, struggling to make sense of and keep abreast of a wave of progress, internationalism and foreign encroachment without precedent in Chinese history. And also of course that of a powerful 19th century woman in a part of the world even more repressive of powerful women than that of ‘the west’.

Jacinta: Yes, it’s particularly disappointing that Wikipedia ends with this hatchet-job, leaving the unwary reader with a very wrong impression of the book, IMHO. Anyway, to the reforms. Chang highlights most of them in the epilogue to her book, and the list is well worth presenting here:

Under her leadership the country began to acquire virtually all the attributes of a modern state: railways, electricity, telegraph, telephones, western medicine, a modern-style army and navy, and modern ways of conducting foreign trade and diplomacy. The restrictive millennium-old educational system was discarded and replaced by western-style schools and universities. The press blossomed, enjoying a freedom that was unprecedented and arguably unsurpassed since. She unlocked the door to political participation: for the first time in China’s long history, people were to become ‘citizens’. It was Cixi who championed women’s liberation in a culture that had for centuries imposed foot-binding on the female population – a practice to which she put an end. The fact that her last enterprise before her untimely death was to introduce the vote testifies to her courage and vision Above all, her transformation of China was carried out without her engaging in violence and with relatively little upheaval.

Canto: Yes, all this is true, and it largely came from her, or more accurately from her complex response to the massive changes going on in the outer world, and that world’s growing impact on China. I’m sure Chang wrote this partly as a corrective to the propaganda surrounding Cixi, that she was an obstacle to progress and, in contradiction, a figurehead manipulated by powerful aristocrats and factions.

Jacinta: And also a cruel and lascivious harridan. And I must say, in response to Crossley’s review, she does bear comparison to other major female power-wielders. To Thatcher perhaps, if only for her formidable ‘she who must be obeyed’ presence, to which many eye-witnesses throughout the book testify, and also perhaps to Elizabeth I (I don’t know enough about Catherine the Great), for her concern for stability and moderation, and for the Chinese people.

Canto: And yet she could be ruthless and cruel, though I put this partly down to the absolute power wielded by the throne, and the history of imperial and aristocratic cruelty she was born into – the eunuch system, lingchi (death by a thousand cuts), the bastinado and so forth. Reforms to the Qing Legal Code, late in Cixi’s lifetime, banned many of these cruelties, though certainly this was under pressure from other nations.

Jacinta: Yes, she has to be seen in the context of China’s long isolation from the ‘enlightenment’ ideas of the west, which was coming to an end just as she gained total power. And her experience, for example, of the wanton destruction of the Old Summer Palace – regarded as ‘the garden of gardens’, an apparently wondrous complex of outstanding architecture, floral designs and historical treasures – by the British in the 1860s would hardly have warmed her to any ideas of western superiority. In fact I think her early sympathy for the Boxer Rebellion well captures her sympathy for so many of the ordinary people who felt threatened by the many changes wrought by foreigners and the arrogance with which some of those went about their ‘mission’. And I’m thinking about Christians in particular.

Canto: The cruelties and the despotism of mid-nineteenth century China bear comparison to the different cruelties of pre-enlightenment Europe, with its burnings by fire, its trials by ordeal, its divine rights and so forth. Reforms came to China almost too quickly, and the path from that nineteenth-century ‘opening up’ to the extremely repressive and unrepresentative government of modern China is no doubt as complex as it is depressing. Cixi was bowing to the inevitable towards the end of her life, it seems, acknowledging, or hoping, that a constitutional monarchy, with popular representation in some kind of parliament, would be the eventual result of all the pressures being brought to bear on the system she’d been accustomed to manipulating. Certainly she was a traditionalist in many ways, full of superstitions that seem bizarre to us, overly loyal to her heritage, the Manchu minority (though she appointed more Han people to positions of authority and power than any previous Qing ruler), and keen to uphold court ceremonial (though flexible when it suited her). It seems to me that if she was twenty or thirty years younger at the turn of the century, with the same hold on power, she would’ve had a better chance than anyone else of effecting a peaceful transition in China, from an absolute monarchy – one of the last – to some kind of more democratic system. But that wasn’t to be, and the rest, sadly, is history.


Jung Chang, Empress Dowager Cixi: the concubine who launched Modern China, 2013

Written by stewart henderson

May 19, 2020 at 12:11 pm

progressivism: the no-alternative philosophy

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Canto: So here’s the thing – I’ve occasionally been asked about my politics and I’ve been a little discomfited about having to describe them in a few words, and I’ve even wondered if I could describe them effectively to myself.

Jacinta: Yes I find it easier to be sure of what I’m opposed to, such as bullies or authoritarians, which to me are much the same thing. So that means authoritarian governments, controlling governments and so forth. But I also learned early on that the world was unfair, that some kids were richer than others, smarter than others, better-looking than others, through no fault or effort of their own. I was even able to think through this enough to realise that even the kind kids and the nasty ones, the bullies and the scaredy-cats, didn’t have too much choice in the matter. So I often wondered about a government role in making things a bit fairer for those who lost out in exactly where, or into whose hands, they were thrown into the world.

Canto: Well you could say there’s a natural diversity in all those things, intelligence, appearance, wealth, capability and so forth… I’m not sure if it’s a good thing or a bad thing, it just is. I remember once answering that question, about my politics, by describing myself as a pluralist, and then later being disappointed at my self-description. Of course, I wouldn’t want to favour the opposite – what’s that, singularism? But clearly not all differences are beneficial – extreme poverty for example, or its opposite…

Jacinta: You wouldn’t want to be extremely wealthy?

Canto; Well okay I’ve sometimes fantasised, but mainly in terms of then having more power to make changes in the world. But I’m thinking of the differences that disadvantage us as a group, as a political entity. And here’s one thing I do know about politics. We can’t live without it. We owe our success as a species, for what it’s worth, to our socio-political organisation, something many libertarians seem to be in denial about.

Jacinta: Yes, humans are political animals, if I may improve upon Aristotle. But differences that disadvantage us. Remember eugenics? Perhaps in some ways it’s still with us. Prospective parents might be able to abort their child if they can find out early on that it’s – defective in some way.

Canto: Oh dear, that’s a real can of worms, but those weren’t the kind of differences I was thinking about. Since you raise the subject though, I would say this is a matter of individual choice, but that, overall, ridding the world of those kinds of differences – intellectual disability, dwarfism, intersex, blindness, deafness and so on – wouldn’t be a good thing. But of course that would require a sociopolitical world that would agree with me on that and be supportive of those differences.

Jacinta: So you’re talking about political differences. Or maybe cultural differences?

Canto: Yes but that’s another can of worms. It’s true that multiculturalism can expand our thinking in many ways, but you must admit that there are some heavy cultures, that have attitudes about the ‘place of women’ for example, or about necessary belief in their god…

Jacinta: Or that taurans make better lovers than geminis haha.

Canto: Haha, maybe. Some false beliefs have more serious consequences than others. So multiculturalism has its positives and negatives, but you want the dominant culture, or the mix of cultures that ultimately forms a new kind of ‘creole’ overarching culture, to be positive and open. To be progressive. That’s the key word. There’s no valid alternative to a progressive culture. It’s what has gotten us where we are, and that’s not such a bad place, though it’s far from perfect, and always will be.

Jacinta: So progressiveness good, conservativism bad? Is that it?

Canto: Nothing is ever so simple, but you’re on the right track. Progress is a movement forward. Sometimes it’s a little zigzaggy, sometimes two forward one back. I’m taking my cue from David Deutsch’s book The beginning of infinity, which is crystallising much I’ve thought about politics and culture over the years, and of the role and meaning of science, which as you know has long preoccupied me. Anyway, the opposite of progress is essentially stasis – no change at all. Our former conservative Prime Minister John Howard was fond of sagely saying ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’, as a way of avoiding the prospect of change. But it isn’t just about fixing, it’s rather more about improving, or transcending. Landline phones didn’t need fixing, they were a functional, functioning technology. But a new technology came along that improved upon it, and kept improving and added internet technology to its portability. We took a step back in our progress many decades ago, methinks, when we abandoned the promise of electrified modes of travel for the infernal combustion engine, and it’s taking us too long to get back on track, but I’m confident we’ll get there eventually. ..

Jacinta: I get you. Stasis is this safe option, but in fact it doesn’t lead anywhere. We’d be sticking with the ‘old’ way of doing things, which takes us back much further than just the days of landlines, but before any recognisable technology at all. Before using woven cloth, before even using animal skins and fire to improve our chances of survival.

Canto: So it’s not even a safe option. It’s not a viable option at all. You know how there was a drastic drop in the numbers of Homo sapiens some 70,000 years ago – we’ll probably never know how close we came to extinction. I’d bet my life it was some innovation that only our species could have thought of that enabled us to come out of it alive and breeding.

Jacinta: And some of our ancestors would’ve been dragged kicking and screaming towards accepting that innovation. I used to spend time on a forum of topical essays where the comments were dominated by an ‘anti-Enlightenment’ crowd, characters who thought the Enlightenment – presumably the eighteenth century European one (but probably also the British seventeenth century one, the Scottish one, and maybe even the Renaissance to boot) – was the greatest disaster ever suffered by humanity. Needless to say, I soon lost interest. But that’s an extreme example (I think they were religious nutters).

Canto: Deutsch, in a central chapter of The beginning of infinity, compares ancient Athens and Sparta, even employing a Socratic dialogue for local colour. The contrast isn’t just between Athens’ embracing of progress and Sparta’s determination to maintain stasis, but between openness and its opposite. Athens, at its all-too-brief flowering, encouraged philosophical debate and reasoning, rule-breaking artistry, experimentation and general questioning, in the process producing famous dialogues, plays and extraordinary monuments such as the Parthenon. Sparta on the other hand left no legacy to build on or rediscover, and all that we know of its politico-social system comes from non-Spartans, so that if it has been misrepresented it only has itself to blame!

Jacinta: Yet it didn’t last.

Canto: Many instances of that sort of thing. In the case of Athens, its disastrous Syracusan adventure, its ravagement by the plague, or a plague, or a series of plagues, and the Peloponnesian war, all combined to permanently arrest its development. Contingent events. Think too of the Islamic Golden Age, a long period of innovation in mathematics, physics, astronomy, medicine, architecture and much else, brought to an end largely by the Mongol invasions, and the collapse of the Abbasid caliphate but also by a political backlash towards stasis, anti-intellectualism and religiosity, most often associated with the 12th century theologian Abu Hamid al-Ghazali.

Jacinta: Very tragic for our modern world. So how do we guard against the apostles of stasis? By the interminable application of reason? By somehow keeping them off the reins of power, since those apostles will always be with us?

Canto: Not by coercion, no. It has to be a battle of ideas, or maybe I shouldn’t use that sort of male lingo. A demonstration of ideas, in the open market. A demonstration of their effectiveness for improving our world, which means comprehending that world at an ever-deeper, more comprehensive level.

Jacinta: Comprehensively comprehending, that seems commendably comprehensible. But will this improve the world for us all – lift all boats, as Sam Harris likes to say?

Canto: Well, since you mention Harris, I totally agree with him that reason, and science which is so clearly founded on reason, is just as applicable to the moral world, to pointing the way to and developing the best and richest life we all can live, as it is to technology and our deepest understanding of the universe, the multiverse or whatever our fundamental reality happens to be. So we need to keep on developing and building on that science, and communicating it and applying it to the human world and all that it depends upon and influences.


The beginning of infinity, by David Deutsch, 2012

Written by stewart henderson

May 3, 2020 at 4:36 pm

Covid 19: hopes, failures, solutions

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under pressure

Covid-19 continues to be devastating, especially in the USA, where there are vastly more cases than anywhere else, and vastly more deaths, though the picture there is complex. The hardest-hit region, the New York area, is seeing devastation in poorer districts such as Queens, where the Elmhurst public hospital is inundated with uninsured, critically ill patients. New York has suffered almost half of US deaths. Some other states and regions, especially physical outliers such as Alaska, Hawaii and the Virgin Islands, have very low numbers, and it would be hard to explain why the spread of cases across the mainland has been so uneven. Of course it’s obvious that there has been no federal leadership on the pandemic.

Here in Australia, where the numbers seem to be improving (we’re 33rd on the list of total cases, down from 18th when I first started paying attention to the list about three weeks ago, and 52nd on the list of total deaths), our conservative federal government is keen to open up the country again, and has released modelling to the effect that the virus will be eliminated from the mainland if we maintain current physical distancing measures, though it’s likely to take weeks rather than months:

The model suggests that every 10 people infected currently spread the virus to five more people, on average. At that level, the virus would eventually be unable to circulate and would die out within Australia.

Sydney Morning Herald, ‘Australia in course to eliminate Covid-19, modelling shows’

Australia’s current reproduction number (R0) is just a little over .5. A maintained R0 of 1 or less will eventually eliminate the virus. Of course, there will be fluctuations in that number, so it will be difficult to project a time when things are ‘all clear’. Another difficulty with modelling is that the number of infected but asymptomatic people is unknown and difficult to estimate. For example, recent Covid-19 testing of the entire crew of the aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt found that a substantial majority of those who tested positive were asymptomatic, casting doubt on previous estimates (already worrying for transmission) of one in four cases being asymptomatic.

The asymptomatic/presymptomatic transmission issue was addressed by Bill Gates in this article back in February. It’s what makes SARS-CoV-2 a much more serious threat than the previous SARS and MERS viruses. Gates, in this very important article, also provides an outline of what needs to be done globally to fight this pandemic and to prepare for inevitable future ones. If only…

It’s worth comparing Gates’ call for national and global co-ordination, and more expenditure, in the fields of epidemiology and disease prevention, with another more recent article, also published in the New England Journal of Medicine, which tells a tale of Britain and its NHS, gutted by years, in fact decades of ‘reforms’ and budget cuts:

Thanks to government “reforms” of the NHS, it has become highly decentralized, with over 200 commissioning groups in England that can make independent decisions about staffing and procurement of equipment — far from the monolithic “socialist” health care system it is often assumed to be. The devolved governments in Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland have substantial health system autonomy. At a time when central management of staff and resources might be most helpful, the decentralized decision-making structure leads to competition for resources and inconsistent policies.

One can hope that the travesty of this virus, especially in places like the US and the UK, will lead to a rethinking of the importance of a well-funded, centralised, co-ordinating and interventionist government in modern states, with particular emphasis on the healthcare system. But I suspect that, in the USA at least, things will go the other way, and the government-hating and government-blaming will only intensify. I’d love to leave this topic and look at solutions – that’s to say I’d love to focus more on the science, but I’m barely equipped to do so. Still, I like to have a go. A very technical and comprehensive review review of pharmacological treatments has been posted recently on the JAMA website, which includes an account of how SARS-CoV-2 enters host cells and utilises those cells for reproduction.

The review claims that currently the most promising therapy is the antiviral drug remdesivir. So what is it and how does it work? I’ll try to answer that question next time.


Written by stewart henderson

April 18, 2020 at 1:18 pm

Represent Us and ‘US democracy’, part 2

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Wall Street owns the country. It is no longer a government of the people, by the people, and for the people, but a government of Wall Street, by Wall Street, and for Wall Street.
― Mary Ellen Lease

So the next issue the Represent Us video raises is partisan gerrymandering, an issue here in Australia too. It’s extraordinary to think that gerrymandering has been a problem in the USA since 1788 (the term refers to a salamander-shaped redistricting map created by a governor Gerry of Massachusetts in 1812), with still no solid solution found. So, although this isn’t a new problem, the clearly political, anti-democratic motives involved should make it obvious that it needs to be dealt with apolitically, such as through the justice system or a thoroughly independent, regulated authority. The idea should be that boundaries, which may need to be redrawn from time to time, considering, for example, the general human movement from rural to urban neighbourhoods, should be drawn so as to best assure that all individual votes are of equal value in deciding representation. This would clearly mean taking redistricting out of the hands of partisan politicians and making it a function of independent bodies armed, nowadays, with computer-based maps and up-to-date statistics on human movement. Or am I missing something? Apparently. Here’s what Wikipedia says about the US problem:

Through the 20th century and since then, the US Court system has deemed extreme cases of gerrymandering to be unconstitutional, but has struggled with how to define the types of gerrymandering and standards to be used to determine when redistricting maps are unconstitutional. 

… the Supreme Court has struggled as to when partisan gerrymandering occurs (Vieth v. Jubelirer (2004) and Gill v. Whitford (2018)), and in a landmark decision in 2019 in Rucho v. Common Cause, ultimately decided that questions of partisan gerrymandering represents a nonjusticiable political question that cannot be dealt with by the federal court system.

I’m not sure if this 2019 decision is due to the conservative stacking of the Supreme Court (Republicans have more financial clout but less popular support than Democrats), but it seems reasonable to my naive self that legislation can be created to ban incumbent governors etc from redrawing the boundaries of their own districts. They should be the last people allowed to do so.

So the video goes on to claim that, due to gerrymandering, ‘only 14% of House campaigns are actually competitive’. As a non-American, I’m not sure if that means just House of Reps campaigns or Congressional campaigns. In any case a USA Today article from late 2016, with the telling title ‘Fewer and fewer US House seats have any competition’. However, the author argues that it’s not just about gerrymandering. He quotes a political scientist who talks of ‘self-sorting of the population’, where citizens move around to be with the ideologically like-minded. The Washington Post has an article from mid 2017 on the trend, which, I have to say, favours my fantasy of having the USA split into two nations, on red and blue lines, and seeing how each one fares. But nothing is so simple. Interestingly, on the gerrymandering question the WaPo has this:

Some states have moved to take the redistricting process out of the hands of the legislature, turning the duty over to special commissions that in many cases are told to ignore political outcomes. Results have been mixed.

A bit vague, unfortunately. Are they talking about the results of the attempt to form special commissions, or the results of redistricting by the commissions? The point should be that redistricting by partisan actors should be banned as intrinsically a bad thing.

So let’s look at other claims in the video – 1) trillions of dollars spent annually ‘on fraud and abuse in government’ (does this mean on fighting it, or just by the fraudsters and abusers?) – 2) one in five children live in poverty – 3) the most expensive healthcare in the world – 4) more people in prison per capita than any other country. Other claims are perhaps less quantifiable – the US is losing jobs to the rest of the world, and isn’t doing enough re air and water pollution. I’ll look more closely at those first four.

On point one, the evidence is plentiful. This Medical Economics article cites a study showing nearly a trillion dollars annually in healthcare waste, most of it due to administrative complexity and over-pricing. Forbes reports here on massive waste and fraud by federal agencies, and – most egregious but least surprising – the Pentagon’s accounts are in such a mess that multiple firms of auditors have given up on auditing them. There’s no doubt that waste, fraud and abuse in this massively over-indulged sector dwarfs all others.

As to point two, poverty is of course defined differently in different parts of the world. The US website has a section titled How is poverty defined in America?, but what follows fails signally to answer the question. Nevertheless, according to their vague criteria 22% of Americans under 18 live in poverty. With its limited government-based safety net and its massively-paid business and banking sectors, there is surely no other ‘open society’ nation that has such a rich v poor disparity.

On the third point, according to Investopedia, the USA does indeed spend more per capita on healthcare than any other nation, but without the best outcomes. Also, unlike most European nations which also spend heavily on healthcare, the USA spends vastly more on expensive private health insurance rather than subsidised government healthcare.

Point four – Wikipedia doesn’t seem to have reliable figures on incarceration rates beyond 2013, but it does state that ‘in the last forty years, incarceration has increased with rates upwards of 500% despite crime rates decreasing nationally’. It’s an outrageous and shameful statistic, but they might argue that it’s the price they’re willing to pay for their libertarianism (!). The rate of incarceration of women in recent decades has been double that of men. The price to pay for women’s liberation?

So there you go – the greatest country in the world, according to that country.

So the Represent Us argument is that this mess can be cleared up, or begin to be cleared up, if the nation is given back to the people, who are currently unrepresented, mostly. Fix the system, and you can fix everything else. According to Silver and Lawrence, and the constitutional scholars (again, that worshipped constitution) and other experts they consulted, a law (but presumably more than one) that would wrest power from the established economic elites and so move, via the people, to end gerrymandering (using independent redistricting commissions), to create ranked-choice voting (we have this in Australia, where it’s called preferential voting), which will give more scope for new parties and independents, and to automate voter registration.

As to the issue of bribery and financial corruption in the political system, here’s what’s hoped to happen once they, the people are in control. They’ll overhaul lobbying and ethics laws, so that politicians can’t be bribed, say, by promises of cushy sinecures after leaving office; they’ll mandate transparency of political spending, for obvious reasons; ‘give every voter a tax voucher so politicians spend time fundraising from their constituents rather than the [economic elites]’ (this is a strange one I’ll have to look into).

All of these reforms can be wrapped up in an American Anti-Corruption Act, which 87% of Americans already support, enthuses Josh Silver.

So the model American Anti-Corruption Act (AACA), co-authored by Silver and other luminaries, was first unveiled in 2012. I gather from the Wikipedia article on it that it does have a lot of electoral support, though 87% might be a bit exaggerated. I just don’t have that much faith in they, the people.

In any case, Silver himself has little faith in a Congress captured by the economic elites. Congress, he feels, will never turn such an act into law. So what’s the solution? I’ll look at that in my next post. Keep well!

Written by stewart henderson

April 1, 2020 at 6:44 pm

On politics and states – some opening remarks

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‘It takes a village to raise a child’ – Andaman Island girls

One of my abiding interests in life is how to organise society effectively for the benefits of its members. It’s so easy to criticise corrupt and incompetent governments and states, but it seems clear to me that, given the crooked timber of humanity, there’s no ideal form of state or anything close to it. In any case I’m a pragmatist rather than an idealogue, so I’m guessing that the posts I write on this topic will be more about what to avoid rather than what constitutes best practice.

Governments can and should play many roles in trying to provide for an effective society, and these roles often seem to be in conflict. For example, I’ve always been keen on government’s regulatory role in protecting the potentially exploited from would-be or actual exploiters. This would seem to conflict with government’s role in promoting economic success and well-being, in which, for example, traders and producers seek to sell products of highly contested worth. 

Of course one popular view of government is that it should play a minimal role, allowing markets to flow as freely as possible. However the claim that government is ‘always the problem, never the solution’ strikes me as easily refuted. The hands-off approach from government led to the global financial crisis of 2007, in the minds of all but the most hardened libertarians, and in Australia, a recent Royal Commission into the banking sector, which was fought against vigorously by then Federal Treasurer (and now Prime Minister) Scott Morrison, has revealed banking corruption on a massive scale by all of the major banks in the country. Why would anyone think that self-regulation works, given the lessons of history and what we know of human nature?

So I believe that states – that’s to say governments – should have a major role to play in protecting their citizens from exploitation, while providing incentives for industry and capital enterprises to develop and thrive – with certain provisos. It shouldn’t come as a surprise, for example, that I feel that good science, in industrial and other capital enterprises, should be encouraged by government. So good government necessarily entails scientifically literate government. In this respect I believe that good government should be more interventionist than, say, government is expected to be in the USA, where, apparently, pharmaceutical products of highly dubious efficacy can be advertised. Truth in advertising appears not to be a major concern of government in that country, and I thank that’s a mistake.

Looking around the world and reading history, I find the worst governments, in terms of corruption and disastrous consequences for the governed, are those that have managed to avoid being held to account for their actions by those affected. That’s why democracy, bolstered by a free and informed fourth estate, and of course an independent judicial system, has proved to be more effective than its alternatives. But of course democracy is practiced in many different ways in many different states, and it too has its failings.

There’s also the complex role of culture in many states or governing systems. Nationalists tend to exaggerate or manufacture cultural traits, while humanists like myself tend to underplay them or wish them away, but I think the significant increase in globalisation in recent decades has been a benefit overall. Isolationism sees its most extreme examples in North Korea and the Andaman Islands, two very different cases, requiring us to think of culture, its manipulation or otherwise, in complex ways.

I’m not sure where all this is going, but I’ve been wanting to write about this sort of stuff for a long time. I’m currently reading a political history of Korea (north and south) and Russia, in the lead-up to the Putin dictatorship, and of course I’ve learned a lot about the problematic US presidential system over the past three years or so, so there’s plenty to reflect upon…

Written by stewart henderson

January 24, 2020 at 10:43 am

Laws are more important than constitutions, get it?

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not entirely relevant to this piece, but worth considering…

Watching proceedings from afar against Trump and his blundering bovver boys, I become more agitated than I probably need to, but I quite often find my frustration directed more at the prosecutors than at Trump’s mostly contemptible allies. For example, MSNBC commentators and many of their guests, not to mention Nancy Pelosi, are still claiming that the crime here is bribery, when it’s clearly extortion, which is generally considered a more serious crime.

So what’s the difference? It should be obvious. A bribe generally involves appealing to a person’s venality. It’s usually presented in positive terms, as in ‘I’ll make you rich beyond the dreams of avarice if you just do this dirty job for me’. Extortion however is presented in more menacingly negative terms – ‘if you don’t do this dirty job for me, you’ll really really regret it’. Now, it’s notable that the infamous phone call from Trump was relatively polite, which is why he’s trying to characterise it as ‘perfect’. After all, by his boorishly bullying standards, it probably was. The near-polite asking of a favour, then, might be characterised as a bribe, but what was happening behind the scenes, directed by Trump, was definitely extortionate. That’s why focussing on the phone call as the main incident is definitely a mistake, and that’s why Giuliani, Mulvaney and Trump himself need to testify, and should of course be made to, and jailed immediately if they refuse, as should happen in any nation worthy of respect.

But this would only happen if the matter was being dealt with in court – where of course it should be dealt with.

Americans are profoundly worshipful of their constitution and their founding fathers. Indeed they seem to have been fine, upstanding, as well as colourful fellows. It’s my view, though, that given current circumstances, they’d have been the first to realise that the constitutional provisions for dealing with a law-breaking, rogue President were wholly inadequate. This isn’t surprising – experience is the best teacher in these matters, and the US experience has been mostly of Presidents priding themselves on being ‘gentlemen’. This is the only silver lining of this presidency, that it has exposed manifold inadequacies of the constitutional presidency system. 

Constitutions are guides to how governments are to be constituted. I don’t think the framers of this or any other constitution ever imagined that later followers would expect that it constituted the entire law under which the head of state operated. That, to me, is virtually proven by the vague and minimalist treatment of the legal liabilities of the President in the US Constitution. Surely the founding fathers took it for granted that the President would be subject to all the laws of the land that any other citizen would be subject to. How could it be otherwise for someone in leadership, someone expected to set an example? Even minor infractions would be seen as ‘the thin end of the wedge’, and generally this is the case under the Westminster system. 

The worst argument that could possibly be given for the kind of immunity granted to the US President is that he’s too powerful to be charged with a crime. You might call this the Putin argument (or the Stalin, Ghengis Khan or Ramses II argument, or name your favourite dictator). The argument hasn’t improved over the last 3000 years. 

Written by stewart henderson

November 21, 2019 at 4:32 pm

Trump and the USA’s failure, part 2: effective law and distributed power

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I have established the republic. But today it is not clear whether the form of government is a republic, a dictatorship, or personal rule.

Mustafa Kemal Ataturk

Australia’s House of Reps – politics as a team sport – mostly!

Australia has a Constitution, and so does Britain, but we don’t talk about them much – they don’t loom so large over the political system. The Westminster system doesn’t have an impeachment process, for the obvious reason that it is surplus to requirements. Due to its being a political process, impeachment is an unmitigated disaster.

So what happens, under the Westminster system, if a Prime Minister ‘goes rogue’ and either breaks the law or conducts herself in a manner contrary to the nation’s interest?

Well we need to step back a little to answer this question, because, under the US system, an elected President can be a rogue from the start. Trump is a clear case in point. Trump was, of course, far from being regarded as kosher by the Republican powers-that-be when he first suggested himself as a Presidential candidate, so he took his Barnum & Bailey campaign directly to the public, and in doing so highlighted the central problem of democracy, recognised two and a half thousand years ago, by Plato and Aristotle, who were unabashed anti-democratic elitists. The problem being, of course, demagoguery or populism – the notion that the public can be easily swayed by a candidate who promises everything and delivers nothing. The fact that this remains the most central problem of democracy surely says something about humanity in general – something that we may not be able to fix, but which we need to be on our guard against. Democracy is in fact a seriously flawed system – but far better than any other political system we’ve devised to regulate our seriously flawed human nature.

Under the Westminster system it’s far more difficult (though perhaps not impossible) for a ‘rogue from the beginning’ to reach the top of the political tree, because Prime Ministers aren’t directly elected. In fact the Westminster system has no correlate to the US presidential system, its general elections being much more correlated to the US mid-terms. This means, in effect, that under the Westminster system there is one set of general elections to two under the US system. Having two sets of general elections every four years seems a little over-indulgent. It means that you’re always preparing for or recovering from some election or other, and I’m not convinced that this is a good thing for your political health or your economy. And if you were ever to consider dispensing with one of those two sets of elections, clearly the Presidential elections should be the one to go.

Of course, this is sacrilege. Americans are obsessed with their Presidents – they even remember them as numbers – it’s bizarre. But it’s part-and-parcel, of course, with US individualism. It’s not surprising that the superhero is largely a US phenomenon. Many of your worst movies feature a Rambo or Indiana Jones-like character who single-handedly wins out over the baddies, often against a background of official incompetence or corruption. Think again of Trump’s OTT drain-the-swamp campaign rhetoric. And speaking of OTT, let’s not forget the carnivalesque razzamatazz of US Presidential elections, and the oodles of money that candidates are expected to raise, for no reasonable reason as far as I can see.

So, bearing all this in mind, let’s compare the situation and the job description of a Westminster-style Prime Minister with a US President.

Generally the Prime Minister is already an elected member of a party (either of the left or the right) and is chosen by parliamentary members of that party to be leader – much like a captain of a soccer team is already a player in the team and has proven herself to be experienced and knowledgable about playing the game and getting results. She has, in other words, earned the respect of her fellows. The Prime Minister works alongside her fellows, and under the scrutiny of her opponents, in the parliament. The President, on the other hand, is completely separate from parliament and surrounded by his own hand-picked team of very powerful courtiers, who need not have had any previous political experience.

The Prime Minister is able to choose her own cabinet, but only, of course, from elected members of parliament. All cabinet ministers, and indeed all MPs, are under continual scrutiny from other members of the House or the Senate. If the Prime Minister herself (or any other minister) is thought to be ‘going rogue’ or underperforming, she can be subjected to a no-confidence or censure motion in the House – requiring a simple majority. These have sometimes been successful, resulting in a change of Prime Minister between federal elections. While traumatic, such changes of leadership have nowhere near the impact that a change of President would have, since under the Westminster system the power is far more distributed, the team is far more important than its captain. The ‘great man’ Presidential system is such, however, that the only feasible way of dumping a President is by impeachment – an overly elaborate and highly political procedure that is almost designed to inflict trauma upon the populace.

There is, of course, no provision for impeachment in the Westminster system, and there has never been any need for such a process. A Prime Minister can, of course, be dumped for any number of reasons – most of which fall very far short of high crimes and misdemeanours. However, if a Prime Minister does go that far, she would be dealt with by law. There’s no suggestion under the Westminster system that a Prime Minister or any other minister or government official, would be immune from prosecution while in office. To me, the idea is totally absurd, for it seems far more reasonable that the precise opposite should be the case – that a country’s leader should be held to a higher legal standard than any other citizen. In other words, with great power comes greater legal responsibility, as a matter of course. Any political system that operates otherwise is simply rotten at its very core. It follows that the nation’s body of law, not the constitution, should govern the behaviour of those holding high office in government. For example, gaining a financial benefit from holding high office, other than the official salary and benefits that accrue to that office, should be illegal and cause for immediate dismissal in the most straightforward way. Contravening campaign finance laws should also be dealt with severely and immediately. If this causes a crisis in government, then clearly the system of government needs to be reformed, not the law. The constitution is at best a quasi-legal document, a laying out of the political system and the roles of its component parts. As an eighteenth century document, it can’t possibly be expected to cover the legal responsibilities of 21st century office-holders. That’s the vital role of a living, constantly adjusting body of law, to keep up with the legal responsibilities of a constantly modernising and complexifying political and business sector.

But let me return to the situation of Presidents, and candidates for the Presidency, since it’s unlikely that the US is going to give up on that institution.

You’ve learned the hard way that a rogue from the outset can bypass the traditional party system and win enough popular vote – with the help of a foreign nation – to become the leader of the most militarily and economically powerful nation on earth, despite having no political experience, no understanding of his nation’s history, no understanding of the geopolitical framework within which his nation operates, and no understanding of or interest in the global issues that all nations need to work together to solve. In other words, you’ve learned the hard way that anyone can indeed become your President, no matter how unsuited they are to the position. So how do you stop this from ever happening again?

Well if you insist on maintaining a system which ultimately pits one superhero against another, then you need I’m afraid, to admit to a serious but really rather obvious deficiency of democracy – the attraction of the demagogue (and I leave aside here the inherent problems of a state in which so many people can be hoodwinked). You need to vet all Presidential candidates with a set of questions and problems pertaining to both character and knowledge. Character questions wouldn’t be just of the type “What would you do if…” or ‘Do you think it is right to…’, questions that a sociopathic personality can always find the ‘successful’ answer to (though it’s doubtful that Trump could). They should be in the form of complex moral dilemmas that experimental psychologists have been adept at formulating over the years, requiring essay-type responses. The knowledge questions, by comparison, would be straightforward enough. Such tests should be assessed by professional diplomats and psychologists. This vetting, of course, cuts across the democratic process with a measure of ‘adults in the room’ intellectual, emotional and ethical elitism. Because of course you need a member of the intellectual and ethical elite to hold such a high office.

You might argue that Prime Ministers aren’t formally vetted, and that’s strictly true, but there’s at least an informal vetting system in that leaders have generally to climb from the ranks by impressing colleagues with their communication skills, their understanding of policy, their work ethic and so forth. It’s also the case that Prime Ministers have far less power than US Presidents – who have pardoning powers, special executive powers, power to shut down the government, veto powers, power to select unelected individuals to a range of high offices, power to appoint people to high judicial office and so forth. It’s hardly any wonder that characters like Trump are frustrated that they can’t take the next few steps towards total dictatorship. It’s interesting that I’ve recently heard a number of US pundits saying out loud ‘this isn’t a dictatorship’, as if they need to remind themselves of this fact!

Many will scoff at all this gratuitous advice. But you currently have a self-styled ‘very stable genius’ – a boorish, blustering, bullying, belly-aching buffoon in fact – in barricaded isolation in your White House and due to the multi-faceted failings of your politico-legal system, you can’t get rid of him as easily as you obviously should be able to, and I honestly feel that things will get much much worse before you do get rid of him. You can’t blame Trump for this – he has been exactly the same person for over 60 years. The fault lies with your system. If you don’t change it, you’ll never be able to regain the respect of the rest of the democratic world.

Written by stewart henderson

October 7, 2019 at 1:21 pm

random thoughts on human rights

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Over the years I’ve had arguments and discussions with people, and semi-disputes online, about the status of human rights, and rights in general. Some have been quite dismissive of their ‘mythical’ nature, others like Scott Attran have described them as a crazy, transcendental idea invented by a handful of Enlightenment figures back in the day, and boosted by the reaction to world wars in the 20th century. There have been objections by certain states claiming they don’t give sufficient cognisance to ‘Asian values’, and Moslem countries have argued that they need to be amended in accordance with Shar’ia Law.

The first point I would make is that, granted that rights are a human invention, that doesn’t make them ‘unreal’ or in some sense nugatory. Tables, chairs, buildings, computers, bombs, democracy and totalitarianism are all human inventions, but very real, if not all of equal value. To describe human rights as a form of transcendentalism also doesn’t make sense to me. Certainly if you say ‘God has granted certain inalienable rights…’ you’re using transcendental language, but that language is, I think, superfluous to the idea of rights, which, I would argue, is grounded in both empiricism and pragmatism.

I would also argue, no doubt more controversially, that human rights make little sense if based entirely on the individual. They are principally about human relations, and so imply that each individual is part of a larger social entity, within which they may be accorded ‘freedoms from’ and ‘freedoms to’. Aristotle puts the point well in his Politics:

the individual, when isolated, is not self-sufficing; and therefore he is like a part in relation to the whole. But he who is unable to live in society, or who has no need because he is sufficient for himself, must be either a beast or a god: he is no part of a state.

It follows that rights must be under the guardianship of states and enshrined in and upheld by their laws. This is vital because individuals often have competing interests, and it’s sometimes the case that particular individuals don’t recognise or understand that there’s a common, social interest beyond their own. This is the difficulty with rights – because we often think of them as my rights or my freedoms, we fail to understand that these rights, though granted in some sense to individuals, must be based on the thriving of the wider social sector, whether we’re referring to village, tribe or state. And it is to these larger social entities – states, or civilisations – that we owe our phenomenal success as a species, for better or worse.

This raises a question of whether the best human rights should flow from the best states, or vice versa. Interestingly, Aristotle and his students collected some 150 constitutions from the world of Greek poleis or city-states in order to devise the best, most ‘thriving’ city-state possible, which of course should have involved comparing the constitutions with the situation on the ground in those city-states. We don’t know if any such comparison was made (it’s very doubtful), but it does suggest that Aristotle thought that the state, via its constitution, was the engine of a thriving citizenry rather than the other way around.

Turning to rights in the modern world, the unfortunate claim by Tom Paine in his Rights of man (1791) that ‘rights are inherently in all the inhabitants’ of a state, has helped to create the confusion about rights being ‘natural’ to humans, like having two legs and a complex prefrontal cortex (the latter being largely the result of living in increasingly complex and organised society). If we’re to take human rights seriously, we need to be honest about their a posteriori nature. They need to be seen as the result of our understanding of how to create an environment that best suits us, as the most socially constructed mammals on the planet. In that respect, we’ve come a long way, not only from Aristotle (who excluded women and slaves from his citizenry), but also from the the late eighteenth century revolutionaries (who executed Olympe de Gouges for daring to even suggest adding women to the rights-owning citizenry of her own nation). Indeed, examining the issue of rights historically should remind us that they need to be updated on the basis of our ongoing advances in knowledge. The 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, by this understanding, should certainly not be fixed in stone.

My views, of course clash with ‘natural law’ notions of human rights, which tend to be based on the individual an sich, and have claims to be outside of social or temporal considerations.

If we try to think of rights as ‘natural’ or self-evident, rather than something we construct to help us understand what we owe to, and might expect from, the best of civil states, we might well agree with Alasdair McIntyre’s view that there’s nothing natural or self-evident, say, about allowing people, by right, the freedom to express or live by their religious views. Many religious views are notoriously idiosyncratic and sometimes offensive from an outsider’s perspective, and adding the ‘no harm’ principle doesn’t suffice to smooth things over. The jury is very much out as to whether religion is, or has been, a benefit to society, but it’s well known that some religions have, in the past, engaged in human sacrifices. And even today new religions might crop up which may involve practices that the majority would find inimical both to individual and social well-being. And of course the very definition of religion is far from being self-evident. Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, states:

Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.

However, it makes no attempt to define religion, and in the same Article it claims the right of all to ‘manifest his… belief…in practice and observance’. This, if taken literally, is absurd, as a person might hold a belief that slave-owning is okay, and is given the green light by this Article to ‘manifest that belief in practice.. and observance’. No doubt my criticism doesn’t capture the liberal ‘spirit’ of the Article, but it does highlight an obvious problem. People do act on beliefs, and many actions, based on those beliefs, can be harmful, and subject to criminal prosecution. The law, of course, prosecutes acts, not thoughts, so we know that we’re free to think what we want – we don’t need a ‘right’ to protect this. I won’t try to define religion, but at least it seems to involve both beliefs and actions. Actions will be subject to civil and criminal law, so it might be argued that rights don’t find a place there. Beliefs are private unless and until they’re acted on, in which case they’ll be subject to law. So there’s a question whether rights have a place there also.

The more I look at human rights, the more difficulties I see. Let me take, more or less at random, Article 21 of the UDHR:

(1) Everyone has the right to take part in the government of his country, directly or through freely chosen representatives.
(2) Everyone has the right of equal access to public service in his country.
(3) The will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government; this will shall be expressed in periodic and genuine elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by secret vote or by equivalent free voting procedures.

Section 3 here reads like a directive, but I agree that every member of a state should be allowed at least the opportunity to cast a vote for government. In Australia, voting is compulsory for eligible parties, as it is in some 22 countries (though enforced in only 11). It’s questionable whether compulsion accords with human rights and freedoms, but given the socially constructed nature of humanity, voting should definitely be encouraged as a duty, at the very least. The ideal, of course, would be that everybody is aware of what they owe to the state, and their interest in creating and maintaining a state that is beneficial to the whole and so to themselves as a part.

There is no doubt in my mind that participatory democracies make for better states than any alternatives, and if this can be bolstered by human rights language that is fine, though I think that interest and duty (what we owe to ourselves and others) makes more sense as an argument. The ‘Asian values’ objection here (revisited recently by the Chinese oligarchy) is bogus and self-serving, as evidenced by the success of democratic nations such as Japan, South Korea and Taiwan. There is a tendency in Asian nations to be more collectivist in thinking and behaviour than in many European nations, and especially the USA, but this would make them more attracted to participatory democracy, not less.

Concluding remarks – the more I look at rights, the more questionable I find them. I would rather encourage a neo-Aristotelian way of thinking. We’re now political animals more than ever, in a wider sense than Aristotle saw it, because civilisation itself is political, and civilisation is hardly something we can opt out of. I don’t advocate world government – that was an impossible if admirable ideal – but I certainly advocate intergovernmental co-operation as opposed to zero sum nationalism. We need to make an all-out effort to improve our state structures and understanding between them for the sake of all their members (and the rest of the biosphere).

Written by stewart henderson

August 31, 2019 at 8:44 am