Posts Tagged ‘democracy’

getting past stochastic

In Electoral Reform on January 15, 2018 at 9:04 pm

In Mind and Nature: a Necessary Unity (1979), [Gregory Bateson] argues that human learning and biological evolution are processes of the same basic kind: “stochastic” processes, in which a non-random selective element combines with randomly generated variation, a kind of filtered “trial-and-error” approach.

from Anthrobase website entry about Gregory Bateson


This post is not a random walk. Please bear with me.

Our modern concept of democracy is hard to define, and experts openly agree that the boundaries of the term are vague. Simple observation tells you that, really, there are only two conditions to be met. A country is democratic in the modern sense if it allies with the western nations, led by the United States of America, (the first and greatest modern democratic state), and also if there is some voting. What makes modern democracy hard to define is that experts seek less overt ways to frame that first condition.

What is great about this website you are now reading is that it has a strong functional definition of Democracy in the original and ancient sense of the word, that is: Rule by the People. You don’t see that much, even on the wild web.

Of course, I want you to read all the website chapters, but here’s a quickie synopsis. There are these three models: argument is a word model of a problem and its solution, voting is a model of war, and the Assembly is a model of the democratic community. A Democracy, a community ruled by its own people, uses these three models habitually and exclusively, to build the consensus to get things done. The better the models, the more people like and commit to the repeatable process. Ancient Athenians first used the word Democracy to describe the new kind of governance they invented, and that incorporated those three models.

We modern folk, we don’t understand any of the three models very well; they don’t apply in our modern lives the way they did for the ancient democrats. For us, arguing is when we’re angry and have to shout at someone. For us, voting pretty much is democracy, and, when we are on the loosing side in a vote, then we grumble that voting is ‘the dictatorship of the majority’. But the third model, the Assembly, that’s even more of a puzzler.

The trick of a democratic (in the original sense) Assembly is to use a small group of people, a subset of the wider democratic community, and correctly instruct and motivate them so they respond to various community challenges, as those challenges arise, in the same way as would the wider democratic community. So, the Assembly comes up with the same solutions as would be arrived at if, instead, the community had held a fair referendum after thorough public discussions on the matter at hand. (This ability is called channeling in the essays.) In the ancient democracy of Athens, the Assembly was a random sample selection from all the free men of the city, maybe as many as one in six, maybe as few as one in thirty. The ratio was high enough that the Athenian assembly  could, with reasonable expectation, consistently channel the whole democratic community. And so, the People Ruled.

But that was then and this is now. In terms of the number of people who called it home, ancient Athens was comparable to present day Saint Albert. Today there are about 36 million Canadians. We can’t easily round up a half million or so people for this jury duty. We cannot follow Athen’s blueprint for a democratic assembly.

Our solution to this challenge is at once both pleasingly organic and intellectually frustrating. First, we use today the colonial institutions that were given us by the 19th century British Empire, as a bid to maintain control of their colony. Then, over the generations, as that Empire faded, we made ad hoc tweaks to our institutions, as the political expedience of the moment demanded. And finally, we have bundled it all with patriotic myths.

By far the most useful myth is that we practice ‘Democracy’, cashing in on its old connotation of ‘rule by the people’, while we have revised the definition of Democracy to now mean ‘whatever we do’. Et voilà: it is now hard to even realize that there is a problem to be solved!

And, so armed with ignorance, we muddle into the 21st century.

From my point of view, what we have is sub-optimal. In part, this website is an effort to explain why the description above is a realistic view of our Canadian way of governance. And if it is realistic, then, if we instead want to practice democracy, in that older rule-by-the-people sense, then we must bring those three models into our culture.

The first two are probably not really beyond our grasp. Sure, we like to yell at each other, but most people know at some level that problems can be solved through discussion. And most of us can get the analogy that the vote is like the fight without the bloodshed. But the third, that the Assembly channels the wider community, that is a strange, even spooky, analogy. But really, it is just a poetic way to frame a technical problem.

Now this is the money quote coming up.  If we decide to practice democracy, in that older rule-by-the-people sense, we need to come up with a technical way to make a Canadian Assembly that channels the wider Canadian community.

Those ancient Greeks solved that technical problem for their situation, so we can hope a solution is possible for us. I took a stab at a technical solution to the Channeling Assembly for Canada problem in chapter 7 of this website. I think it’s pretty good as a rough draft, but if you have a better idea, by all means roll it out and we will have a look!

I am trying to rigorously frame our 21st century challenge. In that light, I see the 3E Senate proposal as a try at a technical solution.  Currently, Fair Vote Canada advocates electoral reform and that also is a proposed technical solution. In this website I provided a technical explanation why these two proposals do not give a Channeling Assembly, in the technical meaning of that poetic term, and so do not advance the cause of Democracy in its original context.

I am not criticizing those advocates for coming up with proposals. On a personal level, I admire the enthusiasm and drive with which both campaigns have been run, and the genuine hope and joy both these campaigns have generated in the hearts of their respective supporters. Those proposed solutions aren’t wrong for lack of passion. The proposals are wrong because they don’t satisfy the technical requirements for democracy, if by democracy we mean rule by the people; sadly, all that hope is misplaced.

And, even further, I am not even criticizing those advocates for putting forth plainly faulty models. Our crummy modern definition of modern democracy is useless for gauging the efficacy of any proposal. If we don’t really know where we are going, we can’t really judge if we are getting there or not. Stochastic processes generally suck at efficiency. But sometimes they deliver.

Which brings me back to The Unbroken Machine by author Dale Smith. I have been mulling over this book for a few months now. There are parts quite contrary to my way of thinking; the whole chapter about the Maple Crown I found quite difficult to process, as I noted in my earlier post. And, as might be expected, nowhere in the book is a definition of democracy offered. Nor is it explicitly stated that our common definition of democracy is too vague to be of use. But Dale Smith is concerned with something he has called ‘civic illiteracy’, and that is an issue related to the careless use of words like ‘democracy’.  And, unexpectedly, while defending partisanship, at every turn Dale Smith champions more independence for MP’s. In this we are in agreement, but he is motivated by the cause of Accountability, not ancient Democracy. And Accountability is a principle that is addressed nowhere in my website of Canadian governance, because, when I was writing my site, I was a civic illiterate about Accountability.

I was pretty excited when I first read about Accountability. I think that, somehow, this principle, still new to me, maybe can be harnessed to develop the channeling Assembly we need for Canadian democracy, as in rule-by-the-people democracy. I want to explore this theme in my next word model, or rather, post.

Welcome to 2018!



deconstructing the machine

In book review, Electoral Reform on December 30, 2017 at 5:49 pm

The Unbroken Machine is a great book. As I said in an earlier post, the book seems to have been written, at least in part, as a challenge to the Fair Vote Canada electoral reform campaign for proportional representation. Anybody interested in electoral reform should read The Unbroken Machine. It is thorough. And it is certainly challenging. I agree, with author and blogger Dale Smith, that Canadians should know how their system is supposed to work. By ‘should’, I mean that our self-government would proceed with less confusion and frustration on the part of those of us who are governed, and with more consistency by those who govern us.

Each chapter in The Unbroken Machine covers an aspect of Responsible Government. In the first chapter the idea of Responsible Government is championed as a ‘good’ form of government, although we have never truly achieved that ideal. The case is put forward that we are not using our government correctly, because of a general ignorance of how it is meant to function: our Civic Illiteracy.

And that is tackled in the second chapter, where a general theory of Responsible Government is presented, and some of the main features are described and put into perspective. The role of political parties is described, and that includes a spirited defense of their deeply partisan behaviour.

The third chapter deals with elections. Significantly, the candidate selection process, within the parties themselves, is the starting point. The author makes the argument that this is a critical step in the democratic process, a step at which people in their ridings need to participate more. The real virtues of first-past-the-post are defended, especially within the context of Accountability, and the faults of proportional representation are highlighted. Accountability is one of the foundations of Responsible Government. This idea of Accountability is  championed throughout the book, and I will come back to it in later posts.

Chapter 4 is about the House of Commons, and describes the way MP’s act and proscribes the way they should act. There is a very good, if brief, critique of how financial records are kept and circulated. A lot of useful ideas to consider here. Also, a refreshingly candid justification for question period.

Chapter 5 is a cautious defense of the Senate as is. As the author points out, the Senate has become the punching bag of Canadian institutions; it is very popular to talk of its reformation or abolition. So, whether one is for or against the Senate, it is worthwhile to read a reasoned promotion of the Senate that lists the institution’s positive contributions, as well as pointing out the weaknesses of current popular proposals for Senate reform.

Maybe it’s because of all the crank stuff I have thought about and written, but I could understand the positions taken throughout all the chapters so far. Some points of contention, sure, but I can empathize even if I disagree.

The sixth chapter, with the great title ‘The Maple Crown’, is about the Canadian monarchy, and I found it the most provocative. The Unbroken Machine claims, correctly, I think, that since 1931 Canada is formally a monarchy, and that the monarch, Queen Elizabeth II, who sits upon the British throne in London, is also the Queen of Canada (Elizabeth I, then?).

It is profoundly difficult for me to see myself as a royal subject rather than a free citizen, and I was surprised how much that bothered me, the 21st century renaissance man that I think I am.

Much of my distress may be in struggling to understand rigorously what is the relationship between a subject and his monarch. Or, should that be: a Monarch and Her subject?

Am I in some sense someone’s property?

Is my property not really mine but Her’s, and I’m just taking care of it for Her?

Is it my ‘civic’ duty to obey the Queen?

She was born into the job; is She divinely appointed?

One of Her titles is Defender of the Faith (that Faith being Anglican); do I commit treason by championing evolution and ethology on this public blog in Her realm?

The Unbroken Machine rather brushes past these interesting questions; the Queen is the Canadian head of state. Well, fair enough, I suppose, but that means that there is a person who, thanks specifically to her family connections, thanks especially to the violence her ancestors were able to inflict, is granted by the Canadian establishment a whole lot of leeway, but at the same time it is expected (hoped?) that this individual will not overtly use Her tremendous legal and enforceable advantages over the rest of us. I find this a profoundly difficult situation to justify. (Is it treasonous to say that this sounds a lot like sucking up to a local mobster?)

In The Unbroken Machine, Dale Smith is not afraid to level criticism where he feels it is deserved, but in this sixth chapter there are instances that I would find very hard to defend. One is that Quebecois nationalists are

“… forgetting … that it is thanks to the Royal Proclamation of 1763 and the Quebec Act of 1774 that the province exists at all and that its people have been allowed to retain their language, religion, and culture.”

In historical context, the British Empire acted as it did in 1763 and 1774, anticipating, correctly, rebellion from the restive English-speaking  American colonists the Empire was abusing to the south. So, one could say: Québec exists thanks to America’s drive for freedom and democracy. Or, we could also note that the French-speaking people persevered in Lower Canada despite the prejudice and abuse from the English-speaking upper class the Empire installed to rule over them. So, one could as well say: Québec exists thanks to the resilience of the Canadiens themselves. And also, “forgetting”? Really?

Here’s another point hard to defend. Later in this sixth chapter the author talks about the costs of maintaining the Canadian monarchy. A fair case is put forward that we Canadians are getting a deal by sharing the Royal family with Britain, compared to, for example, the cost of electing a head of state as is done in America. But, even so,

“We must also be wary of those who would see that all spending for pomp and ceremony be eliminated in the name of frugality. While no one is looking for the kinds of lavish gold-plated displays of dictators in the Third World, there needs to be an awareness that democracy costs, diplomacy costs, and ceremony plays an important part in our society…”

So, democracy costs because Canada is a monarchy? Isn’t a kingdom a gold-plated dictatorship anyways? And then, incredibly…

“… Nobody actually wants to live in  a drab, colourless society where pomp and ceremony are extinct.”

And I just have to wonder how, for example, someone in one of the hundred or so Canadian communities waiting for clean water, will wrap their head around that statement.

As I said earlier, I found this chapter on the Canadian monarchy most challenging, personally. But I am glad I read the book; I learned a lot. Dale Smith is a genuine expert who has offered honest insight into how he sees Canadian governance. Throughout the book, the author defends Canada’s Responsible Government and its various facets. However, at each stage he also offers suggestions for improvement, ways to strengthen Accountability and clarify the relationships between the various parts.

It is stated several times in the book that there has never been ideal Responsible Government in Canada; always there has been backsliding. But, as we wobble about in our uncertain orbit, the ideal still beckons. Dale Smith has made a strong effort to show how we have gone astray, and how we could drift further, and also, how we could take positive steps towards the ideal, and become more satisfied with our governance as a consequence. The first step is overcoming our Civic Illiteracy, so buy and read the book!

Have a safe and happy New Years Eve!

the trappings of civilizations

In Uncategorized on February 18, 2017 at 3:43 pm

It’s early morning on the first day of Family Day weekend in Alberta. Everyone else is still asleep in the house. A good time to put out another blog post. This one is about a great book. It is  Ronald Wright‘s brief classic, A Short History of Progress. I first heard of it as the Massey Lectures topic in 2004, and I read the book shortly after. I re-found and re-read it again during the Great House Clean-Up of 2016.

The idea is that people, being opportunistic animals, find and exploit local natural niches, live there and grow numerous and prosperous. We develop cultures, ways of doing things with each other, to divvy up the ecosystem’s bounty. And then we get too efficient in our exploitation or we grow too numerous, or both, and the ecosystem is exhausted and collapses. At which point there are a whole bunch of disappointed people with a culture, a way of doing things, that no longer works. The book argues that all civilizations, including our current global one, are examples of this boom-and-bust cycle. It is the trap of civilization.

It was fun for me to come across Solon and Peisistratos, in Progress, in a quite different context. I had written about them as adversaries in the struggle for democracy, but they were also allies in the struggle to slow deforestation around ancient Athens.

But I think the most evocative story in Progress is the parable of the Easter Islanders. On that isolated Pacific island social standing came to involve carving and erecting those iconic stone figures. And that involved cutting down trees to roll the statues into place. And so the Easter Islanders cut down all the trees on Easter Island, and could no longer build boats. As Wright says,

We might think that in such a limited place, where, from the height of Terevaka, islanders could survey their whole world at a glance, steps would have been taken to halt the cutting, to protect the saplings, to replant. We might think that as trees became scarce, the erection of statues would have been curtailed, and timber reserved for essential purposes such as boatbuilding and roofing. But that is not what happened. The people who felled the last tree could see it was the last tree, could know with perfect certainty there would never be another. And they felled it anyway.

Did some Easter Islanders rail against the clear cutting policy? Were they mocked as ‘tree-huggers’ by mainstream society? In the end, Easter Island conservationists were not socially dominant, could not carry the day, and they and their civilization paid the ultimate price.

Nobody on Easter Island wanted that to happen. Evey thinking person knew there would be serious consequences to cutting down the last tree. Somehow, the people in charge, in the highest ranks of their competitive society, they dared not loose face before their social rivals. Somehow, those important people let their own standing cloud their judgement.

Progress goes on to tell how, in the final years, everyone knew mistakes had been made. In hopeless fury, people pushed over and smashed as many of those stone statues as they could. The former leaders and their offspring could not have fared well in those last days. Only through cannibalism could anybody survive, and the slogan “Eat the Rich!” would have taken on special significance.

The similarities between the ancient Easter Islanders and us today in our global society are pretty obvious. The question that Progress poses is, can we 21st century people survive the civilization trap? It has never been done before. If we do avoid the trap, it may be done by practicing (real) democracy.

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