A Curious Miscellany of Items Philosophical, Historical, and Literary

Manus haec inimica tyrannis.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

A Strictly Partisan Piece

Toronto, June 2010.
“If you want a vision of the future, imagine a boot
stamping on a human face ― forever.” 
George Orwell, 1984
After watching the televised leaders’ debate two nights ago, I learned three things about Prime Minister Stephen Harper that I hadn’t realized before. First, he has the interesting (though unsettling) habit of smiling when he lies. I’m serious, watch for it; it’s a piece of knowledge that may prove useful for our self-defense in the coming years.

Second, Mr. Harper doesn’t think of himself as representing Canadians. In a telling sentence during the debate, he spoke of Canadians having chosen him to “rule them”. Strange usage in a democracy, methought. None of his opponents seemed to have picked up on it. I would have been all over it. Unfortunately, his opponents are pitifully weak, and it showed.

Third, Mr. Harper speaks in code to his base. There were at least two examples of this during the debate. One example was when he referred to Canadians as having a “right to health insurance”. In the context of a discussion of improving Canada’s publicly-funded health care system, this locution seemed a bit jarring to me, although none of his opponents seemed to pick up on it, or if they did, they chose to let it pass. In normal parlance, one expects to hear of a “right to health care”. “Right to health insurance” sounds, well, American. Semantically, Harper’s usage here is perfectly consistent with various schemes for private health programs that have been floated, such as President Obama’s very flawed plan. The language was very ambivalent, and again, unfortunately, his opponents failed to pick up on it.

Another example of Mr. Harper’s use of code was more chilling, especially if you live in one of Canada’s major cities. This time there was one opponent clever enough to call him on it, Gilles Duceppe (sad times indeed, when the most able defender of the interests of Canadians ends up being a separatist ― but then again, maybe he’s on to something). In the context of a discussion of gun control and his government’s efforts to scrap the long gun registry, Mr. Harper said that he didn’t see why farmers should have to “pay for the problems of Vancouver, Montreal, and Toronto”. I’m necessarily paraphrasing his precise words (I may have reversed the order of the cities). Mostly for the benefit of non-Canadian readers, here is what is so chilling about Mr. Harper’s words. According to the 2006 census, Toronto’s population was 5,555,912. Vancouver’s was 2,116,581. Montreal’s was 3,635,571. Thus, in 2006, 9,194,180 people were living in the greater metropolitan areas of these three cities alone. The total population of Canada at the same time was 31,241,030.

This means that Mr. Harper does not consider the problems of over 29% of the Canadian population to be his concern or the concern of his base. This is evident in the way he has governed for the past five years. Now obviously, this 29% can go much higher, because many of the problems of Toronto, Vancouver, and Montreal are also the problems of, say, Winnipeg, Hamilton, and Halifax.

Mr. Harper’s strategy makes sense. You cannot stay in power while at the same time openly insulting and effectively writing off almost a third of the electorate, unless you are willing to maintain a solid base (Alberta) while adopting a divide-and-conquer strategy with everyone else, categorizing the population by groups and then pitting them against one another: region versus region, rich versus poor, rural versus urban, native-born Canadians versus immigrants, old immigrants versus new immigrants, straights versus gays, Christians versus Muslims… This strategy, combined with a “first-past-the-post” electoral system that makes a mockery of the notion that Canada is a democracy, have worked pretty well for Mr. Harper. Although he has yet to leverage a majority government out of it, holding on to a minority government for five years with such tenuous popular support is quite an accomplishment.

His base was who Mr. Harper was really talking to during that debate, as his reptilian visage stared vapidly into the television camera rather than into the faces of the opponents in the same room whose questions he was supposed to be answering.

Unfortunately for his opponents, the base doesn’t care for the civilities of informed discourse between opponents. The base simply worships brute power. The base admires the naked combat that is politics in Mr. Harper’s new-modeled Canada. The base admires only winners and cares little about the rules that determine them. The symbols of political discourse in the new Canada are the brass knuckles and the switchblade knife.

The base does not like being instructed; it likes watching those who would try to instruct them getting mashed in the face by the fist of someone who is strong. This is why Michael Ignatieff, despite being the most intellectually accomplished Prime Ministerial candidate this nation has ever had (whatever you think of his particular views), cannot make any headway in this campaign: he tries to instruct Canadians, when what Canadians really seem to want him to do is pound his fist into his opponent’s face. Canadians must know that the thousands of revolting anti-Ignatieff attack ads the Conservatives ran in the months leading up an election they supposedly didn’t want are lies. But the truth doesn’t matter. Triumph and gloating over a destroyed enemy is what counts in the new Canada. If Mr. Ignatieff were to run his own attack ads… well, that might turn things around for him. But knowledge, policies, an understanding of how the world works will get him nowhere. After all, as Mr. Harper’s attack ads make clear, to have been outside the country, and to have accomplished something outside the country, are badges of shame, not honour, in the new Canada.

Mr. Harper’s base in Canada has grown into that 30 to 40% of Canadians who would vote for him under any and all conceivable circumstances. He has lied to, obstructed, and shut down Parliament. He has overseen the largest mass detention of innocent people in Canadian history. He is complicit in torture abroad. He has misappropriated public funds. His ministers have doctored memoranda of understanding after they have been signed off on by other parties (which is fraud, plain and simple), and then lied about it. Most alarmingly, he has begun to use the RCMP (who have apparently become the Stasi of the new Canada) to spy on the Facebook pages of citizens so that he can screen them for undesirable (i.e. non-Conservative) political leanings. There is almost no crime he and his party apparatchiks have not committed, and I’m confident there is no crime they would stick at committing if they could profit from it. However, given the rigidity of the poll numbers, Mr. Harper would have to molest a child or rape a baby harp seal to make his base so much as blush.

Where Do We Go from Here?

The leaders’ debate made clear to me that nothing will likely stop Mr. Harper from forming the next government, furthering Canada’s drift into authoritarian rule. Whether he receives a minority or a majority mandate is an open question, one that will probably make little substantive difference anyway. If it’s a minority, the other parties will likely be too absorbed in their own resulting leadership battles to offer any kind of effective opposition. So, those who are of my mind about the profound dangers of Conservative governance must begin to think about where we go from here, on the assumption that there will be, for all intents and purposes, a majority Conservative government.

The obvious idea that has been discussed is a coalition government of the opposition parties. This is no longer a viable option, for at least three reasons. First, this door will be slammed shut if the Conservatives win a proper majority government, which is entirely possible at this point. Second, the leader of the Liberals, Mr. Ignatieff, has slammed that door shut by declaring in no uncertain terms that he would not try to form a coalition. He almost had to do this in order to counteract Mr. Harper’s relentless propaganda warning of a nefarious coalition. Third, it is unclear if such a coalition could even garner the required popular support. There are many who dislike Mr. Harper, but dislike the idea of such a coalition just as much. At the very least, the current leadership of the opposition parties would have to change before many Canadians would be willing to revisit the option, which puts us back where we were. And any coalition would have to have enough support to be able to exclude the separatist Bloc Quebecois from membership, which is currently impossible.

Thus, instead of longing for a coalition government to rescue us, we need to think about creative ways of resisting. In January 2001 Mr. Harper co-authored an open letter to Alberta Premier Ralph Klein suggesting that the province of Alberta build firewalls around itself to protect it from the rest of Canada. We who wish to resist Mr. Harper’s growing despotism must start to build firewalls around our urban areas, where effects of this despotism will be most keenly felt. This would necessitate putting pressure on municipal governments to grow some serious backbone, as it would mean doing battle with not only the federal government, but in many cases with provincial governments as well. I favour any method that has us building our own states within the state, rendering the federal government as unnecessary as possible (which is basically the path suggested by Mr. Harper in his “firewall” letter). That would be the basic strategic framework within which we should start debating specific measures. It is unfortunate that this might have the long-term effect of further weakening our tottering confederation, but we can thank Mr. Harper for making this necessary.

Another thing we might have to start thinking about ― and I know most will believe I’m being paranoid or irrational here ― is how we can defend ourselves, in more robust ways, from the more concrete forms of authoritarianism we can expect in the next four years or so. With all those new mega-prisons and police officers Mr. Harper has promised (despite falling crime rates), I can’t help wondering what else he has planned. What I learned from last summer’s G20 experience is that mass detentions and the use of “police” paramilitary force to trample on basic constitutional rights is a growing reality in the new Canada. Even worse, there is no formal political institution or body that can protect us from it. The system of checks and balances has almost completely broken down. So the organization of citizen defense groups of some sort may eventually become necessary (I hesitate using the word “militia” because I want to avoid the assumption that such groups must possess firearms, and because I do not wish to fall afoul of Canada’s sedition laws here). As drastic as this sounds, it is something that should be considered sooner rather than later. Since Mr. Harper already seems to be using the RCMP to check up on the political credentials of ordinary citizens, it may soon become more difficult to organize resistance.

I have frittered away much of my life as a scholar. I am not a born activist, so I don’t know how to go about doing any of this. I would like to hear what ideas you have, general or specific, that might help protect us.

Room for Hope?

Ironically, almost the sole prospect of hope I see in our situation comes from within the Conservative party itself. As much as Mr. Harper dislikes expressions of dissent from citizens, so too does he dislike it from within his party’s ranks. There must be intelligent and ambitious people within the Conservative party that are chafing under Mr. Harper’s authoritarian style of governing. Perhaps at some point the proverbial knives will come out and solve the problem for us? Even better, there is the outside chance that this will happen sooner than anyone expects, if Mr. Harper fails to produce the majority government his party hungers for.

There is also the possibility that Mr. Harper’s own character will become his worst enemy. Despite the illusion, he is far from infallible. He has a talent for making enemies, he is vindictive, and he never forgets a slight. Sooner or later he may find himself very isolated. This may already be happening. Think of all the former cronies that seem to have become personae non grata in the Harper inner circle: Tom Flanagan, Peter MacKay, Stockwell Day…  He also has a well-known habit of overplaying his hand, and his overweening pride is almost without measure. In his time in office he has caused himself many a needless problem that could easily have been avoided if he weren’t so arrogant and autocratic. Part of Mr. Harper’s problem is that he’s often too clever for his own good, much like the politician in Samuel Butler’s Hudibras (III.ii.351-356 and 393-400):

‘Mong these there was a Politician,
With more heads than a Beast in Vision,
And more Intrigues in ev’ry one,
Than all the Whores of Babylon:
So politick, as if one eye
Upon the other were a Spy;
*        *        *
And when he chanc’d t’escape, mistook
For Art, and Subtlety, His Luck,
So right his Judgment was cut fit,
And made a Tally to his wit,
And both together most Profound
At Deeds of Darkness under ground:
As th’Earth is easiest undermin’d
By vermine Impotent and Blind.

Monday, April 11, 2011

The Experimental Moralist

David Hume published the first two volumes of his A Treatise of Human Nature in 1739, and the final third volume in 1740. Despite all the attention paid by philosophers to it now, at the time it appeared it was not a publishing success. As Hume famously remarked in his autobiography, the work “fell dead born from the press”. It seems to have received little critical notice, and in later years, Hume repudiated his early book entirely, not even deigning to include it in the successive editions of his collected works he prepared for the press.

Some years ago I was involved in a bibliographical project, which led me to graze through old issues of The Gentleman’s Magazine, where I discovered an anonymous poem in the November 1741 of the magazine (Volume 11, pp. 602-603). The work seems to be a satirical criticism of Hume’s Treatise. Although the poem does not make explicit mention of Hume or the Treatise, there can be little doubt that Hume is its intended target. If so, it represents an early and rare critical notice of Hume’s work.

For one thing, the poem is entitled “The Experimental Moralist: A Fable”. The subtitle of Hume’s book was “being an attempt to introduce the experimental method of reasoning into moral subjects”. For another thing, the Fable satirizes the core ideas of the second and third volumes of the Treatise, particularly the infamous claim that, contrary to the received view, the only role for reasoning in moral conduct is to scout ahead and see how the passions and desires may best be served.

In criticizing Hume’s moral philosophy, the author seems in general to adopt a neo-Stoic view of morality, reflecting the influences of Lord Shaftesbury and Joseph Butler. Of course, this may be giving him too much credit, for he seems to be an untalented philosopher ― and an even worse poet!

For those readers who might have an interest in Hume or eighteenth century British moral philosophy, I reproduce below the poem in its entirety. I have not edited it in any way, which means that I have done nothing to bring order to the author’s archaic and seemingly random employment of quotation marks. I have added only a few explanatory notes where I thought these might be appropriate.

*    *    *    *    *


A  F A B L E.

STUDIOUS from diff’ring tales to show
That virtue makes our bliss below,
My warning voice to ev’ry heart
May ev’ry faithful ear impart;
This one important truth believ’d,
Who can by vice be still deceiv’d?
Bliss is our aim, and bliss our end,
And he who points the path, a friend.
     A Goat and Fox, by joint consent,
Together once a journey went;
With patient steps from morning’s dawn
They measur’d hill, and vale, and lawn;
When Phoebus in the zenith rode,
A chearless, pathless waste they trod;  [1]
The fainting wand’rers wide around
With sighs survey’d the burning ground;
Again, and yet again they look,
To find the welcome cooling brook;
The welcome cooling brook in vain
They sought around the sun-burnt plain.
Onward they slowly pass, when lo
A pit ― and water ― deep below;
Urg’d by a strong desire to drink,
They both leap headlong from the brink.
For appetite still foremost goes,
Quite blind to all beyond its nose;
And Reason, impotently kind,
A tardy friend, limps far behind.  [2]
Now when our pair had drink’d amain,
They thought of getting out again;
And long with aching hearts they try’d,
But this the steep ascent deny’d.
Reynard at length the goat addrest,
And thus his wily thought expresst:
‘Courage, my friend, ― be rul’d by me,
‘We’ll soon form this mischance be free.
‘Here ― of the pit the shallowest place,
‘On your hind legs your body raise,
‘And while thy horns my weight sustain,
‘At one light bound the shore I’ll gain,
‘And thence effectual aid can lend
‘to save thee too, my dearest friend,’ ―
The goat consents ― and by his aid
The fox his leap successful made;
His friend look’d up, well pleased no doubt,
And deem’d himself as good as out;
But the false fox, with barb’rous sneer,
Cry’d, ‘Pox! How came you scrambling here?’
The goat reply’d, ‘Forbear to flout,
‘Lest I should ask how you got out’
Said he, ‘Of that no doubt remains,
‘You’d horns, my friend, ― and I had brains.
‘You wear that wisdom on your chin
‘Which I, more modest, hide within.
‘We beasts of sprightly thought despise
‘All who like thee look gravely wise ―
‘Improve these useful hints aright,
‘You’ll profit much ― and so good night.
This said, he titt’ring slunk away,
The goat remain’d to death a prey.
     In wonder lost, with horror chill’d,
With anguish, indignation fill’d,
The traytor-friend’s enormous guile
Engross’d his shudd’ring soul a while;
A while the wretched beast forgot
His pity’d, helpless, hopeless lot;
But after short suspence his woes
Return’d ― as the stem’d torrent flows,
With trebled force ― he scarce sustain’d
The shock ― and thus at length prophan’d.
     ‘For ever let that maxim cease,
“That virtue’s paths are paths of peace.” ―
‘Where’s that reward which learned pride
‘Boasts none from virtue can divide?
‘Where the sure woes of various kinds,
‘Which fate to vice forever binds?
‘Life, joy, (or what cou’d make him smile)
‘The fox obtains thro’ horrid guile;
‘My life, my humble guiltless joys,
‘At once a gen’rous trust destroys;
‘Jove’s slumb’ring vengeance lets him fly,
‘His goodness slumbers while I die.
     A sylvan god who pass’d that way
(Of old none wander’d more than they)
By chance the rash impeachment heard
And instant on the brink appear’d.
‘Look up, he cries, no more despair,
‘The help you wish prevents your pray’r;
‘Safe on the wish’d substantial plain,
‘I’ll set thy dying feet again.
‘The fox with envy did’st thou see?
‘Henceforth thyself a fox shalt be. ―
‘Thou shalt his prosp’rous vice possess,
‘And taste a fox’s happiness.
     The thing was done as soon as said,
A fox, the goat enfranchiz’d fled,
But feels within his alter’d mind,
His narrow’d love to self confin’d.
No more from others good his breast
The social joy serene possess’d;
No more by kind compassion mov’d,
His mercy is by foes approv’d.
Now mutual wants, love’s band below,
No means to fix a friend bestow;
Unlov’d, unloving, deep in earth
He gives his schemes of plunder birth.  [3]
From injur’d man, his friend so late,
He fears the stroke of potent hate;
With griefs looks back on periods past.
His bloodless food, a blest repast!
Which late he cropt in peace profound,
With flocks, and herds, and men around,
Yet now abhors that guiltless food,
To rapine doom’d, and thirst of blood,
And mourns the days (to this a slave)  [4]
When heav’n a happier nature gave;
‘By dear experience now I know,
‘That virtue’s only bliss below;
‘He, sighing, said, in sad despair,
‘And thus prefers a fault’ring pray’r,
“Ye gracious pow’rs who rule above!
“Who virtue, and its vot’ries love!
“I see my fault, my fault repent,
“And own I ask’d the pains you sent.
“I now th’ unrighteous thought foregoe,
“That vice is bliss, and virtue woe;
“Oh! make me what I was again,
“Tho’ faint I tread the scorching plain;
“Tho’ with a faithless fox I stray,
“Me tho’ again his wiles betray,
“Make me a goat, tho’ void of wit,
“You leave me dying in the pit:
“’Tis better far than thus alone
“To live without one joy my own;
“For while the past my mind retains,
“My resent pleasures are but pains.”
     He pray’d, to Jove the pray’r ascends;
His ear to pray’rs like these he lends.  [5]
“I (said the god) thy wish fulfil,
“Henceforth, be virtuous ― if you will
“Be man ― to him that pow’r I give;
“Go ― and by past experience live.”
Transform’d again, with lifted eyes,
The man his story thus applies. ―
“From what appears, how little do we know
“What others feel of happiness or woe!
“Is vice your envy when of health possess’d,
“With pow’r, and pelf, and all externals blest?  [6]
“Know that amidst that health, & pow’r, & pelf,
“The thriving villain must abhor himself;
“For who can bear, tho’ desperately brave,
“The voice of conscience when it calls him knave?
“Or who so dull, without regret to miss
“Of conscious goodness the substantial bliss?  [7]
“Ask your own heart, and search thro’ all you know,
“All, all this universal truth attest,
The virtuous are, and can alone be blest.”  [8]


1. Lord Rochester, “A Satyr against Reason and Mankind”, ll. 12-15:
“Reason, an ignis fatuus in the mind,
Which, leaving light of nature, sense, behind,
Pathless and dangerous wandering ways it takes
Through error’s fenny bogs and thorny brakes”

2. An obvious reference to Hume’s views on the respective roles of reason and passion in practical reasoning.

3. Samuel Butler, Hudibras, III.ii.393-400:
“And when he chanc’d t’escape, mistook
For Art, and Subtlety, His Luck,
So right his Judgment was cut fit,
And made a Tally to his wit,
And both together most Profound
At Deeds of Darkness under ground:
As th’Earth is easiest undermin’d
By vermine Impotent and Blind.”

See also John Milton, Paradise Lost, Bk. II, ll. 376-378: “Advise if this be worth / Attempting, or to sit in darkness here / Hatching vain empires.”

4. A pointed reference to Hume’s famous line in the Treatise (Pt. 3, sec 3): “Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.”

5. “Ear” is the most plausible reading. The text is illegible.

6. “Externals” here is a technical Stoic usage, referring to those things that are not in our power to control.

7. This view of the role of conscience is reminiscent of Bishop Butler’s views in Fifteen Sermons Preached at the Rolls Chapel (1726).

8. This ending is somewhat reminiscent of the closing sentence of Lord Shaftesbury’s Inquiry concerning Virtue, or Merit (1st edition, 1699): “[Virtue] is that by which alone Man can be happy, and without which he must be miserable. And, thus, VIRTUE is the Good, and VICE the ill of every-one.” Reprinted in Characteristicks of Men, Manners, Opinions, Times (1711), Vol. II, p. 176.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Of Raillery

April 6, 1757

My Dear Mr. Avenger,

Since we are become familiar, you must by now have recogniz’d that my Admiration for my Lord SHAFTESBURY knows no bounds; it borders upon Idolatry. His is a Muse at once both elegant in Expression and profound in Philosophy. This is a rare mixture indeed, for with the exception of the Clergy, there is perhaps no Tribe of Writers less polite than your profound Philosophers, while your witty and elegant Authors too often do little more than frolick in the Shallows of useful Knowledge. And there are always, of course, your mere Grub Street Scribblers, who manage to excell in both these Faults; these are literary Mercenaries, who make a nasty Meal of what their betters sh―t.

(I pray thee, excuse me my coarse Mode of Expression, but as I said, we are now become familiar.)

And yet, I have ever been uncomfortable with my Lord Shaftesbury’s Doctrine of Ridicule as a Test of Truth. Methinks his uncommon dislike of Hypocrisy, and of grave Church-Writers, has led his noble Genius down an errant Path. The best way, thought he, to pull the Mask from off such Hypocrisy was to cause it to be laugh’d at. Where we cannot demonstrate the Error or Knavishness of such Divines through Argument, we ought to do it through Raillery. I find myself unable to comprehend why there shou’d be a necessary or even reliable Connexion between that which is humourous, and that which is true. Not being myself competent to argue against this View, but knowing it in my Heart to be mistaken, I have chosen instead to assume that my Lord intends such Raillery to combat not the Arguments but merely the Ill-Humour of his Adversaries. I flatter him thus, rather than entertain the Notion that my beloved Shaftesbury might be mistaken in his Opinion.

It is therefore with a paradoxical mixture of Satisfaction and Disappointment that I find my Reservations about this Doctrine of Ridicule express’d plainly and judiciously in a late Book by the Reverend Mr. BROWN, entituled Essays on the Characteristicks, which has but just come into my Hands [John Brown, Essays on the Characteristics of the Earl of Shaftesbury (London: C. Davis, 1751) ― Ed.].

I find myself in compleat Concurrence with the Observation of Mr. Brown, that to make Laughter the Test of what may be rightly laugh’d at, wou’d be as if we were “to make Fear the Test of Danger, or Anger the Test of Injury” (p. 94). In all these things, the Passions may mislead us. I may be afear’d where no Danger lurks, and I may be angry at a Trifle. In all such Matters, ‘tis Reason which must tell us if we laugh with Propriety.

“’Tis the Province of Reason alone, to correct the Passions,” quoth Mr. Brown (p. 14). To this the Author of a Treatise of Human Nature, who styles himself an Experimental Moralist, might well reply, that a Passion, much like the Force or Impetus of a Body in Motion, is best oppos’d by another, stronger, Passion. However, this Opinion of Mr. HUME’s tells us nothing concerning Truth. After all, witty Jack may make a pleasing Jest upon angry Tom, thereby diverting or damp’ning the latter’s ill-Humour, while for all that, both Jack and Tom may wallow in equal Ignorance upon whatever is the Matter in Contention, like two Clowns or Rusticks pitted ‘gainst each other in a School-Disputation. ‘Tis plain Logick that, where two Parties are oppos’d upon some Point, altho’ at least one Party must needs be wrong, neither need be right.

Even those Works of the Muses which purport to affect the Imagination, must bear the Stamp of Probability ― that is, must wear the Aspect of Truth ― if they are to impart their wonted Effect upon the Passions, for, quoth Mr. Brown, “every Representation of Poetry or Eloquence, which only apply to the Fancy and Affections, must finally be examined and decided upon, must be try’d, rejected, or receiv’d as the reasoning Faculty shall determine. And thus, REASON alone is the Detector of Falsehood, and the TEST OF TRUTH” (pp. 40-41). Poets must make their Addresses to old Father Reason if they wish to gain an Entrance to the Chamber of Lady Imagination.

My Lord Shaftesbury approves of ARISTOTLE’s advice to “oppose your Opponent’s serious Arguments by Raillery, and his Raillery by serious Argument” [Aristotle, Rhetoric, 1.3.18 ― Ed.]. But if your Opponent’s serious Argument also be nevertheless true, what good can Raillery do, except to detract from the Virtues of his Argument? What is needful is an examination of the Argument in a cool Hour, using ― what else? ― Reason. To give all over to Jest and Raillery, were not only to Fail to deliver Light unto the Eyes of others, but to succeed in putting out our own Eyes at the same Time.

Even our noble Author admits as much. Tho’ I have no Reason to suspect him of being anything other than a faithful Adherent of our most holy Protestant Religion, yet my Lord wou’d have it that:

“Happy it was for us, that when Popery had got possession, Smithfield was us’d in a more tragical way. Many of our first Reformers, ’tis fear’d, were little better than Enthusiasts: and God knows whether a Warmth of this kind did not considerably help us in throwing off that spiritual Tyranny. So that had not the Priests, as is usual, prefer’d the love of Blood to all other Passions, they might in a merrier way, perhaps, have evaded the greatest Force of our reforming Spirit. I never heard that the antient Heathens were so well advis’d in their ill Purpose of suppressing the Christian Religion in its first Rise, as to make use, at any time, of this Bart’lemy-Fair Method. But this I am persuaded of, that had the Truth of the Gospel been any way surmountable, they wou’d have bid much fairer for the silencing it, if they had chosen to bring our primitive Founders upon the Stage in a pleasanter way than that of Bear-Skins and Pitch-Barrels.” [Characteristicks, Vol. I, pp. 28-29 ― Ed.]

In other words, had the Popish Persecutors of our English Protestants followed a different Course, and employ’d Raillery instead of Fire and Sword on their Enemys, perhaps this Realm had remain’d Catholick still. In which case, as Mr. Brown rightly notes (p. 75 ff.), Raillery wou’d have caused Falsehood to prevail over Truth, the opposite of the Doctrine’s intended Effect.

Methinks this Doctrine of Ridicule as a Test of Truth relies too much upon the Presumption that he who ridicules is also he who is already in Possession of the Truth. But where this is not the Case, where the Railleur happens to be in the Wrong, may not Raillery do more Harm than Good to the noble Cause of Truth? The same must needs be the Case where, as so often happens, it is not known with certainty which of the contending Parties is in Possession of the Truth, tho’ each believes himself so. Each may employ his satyrick Darts upon his Adversary, while we who look on are no more the wiser for their Trouble, once the Dust of Disputation has settl’d.

I am inclin’d to agree with the elegant Author of Fitzosborne’s Letters, who writes that “it is not every Arm, however, that is qualified to manage this formidable Bow. The Arrows of Satyr, when they are not pointed by Virtue, as well as Wit, recoil upon the Hand that directs them, and wound none but him from whom they proceed…. There is nothing to be dreaded,” says he, “from a Satyrist of known Dishonesty, but his Applause” [William Melmoth, The Letters of Sir Thomas Fitzosborne, on Several Subjects (1742), “Letter XLVIII” (5th edition, London: R. and J. Dodsley, 1758), pp. 237-238 ― Ed.]. Tho’ Satyr may occasionally render good Service unto Truth, yet ‘tis a prickly Weapon, to be wielded only by Characters of Superior Merit, who are more interested in filling the Minds of Men with useful Knowledge, than in winning the vain and unmeaning Applause of a shallow Mob.

I am, Sir, your servant, etc.
Jos. Darlington, Esq.
Darlington Close,
Horton-cum-Studley, Oxon.

Friday, April 1, 2011

The Naked Voter

Election day in Upper Canada
Imagine my surprise when on reading Montesquieu’s Spirit of the Laws (1748), I discovered that the good Baron had some unkind words about the secret ballot. He thought it was a bad idea, in part because “the lesser people must be enlightened by the principal people and subdued by the gravity of certain eminent men” (Pt. I, Bk. II, ch. 2). As with so much in Montesquieu’s book, this passage seemed to me rather cryptic. All I could gather was that he believed the “better sort” ought to be kept apprised of what their social inferiors were thinking, so that they could correct the inevitable political errors of the lower classes.

I was only a little further illuminated upon chasing down Montesquieu’s footnote reference to Cicero, De Legibus, 3.15.34, where the great Roman laments that non latebra danda populo, in qua bonis ignorantibus, quod quisque sentiret, tabella vitiosum occultaret suffragium (“the people should not have been provided with a hiding-place, where they could conceal a mischievous vote by means of the ballot, and keep the better sort in ignorance of their real opinions”). Here again we find the idea that elites should be kept apprised about what the mob is up to. But there is also the added idea that the secret ballot acted as some kind of a nefarious cloaking device, like a bank robber’s mask or a ninja’s pyjamas, serving to disguise the mob’s evil plans. Whereas Montesquieu’s main concern seems to have been the ignorance of the mob, Cicero’s fear is of the mob’s vicious intentions.

The secret ballot is considered to be such a fundamental part of a citizen’s democratic rights in countries like the US and Canada that we neither stop to think it might possibly have drawbacks, nor that it is a relatively recent institution that was by no means an obvious good at the time it was instituted. Montesquieu’s passage spurred me to do some reading and thinking on the subject.

Some History.

In ancient Rome, the secret ballot was introduced into elections for magistrates by the lex Gabinia tabellaria in 139 BC, some 370 years after the founding of the Republic (in truth, there was voting in popular assemblies even in the earlier time of the kings). The sources indicate at least two reasons for its introduction.

First, it was thought that secret balloting would prevent the massive electoral bribery that had become a basic characteristic of Roman politics. If Titius was offered 10 denarii to vote for Seius, in a secret ballot Titius could pocket the 10 denariii and vote for Gaius instead, without Seius being the wiser. This would obviously make it pointless for Seius to offer such a bribe in the first place. Under a secret ballot regime, bribes would have no effect, and so none would be offered.

However, I suspect the introduction of secret balloting had less to do with bribery than with voter intimidation, especially given the historical timing. Electoral bribery never seemed to be a big concern among the Romans and was even considered acceptable within certain limits of tastefulness. On the other hand, the 130s BC was a time of increasingly ugly politics at Rome, with mob agitation for agrarian reform and land redistribution on the political agenda. This decade saw the rise of militant tribunes like Tiberius Gracchus and battles between rival gangs of hired political thugs (for example, Gracchus was himself beaten to death in one such battle). In much the same way as secret balloting made bribery pointless, it was also hoped that it would reduce some of the violence and intimidation associated with elections.

Although we may never know for sure, there may have been yet another reason Rome introduced the secret ballot, which becomes clear if we look at the example of Great Britain. The secret ballot was introduced in Great Britain by the Ballot Act of 1872. It seems to have been passed not to combat electoral violence and intimidation, nor to prevent bribery per se. Rather, it gained acceptance among legislators (who were obviously themselves politicians) largely because it would cut down the cost of campaigning. In other words, those who passed it might not have had reservations about the effects of bribery on the political system or the electorate, but they were rather more worried about how expensive it was getting to bribe people. You see, the franchise extended throughout the nineteenth century in Britain after successive reform acts. Each such extension meant an increase in the number of potential voters who would require bribing. At some point, politicians decided that enough was enough.

We can easily imagine a similar incentive working in the Roman case. As Rome grew, more citizens required bribing, so running for office was becoming increasingly expensive. The secret ballot offered a way out of a sort of bribery arms race: aspiring politicians didn’t necessarily want to hand out bribes, but as long as their opponents were doing it, they had to as well. The secret ballot, at least in theory, would have put a stop to this.

The secret ballot was introduced in Canada in 1874, and in the US in various stages between 1884 and 1892 (though West Virginia still allows people to cast open ballots if they so choose). Thus, it is not such an ancient institution, though it is more ancient than women’s suffrage.

My reading on the topic led me to a very enlightening paper by Geoffrey Brennan and Philip Pettit entitled “Unveiling the Vote” (British Journal of Political Science 20 (1990), 311-333). I cannot do full justice to their argument here, but I will give a rough outline of it.

The Preference Ideal.

Brennan and Pettit note a difference between two ideals of what voting should be: the preference ideal and the judgment ideal. According to the former, people vote based on their preferences, all things considered. These considerations can include anything, even considerations of self-interest. By contrast, in the judgment ideal, people vote based only on preferences between outcomes based only on considerations of public interest, or what their preference is between outcomes in light of their conception of the common good.

It may sound rather unusual to refer to the preference ideal as an ideal. After all, is having people voting based on narrow self-interest really something to which we should aspire? On the other hand, it is an appealing idea to economists and other utilitarian types, because they would say that it is the only way of coherently aggregating overall well-being through a democratic process. If the goal is the overall maximization of people’s satisfaction, then we should be adding up what will satisfy the greatest number of people, as measured by what people actually want. If people are assumed to vote for their preferred outcome or policy, based on their interests, and if the majority of voters (or at least the plurality, depending on the process in place) have their preferences implemented, then the majority have their preferences satisfied, and overall well-being is maximized. That, economists and utilitarians say, is the only conception of the common good that makes coherent sense.

Of course, this reasoning relies on at least two problematic assumptions. First, it assumes that people are reliable judges of what their interests really are. What I prefer at the moment of voting may be based on mistaken or incomplete information, cognitive bias, or other forms of irrationality. To this, the hard-nosed economist or utilitarian might reply that the way people vote is the most eloquent revealer of their preferences. We really have no other way of measuring “true” preferences (if there even is such a thing). Furthermore, although some people here and there may be mistaken about their preferences, it would be remarkable if a majority were. (This last is a very dubious line of argument, but I will leave it as it stands).

Second, it assumes that once the majority will is revealed, the government-elect will actually implement the policies that the people voted for. Unfortunately, there is little reason to believe that any government will do what it said it would do during an electoral campaign. This is a problem inherent in any democratic system. And on occasion it may not really be a problem as such, for a government elected on a certain platform may take office only to discover that the platform was not really feasible after all. Under such circumstances it would be foolish for the government to pursue what they now know to be bad policy, simply to satisfy a still-ignorant public. However, I would argue that they would then have a duty to educate that public about why it is a bad policy after all (which would also presumably mean admitting they were mistaken, not something governments are good at doing). It would certainly be immoral of them to cynically get themselves elected on the basis of a policy they know is bad but popular.

The Judgment Ideal.

In any case, those who, like myself, are sympathetic to civic republicanism will not be impressed with a democratic process that aspires only to satisfying the occurrent, self-interested, and possibly unreflective preferences that happen to be held by the greatest number of people on voting day. We would instead prefer something like the judgment ideal, where citizens vote on the basis of opinions formed in the course of public deliberation on what is in the interest of the common good.

The difference between the preference and judgment ideals can be seen in light of their differing attitudes towards the issue of low voter turnout. For adherents of the preference ideal, low voter turnout is a problem because voting will not adequately track the preferences of the citizenry if too few people are showing up to register their preferences. Only the preferences of those who vote can be aggregated, and if these are too few or too unrepresentative, the resulting outcome may not be optimal from a utilitarian viewpoint.

Low voter turnout is less problematic for adherents of the judgment ideal. Insofar as those not showing up to vote are also those who are less well-informed and less public-spirited, such low quality voters may only add noise to the process and pollute or distort the general will. Such citizens should be encouraged to become more responsible and informed. But if they remain unresponsive to such encouragement, then perhaps they ought to be actively discouraged from voting. In such cases, low voter turnout is something rather to be celebrated than lamented. Low voter turnout is only a problem if large numbers of high quality voters are not voting, as this may be a sign of democratic system failure. My impression is that both of these phenomena ― the apathy of the ignorant and the frustration of the well-informed ― are at work in low voter turnout in Canada, a nation with probably the most archaic and least representative electoral system of any Western democracy.

(I should warn readers that the argument in the preceding paragraph is not to be found in Brennan’s and Pettit’s paper, but rather represents my own editorializing. I am, however, gratified to learn that a forthcoming book by a philosopher at Brown University argues a similar point. The book I refer to is Jason Brennan’s The Ethics of Voting, to be published by Princeton University Press. To my knowledge, he is not related to the Geoffrey Brennan aforementioned.)

As nice as it sounds in theory, the judgment ideal relies on some premises that are not self-evident. For one thing, it would only be ideal if it could be taken for granted that voters’ judgments actually track public interest (where “public interest” means something more than the largest aggregation of voter preferences.) There are a couple of problems with this assumption.

First, it assumes that there is such a thing as the “public interest” that can be clearly demarcated from mere private interest. What if “public interest” merely means that which is in the private interest of the greatest number of people? If this were the case, then we would arrive back at the preference ideal. What if there is no such thing as an interest belonging to everyone? Economists, with some justification, might say that the judgment ideal’s notion of “public interest” seems a little mysterious.

Second, let us grant that there is such a thing as a truly public interest, based on disinterested and objective considerations (these being themselves problematic and slippery concepts). What if honest deliberation on what is in the public interest points to multiple and divergent policy recommendations? Perhaps this will happen because deliberations are based on incompatible fundamental values (not mere preferences based on desires) held by different segments of the population. If a society is not homogenous with respect to its fundamental values, then it is unlikely to be homogenous with respect to what it believes is in the public interest. And again, it takes some pretty deep metaphysical examination to get a handle on what exactly separates desire-based preferences from values in such a way that the latter deserve priority. Most economists are skeptical that there is any such fundamental difference.

Third, it assumes that people are reliable judges of what is in the public interest. Empirically speaking, this is not the most warranted of assumptions (indeed, people are often not even the best judges of what is in their private interest, let alone the public interest). This can be partly due to simple lack of information on the part of the voter. But there are often various biases at work too. For instance, there is time inconsistency and hyperbolic discounting: we tend to discount benefits and losses more deeply the further they are projected into the future, which leads us into making bad spending decisions. Also, there is a tendency to rationalize one’s own private preference and elevate it to the status of a “public interest”. For example, for those who work for General Motors, there is a tendency to believe that what is good for GM is good for America (or Canada, as the case may be). Most people would say that the majority of corporate lobbyists advocate for private rather than truly public interests. The world would be a much simpler place if such lobbyists could be written off as selfish and corrupt monsters. Unfortunately, my personal experience of lobbyists has led me to realize that the majority of them probably believe (or have come to believe) that their lobbying is in the public interest, even when in reality it is to the public detriment.

However, there is this to be said in favour of the judgment ideal over the preference ideal: when I enter the voting booth and cast my ballot for a preferred outcome, should my vote be decisive, my preferred outcome will be forced on everyone, including those who voted against it. In this sense, bad voting is like an economic externality; gratification of my preferences may impose unwanted costs on others. Thus, I have an ethical duty to at least keep the well-being of others in mind as a consideration in casting my vote. I do not have a right to try to impose my selfishness on others through the use of my vote. My self-interest should be pursued with a due consciousness of the rights of others. Perhaps this can give us some minimal conception of what it means for there to be such a thing as a distinctly common good which the vote is supposed to forward. Since the preference ideal does not have room for even such a minimal conception, it should be rejected.

The Secret Ballot as an Instrument of Corruption.

The general drift of the argument put forward by civic republicans like Brennan and Pettit is that it is possible, through greater openness, dialogue, and political discourse, along with being required to justify one’s voting decisions publicly, for people’s judgments to be shifted more in line with what is in the public interest. This objective could be served by eliminating the secret ballot.

The secret ballot reduces the pressure on citizens to vote in a responsible manner. They can engage in the public discourse or not, but when they finally vote they are answerable to no one. Thus, they can vote according to their private interest rather than for the public good, and nobody will be in a position to call them on it, or to hold them to account for their irresponsible citizenship. If, on the other hand, they were required to openly announce who they were voting for before an assembly of fellow citizens, they might give their vote more consideration, or at least think about how they might make it pass the test of public scrutiny.

There is an irony in the institution of the secret ballot. Remember that secret balloting was intended to make voters unaccountable to those who would try to bribe or intimidate them, thereby reducing the incentive of the latter to offer bribes or intimidation. It achieved this by making the voter unanswerable to bribers or intimidators. The problem, however, is that this also had the effect of making voters unanswerable to their fellow citizens and ― if it’s not improper to speak of such a thing ― to the public conscience.

In reality, I’m not even sure secret balloting was successful in preventing electoral bribery. I would argue that instead it has forced bribery to take on a different form. Instead of saying to the voter, “Here is a hundred dollars; vote fore me,” the candidate for office now says, “If you don’t vote for me, this policy that is in your interest won’t be implemented.” In short, voters are now bribed with policies rather than cold cash. This ensures that the voter receives his bribe after he has voted in the required way rather than beforehand. And since the bribe no longer comes directly out of the politician’s own pocket, the voter is in effect being bribed with his own money. Even worse, voter corruption is now hidden behind the veil of the secret ballot.

This form of public corruption has probably been aided and abetted by the preference ideal of voting spoken of earlier: economists and their ilk assume that voting is not supposed to be anything more than a procedure to discover what the greatest number of people believe to be in their own self-interest. Voting one’s self-interest is considered the norm rather than a sign of terminal corruption. If it is commonly believed that people are supposed to vote for their own interests, then voters do not even realize there is anything wrong with what they do.

It turns out Montesquieu’s and Cicero’s misgivings about the secret ballot may not have been so misplaced after all. Maybe secret balloting truly is little more than a convenient way for the citizen to mask his viciousness ― not necessarily from his betters, but from his fellow citizens more generally.

Stripping the Voter Bare.

If you are like me, there is probably something in you which rebels at the thought of eliminating the secret ballot. After all, for generations now we have been taught that this innovation was a hard-fought victory for democracy. So it is worth asking: What would happen if the secret ballot were eliminated? Would there be a reversion to massive electoral bribery or intimidation, as in the bad old days?

It could be argued that the conditions that once made the secret ballad necessary or desirable no longer exist. For example, in republican Rome, there was no publicly-funded police force in the modern sense that could maintain order at the polls, and there was no public prosecutor either. Thus, Rome didn’t have the sort of checks on voter intimidation that we do today.

Also, we in many of the Western democracies live in what can be called “extended republics”, extended in both territory and population. In earlier times, in communities where citizens knew and depended directly on each other, there could be serious consequences to voting one’s conscience. It was easier to intimidate voters at the polls, and in places like Upper Canada, political parties stationed thugs at the polls to ensure that people voted the way they were supposed to. It was feasible for them to do this, since in the absence of universal suffrage there were fewer voters to intimidate. Today, with our much larger agglomerations of people, the thugs are vastly outnumbered, and there aren’t enough of them able to be present in sufficient numbers at each polling station. There are now too many voters to effectively bribe or intimidate.

Even in modern despotic regimes that hold periodic “elections” (as most of them in fact do), direct bribery and intimidation are no longer the preferred methods of control. It’s much easier (and cheaper) to simply stuff the ballot boxes after the fact, or report falsified election results, which is why such regimes have no problem with allowing a secret ballot, since the voting means so little anyway.

If the secret ballot is compatible with despotism, then maybe it is not the cornerstone of democracy we assume it to be.