What does it all mean?


I started writing short stories when I was a little kid – most of them were blatant rip-offs of movies or video games (or sometimes other books). As I got older, I became more interested in writing scripts for movies or (because I was involved in drama) plays. This interest matured into allegorical social commentary in my later years of high school. One of my favourite scripts (that I have since lost since my computer was stolen a couple years ago) was a pseudo-absurdist comedy based largely on Waiting For Godot and Clerks, in which the taboos of our attitudes towards male homosexuality were explored and derided. I was also occasionally featured on a now-defunct website called Flatplanet.net, which has since turned into a pro-Israeli personal blog.

Throughout the first few years of university, I partnered with an online friend to write Porocrom’s Crappaper, in which Poromenos and I highlighted and mocked social conventions and marketing. We had a decent 2-year run, in which I later expanded to do a little music criticism. About a year after we stopped contributing to Porocrom, I started chronicling the various vacations and things that I did on Facebook. When a news article caught my attention, or I had some particular issue or another on my mind, I’d dash off a quick essay about it.

Why is this relevant?

I started this blog back in February, and got into it seriously in March. I didn’t really have an overall theme for what I’d be writing about at the time. It was basically going to be a continuation of the essays I had written about various things, in an effort to consolidate my various personal interests and thoughts about issues into one coherent narrative. I looked at other blogs, and the ones I liked the most were the ones that are based around one central idea, with a handful of topics related to that idea making frequent appearances. I tried to adopt this idea, to talk about a few things that I thought were important: free speech, religion, and race. Because I am a proud Canadian, I wanted to highlight these things from a Canadian perspective.

So I have established my sub-topics, but my central idea seems somewhat more elusive. While I have tried before to tie the themes of race, religion and free speech together, there is much more overlap between religion and free speech than there is between race and anything else. More and more I’ve been bringing in issues of sex and gender, particularly related to gay men and the rights of women. Neither of these things are intrinsically linked to free speech, religion or race, but they seem to be coming up again and again.

What’s the theme here?

The very first post of this blog was called the Foundations of the Manifesto, in which I tried to define what I would be writing about as well as railing against. Not having the benefit of being able to look back on the past 4 months and see what seems to be important to me these days (a process called ‘revealed preference’ in economics) the post was pretty vague. The virtue of putting my ideas out in public is that it forces me to defend them against people who disagree with me. I’ve crossed swords with religious folks, conservative folks, and folks who apparently just plain don’t like me. In some of those cases I’ve had to retreat from a position; in some of those cases I’ve been able to successfully demonstrate my position. As this process continues, I’m sure I’ll have to write many more retractions or clarifications.

As my ideas become more refined and polished, a theme will become much more clear. As it is right now, I can point vaguely to the glimmer of a coherent central idea for this blog. Contrary to much propaganda, democracy is absolutely not the best political system for ensuring the long-term prosperity of a society. Democracy is, ostensibly, founded upon the idea that all people should have equal say in how decisions are made. By its very nature, democratic systems are slaves to the will of the majority. This wouldn’t be a problem if the majority was consistently correct; however, what history shows us again and again is that the majority  often makes horrendously evil decisions that benefit members of the majority, but cause undue suffering among the minority. I’m thinking specifically of slavery here, but it could equally apply to genocide, the treatment of women, or the exploitation of developing countries by colonial powers. The will of the largest group of people is not necessarily what is best, and most of the social victories we’ve achieved in North America over the past couple of hundred years have been when the will of the majority was flouted by a strong minority.

The “best” political system is one in which the right decision will always be made for the people in general. This is sometimes referred to as a “benign dictatorship”, in which one person has absolute power to enact laws for the betterment of society. Of course this is a completely impractical fiction. Every dictatorship we’ve ever seen has resulted in corruption and the exploitation of people. It is impossible to put any one person (or group of people) in absolute control – there will always be flaws and corruption that will ultimately result in suffering. However, we have established a system that attempts to approximate this benign dictatorship; we place authority in the courts to overturn the will of the majority if the will violates the spirit of the law. In that sense the will of the people is limited by the constraints of the law, such that it doesn’t matter how popular a thing might be, the laws must be made for the right reasons, reasons that are founded in logic and evidence.

Neither is democracy the best social system for the same reasons. The best social system is a meritocracy, in which the people who rise to power and prominence are those who, by virtue of hard work and natural talent are demonstrably higher achievers. Success in a meritocracy is predicated not on accidents of birth, or the affluence of your family group, but on an individual’s ability to produce and achieve. It is this kind of system that is modeled (albeit a bit overbearingly) in the writings of Ayn Rand; an author who, despite being reviled by pretty much everyone I know, actually had some excellent ideas. The heroes in Rand’s novels are people who have innate talent and drive to create and achieve, and who are set against a system that seems hell-bent on putting up roadblocks to progress (my point of divergence from Rand comes at this point, where she says that any attempt to level the playing field is evil).

What does this have to do with anything?

Similarly, my interest is in creating a system which prioritizes what is right over what is popular. 50 million Elvis fans can be wrong. An idea should be judged by its merits, not by how many people agree with it. Ditto for people. Advocating for the rights of women, the rights of homosexuals, the rights of racial minorities… these are all intrinsically linked to this idea that a meritocracy is to be desired. One should not be born into handicap simply because they are female, or gay, or black. Our system of laws should treat all people equally, and attempts to do so are laudable. Such attempts are only possible when the free speech of all citizens is protected. I am uncomfortable with banning racists or Holocaust deniers from speaking because the justification is that their speech is unpopular. Martin Luther King wasn’t popular in his day either. Do I agree with racists? Absolutely not. But any time we allow the government to arbitrarily decide that one group isn’t allowed to speak based on the fact that the majority of people don’t like it, we open up the possibility that such restrictions are possible on any unpopular speech. One such unpopular type of speech is criticism of religion, which is a fundamentally bad system of ideas. Being able to discuss, debate, and refute religious ideology is only possible when all speech is protected (except, of course, that speech which directly results in demonstrable harm to individuals).

So there it is, all threads tied together. The point of this blog is to advocate the promotion of good ideas that are based on evidence and critical thinking rather than just whatever seems popular at the moment. The point of this blog is to advocate such promotion because it will lead to an egalitarian meritocracy that is founded on principles of justice for all people. When and if my positions can be demonstrated to be either partially or wholly false, I will always do my best to adapt them to reflect that (you’ll have to forgive me if it takes me a while, nobody likes to be proven wrong). I value those who disagree with my positions – although it’s always nice to hear from those of you who think I’m right on.

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TL;DR: The central idea of this blog is still evolving, but seems to be approaching advocacy of a position that promotes critical thinking and equal rights as a method to achieve a merit- and justice-based society rather than one in which whatever is popular rules.

Comments

  1. says

    Meritocracy isn’t necessarily the best social order. One can argue (similar to Rawls) that the most fair system is one which seeks to reduce disparities. The logic for this is that since we are born randomly with whatever attributes, skills and aptitudes, that if we had to make a choice from a “veil of ignorance” about whether to gamble that we’d be the fittest in a meritocracy or to live in a more equitable system, most people would chose the latter (of course some people love to gamble). From this system of justice comes the ideas of social safety nets and progressive income taxes. Basically those more successful have a moral requirement to help the less fortunate.

  2. says

    I suppose that argument holds if “best” is equal to “most fair”, and “fair” means the same as “most equal”. I don’t think that either of those are necessarily true, particularly the second one. It is not desirable, for example, to have everyone at the same level of production – there are some who are, by virtue of their innate ability, more able to produce or innovate than others. This has nothing to do with “fairness” or anything of the sort, it’s just random allocation of ability.

    To take those who can produce and oblige them to care for those who can’t will disincetivize hard work – if you don’t see the benefits of your effort why bother to put that effort in? I don’t recognize any moral requirement to “help the less fortunate”, except insofar as it is beneficial to society at large if people have an opportunity to minimize the impact of bad luck. That is a meritocracy – success or failure is based on innate ability and hard work, rather than the financial circumstances you are born into.

    Your argument also assumes that the risk/benefit should be decided for the individual rather than the society. If, from behind the veil of ignorance, I had to make a decision as to which society I’d rather live in – one in which hard work and ability are rewarded; or one in which there is no tangible benefit to hard work – I would much prefer the first system. The argument I am making is that if circumstances other than hard work and ability are significant determinants of success (which is the case now), then it is beneficial to all people to reduce the impact of those truly un-just and undeserved disparities.

    I have a strong negative visceral reaction to any invocation of the “obligation” or “requirement” of those who have to support those who don’t. It should not be done out of obligation, but out of recognition that all people benefit from a system in which there are safety nets, the “haves” included.

  3. Howie says

    Just an occasional reader and by no means well read in political science so please excuse any misinterpretation of your above comments.

    Referring to the first comment by Ian: meritocracy vs a more equitable system. I would be inclined to think the two are very similar if not the same.

    As defined by crommunist, a meritocracy is a system “in which the people who rise to power and prominence are those who, by virtue of hard work and natural talent are demonstrably higher achievers. Success in a meritocracy is predicated not on accidents of birth, or the affluence of your family group, but on an individual’s ability to produce and achieve.”

    And an equitable system is, I had thought, one that promotes the ideal of meritocracy by removing barriers to accessing opportunities. This is by no means equality which would mean equal outcomes, which, as crommunist wrote above, would disincentivize (?spelling) hard work.

    I would welcome any further clarification.

    Second comment: Referring to “From this system of justice comes the ideas of social safety nets and progressive income taxes. Basically those more successful have a moral requirement to help the less fortunate.”

    And: “I have a strong negative visceral reaction to any invocation of the “obligation” or “requirement” of those who have to support those who don’t. It should not be done out of obligation, but out of recognition that all people benefit from a system in which there are safety nets, the “haves” included.”

    I have the same negative visceral reaction to “obligation” but believe it necessary to have that obligation precisely because of the visceral reaction. Its not enough to have just recognition of the benefits society can receive. Because not everyone will have that recognition. In my opinion there has be to an obligation.

    I would argue that the debate should be the degree of the social safety net and not whether it be an obligation or not.

    Let me know your thoughts.

  4. says

    Thanks for your comment, Howie.

    As regards my visceral reaction, it is to the word “obligation”. Obligation implies that something is owed to someone else. My having money does not make me indebted to someone who doesn’t, simply by virtue of the fact that they are poor. The resolution to the argument, as I tried to say in my post and my response to Ian’s comment, is that it there is a benefit to all people when there is a social safety net. We don’t contribute because we are being FORCED to, we contribute because it is best for us to do so. The state has the right to compel contribution as the price for membership in the society, but not from the grounds that the wealthy OWE something to the poor – instead from the grounds that all members benefit from a secure safety net.

    The presence of the safety net moves society towards a meritocracy by removing barriers to achievement. If poverty is inescapable, then the brightest and most hard-working person in the world can’t get out of it. The easier it is to get out of poverty, the closer we are to meritocracy, which is to the benefit of all members. My father, for example, was the beneficiary of laws (and a sociopolitical climate) that remove barriers based on race, and provided some social housing to low-income people. As a result, he was able to work his way out of poverty. This in no way suggests that all racial and poverty barriers are gone; only that such things are a move toward a meritocracy in which success is a legitimate measure of ability.

    Ian, I may have misunderstood or mischaracterized your argument. If that is the case, please feel free to clarify or restate any points you feel I have unfairly or inadequately treated.

  5. Howie says

    Wow fast response.

    I see your point that a safety net benefits us all as a society.

    I also agree that to maintain membership in the society we both belong too we are compelled to contribute to that safety net.

    I can also see the possibility that there are others who do not believe that a safety net benefits them despite the evidence that it does and would view contribution as being forced since the alternative to not paying is to not be apart of society. But that would be a matter of perspective.

    In reality there is a choice. Either contribute to the safety net or not be apart of society. So I would agree then that you’re not being forced.

    I think I have it now…

  6. Howie says

    Forgot to include one more point: Also agreed that the state compels contribution from the point of view that it benefits us all and not that the wealthy owe something (a point which is often lost, as some of wealthy may not see their tax contributions that way).

  7. says

    “The heroes in Rand’s novels are people who have innate talent and drive to create and achieve”

    They also had super-powers, being able to create pretty much anything they liked out of nothing, nor did they need any sort of general infrastructure to create what they wanted.

    My issue with Rand (apart from all the bad philosophy, her complete lack of understanding of ethics, and her evil attempt to redefine selfishness and altruism (yes, I used the word ‘evil’, and it wasn’t unintentional)) was that she (and others) have taken this magical, mystical, super-powered world and claimed it as a template for the real world.

    She had a couple of excellent rants in there (the one on the nature of money is one that sticks in my mind still), but the rest of the book is garbage.

  8. says

    “Obligation implies that something is owed to someone else.”

    Agreed.

    “My having money does not make me indebted to someone who doesn’t, simply by virtue of the fact that they are poor.”

    No-one (that I know of) has claimed otherwise (except Ayn Rand, but she’s a dirty, dirty liar).

    “there are some who are, by virtue of their innate ability, more able to produce or innovate than others.”

    That’s not actually true. And that goes right to the heart of Rand’s nonsense.

    1. Stick those people on a desert island with zero resources, and see how far they get.

    2. Stick those people on a desert island with untapped mineral deposits (and that’s it), and see how far they get.

    3. Stick those people on an island with untapped mineral deposits, an abundant labour force (more than they ‘need’), and a highly developed infrastructure, and see how far they get.

    Can we agree that in 1 and 2 that they get ‘nowhere’?

    Can we agree that in 3 that they get ‘very far’?

    To some extent (in fact, Rawls argues that to a large extent (and Luck egalitarians even more so)), your success in life is predicated on you being lucky enough to be born with:

    the skills
    the dispositions
    the geographic placement
    the social network
    etc

    They *combine* in you to allow you to express the creativity and excellence that you were *lucky* enough to be born with. The very fact that you were born here rather than the poorest village in India was a mere matter of luck (let’s put to oneside the troublesome metaphysics that underpins this whole discussion). Check out Ramanujan if you want to see the very definition of ‘luck’ of circumstance.

    There is, indeed, an obligation: the circumstances that you find yourself in were created by the society in which you find yourself. Therefore, the obligation that you owe is to society, and that obligation requires repaying. Not in full, but in part, to (ostensibly) further improve society so that others who are born with similar (or greater, or lesser) skillsets are able to express them to the fullest, and those with minimal skillsets don’t have to die due to their number not coming up in the genetic/familial lottery.

  9. says

    Brian, maybe you can clear this up for me.

    A – Those who have material wealth have an obligation to contribute some part of it to those in need
    B – I have material wealth
    —————–
    C – I have an obligation to contribute part of my wealth to those in need.

    If both A and B are true, as you have said, how can C NOT be true? To put a point on it, how can you say that I am not then indebted or under obligation to give some of my money to those who have less? Or is your objection the “by simple virtue of them being poor” bit? I was trying to separate the concept of OWING someone money, and it being good for all of society (including myself) that I contribute.

    Your desert island examples needs a few more increments. At the hypothetical halfway point between circumstance 1 and 3, if ability is normally distributed throughout the population, roughly half will fail to thrive and the other half will succeed. This is evinced by the fact that some people are able to succeed under circumstances of birth that cause most of their peers to fail. Some people simply ARE better than others. Also that ‘etc’ is HUGE and could encompass just about anything. If you’re born with the skills, then how do our arguments differ? I will stipulate that ability is functionally the same as skill.

    I read Rand as caricature. The fact that she claims it’s an accurate representation of reality is unfortunate, because I see merit in the larger themes – specifically the idea that the reason to do something noble is not because the world deserves the benefit of your effort, but because it enriches your life and the lives of others to do so. The writing is shitty, I’ll give you that.

  10. says

    That set of premises doesn’t fully represent the complexity of the argument.

    It is, therefore, a misrepresentation. Strawman Fallacy. ;)

    If that were the actual argument presented by any sane proponent of social welfare systems, then I would agree with you that it’s a crappy argument and thrown out.

    That is not, however, the actual argument presented by any sane proponent of social welfare systems.

    Incidentally, Adam Smith makes the same argument that I’m making.

  11. says

    And now he’s DEAD! So there!

    I think we’re reaching a point of convergence. I agree that a person born into society benefits from the work of the society as a whole, and as such has an obligation to make the society a better place. Would you agree that this does not translate into a personal obligation to be the protectorate of any given member of the society? If we can agree on that, then I’ll stipulate whatever loose ends are still out there.

  12. says

    “Would you agree that this does not translate into a personal obligation to be the protectorate of any given member of the society? ”

    Sure. But I don’t know who you’re arguing against, is all. ;)

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