Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Against campaign finance regulations

Once again, I've read news that illustrates the absurdity and danger of campaign finance regulations...

It seems that the Federal Election Commission has been negligent in regulating campaign activities that make use of the Internet, and has been ordered by a Federal court to devise regulations that apply the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002 to the Internet. Needless to say, political bloggers are up in arms against the chance that their activities (writings or advertisement) could be subject to regulation, illustrating the basic problems of campaign finance regulations.

The fundamental problem facing attempts to regulate campaign spending is that political speech and money are both ubiquitous and essential in modern American society; we can't stop them from influencing each other any more than we can stop water and air from coming into contact around the globe. Regulators are faced with an impossible balancing act of allowing free discussion of political issues while restricting how money can be used to amplify one's own voice. As a result, regulations are necessarily arbitrary--for example, you can buy a newspaper publisher and publish your views without restriction, but if you want to buy advertising space in that same newspaper, you are loaded with restrictions. Loopholes are also inevitable--not only are regulators limited by the need to avoid restrictions on "legitimate" speech, but limits on spending or contributions are undermined by the fact that money is anonymous and there are an infinite number of ways that money can get from one person to another person in exchange for a particular service.

These loopholes are perhaps the most tragic aspect of campaign finance regulations, since their existence means that there is always a need for another law, which will eternally occupy the attention of pro-democracy activists, distracting them from an agenda that could really increase democracy in our society.

Like many activities of government, campaign finance regulations are bound to fail because they are a knee-jerk reaction that treats the symptoms of a problem without addressing the underlying cause. In this case, the problem is not that politicians collect money from special interest groups, the problem is that elected officials are not fully accountable to the voters. Campaign finance regulations do not address that problem; but that problem can be addressed with reforms, such as Lani Guinier's power-sharing reforms, that increase competition in elections and decrease the risk associated with "losing" an election.

Another way to address the problem is to recognize that our campaign finance problems result from the fact that politics depends on communication, and our communication system is heavily commercial and plutocratic; a society with a plutocratic communication system will inevitably have a plutocratic political system, not a democratic one. Attempts to democratize our communication system will have a much more fundamental and lasting effect on political democratization than any regulatory agency could. Stay tuned, because my next article will evaluate what avenues we have to democratize our communication system.

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

The Limits of Voting

For many Americans, the legitimacy of the state derives from the fact that state officials are elected by popular vote. In this school of thought, elected officials represent "the will of the people" and use their power to benefit the people as a whole, without preference for any particular subset of the people.

In the USA, we generally use a plurality election system; this means that each voter selects one candidate and the candidate with the most votes wins. Given this election system, the main criticism of the above-mentioned "will of the people" school of thought is that elected officials only represent the majority (actually, the plurality) that voted for them. A less obvious but even more serious criticism is that even in situations where there is a near consensus among the voters, elected officials can still choose to go against the "will of the people", and will not be held accountable at the polls. This produces a systematic tendency for politicians to favor particular interest groups (including themselves) at the expense of the people in general--this is what I will argue below, followed by some suggestions of how we can improve the situation.

In a plurality election system, there is a strong incentive for voters to coordinate their voting and focus on candidates who have the ability to receive about half of the total votes, thereby avoiding the problem of spoiler" candidacies or "vote-splitting". The end result is that two large political parties dominate the elections, and the primary choice facing a voter is which party to support (in general, or for a particular election).

As a consequence of the two-party system, political issues fall into one of three classes:
Class I (accountable): Elections impose accountability for issues where there is a near consensus among the voters and many of the voters feel strongly about the issue. For example, in American politics, open racism will sink a candidacy. The vast majority of Americans would disagree with that candidate, and a large number of Americans would consider that issue so important that they would vote against that candidate regardless of his position on other issues.

Class II (dividers): Elections are largely decided on issues where there is no consensus, but many voters feel strongly about them. These are the issues that make up our day-to-day political discourse: abortion, the Iraq war, gun control, and so on. Since there is no consensus on these issues, it is meaningless to say that the politicians are accountable or unaccountable on these issues; however, these issues have the important role of defining the political parties and making other, less important issues irrelevant to the decision of how to vote.

As a consensus is established or destroyed, an issue can move between these first two categories. Activist judicial decisions often move issues from the first class to the second class.

Class III (unaccountable): Politicians are not accountable on the "small" issues, which are not going to change the behavior of individual voters, and consequently a politician can make decisions that are in opposition to the near-consensus of the people. This produces a risk of corruption, which may be increased by the fact that the voters are generally more concerned with big, impersonal societal issues and less concerned with the specific economic issues that can provide huge rewards to special interests. For example, very few voters will raise a fuss over the frivolous expenditure of $100 million by the Federal government, if the only other alternative is vote for a candidate whom that voter disagrees with on the "big issues" (abortion, Iraq, etc.).

Corruption in the "small issues" is further encouraged by the logic that if one party can get away with a little bit, then the other party can get away with a little more--each political party becomes a little more corrupt than the other. Eventually, this becomes a "big issue" to the citizens, but the differences between the major parties is not big enough for this to form the basis of the voting decision. Hence, we die of a thousand little cuts. This gives new meaning to word "politics", which can be broken down into its component parts: poly (many), ticks (small blood-sucking insects).
Is there any way out of this? Perhaps there are enough "swing voters" who don't identify with either party regarding the "big issues", and consequently are free to base their votes on the "small issues" and enforce accountability on the politicians. Unfortunately, most swing voters do not invest the energy necessary to inform themselves about these issues, thereby placing the burden of spreading information on the candidates themselves. Consequently, the number of voters who can be swayed by a fancy, ubiquitous advertising campaign is greater than the number of voters who can be swayed by a little fiscal restraint. This encourages politicians to collect money from big-time donors and repeatedly decide the "small issues" in favor of those campaign financiers to keep their favor, rather than doing what is in the best interest of the general population. We now see an opportunity for corruption that complements the motive for corruption (fear of competing power) that I pointed out previously in How power corrupts.

Perhaps a more likely solution to this problem is the possibility that our society will build a consensus on many of the divisive issues, which will open up some space for us to vote against this type of corruption. There is some hope in the Porkbusters movement, which may represent an attempt to put the "culture war" behind us and focus a problem that unites us.

Campaign finance regulation is often proposed as a solution for the type of corruption that I am concerned with here, but such regulations are a BAD IDEA (more on that in a future post). We need to focus on eliminating the motive and opportunity for corruption rather than bothering with the form that the corruption takes. One promising approach is to move away from the plurality voting system and adopt a system that allows more political competition and consequently introduces more accountability on politicians. While Arrow's theorem demonstrates that no voting system is perfect, activists such as those at Fairvote (the Center for Voting and Democracy) have a lot of good ideas for how to improve the American voting system.

That may limit the opportunity for corruption, but we can also limit the motivation for corruption by reducing the need for candidates to run multi-million dollar campaigns. We can do this by informing ourselves about the positions of the candidates, which can be aided by Project Vote-Smart. We can also develop a decentralized communication system that allows every person to make a significant contribution to a candidate's publicity campaign (more on that in a future post), thereby freeing the candidates from their reliance on big money.

Extra tidbits: Lani Guinier has done a lot to promote the idea of power sharing in government, particularly with her book Tyranny of the Majority. I suspect that power-sharing reforms will inherently increase the accountability of the government. Another way to increase accountability is to split up power among separately elected offices. In the USA we could essentially make the head of each Federal Executive Department (cabinet secretaries) directly elected by the people rather than having them appointed by the President and confirmed by the Senate. Of course, this would be a major reform, requiring a rearrangement of the departments and a Constitutional amendment. Fortunately, the experience of state governments could serve as a guide for this reform, as many of them have the Treasurer and Attorney General elected independently of the Governor.

For an example of this phenomenon, see What's the Matter with Kansas?. From what I've heard, the thesis of this book is that in spite of the fact that the Democratic economic agenda would benefit many voters in this state, those voters support the Republicans because they consider social issues to be more important.

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Libertarian ideology: give it a break!

Several years ago I went through a phase of ideological libertarianism; I was adamant that liberty was the only foundation of justice, and that my favored strain of libertarianism (geo-libertarianism) was the only real embodiment of the libertarian principle. I spent a lot of time trying to convince others of these two points, and now that I have exited that phase of my life, I want to give a warning to others who are going down the path towards ideological libertarianism: DON'T GO THERE!

Actually, this warning goes out to anyone who is at risk of becoming an ideologue. I focus on libertarianism because it is the only ideology that focuses on the distribution of power in a society, and because of all the political movements in the USA, the libertarian movement seems to be the only one that is strongly based on ideology and hasn't splintered into a million warring factions (like the socialists).

Ideology does have it's place, but not in real life. Ideology is an academic exercise that allows individuals to express their deepest concerns and develop problem solving techniques. It provides us with criteria that we use to judge real-world proposals, and an awareness of how various values (for example, liberty and security) may complement or conflict with each other.

Ideology does not provide "the answer". When a person attaches himself to a particular ideology, he becomes blind to aspects of life that are not covered by that ideology. When ideology is invoked in discussions of real and immediate problems, it hinders communication. Ultimately, the application of ideology outside of the academic realm inhibits effective action and the realization of the ideological goals.

The preponderance of ideologues in the libertarian movement aggravates and alienates the vast majority non-libertarians and gives rise to the complaints chronicled by opposing ideologues such as Mike Huben. The worst tendency among libertarian ideologues is to reject a proposal because it isn't "libertarian", and then drop the issue. These ideologues never take a minute to address the problem that inspired the anti-libertarian proposal, and as a result, they appear to be one-dimensional and disconnected from reality.

Libertarian ideologues will also reject libertarian reforms because they are not one's own ideal, which is pure idiocy. This ignores the fact that society advances by the improvement of traditions, not by instant implementation of someone prophet's (half-baked) thoughts. It also ignores the reality of politics, where we need to convince others to accept our proposals and it is easier to sell a particular reform than it is to sell an entire ideology.

Humans need to embrace multiple ideologies, recognizing that the real world includes great uncertainty and humans have a number of concerns which may complement or conflict with each other. We also need to think more like engineers, treating the world as raw material that can be shaped, bit-by-bit, into one's ideal.

Extra: Gus Van Horn has a good post on how activists can become obsessed with implementing a particular policy and forget what it means to engage in politics. He describes the gradual nature of political change, addressing the need to change public opinon before changing state policy.

Friday, September 09, 2005

The disturbing case of Jose Padilla

The Washington Post is reporting that the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit has overturned a lower court ruling and determined that Jose Padilla can be imprisoned without charge or trial, indefinitely, at the will of the President.

Further information can be found at:

A few years ago, I purchased a shirt with an American flag on it, and the words "liberty and justice for all." About a week later, Padilla was imprisoned without charge, and since then I have been unable to bring myself to put that shirt on.

This decision rests upon the fact that "Padilla associated with the military arm of the enemy, and with its aid, guidance, and direction entered this country bent on committing hostile acts on American soil." What I don't understand is who determined that this is true. Does Padilla admit this? If so, I have no problem with his detention. Were these facts determined by a jury of his peers? That would be legit also. Unfortunately, it sounds as though these facts were determined solely by the President. It's possible that these facts were reviewed by judges (who rely on the President for their promotions), which would be better than just accepting the word of the President, but still would be a violation of the right of the people (represented by a jury) to review government actions that deprive any citizen of his liberty, as encoded in the fifth and sixth amendments of the US constitution.

Civil libertarians warn that this decision means that the President can detain anyone indefinitely on a whim. I'd like to know why this isn't true. Any suggestions?

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

How Power corrupts

The stability of power relationships (including government) depends on the perception that the power-holders are serving the interests of the people who contribute to their power. This truth was on the minds of the framers of the American constitution, who conducted a public-relations campaign to convince the public that the Federal government would be largely immune to corruption. The basic issue is most famously presented by James Madison in The Federalist No. 51
But what is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In forming a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.
The United States have been relatively successful in convincing the public that it is legitimate (i.e., government interests are identical to the interests of the citizenry), though its legitimacy is often questioned by political radicals and individuals who identify with racial and ethnic groups that have suffered blatant oppression by the government. Still, overt corruption is relatively rare in the USA.

This post contains an overview of my ideas about corruption, focusing on four types: graft, self-aggrandizement, aristocratic notions, and fear of competing power. This last type of corruption is the most interesting and seems to have the most impact in the USA, so I'll elaborate on it in a future post.

Graft: This is the simplest and most blatant form of corruption. It is driven by greed, and wealthy countries have managed to suppress it. Many laws have been passed to make it difficult for public officials to take graft (transparency, campaign fundraising, whistleblower, etc.); however, there are still many opportunities for unscrupulous enrichment, particularly in the enforcement of victimless crimes, such as drug prohibition.

Self-aggrandizement: Some individuals seem to constantly need to be told how great and worthy they are, leading to extreme status-seeking. Even after they have risen above their peers, they still seek greater status, by dwelling on their historical legacy. President Clinton seemed to be this type of person, and I was rather disgusted with how some in the media patronized his obsession with his own legacy, acting as though this were healthy behavior. At first glance, it seems that there is no conflict between a power-holder seeking to leave a legacy and his seeking to serve the interests of his people. However, to leave a legacy, one must make large and lasting changes to the world, and the world doesn't always need such changes. To make it worse, the power-holder must also be able to take credit for these changes, which is in direct contrast to the Taoist maxim that "When the best rulers achieve their purpose, Their subjects claim the achievement as their own."

Aristocratic notions: Some individuals may feel that their family and social peers are "meant" to rule, due to some inherent genetic or cultural superiority over the rest of society. This was openly advocated by the monarchs and aristocrats of the old world, but could also be present in the elite old-money political families of our own country: Bush, Gore, Kennedy, Rockefeller, and others. In some ways, aristocrats have the same interests as their subjects, just as shepherds have an interest in the health of their flock; however, these interests diverge if the commoners ever insist on the right to rule themselves and the aristocrats use their power to reinforce their own position.

Fear of competing power: This is the most insidious form of corruption since it can drive a well-intentioned person to perform acts that are clearly wrong. It is the only type of corruption that is driven by power itself, rather than serious pre-existing character flaws. This is the political equivalent of "selling your soul", where a person gains immediate advantage by making a small sacrifice, but has unknowingly started down a path that forces ever greater sacrifices. The underlying mechanism is that each candidate believes that he is much better than his opponent for ideological reasons, and will compromise his integrity slightly if it will increase his chance of winning--even with this slight compromise, he is still better than his ideological opponent. The opponent makes the same decision, and consequently the difference between the two is the same as before, but both of them are more corrupt, and the cycle repeats itself.

This type of corruption is illustrated in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, as it drives the Minister of Magic to attack Dumbledore and Potter. It was also on display in the 2003 campaign for mayor in Berkeley, in which Tom Bates (who won) destroyed hundreds of copies of a student newspaper because it had endorsed his opponent. This also is apparent in how politicians implicitly collect campaign contributions in exchange for favorable treatment of the contributors once elected.

This topic is central to many of the ideas presented in this blog, and I intend to return to it in future posts.

Addendum: Michael Kinsley at Slate reviews the current round of corruption in Washington (Corrupt Intentions), looking at both "fear of competing power" and pure graft, illustrating how widespread both forms of corruption are in Washington these days.

Sunday, September 04, 2005

Books: Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

Having read the sixth Harry Potter book, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, I am happy to say that the writing is even better than the previous book and Rowling continues to examine how the characters relate to power, developing some of the themes I pointed out in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.

Two passages really caught my attention. One was a simple explanation by Dumbledore regarding the weakness of tyranny:
Voldemoret himself created his worst enemy, just as tyrants everywhere do! Have you any idea how much tyrants fear the people they oppress? All of them realize that, one day, amongst their many victims, there is sure to be one who rises against them and strikes back!
I was amused with how well this matched the sentiment expressed in a little Borg-esque slogan that I made up a while ago: Intimidation is futile, you will be resisted.

Another interesting passage was Harry's interview with the new Minister of Magic (the magical equivalent of the Prime Minister). As in the last novel, politicians are depicted as arrogant and untrustworthy, convinced that their own power is the most important thing in the world. Harry is repulsed by the minister's (mild) corruption, which opens up a profound facet of the novel--Harry's refusal to cede his integrity to the government.

During the interview, the Minister invites Harry to work at the Ministry, hoping to benefit from Harry's reputation and ability, but Harry rejects this offer, asking "won't that seem as though I approve of what the Ministry's up to?" When the Minister suggests that Harry has a duty to aid the government, Harry accuses the Minister of failing in his duties by abusing his powers for political gain. Finally, the Minister asks Harry "(You are) Dumbledore's man through and through, aren't you, Potter?", which Harry affirms.

In this exchange, Harry asserts that his allegiance is to individuals and ideals, not institutions, but this does not mean that he has chosen monarchy over representative government. Harry's allegiance to Dumbledore derives from Harry's recognition that Dumbledore is a more perfect embodiment of Harry's own values. If Dumbledore demonstrated corruption, Harry would probably turn his back on him just as he turned his back on the Ministry. Harry's relationship with Dumbledore is such that if Dumbledore died, Harry would either have to chose another leader or rely on his own judgment, but he would allow others to make their own judgments as long as they didn't impose themselves on him.

The voluntary nature of Dumbledore's authority is more fully illustrated when Dumbledore takes Harry on a dangerous mission. Dumbledore has Harry promise to follow his orders only for the duration of this particular mission, and he makes sure that Harry is willing to follow a few particular orders. These orders are of the nature "you will abandon me if I tell you to", but nothing like "you will kill whomever I tell you to."

Harry's insistence on maintaining his independence from the government, along with his general lack of respect for authority mark him as a rather anarchistic character. One other character also strikes me as a bit of an anarchist--Severus Snape. At the end of this book, Potter and Snape clearly have some issues to resolve and I look forward to reading about the further development of their relationship in the finale.

Note: I discovered that the Libertarian Party had published a review of The Order of the Phoenix by Eryk Boston which covers some same themes as my own reviews, but with a more political tilt.

Update: A list of similar reviews at CLASSical Liberalism.