What’s a demockracy?

– What’s a democracy?

– Democracy means that people rule and the government respects the opinions of the citizens.

– So the government should do what the people want?

– In principle, yes, but…

– Can a majority of the people decide to abolish the parliament?

– No, the basic institutions of the state are usually set in the Constitution and constitutional rules are not to be changed like that. Everything that is in the constitution is off limits.

– OK, I can see why. Can the people decide different groups deserve different pay for the same job?

– No, even if this is not outlawed by the Constitution, there is the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and fundamental human rights are not be changed by democratic majorities.

– Makes sense. Can the people decide on gay marriage? That’s not in the Declaration.

– Well, there are certain human rights that are not yet in constitutions and universal declaration, but we now recognize them as essential so they are also not subject to majorities.

– OK, so in democracies the government does what the people want, but not when it comes to constitutional issues, recognized fundamental human rights, and other very important norms.

– Yes.

– So can the people decide to change the interest rate?

– Oh, no! Not even politicians can do that. Monetary policy is delegated to independent central banks.

– But people can decide on regulating tel…

– Nope, regulation is basically all delegated to independent agencies, so that’s out.

– Hm, ok, so can the people decide to change the terms of foreign trade?

– Not really, these are set in international treaties so people cannot change anything that is in international treaties just like that.

– Got it. But people surely can decide if their country goes to war or not?

– Well, foreign policy is tricky, there is a lot of secret information involved, complex strategies to be made and it needs rapid responses, so, no.

– OK, can people decide on pensions, then?

– Pensions affect the future lives of those who can’t vote yet, so current majorities can’t really decide.

– OK, so in democracies the government does what the people want, but not when it comes to constitutional issues, recognized fundamental human rights and other very important norms, and not on anything that is in international treaties, and not on monetary policy or any regulatory issues, and not on foreign policy, and not on pensions. But for the rest the government should do what the majority of people want?

– Well, not really. It might not be clear what people want: there could be cyclical majorities among policy alternatives. And it might not be clear how to respond: respecting majorities on particular issues might lead to disrespecting a majority of the people overall.

– That sounds complicated. But if there are not cyclical majorities and one can satisfy a majority of people on a majority of the issues, then one should do what the people want?

– Nope. People might not want what’s good for them. People don’t understand policy and don’t follow political developments close enough. And people are duped by politicians and the media.

– Hard to disagree. I think I got it now: Democracy is a political system in which the government does what the people want, but not when it comes to constitutional issues, recognized fundamental human rights and other very important norms, and not on anything that is in international treaties, and not on monetary policy or any regulatory issues, and not on foreign policy, and not on pensions, and not on anything where it is unclear what the majority wants or how to satisfy a majority of people on majority of issues, and then only if the people want what’s right for them, to be decided by some experts in government or outside. Now that’s what I call a real demockracy!

Constructivism in the world of Dragons

Here is an analysis of Game of Thrones from a realist international relations perspective. Inevitably, here is the response from a constructivist angle. These are supposed to be fun so I approached them with a light heart and popcorn. But halfway through the second article I actually felt sick to my stomach. I am not exaggerating, and it wasn’t the popcorn – seeing the same ‘arguments’ between realists and constructivists rehearsed in this new setting, the same lame responses to the same lame points, the same ‘debate’ where nobody ever changes their mind, the same dreaded confluence of normative, theoretical, and empirical notions that plagues this never-ending exchange in the real (sorry, socially constructed) world, all that really gave me a physical pain. I felt entrapped – even in this fantasy world there was no escape from the Realist and the Constructivist. The Seven Kingdoms were infected by the triviality of our IR theories. The magic of their world was desecrated. Forever….

Nothing wrong with the particular analyses. But precisely because they manage to be good examples of the genres they imitate the bad taste in my mouth felt so real. So is it about interests or norms? Oh no. Is it real politik or the slow construction of a common moral order? Do leader disregard the common folk to their own peril? Oh, please stop. How do norms construct identities? Noooo moooore. Send the Dragons!!!

By the way, just one example of how George R.R. Martin can explain a difficult political idea better than an entire conference of realists and constructivists. Why do powerful people keep their promises? Is it ’cause their norms make them do it or because it is in their interests or whatever? Why do Lannisters always pay their debts even though they appear to be some the meanest self-centered characterless in the entire world of Game of Thrones?  We literally see the answer when Tyrion Lannister tries to escape from the sky cells, and the Lannister’s reputation for paying their debts is the only thing that saves him, the only thing he has left to pay Mord, but it is enough (see episode 1.6). Having a reputation for paying your debts is one of the greatest assets you can have in every world. And it is worth all the pennies you pay to preserve it even when you can actually get away with not honoring your commitments. It could not matter less if you call this interest-based or norm-based explanation: it just clicks, but it takes creativity and insight to convey the point, not impotent meta-theoretical disputes.

The International Journal of Indexing

This just needs to be re-posted [from Kottke]:

[F]or the Society of Indexers, book indices are a topic that holds endless fascination. And I do mean endless.

The Prime Minister of England wrote to the Society of Indexers at the society’s founding back in freaking 1958.

“I can scarcely conceal from you the fact that I am at present somewhat occupied with other matters, so that I cannot say all that comes into my mind and memory on the subject of indexing.” 

One of the longest running features of the society’s publication, The Indexer, is its reviews of indices which are snippets culled from book reviews that pertain to the book’s index… They also regularly publish articles that meditate on what it means to be an indexdefend indexing, and a look at the history of indexing societies.

These guys should definitely be invited to the World Congress on Referencing Styles.

Science is like sex…

‘Science is like sex – it might have practical consequences but that’s not why you do it!’

This seems to be a modified version of a quote by the physicist Richard Feynman that I heard last week at a meeting organized by the Dutch Organization for Scientific Research (the major research funding agency in the Netherlands). It kind of sums up the attitudes of natural scientists to the increasing pressures all researchers face to justify their grant applications in terms of the possible practical use (utilization, or valorization) of their research results. Which is totally fine by me. I perfectly understand that it is impossible to anticipate all the possible future practical consequences of fundmental research. On the other hand, I see no harm in forcing researchers to, at the very least, think about the possible real-world applications of their work. The current equilibrium  in which reflection on possible practical applications is required, but ‘utilization’ is neither necessary nor sufficient for getting a grant, seems like a good compromise.
Of course, I come from a field (public administration) where demonstrating the scientific contribution is usually more difficult than showing the practical applicability of the results: so my view might be biased. I am not even sure what fundamental research in the social sciences looks like. Even rather esoteric work on non-cooperative game theory has been directly spurred by practical concerns related to the Cold War (and sponsored by the RAND corporation) and has rather directly led to the design of real-world social instituions (like the networks for kidney exchange) which won Al Roth his recent Nobel prize.