Friday, February 25, 2011

Restrictive Democracy: Plausible?

Standard democratic practice for decades now has been expansive rather than restrictive.  Democracies attempt to include as many people as possible in democratic procedures.  This is reflected in the enfranchisement of women, racial and ethnic minorities, younger people (via reductions in the minimum voting age, in some places), and in the loosening of restrictions on voting by criminals and the cognitively disabled.  All these moves reflect an underlying acceptance of the idea that (a lack of) competence is the only legitimate reason for not allowing a citizen to participate in democracy.  As more and more people are shown to have (or not clearly to lack) the competence necessary for meaningful political participation, democracies have allowed more and more people to participate.

It seems as though there was at least one other alternative available to democracies.  While I approve of the expansive approach, in which as many people as possible are allowed to participate, it is not clear to me that a restrictive interpretation of a capacity requirement was impossible.  What do I mean by a restrictive interpretation of a capacity requirement?  I mean that we could hold potential democratic participants to a higher standard than we currently do.  The capacity requirement as currently used is minimal.  We do not require that our citizens are good democratic citizens.  We do not test citizens for political knowledge, or make any attempt to ensure that when they cast their votes they do so on reasoned grounds.  For our current purposes, the vote of someone who spends every available minute determining which political party or candidate would best represent their interests, is as valuable as the vote of the person who chooses who to vote for by drawing a name from a hat. 

We could, it seems, have reasonably chosen to interpret the capacity requirment more strongly, more restrictively.To do so, we would have to claim that there are benefits arising from having capable* democratic citizens (that is, strongly capable citizens) that do not arise from having minimally capable democratic citizens.  What could these benefits be?  A reduction in votes randomly assigned, a reduction in votes assigned for sub-optimal reasons, potentially a higher turnout amongst capable* citizens, as they internalise the idea that the right to participate in politics is now a privilege earned through demonstrated ability.  We may also want to claim that there are benefits to democracy as a whole.  Epistemic benefits arising from having more capable voters on average would be a primary example.

What would we lose?  Impartiality seems to be the big one.  Some people would have advantages over others, whether through greater innate ability, or (far more likely) through privileged access to an environment that encouraged learning.  This access would arise through being part of the dominant cultural group within society, by having money, in all likelihood (particularly amongst the poorer and minority groups within society) by being male, for gender imbalance is often more pronounced in groups who are already least well off.  Further, if we wanted to run a line like this, we would have a strong incentive to apply impartiality in the use of the capacity* requirement.  A minimum age limit would no longer be reasonable (if it is at this time), as we have an explicit capacity* requirement which we can use to exclude the incapable.  Why wouldn't the capable* young be included?

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Poor Christchurch

Another one.  Worse, by the sounds of it, because although it wasn't as powerful, it was sharper, and closer to the surface.

Friday, February 18, 2011

More Protests!

Bahrain, Yemen, Iran...

Trying times for Middle Eastern dictatorships.

Monday, February 14, 2011

A response to Brooks on prisoner voting

In the UK all prisoners are disenfranchised.  This situation has been condemned by the European Court of Human Rights, which in Hirst objected to the blanket disenfranchisement of prisoners, and told the parliament to amend its laws.  Parliament has recently refused to do so.  In this recent post, Thom Brooks ably dismissed a number of the common objections to allowing prisoners to vote, and argued that we should seek to expand the franchise, allowing prisoners to vote.

While I agree that a blanket ban on prisoner voting is indefensible, for many of the reasons Brooks discusses, I wanted to examine some of the ways in which a more limited system of disenfranchisement could be defended, and also to touch on one further point against disenfranchisement, that provides another reason to worry about disenfranchising any prisoners at all.

One option is to limit disenfranchisement to specific criminals.  The recidivist criminals, who have repeatedly broken the law, might at some stage more clearly be characterisable as lacking respect for the rules of society, such that taking away one of the rights acccruing to citizens in good standing (voting) is a legitimate response.  Similarly, disenfranchising those convicted of serious crimes might be able to be seen as a legitimate component of punishment.  A person sentenced to life without parole clearly has less invested in the political structure of society than does a person who is sentenced to 6 months or a year in prison.  Other countries in the commonwealth provide ideas that the government might want to look into, with both Australia and New Zealand selectively disenfranchising criminals based on the length of their sentences.  As sentence length provides a good proxy for the seriousness of the crimes committed (albeit an imperfect one, as some account is taken of prior conduct when determining any given sentence), taking account of this would be sufficient to overcome the ECHR objection to current practice.

There are also some people who we might legitimately disenfranchise even if they are sentenced to only short terms in prison (or even not imprisoned at all).  These are the criminals whose actions directly undermine the institution of democracy, those who engage in electoral fraud or similar activities.  The connection of their crime to the practice of democracy gives us a better reason to disenfranchise them than we have for most criminals.  Something of this nature is practiced in New Zealand and in Germany, where disenfranchisement for particular electoral offences is an available punishment.

For any of the above cases, however, there is a concern.  The way our society is organised is such that certain identifiable groups within society are severely disadvantaged, such that criminal activity is a more viable option to them than it is for the average person in society.  For some of these groups, this difficulty is compounded by variations in state concern with their behaviour.  That is, the police exhibit (often unconscious) bias against particular identifiable groups.  So some people are in a position where criminal behaviour is the best available option for satisfying basic needs, and many of the people in this circumstance are also more likely to be targetted by police.  This concern has been articulated most clearly by Richard Lippke, in a number of books and articles on punishment.  It suggests that there is structural injustice in the state such that imposing particular punishments on some people is either unjustifiable or more difficult to justify.  Disenfranchisement seems like one of the punishments that is hardest to justify in these cases, as unlike imprisonment itself, it doesn't produce clear public benefits.

Friday, February 4, 2011

A compelling new theory on revolutionary success...

Is that the chances of your revolution succeeding rely heavily on the person in charge having underinvested in arseholes with sticks.

"This is my advice to any aspiring dictator; early on in your career, identify and inventory all the self-pitying, bullying shitheads your country has to offer. Anyone with a grievance, a beer belly and enough strength to swing a pickaxe handle will do."
 The idea here is that if you have enough people protesting, the army is likely to keep out of their way.  If, however, you have some civilians of your own, who are not averse to mixing it with the revolutionaries, and who may even have been itching for a chance, then they are much more likely to help you suppress the uprising than are the military.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Female Revolutionaries

Women have not traditionally had much influence in Egyptian public life, as Egyptian society is still strongly patriarchal.  Some commentators have noticed an interesting feature of the current protests, mirroring in some ways the protests in Iran, namely that women (of all ages) are actively involved, in significant numbers, in the protests.  This is good for women, good for society as a whole, and bodes well for the formation of a new Egyptian government after the revolution, as the women who have through protest felt their voices be heard, are unlikely to be as willing to return to their silence.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

And the army sides with the protesters.

The Guardian is reporting that the Egyptian army has pledged not to use force against lawful protests.  This is very good news for the protesters, and equally bad news for Mubarrak, who will now have to rely on Police and the interior ministry if he wants to get heavy handed with his citizens.