It’s a very interesting analysis of American democracy from the point of view of voters’ competency and its consequences in the management of the country. First of all it establishes the level of political ignorance as very high based on questionnaires conducted over significant period of time. Obviously there is now surprise here.
However it goes not just beyond usual laments about stupidity of the voters, but into much more interesting discussion of rationality of voters’ low level of political knowledge. It reviews various theories of democracy such as retrospective voting, Burkean Trusteeship, Majority views representation, Deliberative Democracy, and Pure Proceduralist Theories of Democracy.
Another interesting and unusual approach is to look at the problem when voters know too much. The interesting conclusion here is that yes, voters could know too much when knowledge is combined with “bad” values. There is seems to be not completely conscious assumption that there is somebody outside who knows what the “good” outcome should be. Here I think we are going into very core issue with democracy – whether democracy is acceptable, as simple rule of majority or it should be tempered by “elite” so non-elite would not do evil due to its bad values. The example is racist population deceived by elite politician who pretends to be more racist that he is in order to get power. For me there are two big problems here. One is that elite usually has a lot worse values then regular people. The second one is that deception in itself is not a good value whatever justification politicians could come with. For both of these reasons I believe that pure majoritarian democracy is not much different then tyranny. Only democracy restricted by external set of non-violable values either religious such as 10 commandments or humanitarian such as American bill of rights could provide for a system leading to freedom and consequently to prosperity.
The next discussion is pretty convincing essay on rationality of political ignorance due to the simple fact that it is not rational to spend much time on knowledge acquisition of resulting improvement in decision-making has negligible impact on reality, because one vote is not deciding anything.
Another highly insightful analysis is provided for Foot Voting vs. Ballot Box voting. In other words people are moving to another place where conditions are better for them. Being immigrant, this discussion is very close to my heart. I more then fully agree that such voting is immeasurably more effective and knowledgeable because of high stakes involved. I think we all would be a lot better off if this kind of voting occurred with higher frequency and more information about results provided to everybody.
The weakest part of this book, in my opinion, comes at the end when different solutions provided to improve voting process. I think that it is completely wrong approach. What we really need, if we are serious about improving lives, is movement away from big decisions made based on majority rule and towards maximization of individual freedom, the only way when individuals could possible pursue their happiness successfully. There is no need really to justify it in any way other then simple pointing to the fact that all individuals are different and therefore it could not possibly be one size of happiness that fits all.
This is the book about future. More exactly – what we can expect in 2050 when demographic projections point to 100 million more people living America then 300 million living now. In short, the expectation is that America is radically transformed, but the American creed, which includes rejection of fatalism and hierarchy, while supporting individual freedom, will be prospering as never before. The discussion goes along demographic lines and here are the main points:
Additional 100 million will come from immigrant and minorities with proportion of original WASP population going down. The important feature is American openness for all humanity regardless of small staff like race, nation, and religion. Everybody can become an American and be perceived as such by everybody else. An interesting point is that overall world population will stabilized or even go down, while American will keep growing.
Cities will remain entry points and suburbs will remain core America where mature native-born Americans, well Americanized successful immigrants, and minorities will wield increasing political and economic power. Los Angeles model with small downtown and huge suburbia will expand around the country, but with significantly better communication and transportation amenities supporting economic main activities which will also move to suburbia. America would become an archipelago of villages where people not only sleep, but also work, get entertained, and spent most time of their lives enjoying plenty of space, nature, and security.
In short the future is bright and we can expect the great improvement in American life pretty much as it always was before.
I mainly agreed with this evaluation because I think that the great growth of power of bureaucracy and politicians that occurred over last 100 years is about bump head on into Americans’ well being and deep cultural believes with, in my opinion, inevitable outcome of significant decrease of this power and conversion of great many bureaucrats and politicians into productive members of society.
Malcolm Gladwell found a great recipe for writing bestsellers: take a simple even banal idea, wrap it in a bunch of curious anecdotes that illustrate this idea, and indicate that this idea universally applies to everything in the world. The result is an enjoyable and easy reading without deep dive into complexities of real life.
So the simple idea is that inequality of sides often really works to the advantage of seemingly weaker side with top example of David versus Goliath. The traditional reading is that Goliath, as professional warrior – big, strong, and well armed had huge superiority over simple boy David, so David won by using his specific skills in non-traditional way. The point Gladwell makes is that in reality Davis had advantage because he used projectile against slow moving target that could not effectively defend itself. Leaving alone ridiculousness of this example (after all it was not peasant boys who were living at the expense of big strong warriors, but rather other way around), the idea is not bad. It just had to be taken with a grain of salt and used very sparingly because in real life Goliaths usually win.
The expansion of main idea comes in two directions. One is that disadvantage makes people do thing that they did not know they can do before and achieve things that they would never achieve if the disadvantage would not make them to work double hard. The second expansion is into limits of power. It comes with complexity of life and existence of way too many powers. This part as usual when invoked in humanistic discussion could not held in real life because they take for granted self-imposed humanistic limitation, which often prevent civilized powers to achieve secondary objectives. In reality these limitations are not permanent limitations on everybody by any means. A good example is non-violent movements. Gandy and Martin Luther King were possible only in opposition to relatively civilized and therefore humane power whether of British colonial or American democratically elected administrations. Against non-civilized and non-humane power like Hitler’s Nazis or Stalin’s communists they would be wiped out long before anybody knew they existed. This is really not an assumption, but reality of many people who were crashed by power without limits.
In short a nice book with very limited relation to reality.
This is a classic work of social science written in 1950s and carrying indelible mark of this time – time of triumph of hard science, math and engineering. It investigates the nature of choice in a group or society, how it is done and what is normally comes out of it. The unusual part of this is an attempt and quite successful to apply rules of mathematical logic with its language of theorems and equations to society and individuals.
Here a sample of how it looks like in my translation from Math to English:
Axiom I: Any two conditions could be either indifferent or one more preferable then another.
Axiom II: IF condition X preferable to Y and Y preferable to Z, THEN X preferable to Z
After dealing in details with preference and choice it goes into definition and discussion of Social Welfare Function. It is to a significant extent reverberates with Jeremy Bentham’s philosophy – something that I believe is completely meaningless because humanity and society does not exists except as abstraction. The reality is that it all consists of individuals and calculation of total satisfaction or happiness could not possibly be done. In short if there are 10 people and they all are hungry, to kill and make dinner for 9 people out of one could not possibly be good even if as result we have 9 people who are not hungry any more at the expense of one who is not alive any more. My point is that social welfare is meaningless and only individual welfare makes sense. However it was interesting to look at this work.
The main idea of this book is coming from the simple fact that we have a lot of free time on our hands and with much higher level of education of the people we have a huge surplus resource of cognitive ability. If we apply this cognitive surplus to problems that we are facing we could progress in unexpected and probably very productive ways.
Shirky touches all points that are required to make something of this surplus:
Means – Contemporary communication networks and social media that allows disseminate ideas with lightening speed
Motive – People need to belong to a group and now it is possible to do across countries and regions, providing people with similar interests opportunity to join a fitting group regarding of how small percentage of population this group represents.
Opportunity- This combination of networks, need to belong, and interests creates opportunity to combine all of this in something significant and productive such as open source software (example of Apache)
Culture – Finally culture, if seen as coordinating tool, will provide environment in which all these could factors could join together creating new method of use of cognitive surplus for production of ideas and services much more fitting for post-industrial age. The new generation would probably have difficult time even to imagine the time when people did not have so much freedom to use their time and efforts to do whatever they want to do together with other people across the globe who think likewise.
It is somewhat strange to read a book that includes a lot of things that I’ve been thinking about for a while. One of these things that always come to my mind when I hear or read an incredibly counterfactual statement “Violence is not an answer” has become a chapter in this book named “Violence often is an answer”. This answer is what defines any political system – the form of organized violence. Political system or the state is more effective in its violence because it is bureaucracy and therefore is capable to overcome natural limits on violence normally present in humans. Ginsberg is also bringing in welfare state as another side of state violence, this time as a carrot. Finally he absolutely correctly defines violence as necessary, if unfortunate condition for a change. Even democracy could and should be evaluated as mechanism to prevent violent change, by providing for peaceful, if slow moving, mechanism of change. It is not that often that I encounter book so much in sync with my own thinking.
The chapters of this book provide nice and detailed analysis of use of violence as driving force of political life allowing groups of individuals to establish dominance within society or over other society. Very interesting and quite non-trivial analysis provided for non-violent movement. I pretty much had to agree that such movements do not really exist. It all comes down to ability of leaders of “non-violent” movement to provoke intervention of some external power in possession of tools of violence exceeding such tools of their adversary. A very good example is “non-violent” civil rights movement in USA with its leaders working tirelessly trying to generate support of northern white population and federal government, which was representing it. At the final analysis “non-violent” movement succeeded when troops of 101 airborne interfered on its behalf.
Another issue wonderfully analyzed in this book is connection between bureaucracy and violence. Historical examples provided illustrate this connection in very interesting way. One of such interesting facts that were new to me came from analysis of Rwandan genocide. Contrary to common view it was not completely spontaneous process, but rather an operation that was prepared well in advance and implemented using all necessary trappings of bureaucratic hierarchy. Obviously violence is much more effective if it is conducted using all logistical and organizational achievement of contemporary bureaucracy.
By extension violence based on bureaucratic support find its most effective form in state apparatus. It relates not only to logistics and other material processes, but also to software of government – rule of law, legitimation of the ruling elite, propaganda, and all kind of brainwashing applied to members of society, starting before kindergarten and never really ending, except that with age and experience it always become less and less effective. The counter force to this decrease in susceptibility to propaganda that bureaucracy always uses is violence as tool of keeping individuals in line.
The book also provides a very good review of America and its system of combination of hard and soft power which allows American elites to succeed where elites of old empires failed miserably. Being democracy with mainly market economy, which necessarily provides a non-trivial amount of freedom for regular Americans, resulting in much more resilient society capable to a great change without big violent interruptions.
The final chapter dedicated to analysis of relationship between violence and change. This analysis includes review of law-preserving violence versus change promoting violence. There is continuing tension and counteraction between these two forces with forces of law-preserving violence normally overwhelmingly more powerful and continuously winning tremendous number of small skirmishes, until at one point existing system is not capable to meat requirements of significant enough number of active members of society who want to change it and revolutionary change occurs sometimes in really wild paroxysm of violence as it happened during French revolution of 1789 and Russian revolution of 1917. Thankfully lately the great change happens with minimal amount of applied violence as it happened with dissolution of Soviet Union in 1991.