Sunday, 21 June 2009

Objections

1. "It is impossible".

2. "It makes unrealistic assumptions about human behaviour".

3. "Deciding how different people are affected isn't possible".

...further objections will be considered shortly...

* * *

1. “It is impossible”.

The most basic and widespread objection to a project like this is just a sort of generalized incredulity. It is impossible, pointless, utopian, of no use practically and going nowhere.

These can (and will, below) be looked at as distinct objections, but it is important to recognize that there is a context in which they are giving expression to something more fundamental and deep rooted, and that as such they are just indifferent articulations of the same sentiment: a blank scepticism. To this objector, it is instantly obvious that the project is a nutty, irrelevant waste of time. An amateur attempting to build a nuclear reactor, or a demand that the world give up drinking alcohol, are on the same plane – the details are irrelevant, it is obviously not going to happen.

What response is there to this? To some degree no counter-argument is going to satisfy this objector – any argument chain that overturned the point must ipso facto have something wrong with it. Still, some voicing this objection may listen to a defense. And to some degree, doubt cannot fail to be present in every mind (indeed should be), no matter how ardent or sure they are. So it is worth discussing.

The disbelief mutely communicated in this objection can be discursively expressed: the extent of the change required in order to bring into being the proposed economic system is so colossal, the depth of the alterations in ways of doing things so fundamental, and the will to effect any such changes so minuscule, that it is not in realm of the politically or socially or historically possible.

Of course, it must be admitted that what is, or seems socially possible, varies hugely. In developed countries in the past 100 years, wars, revolutions, and fundamental shifts in the legal status of large groups (black people, women, those allowed to vote) have taken place, as have very basic changes in the lifestyle and living standards of most of their populations, driven by technological progress. Few of these profound shifts, though, had been widely predicted or even countenanced beforehand. The sense of social possibility is a funny thing. Projections into the future draw for the most part upon recent experience, so that in a relatively quiet age, judgment about the degree of stability is likely to be exaggerated. Since we in the West live in such an age, we must admit that our inductive sense may not be a reliable guide concerning the degree of possible variability in the basic social structure.

This response is unlikely to satisfy the objector. Both the observations, on recent history and on the tendencies for cognitive distortion, may be granted as perfectly true. But all that this establishes is an abstract, ungrounded fact of possibility. The same sense of possibility is in play when we contemplate ourselves winning the lottery, or if we imagine that the worst team in a sports league might just win the title this year. We are trading on the fact that these events cannot be conclusively ruled out, and that our minds find it difficult to turn mathematical or empirical assessments of probability into a firm and concrete picture of how the world will be in the future.

Furthermore, in retrospect it becomes clear that the cited events of history exemplifying radical changes of basic parameters, did not occur as the historical equivalent of the impact of meteors - appearing out of the blue and with no wider explanatory preconditions. Under analysis, behind all these major shifts, powerful historical changes are revealed to have been operating, in their slow, invisible and inexorable way.

By contrast – the objection continues - Angel Economics is either contrary, or in fact just completely tangential to the direction of historical development. Moreover, whereas the desired historical precedents are nine tenths the result of unconscious changes, what is being proposed is a programme that would need to be consciously and intentionally implemented by billions of people. This is a fundamental distinction, rendering those comparisons null.

In short, a rational, adult, informed grasp of historical reality is capable of telling us in broad terms what may occur (even if it cannot tell us what will). And so informed, we can see that Angel Economics is about as likely as Albania becoming the dominant world superpower.

But this is not true. Elsewhere on this blog, a detailed analysis devoted to the question of how Angel Economics might be brought about will focus on these questions - of the broad, deep historical forces that may be counted in its favor, of the more contemporary issues and developments that likewise point toward its possibility, of the social and political constituencies that might rally behind it because it gives expression to their interests, and of the established movements that articulate social changes they wish to see, which closely mesh with Angel Economics. We can anticipate this discussion a little. Among the deep trends may be counted the following.

i) The ever-increasing interconnection among businesses over the world, and the inexorable growth in size of huge multinational conglomerates, is swallowing up the space in which true market relations actually exist. While large corporations often establish internal quasi-markets, and in any case operate according to norms very alien to Angel Economics, this nevertheless represents a growth – persisting now for hundreds of years – of humans cooperating collectively in the organization of their affairs.

ii) The long-term rise in the level of general education. While it would have been ludicrous to imagine the bulk of peasant farmers of 100 years ago being able to contribute intelligently to matters concerning the general conduct of economic affairs, today, decades of universal education, the proliferation of media, and the demands of work in the modern world, have instilled in virtually the whole population, the necessary elements for rational debate and intelligent coordination.

iii) Somewhat relatedly, the spread of democracy and equality as at least ideals, has an inexorable quality to it. From the spread of print, through the institution of universal suffrage, to developments brought about by the internet, there is a clear historical trend towards human beings having an equal say in the running of their lives. Every day, a new manifestation of this trend is reported. It can only be a matter of time before these ideals are properly actualized.

iv) There are also a lot of smaller trends, from the rise in the use of a great number of economic indicators beyond measures of GDP, to the mania on the part of large organizations for their clients or customers to participate in their product design and service provision (even if this is largely tokenistic at present) which relate more specifically to features of Angel Economics.

As for more immediate developments, one can mention the increasingly apparent crisis-ridden nature of the capitalist system, global warming and the more general degradation of the environment, and the unyielding persistence of a whole range of social problems, from alcoholism to socially attributable mental illness, to serious poverty and malnourishment within developed countries; these and many other systemic problems all press home the rationality of a case for a change of the economic system. Even within the mainstream, such calls exist quite widely.

As for the constituency whose objective interests align them with Angel Economics, this is the easiest of these cases to make. It is literally almost everybody. They stand to gain, because at the moment almost everybody is closed out from important decisions, and is forced to live a needlessly harsh, boring, stunted life. Were Angel Economics or similar schemes generally known, it is likely that they would command massive support.

Of course, something being in a person's interest is one thing; their recognition of that is quite another. It is the job of social movements to bring about that recognition. And here too, Angel Economics could draw on a very wide and diverse constituency, because it either articulates the ideals of such movements, or draws their goals into a wider framework. Anarchists and socialists would find much of the content of their ideal society within Angel Economics; conservatives who lament such things as the forgetting of heritage, the decline of manners, or the thoroughgoing destruction of long-practiced ways of life by the acid of commercialism, would welcome the effects of many of the structures proposed; environmentalists would likewise see that such a system would be the most potent change that could take place to alter our relation to the natural world; educationalists of many different stripes would surely support the ideals of hugely expanded time for learning, life-long opportunities to study, and a generally raised level of education; the fair trade movement can see in it an expansion of their notion of 'fairness' in economic transactions; scientists, especially those campaigning for greater public understanding, those willing for better, more comprehensive research, or those pushing for radical technological exploration, would all find their ideals amply fulfilled under Angel Economics; artists who resent commercial pressures, are stifled by public illiteracy, and who are generally strangled by the difficulties of earning a living within capitalism would surely welcome it; the transition town movement would see many of their ideas transferred to the realm of the economy as a whole; the cooperative movement likewise; the alternative currency movement likewise. And this is just a taste.

So – to summarize the counterargument in the last few paragraphs – the historical/political weight that could be drawn upon in support of Angel Economics is not at all as flimsy as the objection supposes; nor is the economic structure it outlines, as far removed – and therefore as great a leap - from the present system and its developmental trends, as it may seem at first blush. (Of course, the case remains to be made in full).

As an addendum, it is worth pointing out a crucial difference between Angel Economics and some of the economic ideals that have been proposed within the environmental movement to underline this point.

Quite a few authors, representing a large strain of opinion within the green movement, have proposed that the only possible (and for some, the only desirable) solution to the environmental- and associated social catastrophes scarring modern society, is a complete destruction of its basic foundations, and their replacement with simpler, older, more natural roots. A cluster of associated prescriptions follow (not necessarily found together, but often in broadly similar company): small settlements; the abolition of the international division of labor with its associated shipping, air travel, large multinationals, and heavy trade; the abolition of the growth imperative; organic agriculture, permaculture, non-extensive farming; renewable energy; local currencies; natural medicine; vegetarianism; a simplified life; real communities.

Individually, these ideas are sensible. The type of projects in which they tend to issue are often inspiring and life-affirming. And as correctives to the 'industrial' character that capitalism infuses into every pore of life, they are motivated by a laudably humane impulse. But in its more radical, systematic form - primitivism - a vision is articulated which would require the practical abolition of modern society. This can seem enormously attractive, and is undeniably powerful, rich, and rational in the evidence it can marshal. But as a program to be pursued on a general scale it has almost no hope of being realized, because it contradicts so many deeply held human traits and so many powerful social forces.

It is important to see – for the purposes of answering the objection presently under consideration – that Angel Economics is rather different in this respect. It is still a vision of an ideal. But it does not require, as its fundamental precondition, a total transformation in human Being.

In summary, the 'incredulity' objection by no means possesses the kind of obvious, overwhelming weight of rationality that the objector supposes. This is important, because that perspective is profoundly disabling. The function of the response to that objection is not to establish that Angel Economics is 'correct', or an inevitability, but that it it may be worth study, reflection, revision, promotion and implementation. The practical difficulties are large, but they are only like all practical difficulties.

* * *

2. “It makes unrealistic assumptions about people's behaviour”.

At several points in Angel Economics, statements are made about how people 'will' or 'would be likely to' behave. And their behaving in the ways assumed are a critical component of the viability of the system. If they don't act in the ways supposed, it will not work.

There are three key areas involved.

First, it is assumed that people would for the most part take only what they need, and more generally approach their personal consumption 'sensibly', in a situation where all items of personal use are free, and where there is no link between work and income.

Second, it is assumed that people would work, despite the fact that there is no necessity for them to do so since as just mentioned, all items of personal consumption are freely available.

Third, it is assumed that people would take an interest in, and be capable of rationally discussing, matters relating to the economic regulation of areas of society in which they have involvement.

To some, these are ludicrous assumptions to make, or simply naive. Still, there will be plenty of others who find them plausible and inspiring. Who is correct?

Before discussing this, it is important to note that they refer only to what would occur for the most part. The occurrence of a few people grabbing whatever they come across, or being lazy, or attempting to shout down the other participants in a discussion, does not count as a refutation of the assumptions, because the system would still work perfectly well under those circumstances. Only if it is the case that people would in general act contrary to the assumptions, would it be problematic.

It does not take someone of great insight and learning to point out that, as of today, the general population appears to contradict these assumptions at every turn. The scrambled dash to the department-store shelves when the sales begin does not bespeak of a balanced, controlled attitude towards personal consumption, but rather of a mania to get as much as possible for oneself before anyone else. Anyone who works today, would laugh at the thought of their continuing to do so if they didn't have to. And do not phone-ins, Jerry Springer, and the millions upon millions of inane blogs out there, prove that far from being rational, most people are dumb, squawking, prejudiced idiots?

Obviously, though, we are considering how people are capable of behaving in a set of circumstances that is quite different to that of today. People are capable of murdering each other in their millions - as has been proven by the countless wars of human history – but this does not count as a 'proof' that arranging a dinner party, in which people need to be civil and friendly to one-another, is a futile effort. The question is whether the qualities required by Angel Economics are widely distributed enough, and robust enough where they do exist, to sustain an economy based on them

Now, the exchange of strongly-held opinions on this question could continue forever, with little progress. We need to consider what kind of evidence would be capable of giving us an answer to it one way or the other. We might start by turning to the human sciences. Empirical sociological or psychological evidence is, of necessity, focused on observable traits, and logically this means that it can provide certain knowledge only about humans as they exist today. Of course, by observing people in different situations, testing underlying capacities, designing artificial experimental situations, extrapolation, analysis and so on, it becomes possible to say a certain amount about humans 'in general' and therefore to predict how they might behave under different circumstances. But these predictions are very shaky. The human sciences are still in a primitive condition and any argument to the effect that Angel Economics was either definitely possible or definitely impossible, which based itself upon sociological or psychological evidence, would be a mere rhetorical exercise.

Anthropology has been a traditional resort for others facing this difficulty. It studies other cultures, so here we do get rich empirical evidence of human behavior under a variety of social systems. But is it really able to give us an answer to our question? It would be overly flippant to say that Anthropology can tell us nothing, but equally, everyone can relate to feeling that there is a certain inconclusiveness about learning that this or that ancient Polynesian tribe share all their produce, or, alternatively, have strict property rights and a custom of murdering those who infringe them. The relevance of such facts to 21st century people is limited – suggestive, certainly, but not much more than that.

Rather than straining for conclusive empirical evidence, it might be thought far more sensible to relax our standards somewhat, and draw upon examples from history or wider society to form an idea of what seems likely. The problem with this – the natural method for everybody, cobbling together a view of human nature – is that every example has a counterexample, or differing interpretations, so that personal predisposition becomes the deciding factor in whether someone believes in the possibility of an economy founded on certain assumptions about human capacities. Thus for example, Wikipedia or open-source software can be cited as a case in which people freely give their time to work for something for which they receive no direct reward; and also as an example of the rational and constructive potential of people manifesting itself. But a critic is quite justified in pointing out the flaws in these projects, and can make a convincing case that underneath them are human failings that would also scupper an economy that extrapolated from them. And they can of course point to examples of their own.

What is the rational response to this situation, of apparent ineliminable uncertainty? Surely, it is to test out, on an initially small scale, the model and its predictions about how its participants would behave. This is the approach we adopt in other cases where we are unsure, and where there is the potential for things to go wrong; and there doesn't seem any reason to think this case is different. Such an approach allows us to easily fix faults that would only appear when the system is put into practice, limits the dangers of the enterprise, and allows everybody an opportunity to observe and come to a conclusion about its desirability. The heroic disasters of the 20th century recommend this caution, just as much as the dreadful characteristics of the present system press us to be adventurous.

To some degree of course there have already been tests, since Angel Economics intentionally embodies the characteristics of a number of actual projects, past and present. Again, this is typical – to have many try-outs of different elements, followed by refinements, followed by attempts at piecing them together into a more complex, composite whole.

In summary, then, this objection is actually fairly well-motivated, insofar as it is insisting that we do not know with any certainty whether Angel Economics would be workable. If the claim is any stronger than that – that it cannot work – however, it seems simply an assertion based on a personal proclivity, since there is no evidence on which it could be based.

* * *

3. "Deciding how different people are affected isn't possible".

Actual Objection: One of the troubles I've had with your descriptions of Angel Economics in general, which comes up in this post, is the notion of "the degree of your say... is determined by the degree to which you are affected by the outcome." It seems like the degree to which you are affected by the outcome is not an easy thing to measure, and there's no agreed-upon way to put a number on it -- so translating it into a number of votes (which it seems like you're talking about) is a tricky proposition.

Who's more affected by the outcome of a decision on whether to close a farm: the person who works on the farm, the person who lives where the farm's waste is dumped, or the person who eats the food grown? The best I could say is, "They're all affected a lot, and all of their voices should count more than, say, the person who lives down the road but likes to go for walks sometimes." But how much more? Twice as much? Five times as much? Among them, should some voices count more than others?

Included in the category of decisions that are political rather than technical, and should therefore be left up to democracy rather than experts/"statistical models," is the question of how to weight the effects of decisions on different people.

So then in that decision (the decision of how to assign votes to different people), the people who are most affected by the results should get to decide -- but the people who are most affected by vote allocation are precisely the people who are most affected by the final vote. It seems to me like it's elephants all the way down.

The only way to get past this that I've seen is to reject the very notion that you can compare values by quantifying them -- which, I think, implies rejecting the idea of voting, since the allocation of votes is based precisely on the numerical valuation of people's interests.

There is something that can replace voting -- deliberation and consensus. It's more difficult, and takes longer, but I worry that the "quick fix" of voting risks replicating some of the evils of capitalism by implying that values can be compared numerically, and there's some pseudo-objective way of comparing those values.


The preface to this response would be to accept that consensus decision-making should probably be the preferred means of deciding matters where possible. Consensus decision-making has developed within the spheres most affected by arbitrary power (feminists, the anarchist left), among those most concerned to oppose it with its opposite – understanding, appreciation of others’ point of view, rational discussion, and so on. It’s also very ancient, and belongs to a way of seeing the world where people are not indifferent monads, and where agreements are not mere legal documents. In the description of the system, consensus is mentioned in the context of a small workplace (of, say, 10 people), but could doubtless be applied elsewhere.

But can it be applied everywhere? Is consensus, in any meaningful sense, going to be possible among, say, 30 million people who are trying to decide whether to build an array of solar panels across a large expanse of land in which they live? That would mean every one of those 30 million people agreeing upon the final course of action, and no action being taken unless and until there was such agreement. This seems impossible. If there is some means by which in fact it is possible, or if the matter has been wrongly framed, I’d like to know; but that’s how I see things.

So the rule would be (that is, the rule that you’d expect people to adopt who lived in social freedom) – use consensus decision-making wherever possible, and other forms most like it where not.

Also, it should be pointed out that deliberation is distinct from consensus decision-making. Deliberation would be an intrinsic part of all decision-making forms in Angel Economics.

A second prefatory point would be to draw attention to the fact that the ‘technology of democracy’ is just another of those domains which is massively under-investigated, just as with inventions which improve the condition of unpleasant work, or applications of the physical sciences not having to do with either war, commerce, or luxuries of the rich. There are lots of political-science studies on voting procedures, and even quite a bit of research on other modes of decision-making. But the virtual absence of real-world experimentation in these forms (except among radical groups, where the surrounding circumstances are often very far from ideal), means that we know very little about how it all works in practice (and, incidentally, shows up all those GoodThinkers’ eulogies to our wonderful democracies for what they really are). So everything said below will inevitably suffer from the formalism and seeming abstruseness that affects all things which aren’t actually practiced.

Finally – it will all inevitably sound enormously complicated when it is being reflected on theoretically. But actual social practice concatenates extremely complicated things into day-to-day habits and occurrences that take seconds, both in the sense that people find shortcuts and simplified procedures, and also in the sense that behaviour itself is, so to speak, a compressor of information. This needs stressing, because the standard objection to deliberative-democratic means of organizing is that it all just takes too long. This is false. It is also a bit rich, when coming from defenders of a system, a considerable fraction of which is occupied simply in the management of money and other related tools, in one form or another (not to mention managing the disasters that its use engenders).

Anyway, so, to answer the objection:

One. There is no question of our carving at the joints, here. That is to say, there isn’t a Right Answer in any strong way, in the mind of God so to speak, in the sense in which there is a right answer to the issue of the pressure of a volume of gas, to a crossword puzzle, or even to the status of someone’s brain-activity. And, with more force, there is certainly not a correct set of numbers or ratios, which purport to specify the relative degrees of how much people are affected. How much people are affected by something, isn’t like this.

But I think the crucial point would be that it doesn’t follow that it’s arbitrary. Some people are more affected than others, pretty plainly. And (this is a further contention) it is objective enough, that though discussion about the matter one can reasonably expect progress towards general agreement about this.

Thus, in the example given, I would simply take up the challenge. I think that the person who works on the farm would be most affected, because presumably the farm occupies a substantial portion of their life. The person who lives where the farm waste is dumped (of course, we won’t be doing this!!) is, let’s assume, pretty substantially negatively affected by the continued existence of the farm (or at least this practice), but the magnitude of this isn’t quite as great – there is a bad smell during some months of the year, and it’s an eyesore, but it actually only impinges on their consciousness from time to time. The person who eats the food grown, we might suppose, has other sources of food, in which case they are (I would say) least affected. To be clear: I’m saying that I think that these people would come up with this ranking.

Two. Because of this, I believe it is sufficient, as a starting-point or philosophical ground, to say that people, pretty much, are as affected by something as they say they are; and, as a secondary corrective, as much as other people say they are. And discussion is the solvent that (to mix metaphors) shakes this all out.

It is relevant to point out here that in Angel Economics (as, in fact, in any developed economic system), if you follow through the links connecting different production-chains, and also bear in mind concepts like opportunity cost, then, at least indirectly, you are affected by everything that happens. But because your time is limited, you involve yourself only in those things which most affect you, relatively, and only to the extent that you can actually be bothered. This throws up the spectres of the Busybody, who is Very Affected By A Lot Of Things (they maintain, with quivering nostrils), or their opposite, the Politicopath, who just doesn’t get involved in anything. In both cases, the combined opinion of other people would assume a larger role, in the former case maybe by censuring this individual somewhat, in the latter, maybe by trying to encourage them, or even substituting for them by giving them some kind of imputed representation. But these are details.

How much somebody is affected by something (and how much they feel themselves to be affected by something) is a slippery little fish, of course. Whims, changes of mind, moods etc, all come into play. But the ‘something’ is not immune from complication either. The scenarios which form the basis of decisions, and give rise to people being affected, are plastic. Thus, in the example given, maybe it is not an either/or matter of the farm closing or staying open. Maybe almost every conceivable permutation is a practical possibility.

This makes the job of deciding how much you might be affected by the different possibilities, more complex. But There Is Always A Solution. One of the great uses to which the new technology of high-resolution computer simulations could be put, is in helping people to get a decent feel for what different hypothetical scenarios would actually look like, so that they are better able to compare them. (There’s nothing inherently wrong with the current dominant use these simulations - for being an Orc on a Quest...but might an outsider not think that people today haven’t quite got their priorities right?). Other techniques could also be used. Statistical modelling could be done to see what people in similar scenarios did, and how different groups felt about it. And so on.

This might all seem like overkill. Of course, people aren’t stupid, and wouldn’t crank up the World Simulator to decide whether Mrs Jones at number 62 can have a tree in her garden. But for something like a huge infrastructure project, the matter is different – even today, such simulations are regularly used in these cases. (Sometimes, those affected are even allowed a say).

Three. This basis of objective agreement probably won’t be perfect. But I suspect the ways in which it diverged from perfection (= full mutual agreement on who is affected and how much) would have some kind of regularity. To each case there would correspond an appropriate procedure.

In some cases you might need judges (elephant-stoppers), who would draw (reasonable) lines in the sand, and say what is on either side of those lines. Countenancing this possibility will cause some people to feel disappointment, because it seems like the introduction of Authority, and that feels contrary to the spirit of the system. I appreciate this perspective. One can institute procedures to ensure that, for example, the place of such judges is always under democratic control, or that they barred from the possibility of accumulating power (maybe they are selected by lot, after the style of ancient Athens with its councillors. Or maybe the judge is actually a group of people from an outside district). These safeguards won’t be perfect, but neither are they nothing.

In other cases, maybe mediators would be used. The whole thing – people trying to agree how much they are affected – is a species of ‘human relating’, and it is known that there are techniques which aid in this. Mediation today is a growing means of the resolution of disputes as an alternative to a court case, and is a professional activity.

In still other cases, maybe one would refer to examples from other similar scenarios. Just as in the matter of envisaging alternative possibilities, contact with other cases would educate people, and allow them better to understand each other. In other cases, it might actually be possible to refer to scientific evidence. That is, there may be some cases where in fact someone is just plain wrong that they are going to be hugely affected. Their insistence that how they feel is apodictic, and cannot be gainsaid, is overruled. This is violent, and a last resort; but you can see it happening.

Four. This basis of objective agreement among people about how much they are affected by something is distinct from the technical procedure that allows this to be enacted/translated into a decision. One such procedure might be, as the objector says, the assignment of numerical values to different groups, based on how greatly they are affected, which weights their vote. I won’t pretend I don’t wince here. A central contention of Angel Economics is that today commodities are compared based on numerical values which purportedly represent their ‘value’, as a quantity; but that in fact there is nothing common to these things which is capable of being compared in this manner, and that therefore the economy essentially operates on an irrational foundation. (And further, that this is the root of some rather profound problems). And yet here, in a central institution of Angel Economics, the same metaphysical absurdity is being recommended! Such things as feelings, opinions, wishes, are being turned into numbers. But what is “I don’t think that’s appropriate” divided by “I feel excited by that” to the power “This seems a typical instantiation of conservatism”?!

I don’t know that there is a fully satisfactory defence, here. Various things can be said, but maybe it is just waffle. Until somebody comes up with a calculus of opinion – that is, a means of adequately representing such things as opinions and beliefs in formal terms, such that large numbers of them can then be manipulated to see how they interact, and translated into one large composite opinion that is the objective result of their combination – we are just going to have to make do with the pathetic human contrivances that we can think up. The Gods will laugh at the comedy of us using our absurd little Procedures with such solemnity; but maybe we can do enough to get along?

One thing which can be done is to run a vote with a given set of weightings, and see the result this gives, and then consult whether people felt the whole thing was fair, in light of the results. It looks like there is a circularity here, but the point of this would be to discover how weighting generally works. From this, rules could be worked out. Or indeed, you could run the vote several times, with progressive adjustments of the weightings in light of people’s expressed concerns. Iterating the procedure a number of times in this way could actually be a means of ameliorating the effect of putting opinions into numbers, because it is the result, rather than the numbers themselves, that are being the determinant factor here.

Another procedure would be to get rid of weightings entirely, and rather divide the participants into, say, two categories. In the ‘primary’ category (those most affected), they debate the matter and vote on it. Those in the ‘secondary’ or ‘peripheral’ category then have the power to amend, make other suggestions, block with a sufficient majority, and so on.

With this, the divisions of participants are coarser, and you retain a problem about who belongs in which category, but you are at least not committing the mistake of thinking that, in order to accurately reflect a structure at the social level (gradations in how much people are affected), your decision-procedure must look the same in structural terms (gradations of voting weight). There is probably something rather naive about this.

Whatever we end up with, it is imperfect, or to be more exact, arbitrary. Certainly, it is not completely satisfying to be in this situation. But actually, Angel Economics is full of such compromises. It would be ideal not to have a division of labour, in light of the many problems it causes. But it is also impossible. So, a compromise is followed. It would be better not to have experts, since they can abuse their knowledge position, they can be wrong, and so on. But again, this is unrealistic. And so you have systems that integrate democratic decisions with expertise. And so on.

These four points give us a decision. They will not be applicable to all cases. I think there would be some matters where this general approach breaks down, because people disagree too fundamentally. Three points:

First, I think that these would be a relatively small set. A sufficiently large majority would be like the farm example, that you can base the general outline of the economic model on this, and deal with the other set as special cases.

Second, with these special cases, you simply follow a different procedure. Maybe consensus, maybe something else. In my eyes, this is a detail, a hubcap to polish after we’ve sorted out that our vehicle has a functioning engine.

Third, as a last resort, there is the move to parallel economies. The structure Angel Economics describes the interactions among people who agree sufficiently, over the whole range of economic activity, that they conduct their affairs mutually, and without coercion. Where people radically disagree about some matter which has an unavoidably large effect on the running of the economy, they may simply choose to split off – that is, they do not engage in the practice of participatory planning with each other. This is a last resort, but a theoretically consistent one, and is surely better than the only alternative: violence.

4 comments:

  1. You answered my objection well. I appreciated your acknowledgement that this is still a little uncomfortable, and I think that you're right that that's OK. It's especially worth pointing out that since our ideas are shaped by our circumstances, it's reasonable to hope that people living under a freer and more egalitarian system will be able to come up with freer and more egalitarian solutions to questions like these than you or I. So if our answers are imperfect, that's OK -- they'll be perfected by people who have much stronger angelic habits of mind than we do.

    One possibility I've always liked, that doesn't get used often enough, is voting ratified by consensus. In other words, you recognize that there are differences of opinion, and so to see which way the winds are blowing, you vote -- but the results of the vote are not binding. Then, if the vote shows a strong will in one direction, you try to achieve consensus on that -- based on the hope that the people in the minority will decide to allow the majority to proceed, with or without some relatively minor changes. This allows people in the minority to feel reconciled rather than overruled.

    The nice thing about this is that it doesn't force you to commit to a way of weighting votes. You simply count the votes, and show what the results would be with several different weighting schemes. If you can, based on that, reach a consensus, you do so. If not, you vote again, hoping that at least some people will feel that most of the people who are most affected disagree with them, and decide to recognize those people's greater weight.

    It's possible that such a process could stagnate rather than reach consensus, but it also seems possible that, after some negotiations, tweaks, revotes, etc., you'd get to the point where all reasonable weighting schemes yield the same result. That way, without having chosen a weighting scheme in any official sense, you've reached a decision that values the people who are most affected. Hopefully at the end, you could ratify that result with consensus.

    (It's worth noting that in this case, some people are not agreeing with the decision per se -- the most common lay conception of consensus -- but are instead agreeing that there is a strong enough will in favor of such-and-such that the community should proceed over my objections. I've heard this stance referred to by Quakers as "standing aside," and I think it's a really important and oft-overlooked aspect of consensus -- and an attitude that the earlier rounds of voting rely on as well.)

    If this does stagnate in a situation where different (reasonable) weighting schemes reach different results, I'd take that as an indication that this decision is too contentious to proceed with, and there really needs to be a new attempt at compromise.

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  2. I like the procedure (voting ratified by consensus) a lot. Your elaboration of it is nice, it has elegance. And the point you make about the notion of "standing aside" is well-taken.

    What isn't clear to me is whether, in both the response I outlined, and in the arrangements you sketch, the sheer extent and forcefulness of disagreement is being under-appreciated. Even when people are only agreeing that there is agreement ('a strong enough will that should proceed over objections'), they are still fundamentally being seen as agreeing.

    There is an extremely deep issue here. Capitalism involves the accumulation of large social power (represented by money) in private hands, i.e. under the control of one will. The need for agreement is simply cut out, and of course much violence (in an extended sense) results, but isn't this also the origin of its productivity? Would arrangements necessitating agreement just founder on rocks of disagreement - whether justified, or just obdurate?

    I'm minded to say: I think this traditional question, which is generally seen as an eternal dilemma to which you'll respond as your temper/optimism allows, should be translated into practical projects. Not to test out, and then answer the question one way or the other (to think you could, is to make a mistake about the status of such ethical questions). But to improve our answering it in the negative, through practice and experience etc.

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  3. A couple of points on the extent and forcefulness of disagreements:

    (1) Under capitalism, as you point out, we've been socialized to adversary procedures. We're used to the idea that you don't need to seek wider agreement, as long as you've "got the votes." This causes our consensus-seeking muscles to atrophy, as we get used to the idea that you don't need broad agreement in order to succeed. As many have pointed out, people who regularly participate in consensus process are much less likely to hold onto objections than people who don't. Basically, it turns out that mostly, when you treat people like adults (by respecting their differences of opinion and allowing them the power to block decisions if they feel they're being treated unfairly), they learn to act like adults. For the most part, people only continue to hold objections in the face of large majorities if they feel their concerns aren't being listened to -- and people who are genuinely seeking consensus tend to be more likely to listen to these concerns.

    (2) In general, people's objections are much less forceful about practical matters than about doctrinal ones: it's very often true that people who can't agree about ideology can nonetheless reach agreement on action, which is really all you need.

    (3) When it comes to the idea of "fundamentally being seen as agreeing," there's always been an important distinction for me between an action that is morally wrong and one that is merely unwise. I can consent to -- and allow an organization to proceed with -- an action that I think is unwise, and even help them with that, if I think that's what most people want. I'm not that worried about being seen as agreeing to it, because if it turns out to be unwise, my dissent will become relevant when we try to avoid making such mistakes again. If an organization is making a decision that I think is morally wrong, I'm much less willing to go along with it -- my dropped dissent will be little comfort to the victims of our wrongdoing.

    And for me, the key difference between a group of people making a decision that's unwise and one that's morally wrong is whether there are outside victims. There's a sense in which it's impossible for an organization, by consensus, to wrong some of its members (assuming -- and this is a big assumption -- that the pressure to agree was not so strong as to be coercive). So by ensuring that people who are affected are part of the decision-making process, we can to a significant extent avoid the sorts of objections that are least likely to be dropped.

    The big exceptions I see to this are decisions which affect those who can't meaningfully be part of the decision-making process: children (to varying degrees depending on their ages), those not yet born (either in the sense of abortion, or in the sense of long-term planning that will affect future generations), people with severe cognitive or linguistic disabilities, and animals.

    It might be worth thinking about how these sorts of decisions would be made. I don't have easy answers, but my own instinct would be to take the most radical possible interpretation of the rights of anyone who can't defend hir/its own rights. I'm more willing to compromise on my own behalf than on behalf of someone who can't, and I would rather go further in that direction than I personally think is appropriate, than try to pressure someone into making a decision they find morally inexcusable.

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  4. I of course agree very much with (1) and (2). (1) in particular is I feel such a significant fact that it would need to be firmly at the centre not just of any system like Angel Economics structurally, but equally of any project to bring something like it into being. What a strong wind there is against this though, from sensationalist newspapers, to hardening ideological lines in self-selecting internet communities, to shallow-thought blogs... ;(. There are some interesting projects around on participatory policy formulation, participatory budgeting etc, and so on, but it’s so small!

    On (3) - I like the logical connection being drawn, here, between moral action and agreement. It chimes; something essential is being hit on. And the distinction between immoral/unwise with respect to consenting, is definitely illuminating. However this is quite sophisticated stuff, and needs thinking about.

    One thing that comes to mind is this. Is it not of the essence of political disagreement (of a real, serious kind) that it consists of a difference of opinion about what is right, what is moral? Therefore to say that decisions should be consensual, and that decisions that are consensual cannot be immoral/can’t harm people, and to pursue consensus on that basis, would be to ‘attempt to suspend politics’ – the quintessential utopian move, according to Arendt I believe.

    Also, is not the definition of ‘harm’ (victims) also political, beyond a minimal sphere? I don’t know for sure what to say about this, since this line of argument can get rather limp and irritating in its assertion of the relativity of political right. I’m more inclined to something more absolute, but still... (Just as an example for reference, consider abortion debate. Anti/pro-abortionists are often coming from completely different worldviews; they often don’t agree on definitions, facts, metaphysics. So what shows up as a ‘harm’ is different. ...It’s not a great example, as I don’t like the relative prominence an issue like abortion gets in the mainstream over the gigantic socioeconomic elephants in the room, but it illustrates the point).

    Instead of seeing this as some kind of refutation, I suspect one has just hit on an ineliminable feature of human interaction. What would be interesting would be to see whether, and if so how, groups practicing this kind of decision-making have come to terms with the phenomenon.

    One possibility that vaguely occurs, is to once again ‘proceduralize’ ('dissolve' philosophical problems via procedures) and introduce a time element. A party disagrees about a line of action, and indeed thinks it immoral. Yet something must be done. The majority line is followed, and the dissenting party agrees to recognize it, as per your scheme above (tweaks and so on haven’t fully repaired the issue, but they are ‘standing aside’). Now you have a consensus, and this is made up of ‘formal assent’ (or whatever name; actually it strikes me that there must be a name for this and indeed this whole matter must have quite a long history in politics) on the part of those thinking it immoral. They say: “I don’t agree, but I agree that we must agree, therefore I give my formal assent. But because this is a case where I think it immoral, there must be a review after x years, and my assent is conditional upon this review. We agree at this time to certain measures or standards, which will be assessed in this review.”

    This solves little in the sense that it would, presumably, just push disagreement onto the definition and interpretation of those measures and standards. And there are some issues where unacceptable, possibly irreversible ‘facts on the ground’ would be created by pursuit of a certain line (consider the construction of an actual artificial intelligence...though there must be numerous more mundane examples). But as with other such devices, what something like this might do is allow you to deal with a certain class of cases, the less abstruse; the spade can still be turned for a little longer.

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