Using Technology to Deepen Democracy, Using Democracy to Ensure Technology Benefits Us All

Friday, January 02, 2015

Say Something

Upgraded and adapted from the Moot... Reddit linked to my brief recent post on the politics of Basic Income. In the post I pointed out that basic income proposals from the right are usually pretexts for dismantling general welfare while from the left they are usually efforts to provide equity-in-diversity. This shouldn't be a controversial claim -- for example it simply straightforwardly describes the difference between actual basic income proposals from the right like Milton Friedman's as against actual basic income proposals from the left like Erik Olin Wrights' (these are both famous and representative examples, but there are endlessly many others), and on their own avowed terms not through some arcane interpretative shenanigans on my part, not to mention the fact that these different assumptions and applications are exactly what you would expect given what the priorities of right against left politics also actually are.

I might be wrong about what I think to be good, right, possible in the linked paragraph the reddit readers are responding to -- or in other public talks or published essays I have written on the subject of basic income, for example p2p Is Either Pay-to-Peer or Peer-to-Precarity. As it happens, I welcome contrary assessments when they have substance, and I enjoy being compelled to change my mind for the better.

But nobody in the thread (at least not yet) is actually disagreeing with my claims or providing any reasons to disagree with them. Most of the commenters seem unhappy that I refuse to pretend that differences that make a difference don't make a difference. One tut tuts me for "bias" -- but can't say how this bias makes me actually wrong about anything. Perhaps this is an expression of distaste for strong opinions as such? Not that I expect much substance from a reddit comment thread, but presumably people are reading the forum in question because they care about the policy or want to know more about it? How can you care about a proposal without caring about people using the proposal to achieve incompatible results? How can you want to know more about something without caring about what can be known about it?

A few commenters on my post seem very sure that the only way to take problems like inequity or climate change seriously is to pretend people fighting against inequity and fighting to preserve parochial profits whatever the resulting inequity are really the same when they are not, and to pretend people fighting against climate catastrophes and fighting to preserve parochial profits whatever the resulting climate catastrophes are really the same when they are not. It should go without saying that denying the difference between those fighting with you and those fighting against you is not a way to show how serious you are about the problems you are fighting over.

Look, people are different from one another, stakeholders occupy different positions, and implementing problem solving legislation in even notionally representational democracies demands constant compromises. But recognizing these basic conditions of the political should impel us to the greatest possible clarity about what it is we think we want and what it is we think we are doing. Pre-emptive capitulation over what we want and evacuation of assessment over what we are doing constitutes an effective endorsement of the status quo.

Ethics is not politics: ethically, what matters about the lesser evil is that it is still evil; but politically, what matters about the lesser evil is whether or not it makes a different for the better or sets the stage for a step forward. But to grasp that difference or that step one requires the compass of ethical ideals and factual analysis. Politics requires you to walk and chew gum at the same time, I'm afraid: to grasp the values at which you aspire and the factual outcomes of policy proposals (walk), as well as to grasp the best opportunity for change for the better or the best occasion for improved outcomes given the actual stakeholders and circumstances at hand (chew gum).

The problem here has many illustrations at the moment... "Bipartisanship" does not define the sensible but depends on the good sense of the parties involved, "moderation" is not reasonable when one moderates the reasonable in favor of the unreasonable, especially for no good reason. False equivalence -- in journalism for example -- provides a superficial performance of objectivity but crucially at the cost of an actual refusal of objectivity, the genial plea for everybody to "just get along" provides a superficial performance of tolerance but crucially at the cost of an actual assessment of the substantial differences at hand on which any tolerance or compromise would actually depend.

Nobody is going to get anywhere by pretending it doesn't matter that people are trying to go to different places in different directions. Refusing to have convictions is not having the courage of a conviction, to be open to compromise requires having a position on the table, to be open to changing your mind requires having something in mind to change.

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