[EM] An artist's view on voting methods

Michael Allan mike at zelea.com
Sat Dec 29 13:58:26 PST 2012

Kristofer Munsterhjelm said:
> It's interesting that you mention Adam Curtis. In the third episode
> of his series, The Trap, he goes into the concept of negative and
> positive liberty. Negative liberty is "freedom from" something,
> while positive liberty is "freedom to" do or be something. Modern
> democracy has been associated with negative liberty, in that it
> provides for (more or less) the freedom for anyone to do what he
> wants as long as that doesn't interfere with the similar freedom of
> others.

http://thoughtmaybe.com/the-trap/  (scroll down to 3rd part)

> In contrast, positive liberty might be seen as associated with your
> idea of a common myth or story. A positive liberty to fulfill one's
> potential as "something" (that may differ)... sounds a lot like
> having a shared concept of what "something" it is one should strive
> to reach.

You mean in the shared content of the myth.  Yes, that seems to fit.
I haven't read Berlin, but his notion of negative liberty strikes me
as a matter of a shared form, an empty vessel of freedom that the
individual may fill with content of his/her own choosing, regardless
of the choices of others.  It is free content.

By the same token, symmetry would be satisfied if the shared content
of positive liberty (the "something") were formless in itself.  It
might then become manifest in any and all forms, unbound by space and
time.  So it would be free form.

Curtis paints a dismal picture of each: the meaningless empty vessel,
and the dangerous escaped genie.  Then he looks at a particular
combination of the two, which he says Berlin had warned against:

> Curtis says that Isiah Berlin, who came up with the terms of
> positive and negative liberty, considered the former more dangerous
> than the latter. He (Curtis) then shows examples of positive liberty
> going wrong - but also, that the ideal of negative liberty itself
> becomes something to reach for in ways otherwise associated with
> positive liberty. Thus one gets logic like "fighting for freedom" or
> "liberating authoritarian nations", where the myth becomes "the
> story of having many stories", and the "freedom to be something" is
> the "freedom to have freedom from".

Right, he depicts positive liberty as tyrannical (faithful to Berlin),
negative liberty as meaningless, and the US neoconservative
combination to be the worst of each, a kind of tyranny of enforced
meaninglessness.  He ends,

   As this series has shown, the idea of freedom that we live with
   today is a narrow and limiting one that was born out of a specific
   and dangerous time, the cold war.  It may have had meaning and
   purpose then as an alternative to communist tyranny, but now it's
   become a dangerous trap.  Our government relies on a simplistic
   economic model of human beings that allows inequality to grow and
   offers nothing positive in the face of the reactionary forces they
   have helped to awake around the world.  If we ever want to escape
   from this limited world view, we will have to rediscover the
   progressive, positive ideas of freedom and realize that Isiah
   Berlin was wrong; not all attempts to change the world for the
   better lead to tyranny.

Compare that to his latest essay, part of which begins:

   This is a story about the rise of the machines, and why no one
   believes you can change the world for the better any more.  How we
   decided that we were machines ourselves, played video games, and
   started Africa's world war.

(scroll down to 3rd part)

> If he's right, then it appears there's no real escaping having a
> greater narrative. If the society provides for extreme diversity,
> then the narrative simply becomes "we have many stories".

Yes, and how we came to be that way, and where it will take us.  The
crucial thing is that people formally agree to the narrative, e.g. by
voting for it.  Curtis and (maybe) Berlin are unaware of this
particular combination of free form and content, bottle and genie.

Berlin's "two concepts of liberty" might be roughly equivalent to the
'freedom of the ancients' (positive liberty) and the 'freedom of the
moderns' (negative), or what Habermas calls 'public autonomy' and
'private autonomy'.

   ... political philosophy has never really been able to strike a
   balance between popular sovereignty and human rights, or between
   the 'freedom of the ancients' and the 'freedom of the moderns'.
   *Republicanism*, which goes back to Aristotle and the political
   humanism of the Renaissance, has always given the public autonomy
   of citizens priority over the prepolitical liberties of private
   persons.  *Liberalism*, which goes back to John Locke, has invoked
   (at least since the 19th century) the danger of tyrannical
   majorities and postulated the priority of human rights. *

I imagine that consensual myth making would require both public and
private autonomy.  Like the chicken and the egg, each would be
necessary for the realization of the other.  At least this much seems
to be implied in saying, "We are a people of many stories.  There's a
reason for it, and we're going to keep it that way."

I mean it would take the freedom of the moderns to say that.  But in
saying it, we'd immediately bind ourselves to a moral norm like the
ancients did.  Private and public autonomy would then be intertwined
into something new: a freedom that takes responsibility for itself, a
content that speaks of its container.

> I don't think it's impossible for a democratic nation to have a more
> tangible story, though. The right kind of mechanism design would
> encourage that, as well. The state's hand in the story is related to
> how much power it has, rather than by what means it is chosen.
> Say you have a society where everything is strictly managed, but the
> composition of the management is decided by some fluid means like
> delegative proxy with appropriate dampening features (e.g. managers
> have power relative to a moving average of their support, rather
> than their support at any given moment). Then I would imagine such a
> society to have a rather strong unifying story. It would also be
> democratic, but it wouldn't be libertarian.

Okay, that sounds plausible.  The Chinese at least have managed an
explicit marriage of politics and myth in Confucianism.

> Could a libertarian society have a single story? Perhaps, if there
> are other factors that go against the division into many stories. If
> the country was relatively homogenous (be it socially or
> economically), common identity would be stronger, for instance.

Or the awareness of a shared danger.  If the common thread (shared
danger, or whatever else we find) can also be located among the
otherwise disconnected stories, then it might be cultivated further in
those separate contexts.  Or it might be introduced externally, as
with Scheherazade, the storyteller of the Thousand and One Nights.
She was just trying to keep alive.  (These are examples of a free-form
content that becomes manifest everywhere.)

But again, I think the reality is a decrease in cultural diversity in
modern times.  Our belated tolerance of diversity is just a longing
for something we have lost.  The world has become too small for us,
and this is a danger.


 * Jürgen Habermas.  1998.  Remarks on legitimation through human
   rights.  Philosophy & Social Criticism, 24.  pp. 157-171.
   Trans. William Rehg.

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