Thursday, July 29, 2010

The Tale of the Slave

Ever since I started becoming politically aware in my teenage years, I've noticed that a very common theme throughout the American landscape was the solidarity with, and encouragement of, directly taking part in the political process. This was never proffered in the context of the exchange of ideas, political debate, or anything of this nature - but rather the focus was on the importance of voting in and of itself. I'll never forget a teacher in high school who often exclaimed, "If you don't vote, you have no right to complain!" I found the argument compelling at the time. But after a while, its sheen started to fade away.

It's not that I feel doing so is immoral or unethical. Instead, I've come to regard it as ineffectual and degrading. My pull, in this political process, is absolutely insignificant at the margin. I feel like I would be more effective in spending that time sharing ideas with people and simply talking to them. But beyond the measure of its utility, from a personal standpoint, there's something to be said about the difference between the nature of what people perceive is happening in that process and what actually is happening. To Johnny Everyman, democracy is the bulwark of freedom - the signal of liberty. To me, it's the consolidation of power, and the competition of various factions and classes to turn that power against their rivals. Even worse, the marginal insignificance of an individual's say arguably perverts incentives, lulling those individuals into a false sense of security and placing a heavy fog on the political battlefield on which those interests vie for power.

In short, the political process does not necessarily technically prevent more favorable politicians from being elected, but I would argue that it effectively moves the political goalposts. What once may have been a struggle about the breadth and depth of political power has turned into a struggle for that power in and of itself. The actions of government through a revolving door of politicians has resulted in a breathtaking amount of accumulated law and policy, turning what was once political ideology into nothing less than a fight over who gets to control the proverbial gun at any given moment. In short, I'm less than optimistic about the longterm effects of our system than most of my fellow Americans - I believe it has turned political focus onto content exclusively, the context of which (on the rare occasion it is brought up) is quickly dismissed as arcane or esoteric. We've lost the patience for deliberation. We've lost the civility for reason. And we've traded in our sense of ethics for existential relativism. It's not a pretty picture.

I can't help but be reminded of probably one of the most forthright and noble critiques of democracy that I've come across in my reading - and I will leave you with that short piece. This is a passage from Robert Nozick's Anarchy, State, and Utopia - it is the Tale of the Slave:

Consider the following sequence of cases, which we shall call the Tale of the Slave, and imagine it is about you.
  1. There is a slave completely at the mercy of his brutal master's whims. He often is cruelly beaten, called out in the middle of the night, and so on.
  2. The master is kindlier and beats the slave only for stated infractions of his rules (not fulfilling the work quota, and so on). He gives the slave some free time.
  3. The master has a group of slaves, and he decides how things are to be allocated among them on nice grounds, taking into account their needs, merit, and so on.
  4. The master allows his slaves four days on their own and requires them to work only three days a week on his land. The rest of the time is their own.
  5. The master allows his slaves to go off and work in the city (or anywhere they wish) for wages. He requires only that they send back to him three-sevenths of their wages. He also retains the power to recall them to the plantation if some emergency threatens his land; and to raise or lower the three-sevenths amount required to be turned over to him. He further retains the right to restrict the slaves from participating in certain dangerous activities that threaten his financial return, for example, mountain climbing, cigarette smoking.
  6. The master allows all of his 10,000 slaves, except you, to vote, and the joint decision is made by all of them. There is open discussion, and so forth, among them, and they have the power to determine to what uses to put whatever percentage of your (and their) earnings they decide to take; what activities legitimately may be forbidden to you, and so on.

    Let us pause in this sequence of cases to take stock. If the master contracts this transfer of power so that he cannot withdraw it, you have a change of master. You now have 10,000 masters instead of just one; rather you have one 10,000-headed master. Perhaps the 10,000 even will be kindlier than the benevolent master in case 2. Still, they are your master. However, still more can be done. A kindly single master (as in case 2) might allow his slave(s) to speak up and try to persuade him to make a certain decision. The 10,000-headed monster can do this also.
  7. Though still not having the vote, you are at liberty (and are given the right) to enter into the discussions of the 10,000, to try to persuade them to adopt various policies and to treat you and themselves in a certain way. They then go off to vote to decide upon policies covering the vast range of their powers.
  8. In appreciation of your useful contributions to discussion, the 10,000 allow you to vote if they are deadlocked; they commit themselves to this procedure. After the discussion you mark your vote on a slip of paper, and they go off and vote. In the eventuality that they divide evenly on some issue, 5,000 for and 5,000 against, they look at your ballot and count it in. This has never yet happened; they have never yet had occasion to open your ballot. (A single master also might commit himself to letting his slave decide any issue concerning him about which he, the master, was absolutely indifferent.)
  9. They throw your vote in with theirs. If they are exactly tied your vote carries the issue. Otherwise it makes no difference to the electoral outcome.
The question is: which transition from case 1 to case 9 made it no longer the tale of a slave?

No comments:

Post a Comment