Africa’s Troubling Borders

One of the key reasons why the African continent seems perennially rife with tribal, ethnic, and religious conflict — more so within countries than between them — harkens back to borders imposed upon the diverse peoples of Africa by European colonials. Even a casual glance of a political map of Africa show how odd and idiosyncratic many of its borders are.


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Beyond the Presidency

Remember that no matter who becomes president of the U.S., there is more to our political system than the person occupying the Oval Office. While the executive branch is indeed important and powerful, the federal system allocates a lot of power to Congress and the states: governors, attorney generals, state representatives, judges, etc. — as well as city and county officials — all play crucial roles in our lives.

Many of the great changes in history — the abolition of slavery, women’s suffrage, the Civil Rights movement — first emerged and succeeded at the local and state levels. These are the incubators in which new policies and ideas are tested. These are where many nationally prominent politicians and reformers often get their start. Continue reading

The Symbolic Passivity of the Term President

When the Founding Fathers of the United States set about forming a new nation, for obvious reasons they wanted to ensure that the executive could have neither the potential nor the pretensions of tyranny. So in addition to setting in place all of the checks and balances we learn are integral to the U.S. political system, they made a conscious effort to devise a new and unusual term for their head of government: President, derived from the Latin prae- “before” plus sedere “to sit”.

Up until that point, a president was someone originally tasked with presiding over (e.g., sitting before) a gathering or ceremony to ensure that everything runs smoothly. It was largely limited to academia, and was hardly an authoritarian position — which of course was precisely the point. The executive of the United States was not vested with anything more than the power to help enforce the laws of Congress, and to essentially preside over a system of power wherein the people, via their representatives, governed themselves.

(Interestingly, several countries, such as Germany and India, have offices of the president that are truer to the original etymology of the term: their presidents are mostly figureheads with few actual powers in paper and in practice.)

Granted, all this was pretty idealistic and aspirational, and as we all know, the office of the president has not always been true to its original spirit; indeed, even back then there was debate as to how much authority or power the president should have, and it was not long before presidents of all political stripes started pushing the boundaries of executive power. But it is interesting to see how even semantics could be an important consideration in formulating a political system.


The Harm Principle

I’ve recently begun re-reading J.S. Mill’s On Liberty, a philosophical tract in which he discusses an individual’s moral and economic freedoms under the state. It’s an engaging and rather easy read, and I highly recommend it for everyone, whether you’re a political science buff or not.  With his expansion on the notion of individual rights, Mill arguably laid the foundation for all democratic societies, and remains an inspiration to both liberals and conservatives. Just about any free and democratic society directly or concurrently draws it’s legal framework from tenets of his work.

Perhaps his most notable contribution was the simple but profound notion of the harm principle, on which he elaborates in the very first chapter:

The object of this Essay is to assert one very simple principle, as entitled to govern absolutely the dealings of society with the individual in the way of compulsion and control, whether the means used be physical force in the form of legal penalties, or the moral coercion of public opinion. That principle is, that the sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively, in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number, is self-protection. That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not sufficient warrant. He cannot rightfully be compelled to do or forbear because it will be better for him to do so, because it will make him happier, because, in the opinion of others, to do so would be wise, or even right… The only part of the conduct of anyone, for which he is amenable to society, is that which concerns others. In the part which merely concerns himself, his independence is, of right, absolute. Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign.

In other words, so long as what someone is doing isn’t hurting anyone, there is no basis for restricting his right to do it. While some nuances remain – such as determining what is harmful to who – it’s as solid a basis for law as one could create. In this same body of work, Mill also helpfully goes a bit further to clarify the definition of harm and how it can apply.

The maxims are, first, that the individual is not accountable to society for his actions, in so far as these concern the interests of no person but himself. Advice, instruction, persuasion, and avoidance by other people, if thought necessary by them for their own good, are the only measures by which society can justifiably express its dislike or disapprobation of his conduct. Secondly, that for such actions as are prejudicial to the interests of others, the individual is accountable, and may be subjected either to social or to legal punishments, if society is of opinion that the one or the other is requisite for its protection.

Basically, the second maxim – known as the Social Authority Principle –  expands the notion of harm to a societal level: harm needn’t be limited to just a single individual, but a number of them. Mill recognizes that a societal context to individual freedoms exists and that, in response to harm on a large scale, may use coercive means for protection.

This fact is crucial for discerning the kind of harm that can manifest gradually over time, which may in fact be anticipated or recognized as being long-term in nature, even if it doesn’t yet have an immediately harmful impact (or similarly, even if that impact isn’t yet noticeable). This delves into many relevant issues: the right for a legal entity to emit pollution on private property, when the waste may or may not eventually harm others outside of the property over generations; the right for someone to exercise free speech such that it may eventually lead to violence or rebellion; if banks should be allowed to freely trade the money accorded to them if the overall impact may threaten the wider economy.

Though published a century-and-a-half ago, Mill’s insightful work remains as topical as ever, and establishes a timeless understanding of civil and human rights. His work should be well-heeded by any and all political persuasions.

Education and Democracy

It would seem intuitive that the more intelligent someone is, the more likely they’re going to be involved in “high-minded” pursuits of political participation: grassroots activism, citizen journalism, internships in public service, or at least frequent voting. It would make sense that people who are most knowledgeable about the world or the way the political system operates, would therefore have a greater sense of civic duty coupled with the information they need to act on it. Thus, it follows that nations with better education systems and a more educated populace tend to be more developed and democratic.

I must admit that I’ve long held to this truism as well. My main motivation for creating this blog, and similar info-junkie groups elsewhere, is to promote social change and progress through discourse, critical thinking, and knowledge. I’ve always felt that the more people know, the more likely they’ll exercise critical thinking and use that knowledge as a basis for action. You can’t fight poverty or corruption if you don’t know anything about their prevalence; you can’t vote if you don’t know who believes what and which policies are most effective. In retrospect, this thinking is too simplistic, I admit, but I thought it was broadly accurate.

In any case, this connection between levels of intelligence (or at least of formal education) and democracy forms part of the the basis of “modernization theory,” which broadly holds that certain social variables can influence the progress and development of a country. The ostensible contribution that a highly educated populace makes towards democratic functions was strongly advocated by Seymour Lipset, who argued that:

…Education presumably broadens men’s outlooks, enables them to understand the need for norms of tolerance, restrains them from adhering to extremist and monistic doctrines, and increases their capacity to make rational electoral choices.

As a disclaimer, I understand the difference between being smart and being educated. Though the two are often connected, they’re hardly correlated: plenty of formally educated people are relatively unintelligent, and plenty of intelligent people are without any formal schooling. There’s usually a connection between the two, but not always.

Nevertheless, most of the developed nations of the world – those with high-standards of living, strong economic growth, and freer governments and societies –  also tend to have relatively more robust universities and public school systems. Even the most flawed of educational institutions by rich world standards are comparatively better than in most poor or authoritarian nations. This would further suggest that improving access to schools and the quality of education in un-free areas could sow the seeds of political reform: think of China, which is rapidly improving its education system while trying to maintain a totalitarian regime (it still has a long way to go as far as both quality and access however).

However, a recent article by The Economist challenges this linkage. It argues that correlation doesn’t equal causation: the marks of progress and modernity in a society, such as those I listed above, could easily come from a whole other variable unrelated to each other. There is also a possible casual dilemma: who says an educated society makes for a democratic one? Maybe it’s just that democratic societies promote public schooling and better universities. In fact, education could promote the very opposite of a participatory mentality. As the article linked above noted:

Those who posit that more schooling leads to greater democracy often have specific ideas about how people’s attitudes change as a result of their becoming more educated, arguing that it creates people who are more willing to challenge authority. It is possible, however, that education reinforces authority and the power of ruling elites; indeed, it may often be designed to do precisely this. The study tried to find out which of these competing ideas of the effects of education is more accurate.

The study that is referenced is a paper by the National Bureau of Economic Research titled “Education as Liberation?” Unfortunately, full access to it restricted by a pay-wall, but the Economist seem to do a good enough job of giving the gist of it. It also provides a very interesting info-graphic that presumably shows the statistical correlation between the two variables. I know statistics aren’t flawless in measuring such difficult to quantify factors, but they still make for interesting

I know statistics aren’t flawless in measuring such difficult to quantify factors, but they still make for an interesting analysis. It would seem that being better educated or more knowledgeable doesn’t necessarily make you more appreciative or participatory in democracy. Perhaps it’s other factors that do, such as income or socioeconomic status. Or maybe, as the Economist suggested, an education actually has a detrimental effect on democratic attitudes, hollowing out people’s reverence towards democracy or the local political process. The article provides an interesting anecdote in this regard:

…Girls [from Kenya] who benefited from [scholarships] and got more schooling were more independent and less accepting of the traditional sources of authority within the family. But although education seemed in some sense to have “liberated” them in terms of their personal aspirations, it did not seem to have had the broader effects that proponents of the modernisation hypothesis would have expected. In particular, those with more education did not become more favourably inclined towards democracy. In fact, education deepened their sense of identification with their ethnic group and increased their tolerance for political violence. There was little evidence that having more education made them more engaged in civic life or political organisations.

This is not entirely surprising. Education may make people more interested in improving their own lives but they may not necessarily see democracy as the way to do it. Even in established democracies, more education does not always mean either more active political participation or greater faith in democracy. In India, for example, poorer and less educated people vote in larger numbers than their more educated compatriots. Indeed, the latter often express disdain for, and impatience with, the messiness of democracy. Many yearn instead for the kind of government that would execute the corrupt and build highways, railway lines and bridges at the dizzying pace of authoritarian China.

Of course, there are several caveats here. For one thing, the study concerning the young students in Kenya was, obviously, undertaken in a very specific context. Perhaps if it were done in a nation less riven by pervasive ethnic and sectarian rivalries, the results would’ve been different. Maybe in Kenya and some other countries, such identities just happen to be too deep-seated and transcendent to be properly counter-acted against. I would certainly love to see this experiment expanded into other parts of the world, including wealthier countries.

The case of India is pretty interesting. I’m not sure if it holds any weight in our society: are poorer Americans also more likely to vote than richer ones? From what I’ve read, it’s the opposite: more educated and wealthy Americans tend to have higher turn outs in elections, though this may be due more to low-income people having less time, access, and political information to participate than due to any sort of disillusionment (again, these things are hard to measure reliably). It could also be that India’s poor, being far more impoverished compared to our own, are far more desperate to enact social change to better their lives; the wealthier segments of society perhaps see their fortunes detached from whatever goes on in politics.

So I think it might vary by culture, history, region, and numerous other factors. It may even depend on the specific country, as no two societies and political systems are exactly alike, even if they may be quite similar. Pedagogic factors – i.e. the process of teaching – varies too, and certainly plays a big role. In some areas, there is more hierarchy, rigidity, and rote learning, all of which may stifle freethinking, creativity, or the questioning of authority. In other places, students may be given more free reign to challenge their professors, ask questions, or engage in creative writing exercises – perhaps this environment would be conducive to fomenting political and social involvement.

Or perhaps not. Again, it’s hard to say, and unless I’ve missed something, I haven’t seen too much data on the subject. Then again, as I noted before, such things are by their very nature difficult to measure, and we’ll probably never have a clear picture (not that we shouldn’t try anyway – most social sciences deal with the intangible nature of what they study, and that hardly means they should be marginalized or ignored). With that said, I’d love for anyone to share any study, research paper, or data related to this topic.

As for my own reflections about all this, I must confess that despite my aforementioned belief in the power of knowledge, I have nonetheless seen first hand how a lot of smart or educated individuals are disinterested in the process of government. In fact, it seems that the more one knows about politics, philosophy, and social issues, the least likely they’re going to bother getting involved. As conventional wisdom holds, the smarter you are, the more cynical or depressed you are; so the more you see the flaws and problems that bedevil society or politics, the least likely you’ll have hope in being able to change it. Why bother when you see the system for what it is, and realize the odds are against you?

Furthermore, many intelligent people, frankly, perceive most others in society to be far less intelligent than them, and since these same masses are the ones that influence public policy and social norms, it could stand to reason that there’d be no point to trying to promote change if you’re in the beleaguered minority.

This could explain why democracy is supposedly under-appreciated among bright people: they see no merits in a system that rewards the largely misinformed or gullible masses, and leads to misguided policies. If anything, they may think such a system is detrimental to society, because – in theory – it leaves important decisions regarding the well-being of the world in the hands of people who wouldn’t know any better (as a side note, this could be why most intellectuals tend to be relatively more supportive of government and social policies).

Honestly, even I could sympathize with these concerns, and I admit to feeling this way every so often. I don’t think it’s that I or others are opposed to democracy in principle, but rather that we have reservations about the way it functions here in the US: oligarchic influences, partisanship, lack of informed policy-making, and so on. Sometimes, it feels all too hopeless to change the world when you know so much about the overwhelming odds going against you. I readily attest to this sense of confusion and disillusionment, and it explains why I have a difficult time comfortably settling for any particular political ideological position.

Perhaps in some way, that’s a good thing: the challenges of finding a suitable political system worthy of our involvement may force us to think more deeply about what we need to do to improve the system.