A world without politics (would be bad)

Many people seem frustrated by “politics” and increasingly express a desire to “depoliticize” things large and small, as if everything would be better if politics were taken out of it.

Here’s the reality: Politics is the mechanism by which we shape and register our policy preferences and priorities, including what we as a whole self-governing society choose to invest in and emphasize from among competing options. Policy without politics is possible but never leads anywhere good in the long run. In the end, policy without politics would merely be one faction’s unchallenged implementation of their own priorities and beliefs without popular consent.

Without words for concepts, do they still exist?

burma-mapI’m always fascinated by the way language and available terminology shapes our worldview — literally causing us to view the world fundamentally differently from our fellow people if they grew up with a very different language. In international politics, these differences crop up from time to time in the news.

In recent years, after many decades of broad cultural-political integration, the differences and resulting gaps in mutual understanding have generally become smaller, even borderline mere curiosities.

Examples: German using the same word for debt and guilt. Or, the Greek translation for the Wikipedia page for “Roman Republic” is just “Roman Democracy” because Greek lacks a word for Republic — and Greek government documents can’t use the word “republic” except when translated. Or, ISIS terrorists bitterly disputing the translations of its own various and oft-changed names, and the global media struggling to choose one.

But then there are the truly isolated holdouts, the places that have sealed themselves off from the outside world and kept their language from cross-pollinating.

According to a great new article in the New York Times, the dictatorship of Myanmar — still struggling under new management with a transition into democracy — has been one such place. The consequences of that linguistic-political isolation are now catching up as “Those Who Would Remake Myanmar Find That Words Fail Them”.

The Burmese language doesn’t yet have a native word for democracy, only the borrowed English word with an accented pronunciation. However, it turns out the problem is much larger than one missing word: The country lacks Burmese words for most of the new political and policy concepts of the past four decades (like “computer privacy”)…or even many old concepts like “institution” or “federalism.” The Myanmar military regime attempted to ban even English words for political ideas — and then corrupted the understood meaning of any that remained, such as “rule of law.” An estimated 10-50% of the meaning of any given conversation between Western diplomats and Myanmarese leadership is hopelessly lost in translation.

And it may not just be a failure to understand the literal words. It’s hard to adopt and promote the ideas in a substantive way when the conceptual meaning behind them doesn’t carry over into the worldview-informing culture and language.

This, to my mind, should then pose a much bigger question, affecting many more countries in Asia as well as Africa — and one vastly beyond my pay grade:

Has the West been too quick to fault democratic shortcomings and state failures in post-colonial developing nations as a whole, if we accept that these Western Enlightenment-derived concepts from philosophers and leaders speaking inter-entangled European languages might have to some degree been imposed onto existing cultures with poorly compatible linguistic-cultural frameworks?

Obviously there would still be the usual factors sharing the blame. But it might play a role.

The Burmese political translation challenges now playing out in public should also, once again, raise legitimate questions about the very premise of “universal” values.

April 15, 2015 – Arsenal For Democracy 124


Topics: Lee Kuan Yew’s Singapore and the meaning of democracy; the pros and cons of term limits. People: Bill and Nate. Produced: April 13th, 2015.

Episode 124 (40 min):
AFD 124

Discussion points:

– What does Lee Kuan Yew’s legacy in Singapore tell us about other systems of government?
– Does democracy or enlightened despotism serve the public interest better?
– Can China’s ruling party actually govern well without democracy?
– Term limits on legislators and executives: Positive or negative?

Related Links:

AFD: The Singapore model probably isn’t widely applicable
AFD: Abolition of Russian Serfdom vs Abolition of US Slavery
NCSL: Frequently Asked Questions About Term Limits


RSS Feed: Arsenal for Democracy Feedburner
iTunes Store Link: “Arsenal for Democracy by Bill Humphrey”

And don’t forget to check out The Digitized Ramblings of an 8-Bit Animal, the video blog of our announcer, Justin.

The Singapore Model probably isn’t widely applicable

In tributes to Singapore’s recently passed founding father, Lee Kuan Yew, much was made of the (undeniable) gains in prosperity and standards of living among the people under his strictly “managed” pseudo-democracy, as well as of how happy most residents are with their quality of life and the safety and cleanliness of their little country.

The late Lee Kuan Yew, Prime Minister of Singapore, 1959-1990; cabinet member, 1990-2012. (U.S. Government photo, 2002)

The late Lee Kuan Yew, Prime Minister of Singapore, 1959-1990; cabinet member, 1990-2012. (U.S. Government photo, 2002)

The logical extension of these commentaries has been to ask whether the success of this (almost literally) shining city on a busy coast means democracy isn’t the best way to produce a “government for the people” that actually governs well. Despite the name of this site, I’m open-minded enough to at least consider the possibility that there are other forms of government that might be equally (or even better) suited to a given society’s governance. I don’t presume to assert with certainty that Western liberal democracy is positively the be-all/end-all or the universally applicable ideal. But let’s not get too carried away by Lee Kuan Yew and the Singapore story and draw overly broad conclusions in the opposite direction either.

For a start, some of the quality of life and law enforcement issues are actually more controversial than the glowing tributes from around the world would imply; things are pretty rigid and harsh sometimes. Even the reported happiness, according to Singaporean commentator Sun Xi in a November 2013 article in The Globalist, is debatable…

But for the sake of argument, let’s stipulate that his governance of Singapore was predominantly very good and served the public interest well, despite the lack of free, fair, and open elections. Let’s say that model worked effectively in Singapore. Would that really be enough to argue credibly that Lee Kuan Yew’s legacy might undermine liberal representative democracy’s claims to serving the public interest most effectively (and therefore governing on behalf of the people best)?

I would suggest not. There’s a major component missing in such analyses. It is probably far easier to have an effective and responsive yet non-democratic government if there is also broad/near-universal agreement in that specific society about the goals and purposes of government. Democracy is less “necessary,” so to speak, for effective governance in the public interest if everyone in a society more or less agrees on what their government should be doing and what an ideal society would look like. If everyone agrees, the government just has to do those things well, and it will have succeeded. That agreement is likelier to be found in a small place like Singapore. In a vaster and more politically or culturally heterogeneous society, such as the United States, democracy is necessary to provide a stable and peaceful mechanism for sorting out competing fundamental visions of governance.
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A theory of legitimate, ideal transitional government

There are always many questions in how best to transition a non-democratic country to democracy — particularly because these transitions often occur during periods of unrest and instability, if not outright war or revolution.

Moreover, the outgoing regime has usually worked hard to stamp out formal opposition leadership/membership as well as any likely interim replacements and lower levels of legitimate authority that could present an alternative to the regime’s continued existence. And rarely is there any workable means of conducting free and fair elections without first overhauling the entire system.

This creates a chicken-and-egg paradox: Which comes first — the new system to find leaders or the new leaders to create a system?


Key questions

So, with most popularly legitimate authorities destroyed by the outgoing regime and no way to immediately replace it, what is the next best alternative in an ideal situation? Here are some guiding philosophical questions that suggest preferable alternatives:

  • In a transition to representative democracy from a non-democracy without a functioning voter system for immediate transitional elections, should interim power derive from the lowest available popular representatives? This seems likely to provide it with the most broad-based support from the public and authorities alike.
  • Or should interim power rest with a self-identified cadre of internal regime reformers and external academics/technocrats? Or a cadre identified by a supranational political organization (such as the United Nations, African Union, or Arab League)? Can a truly legitimate constitution and electoral system be developed by a representative cross-section cadre of non-elected transitional leaders? To all these, I suspect the answer is no because it risks limiting public cooperation.
  • Or should interim power devolve immediately to the local level to organize and oversee ad hoc transitional elections for a constitutional assembly to the best of their ability? Even in a non-democratic system without much of a civil society, there is nearly always some subsidiary local level of governance where popular will is not totally repressed and unrepresented. Absolute power eventually runs out of steam somewhere close to the bottom of the government structure in a country of any substantial size, thus leaving some level of officials relatively untainted. Can that level of government legitimately select useful transitional leaders? I believe so.
  • How can transitional leaders be made impartial and secured against the corruption of power? How do we ensure they will leave at the end of their transitional mandate? Strict checks, short timetables, and separation of transitional roles should resolve these issues.
  • During a transition, is it preferable to hew closely to the existing constitutional order and reform it through its formal mechanism, despite its corruption — or is it better to abandon it in favor of a creative vacuum that can rebuild the system from scratch? There are advantages and disadvantages to either course. To leave it entirely courts chaos, but to keep it risks failed or stunted transition (tearing down the master’s house with the master’s tools).

I have endeavored below to develop an idealized system that addresses as many of these concerns as possible while offering a regulated roadmap with clear guidelines for conducting a responsible and true transition in as many different countries as possible.

Desired qualities of the transition guide proposal, therefore, include: broad applicability, maximal interim stability, brevity of and limitations upon extraordinary conditions, thoroughness of overhaul, manageable democratic characteristics, and prevention of backsliding.

This roadmap discards the existing system and constitution at the national level but uses its local organs to form temporary replacements for the national government and select drafters of a new, permanent order. That initial approach returns governing and drafting legitimacy as close to the people as possible in an orderly fashion but without the need for infeasible, immediate nationwide elections.

Proposed transitional order to maximize stability, reforms, and interim legitimacy:
  1. Go to the lowest, most local body of government that is free of regime appointees and have that body (in every part of the country, collectively) nominate two separate assemblies with different mandates. (N.B. This step may require alteration if a single-party state exists and all members of the local bodies nationwide are from the same party.)
  2. Each of the two transitional assemblies has 1 representative per smallest local district level inclusive of the whole country (e.g. county, canton, department). The first assembly is just constitutional drafters. The second assembly is tasked only with naming and monitoring a caretaker cabinet and its leader, with no role in drafting.
  3. The caretaker cabinet is given a 3 month term, and its members are drawn from outside both assemblies to insulate drafting & governing roles. The cabinet leader — e.g. an interim Prime Minister — cannot be re-nominated to the cabinet at the end of a 3-month caretaker cabinet term.
  4. For transitional executive simplicity, the cabinet rules by decree (voted through by cabinet majority), but the nominating assembly holds veto power by 2/3rds vote to deter grievous abuses of power. Decrees hold effect until the expiration of 6 months and cannot effect elections or the drafting of the constitution. Even during the 6 months they hold effect, all decrees are not binding on next caretaker cabinet or permanent government elected later, but they can be renewed if desired.
  5. The constitutional assembly drafts the constitution on a 9-month non-extendable timeline. It also establishes first election procedures for a permanent legislature (or any other elective national offices under the new constitution) and supervises the first election. Both transitional assemblies go out of existence as soon as the permanent government and legislators are sworn in.
  6. The country’s security forces are tasked only with maintaining order, borders, and election safety during the transition. No official role is permitted in the political transition, both in the cabinet and the drafting process. Security forces answer to the civilian caretaker cabinet.
  7. Constitutional drafters and the final interim cabinet leader are automatically barred from all offices for 1 cycle under the new, permanent system. The other assembly’s members and other cabinet officials are not barred from running and serving in any elective or appointed offices under the new constitution.
    Optional additional points:

  9. A yes-no referendum could be held on ratification of the constitution prior to the first election of permanent officials. However, this risks exposing the new constitution to significant challenges to its authority and supremacy even if successfully ratified. It also risks no constitution being adopted within a concise timeframe.
  10. A temporarily higher threshold for amending the constitution could exist for the first two cycles to promote stabilization of the new order, encourage inter-party cooperation, and provide a cooling off period on proposed early major changes.

Drawbacks of Technocracy, Part 2: Blue-ribbon America

In part 1, “Europe’s Political Crisis,” I examined the (well-intended) rise of governance and policy decision-making by unelected technical experts in the European Union, along with the effects it has had on promoting a growing political crisis there. I also suggested that a milder version of this trend is starting to make its way into the U.S. political system as well — or at least into the U.S. political philosophy that influences the system.

As I argued in [another] recent piece, in the United States, “there is now a prevailing assumption that everything can be converted into numerical values, and that we can forge our country into a Blue-ribbon technocracy of ‘best practices’ with no subjective judgment calls (or perhaps eventually even directional disagreements altogether).”



The conditions for technocracy’s growth

The circumstances that have encouraged the beginnings of technocracy to emerge in the United States are not exactly the same as the circumstances in Europe. Here, it is philosophically grounded in the now largely faded early American notions of a republican government of wise and elite elders who do what is best for the people, with or without their consent. The role of experts in the United States has so far been limited to advisory roles with far less formal and front-row power than in Europe. Very rarely have they gained official, high-ranking decision-making roles in place of politicians.

In Europe, in contrast, a major factor in the rise of powerful technocrats was the creation of the European Union as an economic union that required — but did not officially hold — significant political power to be able to implement its economic integration policies. That gap between needs in practice and anticipated needs on paper created a decision-making vacuum that the experts filled. No politicians were being replaced directly because there were no powerful federal politicians in the EU or predecessor European Economic Community to begin with. (In the United States, obviously, there has been a strong political union of the member states with its own strong and elected federal government since the Constitution of 1787.) The creation of that pseudo-federal “European” layer of unelected experts making decisions then established a precedent for deferring to national level experts when the national political systems began breaking down more recently in the face of very serious policy and budgetary demands from the Union and elections failed to produce the necessary leadership to enact them. Such crises create the conditions for the constitutional but non-democratic elevation of unelected experts to the cabinet and, in Italy’s case, even the premiership.

The stalemate in elected governance, though, does bear similarity to much of what we have seen in the United States lately. With polarization and dysfunction mounting, rather than making smaller procedural fixes like overhauling the Senate rules, there is likely to be a growing chorus of people seriously suggesting drastic alternatives for achieving policy aims. In past gridlock/crises points, radical reformation of the American constitutional system has been suggested. This time, following the European model, it is more likely that the proposed alternatives would be the gentler introduction of expert commissions empowered to present big decisions for rubber-stamping to the legislative branch or executive bureaucracy.

This solution is particularly likely to be applied, as in Europe, to budgetary reform gridlock, because a certain set of people is already convinced that such reforms are desperately needed and cannot be entrusted with making the “hard choices.” (Interestingly, we don’t see such a push on global warming.)


The gold standard example of American technocracy so far is the trend toward elimination in many states of legislature-driven redistricting in favor of unelected “nonpartisan” commissions. Nine states have abdicated redistricting entirely to outside commissions. A further 13 have some kind of commission in parallel with or assisting the legislators in the redistricting — including five where the commission serves as a “backup” when the normal process fails and a few where a commission is empowered to draw the state districts but not the congressional districts.
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Drawbacks of Technocracy, Part 1: Europe’s Political Crisis

A common Republican talking point in the United States is a fear of “becoming like Europe” with its purportedly omnipresent “European socialism.” As someone who actually pays attention to the politics and economics of Europe, I dismiss that as a pretty absurd view of the world, for any number of reasons. But lately I’ve had a different question: What if the (negative) way that the United States is “becoming like Europe” is actually the adoption of its technocratic governance trends?

In part one of this two-part essay, I’ll examine what technocracy is and what it looks like in the modern European democracies. In part two, I’ll examine how it is starting to manifest in the United States.


What is technocracy?

Technocracy is a term that essentially means rule by non-elected technical experts, often academics, who (theoretically) place the country’s interests above the interests of any particular “side.” By extension, technocracy is usually set in contrast with, but not opposition to, elected partisans (i.e. champions of a specific political party or faction). It is not the same as “bureaucracy,” either, because bureaucrats carry out the policy decisions of the executive and legislative branches, whereas the technocrats are replacing the role of the decision-makers themselves. That means the experts are substituted directly for politicians at the top. Also, quite unusually compared with other systems, technocracy often exists alongside democratic systems and completely within a normal constitutional framework. The replacement of the politicians does not occur in a “state of emergency” or other extra-constitutional circumstance, as would occur in a dictatorship, but rather occurs through appointments of experts to the top level of government through regular constitutional procedures.

The most common use of technocrats around the world is a logical and reasonable one: Many democratic countries, mostly in the developing world, will hand the government over to a temporary cabinet of nonpartisan technocrats — called “caretakers” — to run the country during a very brief period during which new elections are held. That way, someone is still “at the wheel” during campaign season but the ruling party can’t control the power of government offices, the security forces, or election officials. This is particularly useful in countries with relatively young and sometimes unstable democracies, to help build ongoing public confidence that a system of elected government can be trusted and will turn over periodically as expected. If the ruling party loses the election and rejects the outcome, they can’t cling to power because they already had to vacate office to the technocrats before the start of the campaign.

But in the past quarter-century, the rise of the European Union has introduced an entirely new form of technocracy, though. Read more