Tag Archives: political concepts

6 Questions for the Social Academic Disciplines after the US Election

Its been a tough time for practitioners of what I’ll call the Social Arts & Sciences, and for analysts  of political affairs. For example, reputable pollsters were totally wrong in predicting the election of 2016, pretty much destroying any confidence in the utility of analytical methods like survey research. Of course, most consumers of polling data can’t be expected to know the difference between the use and interpretation of quantitative data for research, and the kinds of reckless extrapolation that posed as expert and authoritative analysis leading up to the election.  So, it seems that social scientists have some tasks to do. As a community of thinkers and teachers about social affairs, the Social Arts & Sciences have a unique set of tools for understanding world events that can shed light on important questions. Like any tool, the value of analytical methods is only as good as the use they are put to.

Illuminating who we are as social beings, and why we do what we do, can bring improvements to our shared experience by enabling changes in social behaviour through learning, but only if done carefully and deliberately, and with a great deal of humility and caution.  I’d suggest these following lines of inquiry, but what I can’t do is help sounding like a stuffy, elitist, out of touch intellectal to some.  This is an occupational hazard, but one I’ll have to live with. Sorry about that. Here are some lines of inquiry suggested by recent events:

1. Political Science

Ok this one’s mine.  Please, political scientists, explain clearly the difference between democracy and liberal democracy.  Liberal democracy is a paradox, since the rule of law and constitutional protection of human rights necessarily limits democratic rule. Another way to think about it is that minority protections make democracy possible by ensuring that the people do not abuse their power, and in the process, potentially vote themselves out of power.  Law needs democracy and democracy needs law. They are inextricably bound together.  The rights of minorities are integral to the maintenance of democracy, not an add-on that can be jettisoned in the name of the majority or for the sake of convenience. Protecting minority rights is what enables democracy to function, and to sustain itself. Compromising minority rights inevitably compromises democracy itself.  Protecting minority rights protects everyone.

While we’re at it, please explain what polls actually measure, what they don’t measure, and what their limitations are (and I don’t mean margin of error). Everyone: (yes that means you)…I’m sorry, but you have to take statistics.  We all did it, so you have to too. There.

I’m throwing questions about the Electoral College to the historians.  It makes no sense.

A bonus suggestion for Philosophy:  help everyone understand paradoxes better.

2. Gender and Womens’ Studies

I would like to understand better the dynamics of ‘alpha male’ social behaviour.  I don’t even know if that’s a thing, but it kind of looks like what we’ve been observing. If I’m wrong, can you please school me in another way of understanding why so many thinking, otherwise respectful people (men and women both) willfully compromise themselves and their values when faced with powerful but flawed male figures?  An extra job for sociologists: help us truly understand the centrality of identity to pretty much everything.

3. Psychology

Following the 2008 economic crisis, a new subfield of Economic Psychology flourished to help explain why otherwise rational actors made irrational decisions, even against their own interest, and under what circumstances.  I think we need more of that.  Can psychology help us understand  more about the dynamics of voter decision making,  the processes of skapegoating, and the emergence of in-group and out-group division?  What is the role of emotion as a motivation for decision making?   We know that strong emotion can interfere with rational decision making,  but how might this dynamic work at a community level?

4. History

Please keep telling analogous stories from the past to help give context to the problems of the day.  Each generation still generates its own version of problems and solutions, but if people saw their issues as common and not unique, they might be better able to think creatively about how to apply the wisdom of the past to the present.  Also, please focus as well on the peaceful, constructive periods of history where nothing much happened.   The boring bits are what we can learn from.   As well, can you please help us understand better what happens during times of accelerating and rapid change so societies can learn to be more adaptive?  I have a feeling we’re going to need that.

5. Communications

Ok so you’ve got lots of work ahead…..propaganda has gone viral, driven not by large organizations but by individual users.  Consumers are now transmitters.  Conversations are immediate and global.  Has the speed of communication outpaced democracy?   Please talk to the psychologists about the effects of this on thinking, can we know more about how our social lives and worlds create our  reality?

6. Artists and Writers

Please keep reminding us what it’s like to be someone else.  Touch our hearts with stories of people and places different from our own experiences, so that we can develop empathy and awareness, even for a minute.  Teach the teachers how to convey this effectively. Educate all of the social scientists about the importance of empathy to learning and growing and advancing knowledge about the world and ourselves.  Ultimately, this is the only way humans truly learn.

What Kind of (In)Equality Do We Want?

Photo Credit: Jessica Tam Flickr

When analyzing any phenomena, it helps to have a good idea what we want to achieve. In political science as in life, equality has great significance. Analysts tend to think quite differently from the general public, however, about what constitutes equality and how we should use the term. Let’s consider a thought experiment to sort out the difference between ‘equality of opportunity’ and ‘equality of condition’.

If we imagine that equality of opportunity and equality of condition are kinds of ideal types at opposite poles, with a spectrum of variations in between, then the picture might look something like this: under ‘equality of condition’ everyone would experience the same life outcomes: equal incomes, equal standards of living, and equal levels of education, health care, and work. How would things differ? Likely inequality would creep in through limited means: for example, some may work longer hours, have more or less education, spend more or less time skiing, etc.

What is wrong with this picture? The most common criticisms of this ‘absolute equality’ are:

It reduces the incentive to succeed, and 2. It distorts the value of things, leading to scarcities and gluts in supply.

Society involves differential treatment.

But these are practical criticisms, not questions of justice.   Would absolute equality actually be ‘just’?  Assuming for the moment that such a system could be workable (and I’m not saying it is) then an argument could be made that it actually creates injustice by failing to differentiate among people with ascribed or inherent differences who deserve differential outcomes.  Those who work harder or are more creative or who are disabled or ill should be treated differently.  Some may deserve preferential access to resources either as a result of their extra effort, their accomplishment or contributions, or by virtue of need.  Tellingly, the right more often argues for differential outcomes based on effort and accomplishment, while ‘need’ tends to take second place. It is sometimes said that such a system would be communistic.  However, under Marx’s vision of communism, the ideal form of equality actually allowed for differential rewards focusing on need rather than accomplishment or contribution. Contrary to popular belief, Marx did not advocate absolute equality of condition. Indeed, nobody has, in all seriousness, ever really proposed that large-scale industrial societies impose absolute equality of condition.  This is because serious thinkers would quickly realize that equality of condition, even in its ideal form, would inevitably raise both practical and fairness questions since there would still need to be some argument for different treatment of some people.  Nobody is average.

Now, what about equality of opportunity? That sounds like something we can all get behind: everybody can try or fail equally well, and those with the greatest accomplishments and talents will rise to the top. This is kind of what Paul Summerville argues when he says:

Equality of opportunity is a virtue when it is twinned with unequal outcomes. It is meaningless without it. What is the point of equality opportunity if success is discouraged by custom, law, or taxation?

But, to respond to this, how can we be sure that everyone actually has an equal opportunity to try, and to win? Inequality all by itself is not evidence of equality of opportunity. What if the winners try to ‘kick the ladder out’ from behind them, blocking the upward advance of others? What if they use their newfound positions to favour their heirs and families and friends rather than allow their loved ones to fail? Perhaps when we see that some are able to climb up to the top from the very bottom of the social ladder without artificial assistance from the state, then we can say that equality of opportunity exists. But how many of these examples are sufficient to prove it? One? One in ten? One in a thousand? The fact is there is no natural or inevitable level of inequality that can tell us when everyone truly has an equal chance. We can point to clues: perhaps when the top 1% is as diverse and representative of the entire society, or when every member of the top group can claim to have climbed out of the gutter, but that seems as unlikely as the ideally equal society discussed above. The question of fairness rises again: even in a society in which opportunities are purely equally distributed, there will be unfairness due to the same factors mentioned above: What about those disadvantaged by illness or age or poor upbringing? What about highly talented or accomplished individuals who don’t manage to make it through no fault of their own? why value some talents more than others?

Given differences, how can we be sure that equality of opportunity exists?
Given differences, how can we be sure that equality of opportunity exists?

Again, the argument to treat some people differently in order for equality of opportunity to be realized is present. But, the same question arises: what should be the basis for differential treatment? Here, the differences between the two poles start to disappear: the essential argument is not about equality at all, but about the basis and rationale for differences. Both sides work toward an ideal world that is impractical and unfair, yet both sides argue for ‘differential’ treatment on the basis of different individual characteristics. The right argues that differential treatment should be based on talents or contributions, while the left focuses on compensating for special needs and other (class) disadvantages.

The world we actually live in is of course far more complicated. Equality before the law, which is the dominant discourse of equality in Canada and other Western liberal democracies, is actually a fall-back position avoiding both of the options described above. It doesn’t guarantee equality of opportunity and it doesn’t mitigate inequalities of condition. At most, it provides a measure of our progress toward some compromise on fairness and practicality. It’s not irrelevant, far from it! The legal guarantees of the Voting Rights Act or protections for gay marriage or for equality between religious beliefs do matter, but not for the reasons we think. They matter less because they create equal opportunities, and more because they clarify the legitimate grounds for treating people differently. The fact that people are all, in some way, treated differently by society still needs to be acknowledged by all participants in the equality debate.

The next two blog posts will address the sources of present-day inequality in globalization, and the basis for differential treatment and its centrality to equality.