Friday, June 26, 2009

New arrivals for the reading list

Recently acquired:

Sonu Bedi,Rejecting Rights.
The language of rights is ubiquitous. It shapes the way we construct our debates over issues such as abortion, affirmative action and sexual freedom. This provocative new study challenges the very concept of rights, arguing that they jeopardize our liberty and undermine democratic debate. By re-conceptualizing our ideas about limited government, it suggests that we can limit the reasons or rationales on which the polity may act. Whereas we once used the language of rights to thwart democratic majorities, Bedi argues that we should now turn our attention to the democratic state's reason for acting. This will permit greater democratic flexibility and discretion while ensuring genuine liberty. Deftly employing political theory and constitutional law to state its case, the study radically rethinks the relationship between liberty and democracy, and will be essential reading for scholars and students of political and legal philosophy.

Josiah Ober, Democracy and Knowledge: Innovation and Learning in Classical Athens
When does democracy work well, and why? Is democracy the best form of government? These questions are of supreme importance today as the United States seeks to promote its democratic values abroad. Democracy and Knowledge is the first book to look to ancient Athens to explain how and why directly democratic government by the people produces wealth, power, and security.

Combining a history of Athens with contemporary theories of collective action and rational choice developed by economists and political scientists, Josiah Ober examines Athenian democracy's unique contribution to the ancient Greek city-state's remarkable success, and demonstrates the valuable lessons Athenian political practices hold for us today. He argues that the key to Athens's success lay in how the city-state managed and organized the aggregation and distribution of knowledge among its citizens. Ober explores the institutional contexts of democratic knowledge management, including the use of social networks for collecting information, publicity for building common knowledge, and open access for lowering transaction costs. He explains why a government's attempt to dam the flow of information makes democracy stumble. Democratic participation and deliberation consume state resources and social energy. Yet as Ober shows, the benefits of a well-designed democracy far outweigh its costs.

Understanding how democracy can lead to prosperity and security is among the most pressing political challenges of modern times. Democracy and Knowledge reveals how ancient Greek politics can help us transcend the democratic dilemmas that confront the world today.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

The holiday season

I liked this series enough last year that I'm going to rerun it.

Bonne fete nationale!

And a good Jean-Baptiste. This kicks off the holiday season: Jean-Baptiste, Canada Day, and the Fourth of July in the space of 10 days (along with the Jazz Festival, of course). Viewing recommendations for the national holiday of Quebec: I am not a Canadian (if you don't know what it's a reference to, see here); and just to throw something more interesting and more francophone, if less directly thematic, into the mix, my favorite Montreal movie, Le Golem de Montreal.

Update: I seem to have forgotten to rerun it. Click on the "holiday season" tag to read last year's entries.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Obviously false dichotomies

One sees this kind of thing from time to time, and it baffles me.

“The issue of the burqa is not a religious issue; it is a question of freedom and of women’s dignity,” Mr. Sarkozy said. “The burqa is not a religious sign; it is a sign of the subjugation, of the submission of women.”

Why would one possibly think that either of those sentences contains two mutually-exclusive categories? What generates the idea that something cannot be both a religious symbol and a symbol of women's subjugation? Is it polyanna-ism about religion?

I'm not commenting here on the merits of Sarkozy's insistence that "the burqa is not welcome in France" (though I'll probably do so at some point). But the attempt here, I guess, to deny that there are any costs or trade-offs in banning it (if it's not a "religious issue," then there's no constitutional value to balance against the constitutional value of sex equality-- that kind of thing) seems to me pointlessly dishonest.


There's sophistry aplenty in the following section, expanding on why a prohbition on the burka would be costless in terms of liberty:

Où en sommes-nous avec la liberté ? Qu'en avons-nous fait ?

La liberté, ce n'est pas le droit pour chacun de faire ce qu'il veut. Être libre, ce n'est pas vivre sans contrainte et sans règle. Quand il n'y a pas de règles, quand tous les coups sont permis, ce n'est pas la liberté qui triomphe, c'est la loi de la jungle, la loi du plus fort ou celle du plus malin.

C'est le débat que nous avons sur l'école : rendre service à nos enfants, c'est leur enseigner qu'il n'y a pas de liberté sans règle.

C'est le débat que nous avons sur l'économie, sur la finance, sur le capitalisme. Nous voyons bien que le capitalisme devient fou quand il n'y a plus de règles.

C'est le débat aussi que nous avons sur le droit d'auteur. Car enfin, comment pourrait-il y avoir dans notre société de zones de non-droit ? Comment peut-on réclamer en même temps que l'économie soit régulée et qu'Internet ne le soit pas ? Comment peut-on accepter que les règles qui s'imposent à toute la société ne s'imposent pas sur Internet ? En défendant le droit d'auteur, je ne défends pas seulement la création artistique, je défends aussi l'idée que je me fais d'une société de liberté, où la liberté de chacun est fondée sur le respect du droit des autres. C'est aussi l'avenir de notre culture que je défends. C'est l'avenir de la création. Voilà pourquoi j'irai jusqu'au bout. (Applaudissements.)

Le débat sur la liberté, c'est aussi le débat sur la sécurité et sur les prisons. Quelle est la liberté de celui qui a peur de sortir de chez lui ? Quelle est la liberté pour les victimes si leurs agresseurs ne sont pas punis ? Comment peut-on parler de justice quand 82 000 peines ne sont pas exécutées parce qu'il n'y a pas assez de places dans les prisons ?

So: imprisoning women who go out of the house fully covered prevents the law of the jungle; prisons are liberty; restrictions on capitalism are liberty; copyright restrictions are liberty. No rules can possibly restrict liberty, because liberty is not the absence of rules.

I suppose I should view it as ideologically useful to have the French economic model linked so closely to the French model of laicite, both in opposition to Anglo-Saxon liberalism. But it just makes me cranky.