Sunday, 29 October 2017

An Announcement

I have decided to take “Going Galactic,” my science fiction novel published in 2012, off the market. “Honest Common Sense,” my book of philosophy published in 2014, will remain in print and e-book formats.

In the next few weeks, I shall be merging my two blogs and under the Honest Common Sense banner.

Saturday, 28 October 2017

On Equality

“Equality” is a word often heard in political discourse. But those of differing views tend to use it with incompatible and even opposing meanings. So today, I’m going to look at different ways in which the word “equality” is used in a political context. And I’ll try to elucidate my own view on the matter.

As a first cut at answering the question “What is equality?” I’ll simply give two quotes from the great 17th-century liberal thinker, John Locke:

  • [Equality is…] “...that equal right that every man hath to his natural freedom, without being subjected to the will or authority of any other man.”
  • “A state also of equality, wherein all the power and jurisdiction is reciprocal, no one having more than another.”
So, in a state of equality, no-one has a right to control others or to order them around. And any one-sided power, which one has over another, must be counterbalanced by equal and opposite power, which the other has over the one. For Locke, equality is political equality.

And here are views on equality from four more fine thinkers of the past:

  • “Equality consists in the same treatment of similar persons...” – Aristotle.
  • “A society that puts equality before freedom will get neither. A society that puts freedom before equality will get a high degree of both.” – Milton Friedman.
  • “A claim for equality of material position can be met only by a government with totalitarian powers.” – Friedrich von Hayek.
  • “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.” – George Orwell.
For a view from the political left, I’ll give you words of the American labour leader and pacifist, Eugene Victor Debs. “I am opposing a social order in which it is possible for one man who does absolutely nothing that is useful to amass a fortune of hundreds of millions of dollars, while millions of men and women who work all the days of their lives secure barely enough for a wretched existence.” Such a criticism could just as well be levelled at today’s ruling classes; including politicians, those that set their agendas, and their corporate cronies.

Kinds of equality

So, what kinds of equality are commonly put forward as desirable for all?

First, political equality, as understood by Locke: no right to rule over others, and no subjection to others. Second, moral equality. Under this kind of equality, right and wrong are the same for everyone. This leads towards the concept of the rule of law.

Third, equality of opportunity. The idea here is that people should be allowed to advance themselves by using their own talents and abilities, and putting in their own efforts. And they should never be denied opportunities merely because they have, for example, the wrong skin colour, religion, gender or sexual tastes, or because they don’t belong to the right family.

Fourth, favoured by many on the political left, is equality of outcome. This is the idea that rewards should be similar for all, regardless of talents or of how well an individual applies them.

Areas of inequality

Those, that claim to favour equality, perceive problems of inequality in many areas. The most obvious is economic inequality. Some people are paid more than others. And there are those that think this is wrong in itself, even when an individual justly earns everything he receives. Some go even further, saying that it’s wrong for some people to possess more wealth than others.

Other areas in which they see inequality as an issue are: Gender inequality (which today is usually an accusation of mistreatment of women by men). Racial or religious inequality; for example, failure to allow civil liberties to those of particular races or religions. And social inequality, such as one class of people obstructing the prospects of other classes of people. Among such claimed divides we may include capitalists against workers, the “toffs” against the “plebs,” the public sector against the private, and the rich against the poor.

Then there is international inequality, which is said to favour unfairly those who live in relatively well run countries, against those who live in relatively badly run ones. And even within countries, there are claims of inequalities between groups in areas like education and health care.

Looking at these shades of inequality, I see that those that make inequality out to be a problem often want to go well beyond equality of opportunity, towards something much closer to equality of outcome. This, as Hayek pointed out, can only be accomplished by a tyranny. And moreover, a tyranny that has no compunction about taking resources from the talented, the hard-working, the honest and the deserving, and re-distributing them to the mediocre, the lazy, the dishonest and the undeserving.

My own view

I am a strong supporter of political equality. For me, no-one has an innate right to control other adult people. This is not to say that people may not, by mutual agreement, enter into a contract, in which one may tell the other what to do in a limited area of life. The relationship between an employer and an employee is a case in point.

I also do not mean to imply that I reject the idea of government. For when people form a government to defend themselves and their rights and freedoms against internal criminals or external attackers, they delegate to it sufficient powers to enable it to carry out these functions. But government should be like an umpire in a sporting contest. It must not try to become a player in the game. It must not take sides. It must not try to impose agendas. It must not let itself become a danger to, or a drain on, the people it is supposed to defend. And it must stay within the remit – for example, the maintenance of peace and the implementation of civil and criminal justice – for which the people gave it its powers in the first place.

On moral equality, my view is both strong and clear. Every individual, without exception, is morally equal. I like to put this as: What is right for one to do, is right for another to do under similar circumstances, and vice versa. And to those that quibble, I say: If not, then exactly who is to be allowed moral privilege over others? How much? When? For what reasons? Who are you to decide? And why should you yourself not be thrown down to the very bottom of the heap?

Further, I contend that there exists a basic core of morality, which is, or should be, common to all human beings. Though I do, of course, recognize that groups of people may choose to get together, and to obey among themselves particular sets of laws and customs which differ from, or go beyond, this core. Such as, for example: Venerating a particular deity. Holding property in common, not privately. Not eating pork. Not drinking alcohol. Or not allowing abortions.

As to equality of opportunity, I think the idea is misconceived. What everyone should have is not equality of opportunity, but abundance of opportunity. No-one should ever put obstacles in the way of those who want to create and to take opportunities, both economic and personal, as long as their actions do not cause damage or unreasonable risk to others.

Lastly, I find that those, that promote equality of outcome, fail to acknowledge that the political action needed to bring about such equality requires huge inequality of political power. And they are, frequently, among the richest and the least productive in society – for example, politicians that are paid huge fees to give speeches.

Worse, the political actions they favour are often based on a zero-sum view of society. They seem to think that the only way to benefit the people they claim to want to help is to take resources away from other people and re-distribute them. They focus, not on helping the few who are disadvantaged through no fault of their own, but on forcing one group of people to help another. Moreover, they like to demand sacrifices from other people, but they usually won’t make any such sacrifices themselves. And they often take away from people the opportunity to help themselves, and end up doing more harm than good; as with minimum wage laws.

To sum up. I favour political and moral equality for all. I want to see, not equality of opportunity, but abundance of opportunity. And I am entirely opposed to those that seek to bring about equality of outcome without regard to talents and application.

Sunday, 22 October 2017

Bottom up versus top down

Today, I’m going to look at two diametrically opposed ways of thinking, and at the practitioners of those two ways. One way, I call bottom up; the other, top down.

Bottom up thinking is like the way we build a house. Starting from the ground, we work upwards, using what we’ve done already as support for what we’re working on at the moment. Top down thinking, on the other hand, starts out from an idea that is a given. It then works downwards, seeking evidence for the idea, or to add detail to it, or to put it into practice.

These two opposed methods bear on far more than just the way we think. The idea of bottom up versus top down can be applied to many dimensions of our lives. It can be applied to our overall world view, and to our views on religion. To how we seek knowledge. To our ethical and political views. To our conception of government and law. To our opinions on economics and environment. To how we communicate with others. To our views on education and media; and many more. Bottom up versus top down isn’t a single scale of (say) 0 to 100, but a multi-dimensional space, in which each individual’s position is represented on many different axes.

Some individuals, like me, seek to use the bottom up method in all or almost all of these dimensions. Others may take a predominantly top down view, or even an extreme top down one. Yet others may apply bottom up thinking in some dimensions, and top down in others.

For brevity, I’ll introduce the phrases “bottom upper” and “top downer” to mean individuals who practise these two methods. Mostly, I’ll be considering only one dimension at a time. In which case, the bottom upper is someone near one end of the scale in that dimension, and the top downer is someone near the other. But at the end of the essay, I’ll take a look at an overall measure of bottom up versus top down thinking.

I’ll give a couple of historical examples. John Locke, my 17th-century hero and almost namesake, and from whose writings I’ll use a few quotes in this essay, was a fine example of a bottom upper. His politics was forward looking and genuinely liberal. While he was a staunch Protestant, his religious views were tolerant for his time. And he had among his friends several of the finest scientists of the day. In contrast, Josef Stalin was an extreme top downer. He set out to impose his style of communism on the Soviet people, regardless of the consequences to those people. And he and his policies ended up causing as many as 20 million deaths of innocents.


The most fundamental level at which bottom up versus top down applies is the way in which the individual thinks.

The bottom up thinker seeks to build, using his senses and his mind, a picture of the reality of which he is a part. He examines, critically, the evidence of his senses. He assembles this evidence into percepts, things he perceives as true. Then he pulls them together and generalizes them into concepts. He uses logic and reason to seek understanding, and he often stops to check that he is still on the right lines. And if he finds he has made an error, he tries to correct it.

The top down thinker, on the other hand, has far less concern for logic or reason, or for correcting errors. He tends to accept new ideas only if they fit his pre-existing beliefs. And so, he finds it hard to go beyond the limitations of what he already knows or believes.

World view and religion

Bottom up versus top down orientation also contributes much to the individual’s world view, including his view on religion. When considering whether humans are naturally good or bad, for example, the bottom upper will look into himself, and judge what he finds. He is, therefore, likely to conclude that (occasional lapses notwithstanding) he himself is naturally good. Thus, other human beings must be naturally good, too. And he sees those that behave badly as aberrations; John Locke dubbed them “noxious creatures” and “degenerate men.” Further, the bottom upper probably thinks that he has free will, and others do too. And consequently, each of us has personal responsibility for the effects on others of our voluntary actions.

In religion, he may or may not believe in a god. While some bottom uppers follow one form or other of religion, many (including me) end up as agnostics. And some go further, towards atheism. But the bottom upper has little or no desire to impose his personal religious preferences on others. And so, he reaches a view similar to that I encapsulate in what I call Neil’s First Precept of Religion: “If you let me have my religion (or lack of it), I’ll let you have yours.”

The top downer, on the other hand, is often too lazy to work out his world view for himself, and prefers to take a ready-made world view from others. He is quite likely to think that humans are naturally bad, perhaps because he has been told so by parents or religious instructors. Top downers (particularly Marxists) also have a tendency to see the universe as deterministic, and therefore to deny the existence of free will and so personal responsibility. And in religion, top downers often have a desire to, and many will try to, impose on others their own orthodoxy.

Seeking truth

The bottom upper sees truth as objective, independently of what people happen to think about particular truths. As a result, he believes that we can discover truths. A particular truth or fact may of course be unknown, or poorly understood, or wrongly apprehended, at a particular time. But all truths can, in principle at least, be discovered.

The bottom upper seeks out, and evaluates, the evidence he can find on his subject. He tries to investigate the facts critically. He cultivates and improves his bullshit meter. He uses it to detect things that don’t look quite right, that don’t add up, that seem to contradict facts he knows or believes, or which may repay further investigation. And he values science, and the scientific method which lies at its heart.

In contrast, many top downers hold that facts can be different for different individuals, groups or cultures; and that feelings are often more important than facts. In this view, there is no such thing as objective truth. The top downer can thus ignore or deny evidence, when it fails to fit his pre-conceived notions. He is often unwilling to change his mind, even when presented with a strong case for doing so. He may find little value in science. Or he may even try to pass off as science ideas which are not, in reality, worthy of the name scientific.


The bottom up thinker can conceive that, among the moral rules in diverse cultures, there is a core that is (or should be) common to all. He is attracted to the idea of moral universalism. That is, that what is right for one to do, is right for another to do in similar circumstances, and vice versa. And it’s in this sense, he thinks, that all human beings are equal. He doesn’t know what, precisely, the ethical core should be; and he’s aware that it’s a hard problem. But if he has a particular interest in ethics, he will seek to understand and to elicit this core as best he can.

I myself have thought about this issue for many years. The ethical core, as I understand it, begins with three ideas: peacefulness, honesty and respect for others’ rights. I’ve made attempts to list the rights, and I know my list is nowhere near perfect as yet. But they include fundamental rights like life and property. They include what I call rights of non-impedance, like freedom of movement and of association. And they include the presumption of freedom – that, if there is no good reason to prohibit something, then it must be OK to do it – and a right to self-defence. The core must also include the notion of justice. I conceive it thus: “Everyone deserves to be treated, over the long term and in the round, at least as well as he or she treats others.”

Further, the core must include a clear idea of personal responsibility. For example: We should not intentionally do unjust harm to others. We should compensate those to whom we inadvertently or unavoidably do unjust harm. And we should strive to be independent, and not to let ourselves become a drain on others. Moreover, we must always act in good faith. When we have made promises to others, we must strive to keep our side of the bargain, as long as the other party keeps his. And if we choose to have children, we must take responsibility for bringing them up and educating them until they can function fully as human beings.

I recognize, however, that other bottom uppers are likely to have different conceptions of the ethical core. This isn’t “settled science” yet. We must, therefore, be tolerant of those with different ideas, as long as they are equally tolerant towards us. And our motto, in the final analysis, must be: “live and let live.”

In contrast, many top downers are moral relativists. They deny that there are any ethical rules which apply to everyone. Further, some maintain that right and wrong are merely cultural tastes. Some of them run aground on the libertine Scylla of “anything goes.” Others, perhaps most, let themselves be sucked into the authoritarian Charybdis of “might makes right.” They deny moral equality, holding that some (rulers) should have moral rights over and above others (subjects). In place of moral equality, many promote the conceit of equality of outcome for all. And they not only deny real rights, like property and freedom of movement and of association, but also wrongly promote aspirations like social security and “free” education to the status of rights.

Moreover, top downers are very often dishonest. They seem to have no shame about lying or misleading, or failing to deliver on their promises. And they often act in bad faith, too.

Top downers also like to deny the idea of objective or individual justice, substituting for it “social justice” or some other caricature of justice. They often duck personal, individual responsibility for what they do, and seek to evade accountability. Instead, they try to claim that some collective “we” bears responsibility for the ills of the world. This frequently leads them to behave as hypocrites. For example, promoting policies that aim to force others to make sacrifices, but failing to make any such sacrifices themselves.

Society, community and fellowship

For the bottom upper, the fundamental unit of society is the individual. The family is important, too. For the family is the smallest social unit which can survive indefinitely. Beyond the family, when individuals associate, the process must be voluntary and bottom up. As Herbert Spencer put it: “Society exists for the benefit of its members, not the members for the benefit of society.”

The bottom up thinker feels community with those, who behave civilly and cordially towards him. He prefers the company of those who, like him, seek truth and strive to obey basic moral rules such as peacefulness, honesty and respect for rights. So, he seeks to judge others not by who they are, but by what they do, how they behave and what they say. Thus, he cares about his fellow human beings; that is, those who behave both as convivial human beings and as his fellows. And he prefers to associate and to trade with these people, rather than with top downers. Further, he knows that everyone is different. So, he strives to be tolerant of differences in received characteristics such as race, religion or nationality, and in lifestyle preferences.

The top downer, on the other hand, tends towards collectivism. He thinks that individuals should be subordinated to society (with or without a capital S). He expects people to be altruistic, and to sacrifice themselves for the sake of others. He is prone to judging people by characteristics such as their race, their received religion, their nationality or their political affiliations. He cares mainly or exclusively for those who share whichever of these characteristics are important to him. He is often intolerant of those who are different from others. And he has little time or respect for bottom up thinkers.


The bottom upper may be indifferent to politics. Or, perhaps, he may think of himself as a liberal, in the true sense of the word. That is, someone who desires the maximum freedom for everyone, consistent with being required to behave in a civil manner. Or he may think of himself as a conservative, one who is generally happy with tried and tested ways of doing things. But he doesn’t, as a rule, support the imposition of political agendas on people. And if he votes at all, he tends to do so for what he perceives as the lesser of two, or the least of several, evils. Further, the bottom upper usually has little desire for power over others. Thus he has no time for politics as it is practised today. And he may well hold politics, and those that take part in it, in contempt.

In contrast, the top downer tends to take a positive view of politics in general, and to support a political party or parties. His reasons may be ideological, selfish, or both. Many top downers are inclined to become active for their chosen Causes and agendas. They may favour ideas generally rated as on the left, for example: Socialism or communism. Egalitarianism and welfare-statism. Health fascism and social engineering. Social justice warfare. Suppression of capitalism, and perhaps rejection of property rights. Or ideas commonly seen as on the right, such as: Extreme nationalism. Racism. Religious or social conservatism. Fascism. Control of the economy by large, privileged corporations. Military interventionism. The top downer may combine such ideas with other, newer agendas like identity politics, political correctness and environmentalism.

Most top downers, even if they don’t much want personal power over others, still like to see their agendas imposed on people, particularly on those they don’t like. And those, that do have a desire to wield power, are naturally attracted to politics. As a result, the great majority of politicians today, even in democracies, are top downers. And thus, even in a democracy, we bottom uppers and our views are all but completely unrepresented.

Government, law and justice

The bottom upper generally recognizes that government can be valuable. But its remit must be strongly circumscribed. He may, for example, agree with my list of three, and only three, valid functions of government. These are: First, to maintain peace. Second, to defend the rights and freedoms of every individual among the governed. And third, to resolve disputes justly. Moreover, for the bottom upper, government must be no more than an unbiased umpire. And it must be as small as possible; no larger, or more obtrusive, than it needs to be to fulfil its remit.

The bottom upper knows also that the rule of law can be valuable, as long as the law is consistent with, and no broader than, the common ethical core of civilized behaviour. And he can agree with John Locke that: “The end of law is not to abolish or restrain, but to preserve and enlarge freedom.”

He wants justice to be objective, impartial and individual. Not only must Lady Justice’s scales weigh accurately the evidence and arguments on both sides of each case. But also, justice must fairly balance the interests and desires of each individual or group against the interests and desires of others. Thus everyone should be treated, in the round, as they treat others; and according to what they do, not who they are. And every individual should receive, as far as is feasible, what he deserves. Those that have done unjust wrongs should be made to compensate their victims. And they may also suffer criminal punishment if their acts were greedy, or malicious, or irresponsible beyond the bounds of reason.

The bottom upper also holds that government should never violate rights or freedoms unless strictly necessary in order to deliver its remit; for example, to arrest a criminal suspect to bring him to trial. And any such violations of rights must be kept to the minimum. Further, what a non-criminal individual pays for government should be in proportion to the benefit he receives from it, neither more nor less. Just as, for example, what an individual pays for home contents insurance is in proportion to the sum insured. As John Locke put it: “It is true governments cannot be supported without great charge, and it is fit everyone who enjoys his share of the protection should pay out of his estate his proportion for the maintenance of it.”

The top downer, on the other hand, likes big, active government. He wants government to take on functions like education, health care, transport and insurance, none of which have anything to do with its proper remit. He is also comfortable with the idea of a ruling class – maybe including him or his soulmates – having a right to rule over people in a particular geographical area.

In contrast to law, he favours legislation. He thinks that, just because some group of politicians agree on some putative law, that gives them a right to have their minions enforce it, irrespective of its rightness or wrongness. Moreover, he may well deny the validity of objective, individual justice. And he may promote instead fatuous ideas like social justice, environmental justice or some ill defined idea of fairness.

The top downer often sees government as a tool to achieve the ends of the particular ideology or agenda he favours. He condones arbitrary violations of rights and freedoms by governments, as long as they are done for a cause he believes in. And he not only condones, but applauds, taxation that re-distributes wealth from those who justly earn it to government itself, to its cronies, and to those it seeks to bribe in order to gain their support.


The bottom upper is not only a bottom up thinker, but a bottom up doer, too. He strives, to the best of his abilities, to be economically productive and independent. He favours the economic free market, which he sees as the best way to achieve the common good; that is, the good of every individual who is willing to put in the effort to be productive. He abhors any kind of restriction on the free market, because such restrictions stifle the abundance of opportunity which he desires for everyone. And he may well favour the culture of small companies over large ones.

In the economy, the people who actually get the jobs done, and so create wealth, are mostly bottom uppers. Some of them work with their hands or with machinery: for example, farmers, industrial workers or artisans. Others create in a more intellectual way: for example computer programmers, mathematicians and some writers. Yet others, such as doctors, do a bit of both. Even architects and accountants are often bottom uppers. Counter-intuitively, bottom uppers can also be good, if often reluctant, managers of people. This is partly because they are usually objective; and partly because they often have a natural empathy with people as individuals. They know that each individual is different, and seek to bring out the best from each of them.

In contrast, those top downers who work in the private sector tend to prefer the top down culture of large corporations. Not being natural doers, they can only succeed through other people. And so, they seek to rise in their organizations. Many of them like company politics and scheming, and aspire to be “snakes in suits” and reach the top corporate level. And some of them treat the people they manage with contempt.

Government jobs, too, attract top downers. They often like to exercise power, and to plan and regulate other people’s lives. And if their jobs are tax funded, they only have to account to higher-ups in the bureaucracy; they don’t have to account to the people who are actually paying for what they do. Another profession that attracts top downers is academe. There have long been many top downers in humanities departments at universities. And recently, they have been increasing even in the supposedly hard sciences. Such positions can bring top downers not only public respect, but also a bully pulpit from which they can peddle their agendas.


For the bottom upper, the Earth is a home and garden for the human race. The portions of the planet, which we own as individuals or groups, are ours, to be used as we see fit. And our job as a species is to make the best home and garden we can, for every human being worthy of the name. To that end, the planet’s resources, animal, vegetable, mineral and other, are there to be used wisely. They’re our bootstrap to a better world. And those that seek to prevent others making wise use of them are seeking to curtail, or even to extinguish, human civilization.

The bottom upper sees only one valid way to address environmental issues. And that is, to direct on to the matter the cold light of objective reason. To dig into the facts. To do precise, unbiased science, without any political agenda. To assess costs and benefits accurately and objectively, for everyone. And above all, to keep to the true and original precautionary principle: “First, do no harm.” Therefore it is always the responsibility of those, who want others to make changes, to prove their case beyond all reasonable doubt. And those accused of causing environmental damage should never be put in the impossible position of having to prove a negative.

In total contrast, environmental top downers like to intone mantras such as “the earth is not ours” and “sustainable development.” They make scary but unfounded accusations about, for example, humans causing catastrophic climate change, seriously polluting the air, or extinguishing species. They misuse science, and try to cover up their misuses. They endlessly repeat pre-conceived talking points that are without substance. And they call those, who disagree with them, nasty names like “deniers.”

But perhaps the most obvious failing of environmental top downers is the arrant hypocrisy of the prominent among them. Take Al Gore, who tells us we should cut our energy use, yet whose own electricity consumption is 20 or more times the average. Or Prince Charles, who demonizes carbon dioxide emissions from cars and planes, yet himself is chauffeured around in limos and goes on holiday by private plane. As Oscar Wilde asked: “And what sort of lives do these people, who pose as being moral, lead themselves?”


The bottom upper knows that he’s not perfect. He can, at times, be unpleasant towards others; particularly when they oppose him on his hot button issues. But as a rule, he tries to behave in a cordial and reasonable manner.

In contrast, top downers – particularly those whose top down views span several dimensions – often show some, or even many, of the symptoms of sociopathy or psychopathy. They may be arrogant, and think they have a right to tell other people how to behave. Their lack of respect for truth may lead them to lie or mislead. Their lack of a strong moral sense may lead them to be insincere, selfish and manipulative, unscrupulous or dishonest. Their lack of concern for the individual can lead them to fail to show empathy or sensitivity towards other people, and even to treat people ruthlessly and without remorse. It can also lead them to behave recklessly; especially when other people, not them, will be expected to bear the consequences of their actions. They may be parasites, and live off others without delivering anything worthwhile in return; most of all, when their jobs are tax funded. And their lack of a sense of personal responsibility can lead them to try to deny wrongdoing, and to evade accountability for their actions.

It’s no coincidence, I think, that high ranking corporate officials include a greater proportion of sociopaths than the population as a whole. Nor that the meme “politicians are psychopaths” has acquired the traction it has. And here’s the reason: they’re both top downers.


The bottom upper strives to be honest in how he communicates with others. He tries to tell the truth, to the best of his knowledge and belief. He tries to be polite, even if he doesn’t always succeed. He generally respects others’ freedom of speech, and their right to differ from his ideas. When he disagrees, he does his best to respond with logic and reason. If he has to go on the attack, he attacks the message, not the messenger. And, once convinced that he has made an error, he is willing to accept the fact, and move on.

The top downer, on the other hand, likes to parrot the party line, without regard for its truth. This explains why, as Terry Pratchett pithily put it: “A lie can run round the world before the truth has got its boots on.” For it’s much easier and quicker to parrot a lie than to separate out truth from untruth. Moreover, the top downer often repeats the same dubious arguments again and again in slightly different guises. When he is wrong, he almost never accepts it. He projects his own failings on to others, for example by calling his opponents “deniers” when he is the one denying the truth. If he can’t shoot down the message, he will try to shoot the messenger instead. When he fails to get his message across, he will often shout louder. And if all else fails, he will try to shut down the freedom of speech of those who argue against him.

Education and media

Young children start their lives thinking bottom up. Until they have acquired language, they have no other way of making sense of the world. And they have a natural curiosity and a desire to learn. Some retain this curiosity throughout their lives; others, unfortunately, lose it.

The bottom upper sees education as a process of nurturing this natural curiosity. For him, education should do exactly what the word “educate” means; it should lead out the human being from the child. It should teach him to think for himself. It should teach him how to learn, and thus give him the tools to teach himself. And it should encourage him to seek information, in whatever media it is available. To evaluate it, and make judgements on it. And to reject, or at least to try to subtract out the biases from, “information” which is politically charged, or doesn’t measure up to his standards of accuracy and honesty.

In contrast, the top downer sees education as, at best, preparing an individual for life in a particular culture. But more often, in the hands of top downers education becomes a process of indoctrination, to turn the child away from his natural bottom up mode and make him into a top down thinker. And this may even turn him in later life into a peddler of top down thinking. Moreover, top downers tend to see the media, not as the source of reliable information it ought to be, but as a means of influencing and even controlling people’s thinking right through their lives. And some of them learn how to make use of the media to spread their own top down messages; including messages that are politically charged, lies, propaganda and so called fake news.

The great divide

It’s plain that, in every one of the dimensions I’ve looked at here, there’s a big divide between bottom uppers and top downers. But different people often think in different ways in different dimensions. Many academics, for example, can think bottom up within their specialities, but when it comes to politics and government, they think top down. I see a need, therefore, for an overall measure of bottom up versus top down. An approach such as rating each dimension separately, then adding up the ratings and dividing by the number of dimensions, is probably over-simple. But however the measuring is done, it’s plain that there’s still a big, big divide.

We are living in a time when virtually every powerful institution in the world is run by top downers. For example: big governments, big corporations, the EU and the UN, big media, and much of academe. They are run, not by the people for the people, but by top downers for top downers; or even by sociopaths for sociopaths.

In this system, we bottom uppers don’t get a look in. Even though we are the honest, productive people of the world; we are the people who build, and who sustain, our human civilization. And it’s worse. Our rights and freedoms, our livelihoods, our lifestyles and ultimately our lives, are under ever increasing pressure from the top downers and their political agendas. This situation is not, to use a top downer word, a sustainable one.

I wonder what will happen when the penny finally drops? When bottom uppers, en masse, come to understand what is being done to them? When the good people at last realize that the top downers are not only unworthy of all respect, but are the worst scum on the planet?

I can only speculate.

Monday, 9 October 2017

Dysfunctional democracy

The dysfunctional nature of the current political system – and, in particular, of democracy – has been thrown into sharp relief by recent events in Catalonia. In this brief essay, I’ll try to diagnose the problem, and to give a broad outline of a possible solution.

The Catalan situation

Here’s the background, as far as I can make it out. A desire for Catalan independence from Spain has been simmering since the 1920s. The Catalans were on the losing (Republican) side in the 1936-9 civil war. They and their culture were suppressed during the Franco years. After Franco’s death, they joined the new, democratic Spain as an autonomous region. But many Catalans, particularly on the political left, still wanted national independence; and this desire has grown over the decades. In 2006, matters came to a head when the Catalan parliament issued a new “statute of autonomy” for Catalonia, which was then overruled and modified by the Spanish parliament in Madrid.

The People’s Party, a right wing Spanish party which has been in power since 2011, but back in 2006 was in opposition, challenged the statute further in the Spanish constitutional court. When the court gave its verdict in 2010, it declared several of the articles in the already weakened statute to be unconstitutional. The results? More than a million people marched in protest in Barcelona. A series of symbolic referendums on independence were held in various parts of Catalonia. In 2014, a full referendum on independence was planned by the Catalans. The Spanish government tried to block the poll, but the Catalans went ahead with it anyway. It resulted in an overwhelming vote for independence, but a low turn-out. It seems that most of those opposed to independence boycotted the poll.

And so to 1st October 2017, the date set by the Catalan parliament for a binding referendum on independence, with a single simple question to be answered Yes or No: “Do you want Catalonia to become an independent state in the form of a republic?” The Spanish government, having already declared the referendum to be illegal, sent thousands of Spanish police to Catalonia. On the day, they raided polling stations, and used strong-arm tactics in an attempt to stop the poll. Several hundred people, along with some police, were injured in these raids.

But these police tactics didn’t manage to stop the poll. As in 2014, there was a big majority in favour of independence, but a low turn-out. It looks as if, again, most potential No voters stayed home; and it’s easy to understand why. During the following week, there were demonstrations in Barcelona both for and against independence. The consensus among pollsters seems to be that the population of Catalonia as a whole is split roughly down the middle on the issue.

My reaction is sympathy for those Catalans who want independence. For, other things being equal, a smaller political unit is more likely to deliver better and more responsive government to its people than a larger one. And the larger the number and the smaller the size of the political units in an area, the easier it is for people who find themselves oppressed in one place to find another place more congenial to them. People in the USA have known this for decades; if you don’t like California, you can move to Nevada or Texas.

But my sympathy for the Catalan separatists has been bolstered by recent events. For first, people have been subjected to strong-arm tactics for doing no more than expressing their views on the subject. And second, the Spanish government has acted, for many years now, in a high-handed way that is totally dismissive of the Catalans and their aspirations. While claiming that Spain is a democratic country, they have treated, and are continuing to treat, the Catalans in an undemocratic manner.

The problem

The way the current Spanish political system is, there’s no possibility of compromise on this issue. Catalan independence (or not) is an all or nothing decision, and whichever way it eventually goes, the losers will be angry. And even more so if there is evidence of bad faith in the matter by some of those concerned, such as the Spanish government.

It seems to me to be a major failing of democracy that it puts people into these all-or-nothing, polarizing situations. And the results can often be decided by a very slim margin. Last year’s Brexit vote in the UK, and Donald Trump’s election as US president, are examples. In both cases, the losers were (and still are) fuming and scheming. Yet, at least, people did get some kind of say in those decisions. Whereas the Catalan separatists are being denied a voice entirely. (Of course, I should add, Brexit isn’t done and dusted yet. And it may yet be that it’s those of us who voted Leave who will have reason to end up very, very angry).

Actually, democracy is often even worse than that. Political parties set out their stalls and their agendas, to tempt those they think are likely to vote for them. And when they get power, they seek to implement these agendas good and hard. Usually, they also do lots of other bad things they didn’t tell us about. Democracy has, in effect, transmuted the out of date doctrine of the “divine right of kings to rule” into a right of politicians and political parties to force their agendas on to people who don’t want them.

Where parties differ on policies, this often leads to a see-saw effect, with alternating periods of good and bad for the supporters of one party, or bad and good for everyone else. This leads to polarization of views among different groups of people. But where the parties agree on issues, it’s worse yet. When all the main parties support the same bad policies, such as heavy taxation or the green agenda, then everyone is subjected to them, and the people have no come-back. That can only lead to the people and the political class becoming polarized against each other. Thus any country, that uses “democracy” in its current form, will become more and more divided, and in the end is likely either to fall apart, or to descend into civil war or tyranny.

The solution

How to deal with these problems? I’m certainly not going to put forward monarchy or oligarchy as a solution. The EU and the UN have been steps in completely the wrong direction; they should be abolished. Fiddling with democracy within nations – proportional representation, and the like – doesn’t seem to address the real problems. Nor, I think, does anarchism offer any way forward.

But I think there’s a way out of the trap we’re all in. What we need to do is de-politicize government. We need to get rid of Big Politics and its agendas, and simply let people pick their friends and run their own lives in their own ways. We need to make a world of live and let live.

How could we do this? Well, part of the solution must be smaller governmental units. That’s why Brexit and Catalan independence are important. But they are only the first steps on the road. Devolving power to smaller and smaller units, like Swiss cantons or even individual towns and villages, is a necessary part of the fix. I think it may also have a side benefit of preventing concentration of military power, and so lowering the likelihood of warlike aggressions.

The other part of the solution is more radical. We need a way of deciding conflicts between individuals and groups from different jurisdictions. We need something which can function between individuals and groups as international law is supposed to between nations.

What can fulfil this function, I think, is a generally understood and agreed code which people should follow in their interactions with people and groups outside the particular societies they belong to. I call this the “convivial code.” (“Convivial” means “living together.” In my use of this word, I follow the Belgian philosopher Frank van Dun.)

The convivial code, I think, will be simple and fairly brief. Here’s my shot at an outline of it. First, it will require each of us to respect the rights and freedoms of all those who themselves respect others’ rights and freedoms. Including such rights as life, security of person, property and privacy, and freedoms such as those of religion, thought and opinion, association and movement. Second, it will aim to provide objective justice for all, which I see as the condition in which no-one is treated, over the long run and in the round, worse than he or she treats others. Third, it will place on each of us a responsibility to compensate anyone to whom we do objective harm, if they ask for it. Fourth, it will require each of us to do all we can to fulfil our side of contracts we voluntarily enter into, as long as the other parties do the same. And fifth, if we choose to have children, it will require us to bring them up and educate them until they are able to function as adult human beings and to behave
according to the convivial code.

I envisage that, within limits, societies will be able to add to or vary the convivial code for the conduct of their members, as they see fit. Thus socialists or anarchists who don’t accept the idea of private property, for example, will be able to impose communal ownership of property within their communes. But the convivial code won’t allow them to do what socialist politicians do today, and forcibly take away the earnings of those who don’t want to be in a socialist commune.

In the long run, I think we can reach a position where all government is decentralized and local. Governments will continue to use the forms of law of their particular countries or regions. Societies of all kinds – including local communities, religious societies and businesses – will be able to legislate their own rules for members. And these may, and in many cases will, include some form of democracy, or voting to select the society’s leaders or the policies that the society will follow.

But all interactions between societies or their members, and people or groups outside, will be governed everywhere by the convivial code alone. It will not be allowed for any group to impose their agenda on anyone else; for such an imposition violates the convivial code. Thus, no-one will be forced to live under any political or religious ideology they don’t like. And any conduct which violates the convivial code – for example, the recent actions of Spanish police and politicians over Catalonia – will be judged by an apolitical and unbiased court, and compensation ordered or criminal punishment meted out as may prove appropriate.

In such a world, the Catalans would not have to decide between being politically independent and being part of Spain. Those who feel a strong Catalan identity could join the Catalan Society. And those who prefer strong contacts with those in other parts of Spain could join the Spanish Friendship Society. (Some might even join both!) Neither group would need to give up their identity or their preferences for the sake of the other. And both would behave towards each other in a convivial manner, not a political one.

A radical idea? Yes. A na├»ve idea? Maybe. A workable idea? I very much hope so. A popular idea? That’s up to you.