How to vote if you don’t know about politics

Lots of people “don’t know about politics”. Do you not have the time to learn about all the parties and policies? Do you find learning about all the ever-shifting arguments difficult? Do you just not care about politics? If any of these sound like you I have 5 quick and easy steps for you.

  1. When is the election?
  2. Register
  3. Change or continuity?
  4. Who to vote for
  5. Cast the ballot

You don’t need work out if inflation is a danger to the economy. You don’t need to work out what wars your nation should fight. You don’t need to deal with issues of migration and identity in a globalised world. Your voice can be heard all the same.

1: When is the election?

Google “next elections in <name of country, state, region, province etc where you live>”.  You’re looking for two things: The date of the election and what kind it is. Once you’ve done that find out when the last election was of this kind, and what the result was.

2: Register

Most countries need you to register in advance in order to vote. Luckily most of them have a website. Google “register to vote in <name of country, state, region, province etc where you live>”, go to the official website and follow the steps. You should only have to do this once which is good.

3: Change or continuity?

There’s one big question to ask: Are you better off now than you were last election?

Remember what kind of election it is: it might be just regional or local, it might be for the whole country. It might be an election for the city dog-catcher. Whatever the topic is, think: are things better now than they were last election. Am I better off, have the things that were wrong then been fixed, or have new things gone wrong?

4: Work out who to vote for

If things are better now then you want to vote for the incumbent. Find the name of the person or party who won last time and cast your vote for that person or party next time.

If things are worse now then you want to vote for the opposition. Find the name of the person or party who came closest to winning last time but who lost and vote for that person or party last time.

5: Cast the ballot

By election day you should be told where to vote. When you’re there ask one of the people on duty to explain how to vote if you’re not sure. (If you’re in the US this will be needlessly complicated and may change from election to election, so make sure you ask). Don’t tell them *who* you voted for.

Done! Well done for improving the government of your country. If others vote like you then bad governments will be voted out, and good ones will stay in.

The Federalist Papers

AN this was originally a speech given to a British sixth form group, slightly edited to make it less extemporaneous. I’ve added a second post which I hope will be more controversial.

The Federalist Papers are a user manual to the US constitution, they explain clearly what the true intent of the founding fathers was. They are an unimpeachable guide to the kinds of policies that should govern any nation. And they are a valuable guide to how we should interpret American law today. If we want to improve America and fix the political problems there we should read the Federalist Papers before anything else.

That entire paragraph was a lie, (even the name, they’re technically just “The Federalist”). In reality they are a series of 85 letters written under the pseudonym “Publius” and published in various New York newspapers from 1787-8. Its three authors were John Jay (President of the Continental Congress), James Madison (the 4th President), and Alexander Hamilton (1st Secretary of the Treasury, who is inexplicably the subject of a rap musical that just recently opened). They are utterly partisan, and without reading their opponents they are worse than useless, because they pretend to far more certainty than they ought.

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It’s a question of hats

You can get an impression of how the British constitution works by considering this image and asking who is in it. See, it’s all a question of hats.

775px-queen_elizabeth_ii_march_2015

Not just the physical hat, though that is fabulous. But rather the different legally distinct persons who are in that image.

First one is obvious. This is a photo of Elizabeth Alexandra Mary of the House of Windsor, called “Lilibet” by her friends. She has personal property that she can dispose of however she wants, she has opinions all of her own, that kind of thing.

Now you’re going to say “ok, so she’s the Queen too, and that distinction is important right?” Oh my sweet summer child, nothing so simple. There are three Queens.

The first Queen is the Queen in Council, who is a legal person who governs the UK. The decisions that the Queen in Council makes involve telling policemen what to do, spending money on things, declaring war on people etc. The Queen in Council has ultimate authority to do anything she wants. Of course the Queen in Council by definition can’t make any decision that the Privy Council doesn’t approve of, and the Privy Council won’t approve of anything that the Government doesn’t approve of, and the Government won’t approve of anything that the Cabinet doesn’t approve of, so in practice the Queen-in-Council thinks whatever the Prime Minister thinks.

The second Queen is the Queen in Parliament, who is a different legal person who make legislation in the UK. The Queen in Parliament enacts things called Acts that form most of our laws. Importantly the Queen in Parliament decides on taxes, not the Queen in Council (who spends them). So it sometimes happens that the Queen in Parliament disagrees with the Queen in Council. This is perfectly normal so long as you remember what hat you’re wearing. Of course by definition the Queen in Parliament can’t think something unless either both the Lords and Commons agree to it, or the Parliament Act applies.

The third Queen is the Queen on the Bench, who is another legal person who judges disputes. This person often disagrees with the decisions of the Queen in Council and declares them illegal. It also interprets parts of Acts made by the Queen in Parliament to make them more consistent with common law, the EU, and the Human Rights Act. The Queen took a solemn oath at her coronation (which is not when she became the Queen) to uphold the laws and customs of the land. The Queen on the Bench decides what the ancient customs are, and how to strike the balance between then and the decisions of the other two Queens. Of course it’s different in scotland.

After these three Queens we have to add in another person. The Crown. The Crown isn’t the crown, that’s just a physical manifestation of it. The Crown is the legal person which holds all the things that pass from one monarch to the next. The Crown for instance owns lots of land. Now it may be that the Queen (all three of her) decides she wants to sell off all of this land. But she might not be allowed to do so. The Crown has legitimate interests of its own, and the Queen isn’t allowed to go against those interests. So the Queen can’t give away some land to her mates, that would go against the interests of her heirs, that is, of the Crown.

The Queen in Council has practical day-to-day power, but the Queen in Parliament remains in control, because the Queen in Parliament can and does demand the resignation of the ministers who tell the Queen in Council what to think. With the exception of Cromwell, no serious rebel in English history has ever been openly opposed to the Crown. The rebels simply note that the monarch has been misled by evil councilors who are tricking the monarch into doing things that are not in the best interests of the Crown.

In this photo we also see the Supreme Governor of the Church of England and Defender of the Faith. This person has absolute and unlimited power over the Church of England. However the Queen took a solemn vow at her coronation to uphold the ancient rights of the Church, and to govern them according to their own decisions and the law. These two things contradict. The Synod (legislature of the Church) can pass Canons and send them directly to the Queen to approve. But the Queen in the Bench may well decide that they are against the law. So more commonly the Synod writes measures that are approved by the Queen in Parliament, these change the law, and so then Cannons can be passed more safely.

So, one private person, three Queens, one Crown, and one Supreme Governor. We’re done right? Nope. Not by a long shot. Remember she’s also Queen of a dozen other places. And in each one she is three Queens and one Crown. But surely it’s the same three Queen and one Crown right? Nope. The Crown of Australia happens to be held by the same person as the Crown of Jamaca always, but they are legally distinct and can disagree with eachother. The Queen-in-Parliament of Canada has very different views to the Queen-in-Parliament of Tuvalu. It would be perfectly possible, if a bit awkward, for the Queen-in-Council of Australia to declare war on the Queen-in-Council of Barbados.

Remember when she took her Coronation Oath the Queen promised to rule all her different kingdoms according to their respective laws and customs. There are things that the Queen can do in Canada which she cannot do in Scotland, and vice versa, because they have different ancient customs and laws. And this means some things do and don’t apply in some places. The Queen isn’t the Supreme Governor of the Church of Scotland, though she is a member of it and attends their services. The fact that the Supreme Governor of the Church of England thinks such services no part of the one true faith shouldn’t be surprising.

Of course, empire made the whole thing crazy. The Queen of New Zeeland isn’t just the Queen of New Zeeland, she’s also in the same legal person the monarch of the Cook Islands and of Niue, in spite of there being different parliaments, councils of ministers, and judiciaries in all three places. The Queen has a dozen other small titles, Lord of Mann, and Duke of Normandy as the obvious examples that sometimes reflect distinct legal persons and sometimes not. At present the picture also includes the Head of the Commonwealth, it is assumed the next King will hold that title too, but he won’t hold is automatically of his own right, rather he will be granted it by the commonwealth countries collectively. Elizabeth is neither Queen nor Empress of India, but is Head of the Commonwealth there.

Before anyone complains, I know, I’ve vastly oversimplified here, and the conventions around these different persons and how they interact with eachother and with their respective advisors.

A possible constitution

The English/British/UK Parliament is a thing of wonder. For more than half a millennium it has defended the Liberties of the English/British. The current UK constitution has four roles for Parliament, and three for the Cabinet.

  • Parliament:
    • Drafts legislation in detail
    • Consents to legislation
    • Consents to taxes
    • Has confidence in the Cabinet
  • Cabinet:
    • Raises taxes
    • Proposes a legislative programme
    • Enacts everything

It has the feature that the people at large are consulted every 5 years. It has the feature that between elections the government is mostly stable and generally is free to act. It has the feature that the actions of the executive are questioned regularly by those who have the power to fire them in very short order. Here’s a possible alternative to it, which might be instructive to think about:
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Effective Aestheticism

Hello, and welcome to the founding post of the Effective Aestheticism movement.

Effective Aestheticism is a philosophy and social movement that applies evidence and reason to determine the most effective ways to improve the beauty of the world. Effective Aestheticism is based on a very simple idea: we should make the world as beautiful as we can.

Obeying the usual rules about not defacing art, having orange wallpaper, or defecating in the street is not enough, or at least not enough for those of us who have the good fortune to live in material comfort, who can feed, house, and clothe ourselves and our families and still have money or time to spare.

warm glow aesthetes

Psychologists have noticed many people spend small amounts of money on many different kinds of art. These “warm glow aesthetes” aren’t motivated by true beauty, but simply enjoy the feeling of buying art. They normally don’t spend very long investigating different options in depth, rather they tend to buy things as they find them.

Effective Aestheticists are different. Effective Aetheticists will feel the pull of a pretty vase made by their own nation, region, or ethnic group but will then ask themselves if that is truly the most beautiful thing. They know that a masterpiece is better than a pretty vase and that three masterpieces are better than one. So they don’t just grab whatever piece jumps out at them. They want to find the artworks that will produce the most beauty, given the abilities, time, and money they have.

kalonitarianism

Many, (though far from all), Effective Aestheticists are kalonitarians. They believe that the beauty of the whole world is found by quantifying the beauty of each of the things in the world, and then aggregating these numbers. Against those who think that one must never personally do anything ugly, they argue that creating ugly things can sometimes be justified for the sake of producing a greater number of beautiful things.

For example a kalonitarian might be willing to burn a portrait of her late mother if it were necessary to bring five similar portraits of other people into existence. A kalonitarian would applaud someone with moderate talents who became a choreographer. But might applaud that person even more if she instead became a stockbroker and used her greater wealth to found a dance school.

When we study art in great depth we find that for the same cost, some schools of art produce artwork that is ten or even a hundred times more beautiful. Effective Aestheticists spend a lot of time finding these exceptional schools and giving them as much money as they can afford to give. In pure numerical terms this is often far more effective than producing art yourself, or even focusing on flashy but inefficient things like conserving the Mona Lisa.

Conclusion

I’m going to conclude by telling you about an email that I received while I was writing this post. The email began, “Last Tuesday, I underwent cosmetic surgery to replace all of my old face with something far more beautiful”. There’s about 100 people each year in the U.S. and more in other countries who do that. I was pleased to read it. Chris went on to say that he’d been influenced by my writings in what he did.

Well, I have to admit, I’m also somewhat embarrassed by that, because I still have my original face. But Chris went on to say that he didn’t think that what he’d done was all that amazing, because he calculated that the amount of beauty that he had added to people who look at him over his life, was about the same that you could achieve if you gave 5,000 dollars to the London School of Fine Arts. And that did make me feel a little bit better, because I have given more than 5,000 dollars to the London School of Fine Arts and to various other effective art schools.

So if you’re feeling bad because you still have your old face as well, there’s a way for you to get off the hook.

Ok, so obviously this is a joke. And apologies to Peter Singer for gross copyright abuse. But there’s a serious point here about how the Effective Altruist movement deals with its own perception of how reasonable it is.

Other than “it’s offensive that you’d compare EA to this”, exactly what is wrong with the effective Aestheticism movement? I expect that thinking about this will help explain exactly what common sense ethics feels like from the inside.

So, what’s my reaction to Effective Aestheticism?

Well my first is that I don’t care much about beauty. Well that’s not true, you’d need to be soulless to not care. But I care a limited amount.

One pattern I see over and over is some EA explaining that by doing XYZ you can make vastly less suffering in the world, and some normal human saying “that’s very nice, but I’m not sure I’m interested in that very much”, and the EA being incredulous.

Suppose someone told you (with all kinds of graphs and studies to back it up), that if we all gave 10% of our income to some project we could make the world ten times more beautiful than it is now (in a way that had no implications for the suffering/happiness of sentient creatures).  Would you care? How about twenty times? How about a million times? I mean, it’d be nice if that happened magically, but I’m not super excited to do it myself.

The second is even just in terms of making the world more beautiful. I’m far from convinced Effective Aestheticism is going about it in a sensible way. A world where we pursue the most beauty per dollar spent is a world that fails to be beautiful in an important sense of the word.

Now of course a sophisticated kalonitarian has decades of complex philosophy adding in huge caveats to this and adding in lots of very convincing justification. But I’ve never seen it. Ultimately aesthetics is just a matter of personal preference anyway, so I’m going to ignore those philosophers as not interesting. Obviously there aren’t matters of fact about what kinds of tastes are correct or incorrect. Some things are obvious (The Last Supper is beautiful, Piss Christ is not), but after that it’s up to us all to decide for ourselves.

And note that I still think this even if there is a science of aesthetics. Suppose someone who has spent decades studying art and who is backed up by centuries of academic study comes into your house, points at a picture on the wall and says (utterly unsolicited) that for the same price you could have got something twice as good. Suppose they are correct, and that you would, on reflection, agree with their assessment. How do you react?

If you defer to their domain expertise and find this advice helpful and appropriate then I don’t understand how your brain works. Anyone who does that is an asshole, and being correct isn’t justification.

But what about ethics?

I don’t actually think Effective Altruism and Effective Aestheticism are the same. I think Effective Altruism is better, more important, has a better foundation in the world around us. But I don’t think it’s actually as deep-in-my-bones-common-sense obvious as most people in the EA movement think it is.

I don’t think EA needs to lie or dumb itself down to respond to this problem. Nor do I want to suggest EA is incorrect about anything it asserts. I wouldn’t expect people to care less about doing good just because it’s not obvious to others. I simply want to point out that acting as though it’s obvious and intuitive you’re correct about this topic is not a good way to interact with normal humans.

Greece, the EU, and civilisation

That’s the good thing about Europe. It doesn’t matter if we lose a country, lots more where that came from.

I’ve been reading Guns, Germs, and Steel recently after apparently independently inventing one of its conclusions. Jared Diamond argues the whole thesis far better than I could, but he doesn’t flesh out this particular sub-idea much, so I thought I might.

Right now Greece is exploding. They’ve just elected a government that borders on the delusional, they have impossible debts, they are likely to soon fall to either an EU backed civilian coup or to a psudo civil war. In sort, things right now are not great. It’s likely the Greeks will be poor for a long time.

Countries explode every now and again, it’s inevitable in any large complex system which can fail. And you hardly have to cast your mind to find examples. France in 1793, Russia in 1917, prohibition era USA, the Cultural Revolution in China. And that’s only focusing on recent history, we can think of the Crisis of the Third Century in Roman history or the An Lushan Rebellion in Chinese. What matters in civilisations is not preventing such things (that implies rather unpleasant amounts of stasis) but in dealing with it gracefully when one of the states that make up your civilisation explodes.

That is one of the great defining features of Europe over the last few millennia. You can’t destroy all of European civilisation in one explosion. Napoleon and Hitler were terrible for the lands they conquered, but Europe survived easily. Even the Romans couldn’t unite  Europe enough for their loss to be devastating. When the Western Empire fell the East was still there, still flourishing. When the East finally fell to the Turks Italy was there happy to take up its bounty of books and skills.

Compare this to China, where their entire civilisation was overhauled by Mao’s insanity. Taiwan is an outpost of the old China, but one that was too small and weak to rekindle the old civilisation when the Great Leap Forward had devastated so much.

Had a Greek Mao arisen he would no doubt have destroyed Greece in just as effective a way as he destroyed China. But not the whole of Europe. The Scots would have survived. The Greeks who flead to the safety of Finland would have kept old Greek literature and customs alive. That would have made starting the old country up again after the explosion much more easy.

This is one of the big problems I have with projects like the federal US and the EU. Yes you can get much much more done like that. But you’re making the outcomes in far flung places correlate with each other. Which means the chance of a disaster happening to all of them at once slowly creeps up.

If the Greeks blow their economy up that’s sad for them, but the thousands of expats all over Europe can return and restore something like the old country afterwards. If the EU blows up its economy you’re suddenly reliant on the Swiss to get your whole continent out of trouble. And not even Swiss banks have that much gold.

By making the EU act as insurance against the failure of nation states you make it more likely that any given state will survive, but also more likely that all Europe will go up in flames. And I don’t think that’s a trade worth making.