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Apples, Oranges and Radical Ideas

Jun 22, 2018

Listen to Episode 8: Renewable Energy

Now, there are some big forces at play in our world. Certainly, one of the biggest is our changing environment – which might be better described as, our changing habitat. Not just global warming, but environmental degradation, overstretched and underprotected natural resources, the shifting geopolitics and, frankly, geography, of energy extraction. We may discover in the hindsight of a century from now that all of our seemingly isolated smaller problems, whether we’re talking terrorism, suicide rates, economic or ethnic nationalism, distrust in politicians and the media, even a distorted sense of self – all of these may in fact be connected to our radically shifting habitat.

When we look back at ancient civilizations in today’s Mexico, Peru, Iraq, China and India, we can clearly see the root causes that led to civilizational collapse. Jared Diamond’s work in Guns, Germs and Steel as well as Collapse makes it clear that, when past societies imploded, there was almost always environmental factors right at the centre. Cut down too many trees, strain the rivers and lakes, over-cultivate the soil – our environment can’t put up with us forever, and eventually we outrun ourselves.

For for the first time in our history we have the ability to look back and assess, without superstition, the shipwrecks of our past, and modify our behaviour accordingly. But in our politics we don’t seem to be able to act long-term and tackle these existential threats directly, boldly and definitively. In typical democracies, elections occur every few years, which forces politicians to act in the short-term interest even if they can see the long. Voters, likewise, favour concrete, tangible action. Cut taxes. Increase services. Reduce crime. Build hospitals. Who wants to vote for a plan that will lead to all of these things, but 20 years down the line? Shouldn’t it be simpler than that?

More troublingly, people have lost trust and faith in the system. Maybe it’s because most people never had to fight for it, in war or through a depression. Perhaps also, liberal democracies have become overly managerial and technocratic – in other words, all the big structural and moral decisions have already been made, so by the time you sit in the ballot box, your options feel rather dull. It is apple versus apple versus apple, with various shadings of red – distinctions without difference. Politicians find themselves trying to make a feast out of a morsel, fighting over marginal tax rates and pension alterations and health care budgets. These issues are important, absolutely, as anyone who works in government or policy or that particular special interest will tell you. But for someone who doesn’t want to spend their time knee-deep in policy muck? They’re just plain boring. Is it any wonder that when an orange is thrown in with the apples, people get excited? Even if they know the orange is off-colour and rancid and full of mould – maybe they’d rather pick the orange rather than see another apple ever again? 

This is a poor summation of what is happening with our democracy. Many thinkers call it the crisis of liberalism. They have written all kinds of articles and books in earnest since Brexit and Trump demonstrated in 2016 that liberal democracy is not an inevitable end point of history, or in some terminal, abstract decline, but rather that it is ripe for a fall. It’s ironic, because those who now rush to defend the rules-based world order of individual rights, free-market capitalism with a pinch of government, untampered elections, a healthy press and the belief in human progress often call themselves liberals or progressives, but by definition they are conservative. They want to conserve what we already have.

Whatever label we use, not all defenders want to go back to the way things were before an amoral PR mogul became the US president. Many propose some radical changes to the way we govern our societies, not only in response to the threat of a tyrant or a demagogue or just an ignoramus taking over – but in response to the long-term civilizational issues, like climate change, that we all know we must face. Some of these ideas seem evil (for example, put multinational corporations in charge to maximize profit), some are old-fashioned (say, abolish the concept of property), some are capricious (take away the vote from those people who can’t prove they know what they’re talking about – or give those who can, more votes), some are proven recipes for disaster (let the army run things), and some are so crazy that they just might work (abolish parliaments and turn a constitution into an algorithm).

Not all ideas are nuts or immoral or pie-in-the-sky, though all of them sound radical at first. Here are a few, from a recent book called Radical Markets: Uprooting Capitalism and Democracy for a Just Society by Eric Posner and E. Glen Weyl. At core, Posner and Weyl want the very idea of markets to go beyond making money, to serve society as a whole. They propose a wealth tax, in which everyone must place a value on every single thing they own. Your car, your blender, your dog’s ashes – everything. You will be taxed on your overall wealth, whatever it is you declare. The catch: you must be ready to sell anything at the value you gave to it. Want to lower your taxes by saying your Porsche is worth only $500? You must be prepared to sell your Porsche to the first person willing to pay $500.

The idea here is that all property is put to its best use, while raising revenue efficiently. And that’s not all. Another idea in the book is to rethink how we vote. Get rid of one person, one vote. Instead, everyone gets an equal amount of credits, which in turn can buy votes on particular issues. Say you get 100 credits. Do you feel really passionate about stopping people from spreading dog ashes in parks? You can spend all your credits on that. Or you can spread it around. The more you spend on one thing, the more it costs you to spend more on that one thing. In other words, your first vote would cost one credit, but your second on that same thing would be four, and your third nine. This, in theory, would allow minorities to fight back against majorities that are impinging on their rights – people who care more on one issue will vote more on that one issue. In practice, you get more votes for caring about more things. 

Of course, these ideas are outlandish and would lead to unintended consequences. But the authors aren’t proposing them because they think they are the only way, or even the right way. They want to jumpstart the conversation about how we govern ourselves and structure our society. They want to bring back the big questions. If we agree that this is not working, then it might be better if we think through our next steps rather than just let things happen. Better to come up with ideas about our predicament than just shrug about the unfairness and go onto our next distraction. For, who knows what will join the basket of apples and oranges next time around if we simply leave our political evolution to its own devices.