Sunday, September 21, 2008

Dull or inconsistent?

Harry Barnes has responded to my earlier post in which I, as he puts it, accused him of intellectual inconsistency. He says he isn't inconsistent because he'd like to achieve his goals by democratic means.

I replied, in the comments of his post, as follows:

Thanks for responding.

It depends what you understand totalitarianism to be. Here are three mainstream definitions:

Wikipedia: "Totalitarianism is a term employed by some political scientists, especially those in the field of comparative politics, to describe modern regimes in which the state regulates nearly every aspect of public and private behavior."

Webster's: " 1 : centralized control by an autocratic authority 2 : the political concept that the citizen should be totally subject to an absolute state authority "

Encarta: "Totalitarianism, in political science, system of government and ideology in which all social, political, economic, intellectual, cultural, and spiritual activities are subordinated to the purposes of the rulers of a state."

Your first two proposals fit these definitions, I'm afraid. You lay claim to control of the totality of my being, especially with respect to the transport proposal. It makes no difference that you say you want to achieve totalitarianism by democratic means.

I've noticed in discussions with some on the left that they associate totalitarianism with violence. That association has happened but it's not intrinsic to totalitarianism - it's more that totalitarianism, democratic or not, winds up needing it to function - and repression occurs in regimes that are not totalitarian, such as authoritarian ones.

I'm sorry, you are inconsistent.
I think this debate boils down to little more than this: some totalitarians dislike being called totalitarian. That's too bad.

UPDATE: Also see The Thunderdragon and Matt Wardman.


Anonymous said...

If it looks like a duck, quacks like a duck, etc, etc...

Harry Barnes said...

Democracy requires regular elections, checks and balances and civil liberties. It also needs to encourage individuals to formulate and express their own ideas (subject only to the limited type of qualifications mentioned by writers such as John Stuart Mill). When people persistently question ideas and have access to life-long learning, then they are able to get the most out of democratic procedures.

Normblog merely offered me a position in which (in theory) I was able to put an idea at the forefront of political debate and (given my other answers) democratic decision making. I offered the notion that (in general) we should democratically agree to replace public transport with private transport. Public transport is for the individuals who make up a society and it can be shaped (democratically) to meet their needs - like my current use of my Gold Card. Furthermore even if my position was democratically adopted, it would not prevent others from seeking to get people to change their minds on the issue.

You might think that my proposal is impractical and counter-productive. But it is not LOGICALLY at variance with my commitment to democracy and my opposition to totalitarianism.

I understand the concept of "totalitarianism". It goes beyond the operation of what were once fairly traditional forms of dictatorial power, into a seeking to control the thoughts and practices of individuals so they fit in with the norms, values and creed of those controlling a society. It is something I have a record of being absolutely opposed to.

Peter Risdon said...

In my opinion, the past couple of decades (I include some of the Conservatives actions) have demonstrated that democracies can see erosions of civil liberties and of the checks and balances needed to avoid an excessive concentration of power in the executive.

Democracy isn't, to me, a mechanism whereby a large voting bloc - it doesn't have to be a majority or even the largest bloc, under our current system - gets to impose its will, whatever that might be, on everybody else. It's instead a means whereby we get the least bad genearl agreement on how things like sewers and roads should be maintained.

No government has any right to tell anyone what to say or think. Ours does. I note this forms a part of your definition of totalitarianism.

But I do not suggest your Normblog responses constituted an entire definition of totalitarianism. They didn't. I do suggest they contain elements of totalitarianism and are therefore inconsistent with your third quoted response.

"We" are not entitled to "democratically agree to replace public transport with private transport" (did you mean this the other way round?) because "we" are not entitled to tell other people how they should travel. If we try to do so, then we would be "seeking to control the thoughts and practices of individuals so they fit in with the norms, values and creed of those controlling a society".

I'm afraid I cannot so far see any reason to modify my original assertion.

Harry Barnes said...

Peter Risdon : Yes, sorry. I meant "democratically agree to replace private transport with public transport".

I fully accept that democracy is much more than majority rule and that forms of majority rule can come to operate in ways which are entirely undemocratic - as was the case with Hitler's rise to power.

You have, however, already conceded my case. For you now claim that the response I made to Normblog on transport merely contained "elements of totalitarianism". What you are now seemingly claiming is that the position I adopted on transport would in your judgement aid the development of a form of totalitarianism. For me to seek to counter your arguments I need to enter into matters relating to our different political judgements and our analysis about the transport situation. That could be a lengthy argument.

But a debate can't be cut short by your resorting to definitional devices.

I am happy to venture into such territory. But what I first wish to establish is that such a discussion will have to go way beyond matters about the meaning of words and simple attempts to knock-down my position by merely resorting to definitions.

Whilst I believe that clarity about the terms used in an argument is important, I also believe that it is not enough. And it can be beside the point.

My claim is that what I said about about transport and anti-totalitarism are "logically" compatible viewpoints whether or not the person who sees them agrees or disagrees with my underlying arguments - arguments which I have not yet, however, revealed.

To accept that two sets of ideas are logically compatible is (of course) not the same as saying that either one or both sets of those ideas are true. So if you concede that the positions I adopted are not incompatible (yet you still see them as wrong), then we can if we wish debate the real issue.

Peter Risdon said...

"You have, however, already conceded my case. For you now claim..."

No, I haven't - though I'd be happy to do so if you made the case. Claiming the power to determine, with or without a democratic mandate, what forms of transport I can use isn't a step on the road towards totalitarianism, it is totalitarian. It just isn't the whole of totalitarianism. Hence, it is an element of totalitarianism.

My concern isn't transport policy, in fact I'd be happier if there were no such thing, simply the provision of decent public transport. I advocate public provisioning where appropriate, rather than policy.

Policy is the problem. It's a move from saying that only the state can effectively provide law and order, so it should provide it by efficiently protecting my property and my person, allowing me to do so if I can when the law isn't around, to saying that a legal and quasi-legal apparatus can reach into every corner of my life and regulate any aspect of my conduct it desires.

It's the move from recognising the need for public transport and catering to it, to telling people who have no need of public transport that they MUST use it.

So I'm not very interested in transport policy. I'm deeply concerned at creeping totalitarianism, totalitarianism by degrees, the salami-slicing of liberty that your proposals, in my view, represent.

That's why I found, and find, your third (as quoted) answer ironic. You say I am suggesting you're inconsistent. I won't deny that but it isn't my main point.

This is more that you don't recognise totalitarianism when you see it and therefore see no irony in stating that you fight against the very thing you've just been advocating in your earlier replies.

Harry Barnes said...

Peter Risdon and company : As promised on my blog earlier today, here is the outline of my position on the need to move from a private to a public transport system.

My proposals would cover rail, buses, planes, shipping, taxis and lorries. It could only be a programme which could be approached gradually as each stage would involve significant economic and social changes. Each stage would also need to obtain clear democratic endorsement - and be open to reform. But what I seek would involve a steady growth in transport facilities so that people would find it easier than it is today to move around. Private transport facilities would come to be restricted to those running essential services or having special needs.

Although my proposals would require a cordination of transport operations (so that people could move freely between operators), it would provide for a variety of structures including co-operatives, muncipalisation, worker self-management and national boards (themselves needing to be subject to democratic controls).

Public ownership on the above pattern would significantly reduce all of the following problems we face in our transport industry -

1. Traffic conjection, with its associated phycological problems of boredom and road rage.
2. Pollution, including noise pollution.
3. Deaths and accidents.
4. Public costs on policing, hospitalisation and road building.
5. Parking problems.
6. Family expenditure on car purchases, running and upkeep.
7. Waste of the world's petrol and other resources.
8. Many people without cars being isolated in their communities.
9. Restrictions on other movements of those who don't own a car, including the spouses and children of many car owners who now use the car for work.
10.Attitudes of possessive individualism amongst car owners as nurtured by car advertising.

The loss of rights to purchase a car would need to be weighed up against the above factors, especially on the need to take into account that today there is a serious loss of access to transport for many people who are elderly, disabled and poor or don't have ready access to a car in a one car family.

ThunderDragon said...


1. People would get just as - if not more - annoyed with the inevitable issues of public transport. They already do, and the abolition of private transport will massively increase this.

2. This would be a very minor difference - as the number of buses/trains/trams etc. would have to massively increase in order to cope with the increased demand. And since buses are so much noisier - and absolutely disgusting [try cycling behind one] - this would be such minor difference as to be absolutely negligible.

3. These would make little change, as public transport would have to massively increase in volume.

4. Transport police costs might be reduced, but nothing else.

5. Parking problems would be MUCH more than offset by transport problems. Public transport does not go door-to-door.

6. Public transport is more expensive than running a car.

7. More public transport = little change.

8. No ability to move anywhere freely for anyone.

9. See above.

10. How is individualism a problem? It only can be if you consider everyone only as part of society - ie. worthless on their own.

What your proposals would also do is make it impossible for any disabled, elderly, or otherwise movement-impaired person from travelling anyone - meaning that they will become even more isolated than ever.

Harry Barnes said...

Thunderdragon : Here are my responses.
1. The main reason that people currently get annoyed with public transport in the form of buses is that (a) the scope of their services is currently poor and is run mainly on competive principles and (b) buses are often held up in traffic where they can't move because they are blocked in by private cars (hence a need for bus lanes).
2. I have done a quick rule-of-thumb check on the traffic travelling in the busiest direction in front of my home between 8.45 and 9 am this morning. There were 106 cars, 7 vans/lorries and a motor cycle. No buses. 90% at least of the cars had no passengers with the driver. Those travelling would mainly be commuters going to work in Sheffield or Chesterfield. The bulk of the people in the cars could have been catered for by 3 buses. The pollution from 3 buses is much less than that from 106 cars.
3. A significant reduction in the numbers of vehicles on the road is likely to lead to a considerable reduction in the number of accidents.
4. My answer to 3 above helps to sustain my original point here.
5. Buses and taxis are in regular use during the day. Yet until an evening, many commuters only use their cars twice - to travel to and from work. This creates both inner-city parking problems and parking problems at home, unless the driver owns a garage. Parking space made available by phasing out the bulk of private cars would become available for buses and taxis.
6. The running of regular and fairly full buses would produce considerable economies of scale and reduce costs. It certainly isn't cheap to run a car as motorists keep claiming.
7. The 3 bus journeys required by my rough survey would use far fewer resources than 106 cars moving slowly on choked roads.
8. With regular bus services, more people can readily make it to all sorts of venues. Integrated transport provisions would make it easy to quickly move from bus to bus or to other modes of transport. South Yorkshire began to achieve this with cheap and regular bus services until Maggie Thatcher responded by abolishing the authority.
9. See (especially) above.
10. On "Possessive Individualism" see this link which is a Wikipedia summary of C.B. Macpherson's use of the concept. It appears in the section headed "Political theories".

I am merely being critical of that form of selfish individualism which leads to others being harmed. That leaves plenty of scope for me to defend other forms of individualism. See Steven Lukes "Individualism" (Oxford, 1973) for a discussion on the scope and uses of this concept -

A move from a mainly private transport system to a public one involves huge logistical problems and could only be achieved gradually. This would provide a further guard against it operating in any form of totalitarian way.