Friday, 5 July 2013

Against J.M.Cole's Essay "Voices For Taiwan's Future"

In his "war effort" book, "The Open Society & Its Enemies", which was written as a defense of democratic government and not a libertarian tome, Karl Popper warned readers against focusing their attention on the personalities and various ethical and personal attributes of political leaders. In doing so, Popper criticized Plato's choice of question - "who shall rule the State?" - as a basis for political philosophy, since that question presupposes discretionary leadership as the principle basis of political organization and is thus especially conducive to the rise of political demagogues and would-be (as well as actual) tyrants. Instead, Popper urged his readers to redirect their attention to the design of political institutions with the insistence to prepare against the fallibilities, errors and abuses of discretionary leadership.

Sixty-eight years since "The Open Society's" first publication in London in 1945, both established and recent democracies around the world still sway over the glorified personality contests that are general elections, whilst serious attention to the scale, scope and significance of political power is relegated (not "delegated") to the mercies and machinations of regislators (not "legislators"). The more extensive and complicated the laws and their accompanying bureaucracies are, the more the ideal of "rule of law" (read: coherence and consistency of application) recedes into the vagueness of memory / fantasy and is replaced by incoherence, inconsistency and consequently, intolerance.

I was put in mind of Popper's book when reading this essay celebrating the protesting young people of Taiwan...
"The battle for Taiwan’s future, and for its democracy, starts here at home, through endeavors that will ensure that honest and qualified individuals, people who have Taiwan’s interests at heart, are given the responsibilities of high office. This is what the young protesters are doing, and they are aware of what’s at stake, both locally and nationally..."
The apparent faith in mere "honesty" and "qualification" is anachronistic - indeed, as Popper argued it goes all the way back to Plato. At the very least we could say it belongs to a time when democracy was young; but that is not today. It might be argued that democracy is young in Taiwan of course, but it is not as if Taiwanese people do not have access to information about the decrepit, debt-ridden, obese and hopelessly corrupt monstrosities that the western democracies have become (and are still in the process of becoming).

The idea that injustices can be swept away by a wave of new leaders with more "honesty", and more and better "qualifications" is a pretentious and dangerous fantasy. If and when they are eventually elected to (or otherwise rise to) political power, these new leaders are still going to be faced with much the same types of problem the current political leaders are faced with - the "balancing" of so-called "public interests" against the rights of individual people - and that dilemna is consequent to the continuing over-politicization of Taiwanese society.

If any potential new leaders are to avoid merely substituting their own, temporarily more popular "justice laundering" practices for those of the current political leaders, then the only rational alternative is depoliticization, and that requires a refocusing of attention on how to  effectively subjugate institutional power to ethical stipulations.

This is a matter of institutional design, not a matter of personality.

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