Wednesday, October 28, 2015


As far as practicable, I would like to have no unexamined assumptions. Of course, there are practical limits. How do I know I'm not a brain in a vat? I don't. It is the nature of brain-in-a-vat arguments that you do not know they are false, ex hypothesis. All you can really say is, "I don't care. I am going to go forward, developing my ideas, ignoring that 'possibility.'' If it turned out that I was just a brain in a vat, and not a real-live boy, that would be sad, but then, ultimately, not much sadder than being an epiphenomenal consciousness arising in a meat-sack, pursuing my self-conceived goals for a brief period of time before dissolving into a stinking pile of mush. So be that as it may. In the mean time, I've got things to do...

Saturday, October 3, 2015

Presidency, democracy and stuff

I have just finished reading three big books on the U.S. System of government:  Michael Glennon's "National Security and Double Government", Arthur Schlesinger's "The Imperial Presidency", and Andrew Rudalevige's "The New Imperial Presidency".  It struck me that not one of the three authors EVER mentioned anything that could be construed as class politics.  Class issues did not cross one of their minds, apparently, even once, in the writing of these three works.

Nor did any of them seriously question whether there were any alternatives for democratic governance to the model the modern world mostly uses, involving relatively small deliberative/legislative assemblies, elected periodically by an otherwise largely passive electorate.  All three did devote some discussion of the question of whether a democratic government needs a strong executive, with all three ultimately concluding that it does.  Only Schlessinger devoted any pages to the question of whether the executive should be fully independent of the legislative branch, as in the U.S. system, or nominally answerable to it, as in the British system.  He ended up concluding that the U.S. system is better, because the British system ends up placing more  de facto power in the hands of the executive, not less.

The only writer on politics that I can recall discussing the larger structural question, besides anarchists and radicals rooted in the New Left, is Robert Dahl, in "Democracy and Its Critics", who terms the system we use "polyarchy" ("rule by many"), and, after discussion of its limitations from the standpoint of democratic ideals, decides that while not a perfect democracy, it is the best democracy we can get.

One important distinction between the three books I just read was that both Schlesinger and Rudalevige focus is on what might be called the constitutional structure of government; they assume the powers of the branches, as defined in the Constitution are the things that matter, for instance, that the President really is in charge of the powers of the executive branch.  Only Glennon's book addressed what might be called the shadow government, the fact that institutions take on a life of their own and may possess a power structure functionally much independent of the nominal hierarchy, especially when those institutions are under a secrecy regime such as pertains to our national "security" infrastructure.  The only other reference I can recall reading to this sort of effect is in Richard Parker's biography of John Kenneth Galbraith.  Parker reported Galbraith's impression that, during the Kennedy administration, the military establishment, if they didn't like a Kennedy directive regarding Vietnam, would simply ignore it.  According to Galbraith, Kennedy frequently complained of his inability to get things done.

The whole premise of a democracy is that the people, in some way, shape and fashion, somehow govern themselves.  All of these books I mention show aspects of the complicated problem of government that, in our current, alienating systems, most such nominally self-governing people, never, ever think about.