Site C and sunk costs

In recent days, a number of commentators and news outlets have discussed the sunk cost fallacy in connection with the government’s decision to proceed with construction of the Site C hydroelectric project. Without exception, I’ve found the handling of this issue completely unsatisfactory and highly misleading with respect to the meaning of the sunk cost fallacy and/or the reasoning cited in support of the government’s decision. Before getting to the problem, let’s get clear about what this fallacy involves.

Suppose I buy a movie ticket, but I find the film boring, amateurish, aesthetically repellent and morally repugnant. I could walk out and find something more worthwhile to do with my evening, but I stay put. After all, I’ve already paid for my ticket. I can’t bring myself to waste it, so I suffer through the rest of the film. I have just committed the sunk cost fallacy, allowing the unrecoverable costs I incurred in the past to take precedence over expected returns in the future. Assuming my goal is to have a fun evening, those costs are irrelevant; the only thing that’s relevant is whether I will have a fun evening if I stay in my seat.

Some critics of the decision to proceed with Site C claim that this is exactly what’s wrong with the government’s decision. Ministers have pointed out that if the project is abandoned, the government will have spent $4 billion with nothing to show for it; superficially, that does look like the fallacious reasoning in the movie theatre example. But it is not fallacious to consider sunk costs to the extent that these costs actually have some bearing on the future.

The total bill for Site C is expected to be around $11 billion. About $2 billion has been spent. Completing the project should cost about $9 billion. At this point, cancelling the project would cost an additional $2 billion. Therefore, cancelling Site C can only be justified on cost-benefit grounds if there is an alternative power project with equal value to the province but a total bill of only $7 billion or less. In the government’s assessment, there is no such alternative; thus, cost-benefit calculation favours completing the project. So, costs that have already been incurred in the course of the Site C project are cited in support of the decision only because they relate to the amount of money the province will have to spend in the future. That is why the government has not committed the sunk cost fallacy.

This is not to say that the government is not open to criticism on other grounds. Not committing basic errors of reasoning is a low bar to clear, after all. The government’s critics may wish to argue that the cost of completing the project has been underestimated, or that the costs of alternatives have been overestimated. Or they may argue that cost-benefit considerations should not have been allowed to override property rights, treaty rights, or Indigenous rights. For those who wish to make these arguments, credibility is a precious resource. It would be a mistake to squander this resource on misrepresentations.

Full disclosure: I’m a member of the NDP and I opposed continuing the Site C project.


Meta-ethics and progressive politics, part 4: Social struggle and moral knowledge

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This is what moral philosophy looks like

The moral philosophers who have put in an appearance in this series so far — Elizabeth Anderson, Stephen Darwall, John Rawls, and T. M. Scanlon — are all contractualists. According to contractualism, morality — or at least some particular moral domain (e.g. social justice in Rawls’s case, or interpersonal morality in Scanlon’s) — is based on the idea of an agreement between equals; our obligations derive from principles that no one could reasonably reject, or which all would agree to. Note that this is only an idea of an agreement; contractualists do not suppose that there has ever been (or could be) a real contract specifying the basic principles of morality. Nevertheless, the fact that we would agree to or could not reject these principles should be sufficient for us to recognize them as binding.

Even though the agreement envisioned by contractualists is strictly hypothetical, contractualists tend to agree that we have good reason to pay attention to real agreements and real disagreements in the social world. Neither moral philosophy nor everyday moral reasoning can be a strictly a priori enterprise. This distinguishes morality from other normative domains like logic and mathematics. As Elizabeth Anderson argues:

With respect to mathematics, it is plausible to suppose that the social identities of inquirers are irrelevant to how we think about the subject matter. This idea is harder to credit with respect to moral inquiry. Moral reasoning is supposed to help diverse people live together, come to terms with their differences, and promote peaceful cooperation on fair terms by supplying mutually acceptable principles for adjudicating the conflicting claims they make on each other, and for coordinating our moral sentiments to fit the demands of living together. We should expect that people’s social positions affect the claims they regard as intuitively legitimate, as well as their moral sentiments.

Because of this, Anderson advocates for a more empirical approach to moral philosophizing that goes beyond the armchair, the seminar room, and even the laboratory settings of “experimental philosophy”; moral philosophy must take seriously the real claims that people make on each other in the course of social life. This is especially important in the case of political struggles, where sharply conflicting and often mutually inaccessible moral intuitions are brought to light.

To this end, Anderson has devoted many years to the study of historical egalitarian social movements, especially the abolitionist movement in the United States and Britain. In practice, Anderson finds, strictly a priori methods of moral theorizing were not sufficient to defeat pro-slavery arguments; for every bedrock moral principle the abolitionists invoked to criticize slavery, supporters of slavery seemed to have one of their own at the ready to defend it. Even on the abolitionist side, whites tended to balk at the implications of anti-slavery arguments that presupposed the equality of persons, as it was apparent that a robust principle of equality would call into question hierarchies of class and sex that were widely approved. Today, most people would be inclined to endorse such a principle of equality precisely because it rules out domination based on sex and class as well as race. But at the time, whites were conditioned to regard this as a highly counterintuitive implication of a general egalitarian principle. The reasons that would eventually come to be recognized as the proper grounds for opposing slavery were not articulated until black abolitionists arrived on the scene and produced their own critiques of slavery, rooted in their own experiences.

As Anderson’s study of the abolitionist movement makes clear, moral bias and the limits of our individual experience can lead us into moral error. While cultivating a “philosophical” detachment from moral issues can help us avoid rash judgments, it can also deprive us of indispensable sources of insight. Political struggles in which victimized individuals raise their own voices against oppression can break down the walls that deprive us of the insights necessary for moral progress. If moral philosophy is, in part, concerned with moral truth, and moral progress involves advancing moral knowledge, then the advancement of moral philosophy must depend in part on political struggle.

Note: Anderson presents her view in part as a critique of the method of reflective equilibrium, the subject of the previous post in this series. I do not think this critique is successful (one reason being that it seems to be based on a caricature of the method), but nor does her account of moral progress seem to depend on it. In my view, the two approaches are complementary rather than opposed; I hope to return to this subject in the future.

Anderson and Rawls on the limits of reflective equilibrium

At least there is likely to be a reflective equilibrium for these possible worlds

In her 2015 Presidential Address, “Moral Bias and Corrective Practices: A Pragmatist Perspective”, Elizabeth Anderson criticizes two dominant approaches to moral and political philosophizing: “the ascent to the a priori” (i.e. searching for fundamental, self-evident truths from which the rest of morality can be derived) and the method of reflective equilibrium. In the latter method, she says,

we move between intuitively appealing general moral principles and intuitions about particular cases. We use each to modify the others until we arrive at a set of principles that accounts for our moral judgments of all particular cases. Carried to its logical conclusion, this method can also lead to moral principles for all possible worlds, as long as we entertain thought experiments about sufficiently bizarre cases to elicit intuitions against which to modify our general principles. (p. 22)

Part of the problem, she argues, is that we have no grounds for confidence in our intuitions about truly bizarre cases. Our moral intuitions about this world are unreliable enough, but at least they can be tested and corrected by experience, whereas intuitions about people seeds, teletransporters, and runaway trolleys don’t even have that going for them.

But here’s Rawls in A Theory of Justice:

Some philosophers have thought that ethical first principles should be independent of all contingent assumptions, that they should take for granted no truths except those of logic and others that follow from these by an analysis of concepts. Moral conceptions should hold for all possible worlds. Now this view makes moral philosophy the study of the ethics of creation: an examination of the reflections an omnipotent deity might entertain in determining which is the best of all possible worlds. Even the general facts of nature are to be chosen. Certainly we have a natural religious interest in the ethics of creation. But it would appear to outrun human comprehension. From the point of view of contract theory it amounts to supposing that the persons in the original position know nothing at all about themselves or their world. How, then, can they possibly make a decision? A problem of choice is well defined only if the alternatives are suitably restricted by natural laws and other constraints, and those deciding already have certain inclinations to choose among them. (p. 159 in the original edition)

This seems like an explicit rejection of the excessive ambition and insensitivity to empirical considerations that Anderson objects to. Those vices are not essential to the method of reflective equilibrium after all; from very beginning, Rawls denied that this method — or indeed any method — could be used to find principles for all possible worlds.

Why electoral reform does not require a supermajority

BC Parliament Buildings Victoria BC

At the Province, Mike Smyth complains that it is unfair for the Greens and NDP to set the threshold for victory in the upcoming electoral reform referendum at 50 percent plus one. The problem, he argues, is that this makes it far too easy to bring about a fundamental change in a democratic mechanism that needs broad support in order to function properly. Supposing that half of all eligible voters participate in the referendum, and the reform side barely reaches the threshold, a new system would be adopted with the support of just a quarter of all voters. In Smyth’s view, this would clearly not meet the standard of “broad support”.

I think this argument is misguided. The expectation of low turnout actually works against Smyth; supporters of the status quo can effectively raise the threshold for victory simply by mobilizing more non-voters to vote No. Requiring supermajorities makes much more sense when turnout is expected to be very high — in a legislature, for example, or a referendum on independence.

Furthermore, the argument that a supermajority ought to be required for electoral reform because it affects such a fundamental part of the democratic system seems to beg the question in favour of the status quo. A 60/40 supermajority requirement allows the status quo to win with the support of only 40 percent plus one. This makes sense only if there is a shared presumption in favour of the status quo. According to many supporters of electoral reform, the current system is democratically defective. Thus, there is no shared presumption in favour of the status quo, and no justification for setting the threshold for approval of the status quo as low as 40 percent plus one.

In fact, one of Smyth’s own arguments seems to imply that there ought not to be any presumption in favour of first past the post. One of his concerns is that the Greens and NDP stand to benefit if proportional representation is adopted, which gives them an interest in slanting the process towards the Yes side. But a corollary of this — which he freely admits — is that the Liberals stand to benefit from retaining the current electoral system. If we should avoid adopting thresholds that increase the likelihood of victory for one side or another, and we should not adopt a 50 percent plus one threshold because it increases the likelihood of a favourable outcome for the Greens and NDP, we cannot then adopt a 60 percent plus one threshold that increases the likelihood of a favourable outcome for the Liberals.

As you may have noticed, we’ve come to a dead end. Every possible threshold favours one side or another compared to some other threshold. Every electoral system favours one party over another compared to some other electoral system. A principle that forbids favouring this or that faction (in the relevant sense) provides no practical guidance for the design of referendums or electoral systems. Therefore a principle for ensuring the legitimacy of the referendum result will have to be found elsewhere.

Meta-ethics and progressive politics, part 3: Moral knowledge and reflective equilibrium

Try to achieve reflective equilibrium in advance next time, Doctor

Last time, we saw that moral facts are normative — they tell us what to do — and primitive — they are not reducible to some further, non-moral facts. Moral facts share these characteristics with facts about logic and mathematics. It is commonly held to be unproblematic that we know certain facts about logic and mathematics; thus, it is not clear why facts about morality should raise any special problems. However, while it may be unproblematic to say that we know normative facts, it is more difficult to say how we know normative facts, given that normative facts cannot be inferred from non-normative facts alone.

Knowledge of normative facts depends on knowledge of other normative facts. According to a standard definition, knowledge is justified, true belief. Normative facts are true in virtue of other normative facts. But how can we get from truth to knowledge? How, in other words, do we justify normative beliefs?

Nelson Goodman proposed that we can (and routinely do) justify certain normative beliefs — those concerned with principles of logical inference — by attempting to derive general principles from our judgments about the strength or validity of particular inferences. We then apply these principles to new cases to see if they generate conclusions that accord with our judgments about those cases. When a conflict arises, it may seem best to revise our judgments in light of these general principles, or it may seem best to revise the general principles and test them against another set of new cases. This process continues until our judgments about particular inferences and our general principles are fully aligned and mutually supporting. This endpoint is only hypothetical — there are always new cases to consider. But we can make progress towards it, and our beliefs about what counts as a good inference and why are justified in proportion to the progress we have achieved.

Goodman’s method for justifying beliefs about the principles of logic was taken up by John Rawls, who thought that it could also be applied to beliefs about morality, or at least a particular domain of morality — the domain of social justice. He called this the method of reflective equilibrium. We start with moral judgments in which we have a high degree of confidence under good conditions for making judgments of that kind (e.g. when we are refreshed and cool-headed rather than tired and upset), and a set of supporting principles that explain those judgments. We then test those principles against different cases, checking whether they yield judgments that we are, on reflection, prepared to endorse, and then revising principles or judgments as appropriate. Wash, rinse, repeat. Rawls says that when we apply this method, we are describing our sense of justice. But this does not mean that our conception of what justice requires remains fixed. Describing our sense of justice is an exploratory and deliberative process through which we discover principles that we can justify as constraints on our behaviour. At any point in this process, any judgment or principle is open to revision; we may end up with a fully developed conception of justice that would seem very surprising from where we began.

Recall that we are using the definition of knowledge as justified true belief. If we are justified in believing that the principles and judgments we hold in reflective equilibrium are true, and those principles are true, then the method of reflective equilibrium is a method for acquiring moral knowledge.

Religious belief plays no role in this method, which makes it particularly appealing to atheists. It should also be appealing to many progressives who do hold religious beliefs. After all, many religious ethicists would agree with St. Paul that morality was “written in our hearts” by a supreme being, and with Aquinas that it can be apprehended by reason without the aid of holy books. Reflective equilibrium can support these views by providing a fuller account of how morality was written in our hearts (i.e. by creating a universe from which rational creatures can emerge and flourish), and how reason can be used to read that which was written.

Others, however, may find this account troubling because it threatens to make the moral content of sacred texts superfluous. But I think this threat is illusory. A religious text may still provide moral guidance by suggesting new judgments about particular cases (e.g. “God was right to kill every firstborn child in Egypt to secure the Hebrews’ release from slavery”) and candidate principles (“Love your neighbour as yourself”). Some of these judgments and principles should be accepted, and others should be rejected. The method of reflective equilibrium provides a non-arbitrary standard for deciding which parts of a text to reject or reinterpret, while preserving the overall text as a potential source of moral insight. Far from making religious texts superfluous, the method actually gives even non-believers good reason to pay attention to the conclusions of religious ethicists. Elizabeth Anderson puts the point nicely:

That God as people imagine it does not literally exist no more undercuts the value of their moral reasoning than Mackie’s critique of metaphysical moral realism undercuts critical moral reasoning today. (And even Mackie, after trashing moral realism, finds himself unable to avoid moralizing himself.) The critical moral point of view is essential and productive even if it is projected onto a fictional entity. What matters is the alternative perspective it affords, not its ontological status.

Perhaps this all makes moral knowledge sound too easy to come by. If the method of reflective equilibrium does imply that moral knowledge is very easy to come by, that counts against the method. To vindicate the method, we need to show that it is consistent with the slow rate and inconsistent direction of moral progress throughout history, and the phenomenon of apparently intractable moral disagreement both within and between cultures today. The answers to these puzzles will take us from the very abstract level at which reflective equilibrium has been described towards the concrete circumstances in which we pursue it. This will be the subject of the next post in this series.

Note: In addition to the blog by Elizabeth Anderson cited above, this post draws on discussion of reflective equilibrium by John Rawls in A Theory of Justice, T. M. Scanlon in Being Realistic About Reasons, and Norman Daniels in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article “Reflective Equilibrium”.

Meta-ethics and progressive politics, part 2: Partners in crime

Well, that’s just, like, your opinion, maaan

As I discussed in my last post, making the case for progressive policy requires making a moral case, and making a moral case requires confronting moral nihilism. The first step is establishing a presumption in favour of moral truth. We can establish such a presumption by noting that we tend to think, talk and act as though there are moral truths; skepticism about the very existence of moral facts tends to run up against the apparent indispensability of moral claims in political debate. Skepticism is further undermined when we see that one of the most common arguments cited as justification for doubting that there are moral facts — i.e. that there could only be moral facts if there exists a kind of deity who does not in fact exist — is unsound. The existence of such a deity could not make a difference to whether there are any moral facts at all. Given the independence of moral truth and the divine will, we can also conclude that the content of morality should be knowable independently of religious truths about the existence and nature of a supreme being. If moral truth is accessible to any of us, it is accessible to all of us.

But if moral facts are not divine commands, what are they? Where do they come from? How do we know about them? Why do we seem to get them so wrong so much of the time? These are difficult and important questions. Confidence in the possibility of moral progress and social justice is impossible without confidence that there are knowable moral truths, and confidence that there are knowable moral truths is difficult to sustain unless we can offer some kind of response — however tentative — to questions like these.

My aim in this series is not to provide a definitive meta-ethical framework that I think all political progressives should accept, but rather to show that we do have a number of replies available to us in the face of attempts to defeat the presumption of moral truth. Even if these replies are not without their own difficulties, they do show that the progressive realist is not defenceless against nihilist challengers and need not quit the field at the first sign of resistance.

One of the distinctive features of moral facts is that they are ostensibly normative, or action-guiding. Unlike facts about geology or history, moral facts give us reasons to act in certain ways. This is why bringing moral facts into consideration resolves the underdetermination problem in public policy that I noted last time.

However, moral facts are not the only kind of normative facts. Facts about logical inference and mathematics also give us reasons to act in certain ways — to reach a particular conclusion from a set of premises, for example, and to do it in a particular way. Skeptics about moral truth tend to be realists about logical and mathematical truths; after all, they purport to base their denial of the existence of moral truth on sound logical reasoning.

The evident kinship between different kinds of normative facts (moral, logical and mathematical) provides clues to a number of the questions posed above. First, normative facts seem to be primitive in the sense that they are not reducible to or true in virtue of some more basic, non-normative facts. There is no sense in asking what kind of thing normative facts are or where such kinds of things come from. Mathematical facts are founded upon other mathematical facts, and moral facts are founded upon other moral facts. This characterization of normative facts as primitive or basic fits with the concept of morality Stephen Darwall deploys in his argument against divine command theory; if one could provide a non-normative foundation for morality (such as a supreme being’s coercive power), one would thereby disprove rather than explain the existence of moral facts.

The relation between moral and other normative facts also suggests an answer to how we can come to know moral facts, while deepening the mystery of why history (not to mention the daily news) is so full of moral mistakes. These issues will be the subject of my next post on this topic, where I will discuss the method of reflective equilibrium.

Meta-ethics and progressive politics

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In a post last week, I briefly touched on the importance of making a distinctively moral case for the eradication of poverty, as Trish Garner did in her recent piece for the Tyee. As I noted at the time, this is important in part because the strongest reasons that count for or against any given policy are always moral reasons. It’s also partly because value-independent facts tend to underdetermine policy, meaning that without appeal to the moral reasons that count for or against some policy, the facts are not sufficient to determine which policy is best. Good policy is necessarily both evidence-based and value-based.

Nevertheless, public policy debates are often lopsided; people are generally more comfortable dealing with disagreement about evidence than disagreement about values. This imbalance begins at an early age. Basic education properly aims to give young people a strong grasp of scientific methods for gathering, evaluating and using evidence to reach well-supported conclusions. But students are usually not expected to achieve a similar degree of competence with the methods of systematic moral reasoning. In some education systems, in fact, students are expected to embrace moral nihilism; as the philosopher Justin McBrayer has pointed out, the American Common Core curriculum portrays moral facts as a conceptual impossibility, like five-sided triangles and married bachelors. If there are no moral facts, then moral reasoning and dialogue serve no purpose, and there is no point helping students achieve any degree of competence with moral thought.

Nevertheless, many people find it hard to shake the idea that there are some moral facts — that genocide is wrong, for example, or that you shouldn’t torture babies for fun. Even those who purport to believe that morality is purely a matter of individual taste may find themselves unable to avoid appealing to certain bedrock moral intuitions.

For example, in a column published on CNN’s website last month, Brookings Institution senior fellow Shadi Hamid dismissed criticism of Donald Trump on the grounds that such criticisms are based on judgments that are “political, and therefore subjective”; in the end, however, Hamid’s conclusions turn out to depend on assigning absolute moral priority to the outcome of a democratic process, understood in the narrowest procedural terms. His pretensions of hard-nosed moral skepticism are mere rhetorical cover, concealing a wildly controversial moral claim that sits at the foundation of his entire argument.

Moral claims are indispensable in political argument. That being the case, it is better if the moral claims that a political argument depends on are articulated clearly and openly, and it is better if people who must evaluate or engage in political argument (if you live in a democracy, that means you) have some competence with systematic moral thought. But people may not bother to develop this competence unless they believe there are moral facts, and that these facts can be known. It is not enough to show that moral claims are indispensable; it must also be shown that some moral claims could be true.

If we find moral claims indispensable — if we find ourselves unable to avoid acting as if they are sometimes true — we already have at least one good reason to think that some moral claims are true. But do we have better reason to think that this is not the case — that there are no moral facts?

One reason commonly cited in popular discourse is the idea (sometimes called divine command theory) that there could only be moral facts if divine decree made it so. If, as many people now believe, there are no such decrees, then there can be no moral facts. In other words, “if God is dead, then everything is permitted.” In religious apologetics, this conditional claim is often used to demonstrate the existence of God by modus tollens: “if God is dead, then everything is permitted; not everything is permitted, therefore God is not dead.” But outside the realm of apologetics, it is more common to see the argument for moral nihilism by modus ponens: “if God is dead, then everything is permitted; God is dead, therefore everything is permitted.”

Should we accept the conditional claim? Unless we have independent reason to believe that everything is permitted (in which case the conditional is superfluous anyway), I think we should only accept this claim if we have an account of how God could make it the case that something is not permitted. If it is not clear how God could make it the case that a given action is wrong, then we have no reason to think that the wrongness of a given action could depend on the existence of God.

As popular as it may be — among atheists and believers alike! — to identify morality with God’s decrees, philosophers have been highly skeptical of this alleged connection at least since the time of Plato. In these two short videos, Stephen Darwall — a philosopher specializing in secular ethics — expertly demonstrates the self-contradictory nature of divine command theory.

As Darwall argues, divine command theory either conflates morality with something else entirely (coercive power, or fear of punishment) or it must presuppose certain moral facts that are prior to God’s commands (such as “you ought to obey God’s commands”) in order to give those commands the necessary moral force. If divine command theory opts for the first of these choices, then it is only a species of nihilism, not a genuine alternative. And if it opts for the second, then it is renders itself redundant by presupposing the very phenomenon it purports to explain. The existence of moral truths was never dependent on the existence of God; if we believe God does not exist, then, we have no special reasons to doubt that moral truths exist.

This conclusion is relevant to both believers and non-believers. If God’s commands do not form the basis of morality, then people of all religious faiths — or none — can recognize each other as peers in the enterprise of moral inquiry. Among peers, moral truths are equally accessible and equally binding, and dialogue and methods of inquiry are equally fruitful. The refutation of divine command theory should make religious and non-religious progressives alike more confident that moral truths exist and that all people can be open to moral persuasion.

Anti-capitalism won’t solve our climate crisis

From the Usborne Book of the Future

In an op-ed published by the New York Times, Benjamin Y. Fong argues that anthropogenic climate change is ultimately caused by capitalism:

The real culprit of the climate crisis is not any particular form of consumption, production or regulation but rather the very way in which we globally produce, which is for profit rather than for sustainability. So long as this order is in place, the crisis will continue and, given its progressive nature, worsen. This is a hard fact to confront. But averting our eyes from a seemingly intractable problem does not make it any less a problem. It should be stated plainly: It’s capitalism that is at fault.

What is capitalism? In ordinary usage, “capitalism” denotes an economic system with private ownership and market exchange. As the above passage makes clear, however, for the purposes of Fong’s argument, capitalism is any economic system where decisions about production tend to be made on the basis of profitability. Thus, the term “capitalism” as used here encompasses market socialism as well as social democratic and laissez-faire varieties of capitalism. Fong’s concern is evidently the profit motive, not private ownership or alienated labour.

The power of the profit motive, Fong argues, is why it is pointless to pin our hopes for climate sanity on replacing the current crop of top decision makers with a smarter, more conscious breed of technocrat. Behind this delusion is the assumption that the members of the business elite are stupid, whereas in fact they are just responding rationally to the incentives that capitalism presents them with. As long as the incentive to pursue profit at the expense of sustainability remain, swapping out individual members of the elite won’t help at all.

So far, this seems at least roughly correct. But Fong’s conclusion that the profit motive must not be allowed to guide business decisions depends on the assumption that the incentive to pursue profit must necessarily be the incentive to pursue profit at the expense of sustainability. This assumption is false. Unsustainable activities can be made unprofitable by pricing negative externalities where possible and filling in any gaps with regulations. Rather than suppressing the profit motive, we can harness it to promote desirable systemic goals — including sustainability. Of course, this is proving to be a tremendous political challenge. But Fong’s argument requires that bringing this strategy through to completion would be a greater political challenge than abolishing capitalism altogether, which is absurd.

What if we had a magic wand that could instantly abolish the profit motive, though? Would using it help us avert climate catastrophe? No. A sustainable economy is impossible without rational economic planning. Rational economic planning is impossible without economic accounting. And take it from Trotsky: “Economic accounting is unthinkable without market relations.” If we want to achieve a sustainable economy, abolishing the profit motive is worse than unnecessary and insufficient — it is counterproductive.

Proportionality, local representation and the Liberal leadership race

Four Prints of an Election, plate 2: Canvassing for Votes, engraved by Charles Grignion 1757, published 1758 by William Hogarth 1697-1764

In recent weeks, the upcoming referendum on electoral reform has become a central issue in the BC Liberal leadership race. Diane Watts, for example, has gone so far as to declare that defeating proportional representation — not winning the premiership — is her top political priority.

At first glance, this may seem odd. But uniquely among BC’s political parties, the Liberal coalition — the latest iteration of a longstanding alliance between federal Liberals and Conservatives united against the CCF and NDP — owes its very existence to the current plurality voting system. Under proportional representation, the members of this coalition would likely go their separate ways again, dividing into at least two independent parties analogous to the federal Liberals and Conservatives. And disrupting the well-established traditional form of cooperation between anti-NDP forces could threaten the practice of cooperation against the NDP; there would be no guarantee against the newly independent parties seeking new alliances with the Greens or NDP. So while the current electoral system has allowed the anti-NDP coalition to survive the destruction of individual parties, reform of that system threatens the survival of the coalition itself.

Considering the threat that electoral reform poses, then, it is not surprising that candidates for the Liberal leadership have come out against it so strongly. However, the general public is unlikely to care about existential threats to this or that political organization. They are more likely to care about the quality of representation. For this reason, Liberals make their public case against proportional representation on the grounds that it ostensibly threatens the quality of representation.

An interview with leadership candidate Andrew Wilkinson, published by the Alaska Highway News, provides an example of this kind of argument. Unfortunately, it is evident from Wilkinson’s remarks that he is either a careless speaker or he is badly misinformed about the electoral systems he’s opposing. This makes him an ineffective advocate for the status quo and a poor choice to defend the Liberal coalition.

“[Proportional representation] will mean a dramatic reduction in representation if the NDP and Greens are successful in pushing it through,” Wilkinson said.

“The most likely model for proportional representation will be for much larger ridings with multiple members. If you take the population in Northeast B.C., you’re talking about one riding essentially for all of Northeast B.C, and that would involve voting for multiple members and then other members being selected from party lists.

“So, the local representation is almost entirely lost for the Peace Country,” he said.

Wilkinson seems to be conflating two different systems of proportional representation: single transferable vote (STV) and mixed member proportional (MMP). Under STV, all single-member districts are replaced with larger multi-member districts; seats are filled by preferential ballot according to a formula that generates roughly proportional outcomes in each district. There is no separate class of members elected from party lists. MMP, on the other hand, retains single-member districts where seats are filled by plurality — the candidate with the most votes wins. Proportionality is achieved by topping up party standings with seats in large multi-member districts.

Even if Wilkinson is confused about the particulars of these systems, he might have a point about local representation suffering under alternative systems. In practice, representatives elected under STV tend to carve up districts among themselves and focus on one locality or other, meaning that constituents will still get the local representation they’re used to under FPTP even if the MLA is not formally linked with their community in the familiar way. Still, perhaps there are advantages to retaining that formal link. This question merits further examination; in the meantime, Wilkinson’s conclusions are too hasty even if the underlying concern is valid.

What about MMP? In my view, this is more likely to be the system put to voters in the referendum, and it is completely benign from the point of view of local representation. The only reason local representation would suffer is if the single-member districts were increased in size so that the total number of seats in the legislature can remain the same as it is now after the party list seats are added. This problem is not unique to MMP; local representation would suffer in exactly the same way if the size of single-member increased under FPTP. The problem isn’t proportionality, it’s the size of single-member districts. If we are prepared to accept an increase in the size of the legislature, the single-member districts can remain exactly the same size as they are now. So if Wilkinson’s concern is local representation, he should be advocating for keeping single-member districts the same size they are now whether or not proportional representation is adopted. If he also wants to argue against proportional representation, he will need to find a different argument.

Why should political parties be democratic?

Members of cabinet join hundreds of delegates to hear Bowinn Ma address the BC NDP’s 2017 convention

Some writers have argued that political parties only need to be democratic to the extent that internal democracy is necessary to promote democracy at the level of the state; they further contend that because there is in principle no reason why democracy in the state cannot best be promoted by oligarchical or even dictatorial party structures, the idea that intraparty democracy can help reinvigorate the public political culture is misguided if not counterproductive.

There are reasons to think that both of these propositions are false, a handful of which I summarize here.

1. Democracy is intrinsically valuable. If democracy is intrinsically valuable, there should be a defeasible presumption in favour of democratic organization, capable of being overridden by competing values. Critics of intraparty democracy must establish that the defeaters for this presumption actually obtain; it is not enough for them to show that intraparty democracy’s benefits for the overall political system have been overstated.

2. Democracy in political parties contributes to democratic enculturation, especially among young people and among immigrants for whom political parties may be their first encounter with political participation in Canada.

3. Democracy in political parties supports a democratic political culture by expressing a commitment to democratic and egalitarian values. This is part of the reason why, in Germany, parties are forbidden by law to organize themselves according to anything like the Führerprinzip.

4. Democracy in political parties encourages the articulation of distinct political values that are present among members of the general public, but which the general public does not have the time or inclination to advance in the political world.

5. Democracy in political parties helps ensure that party elites remain true to the purposes for which the party has been found, reducing the likelihood of capture by an excessively self-interested clique.

6. Democracy in political parties encourages member participation. Member participation reduces parties’ dependency on paid labour. And reducing parties’ dependency on paid labour makes parties less susceptible to the influence of large donors.

What, then, are some of the reasons not to practice democracy in political parties? Arguments tend to cite two main factors: damage to the quality of political representation, and the excessive costs in time, money and labour required by democratic processes.

The mechanism by which intraparty democracy may damage the quality of representation should be familiar. The subset of the population that belongs to political parties is not representative of the population from which they are drawn. To the extent that a party’s elected officeholders are beholden to the authority of the party membership, they will be less able to respond to the influence of those whom they represent.

The potential for this conflict of interests is real, and it imposes constraints on the structure and legitimate scope of intraparty democracy; the legitimacy of intraparty democracy itself depends in part on its ability to resolve the conflict. Parties cannot simply reproduce the institutions of municipal, provincial or national democracy to yield a maximally democratic outcome. Whatever the justification for intraparty democracy, we cannot assume that the institutions of intraparty democracy will bear much resemblance to the institutions of state democracy.

Concerns regarding the costs of democratic process are also well-founded; if democracy proves to be too sluggish, too wasteful, and too burdensome, people are bound to lose confidence in its superiority over the alternatives. Of course, this is true of democracy in any context, including municipal, provincial and national politics, not just the governance of political parties. It imposes constraints on the design of intraparty democracy, but it does not discredit the practice of intraparty democracy as such.

So. A defensible model of intraparty democracy must depend for its justification — and for its principles of design — on rationales other than a fallacious equivalency between the democratic nature of the whole state with the democratic nature of its constituent parts; it must resolve — or at least ameliorate — problematic tensions between member control and responsiveness to the public; and it must not come with excessive costs in time, money and labour. We can now say in a bit more detail what the shape of intraparty democracy should be. This will be the subject of a future post.