Sunday, October 31, 2004

On the Merits of Idealism

In many of the circles I've associated with, there has been a certain cachet to embracing a stance of cynicism. The thought behind this seems to be that cynicism is an emblem that proves that one is wise in the ways of the world and not prone to naiveté. Idealism, by this view, is a kind of hopeful foolishness where one embraces futile wishes in the face of the evidence of the real world. Cynics, by contrast, are imagined to be level-headed people who realistically accept the harsh realities of a cruel and indifferent world.

I will freely confess that for many years I held just such a perspective on life. In my own experience, good intentions rarely amounted to anything and I found that when I expected the worst I was rarely disappointed. My cynical stance certainly seemed to be a better representation of the state of the world as a whole than that found in Utopian fantasies. I had a much easier time believing in dystopias.

It has only been in the last few years that I have to believe that cynicism is, its own way, every bit as naïve as the worst sorts of idealism. More over, I have come to a new appreciation of what idealism can offer when tempered with the proper perspective.

It is said that every cynic is a disappointed idealist. Certainly that was true of my case. When I was young, I had any number of political and social notions that were exceedingly optimistic. I liked to believe that people were, at heart, good and that most people, given the chance, would behave altruistically towards their fellows. By and by I came to see that such a hope for an altruistic human nature was not supported by the evidence. Humans are not angelic beings and, given every opportunity, we do, indeed, behave in a self-interested manner. History has proven, again and again, that attempts to form utopian societies founder against the rocks of human behavior. They may work for a time but, ultimately, they collapse due to the basic selfishness of the individuals who comprise them.

How then, is it, that have I come to reject cynicism and reestablish myself as an idealist?

One of the truism of cynicism is that people, being base entities, never change. How is it, then, that societies change? More to the point, how is it that societies ever progress? A little less than one hundred and fifty years ago, slavery, in my nation, was a legal institution. A bit over eighty years ago, there were still states where women did not have the right to vote. Forty years ago, black Americans were subject to a form of apartheid. How did these evils ever come to end? I found that a truly cynical worldview simply could not account for them without all sorts of ad hoc justifications that supposed that the proper confluence of wrongs could, sometimes, generate a right. The reality, however, is that a great many people working from a set of convictions that could only be described as idealistic fought long and hard battles to bring these events about. The path to improvement was rarely straightforward and often required a descent into the worst realms of human behavior (as evidenced by the church bombings that punctuated the civil rights movement's struggle), but that only serves to underscore depths of conviction that were required to bring about these changes.

There is such a thing as naïve idealism. Any view that thinks that people are going to be good for the sake of being good is bound to fail. Attempts to build systems around such hopes are not only unbearably optimistic but, often, dangerous. One of the basic failings of Communism was the assumption that people could be motivated to work for the good of the community without any compensation above the knowledge that they would be helping their fellow human beings without any desire for personal status or material reward. There are many reasons that Communism doesn't work well in the real world but central to the majority of its failures is the simple fact that people aren't like that. Communism turned out to be a Utopian dream and a real world Hell. Too often idealisms turn into ideologies which, in turn, lead to all sorts of evil. Ideologies tend to become perversions of themselves precisely because they enshrine ideals above mere reality. Once an individual or a group severs ties with reality, it becomes very easy to justify evil in the name of a cause.

But just as there is such a thing as a naïve idealism, so is there a naïve cynicism. The notion that human beings are uniformly bad and ultimately selfish is every bit as wrong as the notion that humans are uniformly good and ultimately selfless. Cynicism, taken to its logical ends, prevents us from striving to be anything more than we are because it denies that we have a better nature to aspire to. Too often, cynical anticipations become self-fulfilling prophesies. A cynic may well feel smug when good deeds come to naught but a world of cynics would be a world trapped by its own expectations.

I have come to believe that the major failure of idealistic philosophies is the perspective that Utopia is a place that can be reached. A naïve idealist who thinks that perfect justice can be obtained must either sink himself into a state of permanent self-delusion or succumb to an admission of error which can easily lead down a slippery slope towards a state of abject cynicism. An informed idealism, however, would see that the notion of perfect justice is no more obtainable that being able to reach the place called "up". However, taking justice as an ideal, one can move in the direction of it just as can move up without ever actually reaching "up".

Ideals are not real things. One does not have to be a cynic to appreciate this fact. This does not make ideals worthless as ideas. Even if we can not have perfect racial harmony, we can hope to achieve a minimal amount of racial disharmony. Although sexual equality may well be beyond our human capacities, we can strive to diminish the sexual inequalities that face us down to a negligible insignificance. All that is required to be an idealist is the belief that we can be better and that we should be better along with the willingness to stive to become better. Although the cynics of the world may well insist that such a task is perfectly futile, history is on the side of the idealists.

Thursday, October 28, 2004

No Poetry Thursday

Sorry, folks. I didn't have the time to prepare a poem. Mea cupla and all that. I promise that I will have one next week.

Tuesday, October 26, 2004


Our ability to intuitively grasp numbers doesn't go very far. Studies have shown that are ability to make rough intuitive estimates of quantities reaches its limit at a few dozen.

Mathematics have given us a good set of cognitive tools to acturately deal with larger values but we still have a hard time grasping what those values mean. It is easy enough to see, for instance, that a multi-trillion dollar national debt involves a hell of a lot of money, but what is a trillion of anything actually like?

The Megapenny Project is a site that helps us to intuitively visualize large numbers by building larger and larger sets of numbers using pennies. A trillion, for instance, is a block of pennies 273 feet on a side — conveniently illustrated next to representations of various sky scrapers and monuments.

Monday, October 25, 2004

The Voter's Paradox (or Why I'm Glad That My Vote Doesn't Matter)

I am about to make you very angry. Are you ready? Okay, here goes: your vote doesn't really matter.

If you are like the majority of people, the least contention that your vote isn't vital and significant will, most likely, raise hackles. Never the less, it's a mathematically demonstrable fact that in the majority of elections, your vote will, literally, not make any difference to the outcome. I'll be explaining why but, just in case your blood pressure starts to get the better of you, it is my intention to show you that this is a good and liberating thing that will actually end up giving you a greater feeling of empowerment at the voting booth.

The idea that individual votes don't matter in large elections is typically referred to as The Voter's Paradox. There are actually a numbers of voter's paradoxes that deal with various counter-intuitive features of democratic government. The particular version that I am referencing is part of a class of social paradoxes where the cost of individual action in a group endeavor is not matched by the specific benefits of the action.

The reason that voting falls into this category is that cost and effort of actually going to cast one's vote is not matched by the value of the vote that is cast. This runs contrary to what most people are taught from a very young age, which is the view that voting is not only a cornerstone of democracy but that it is utterly vital for every person to vote because each person's vote matters.

The objective value of any given vote can be measured as the likelihood that the vote will swing the election. Let us suppose that there is a two person race for candidate A and B and there are three persons voting (we'll suppose, for the sake of simplification that the candidates are not, themselves, voting). In such a contest, there are two ways for your fellow voters to agree with each other (they both like A or they both like B), in which case your vote is irrelevant, but there are also two ways for them to disagree (one likes A and the other likes B, or vice versa), in which case your vote is the deciding vote. As such, your vote has a base value of .5, meaning that 50% of the time, your vote will determine the winner.

Of course, this is a gross simplification of how probabilities work in the real world. Never the less, it is an incontrovertible fact that the more people there are participating in a given election, the less probable it is that your particular vote will be able to decide the election. An intuitive way to grasp this fact is to play a what-if game with yourself. Think about all of the elections you have cast a vote in. Now ask yourself which, of all those elections, would have had a different outcome if you had stayed home, instead. The answer, if you are being honest with yourself, is probably that none of them would have. If your vote would have decided an election, it is almost certain that it must have been a very small election.

This is the point of the argument where a lot of people start to get upset. The implication seems to be that voting is worthless. Many people counter with bad analogies involving such things as rain drops and oceans. The paradox, however, is not that voting is worthless but that any given vote is worthless in terms of making a difference to the outcome of a sufficiently large election. Bluntly, the contention that each vote is an important factor in terms of electing a given candidate is a myth. It is a potent and cherished myth but a myth all the same.

But wait, what about Florida? The presidential election of 2000 was, in fact, exceedingly close. The final count of the critical Florida ballots gave the state to Bush on the basis of only 537 votes. New Mexico's margin was even thinner at 363 votes (although New Mexico could not, by itself, have swung the Presidency for Gore). In such a large election as this was, such small margins are nearly without precedent. It is, therefore, accurate to say that the worth of the individual votes for the citizens of Florida was far higher than usual. However, far from being a repudiation of the Voter's Paradox, Florida is a demonstration of its reality.

Once more, we have to ask ourselves, which one of those votes would have changed the outcome. While 537 people, in the aggregate, could have changed the outcome of the election, no single one of them could have, in spite of the closeness of the results. In fact, one of the things that lead to the tedious cycle of recounts was the fact that the margin of victory was within the typical margins of error for counting votes. In a normal election contest of this magnitude, no one would care about getting the numbers precisely accurate because the margin of victory would be wide enough that five hundred votes, plus or minus, wouldn't be significant enough to consider (never mind the specific vote of a particular person).

Many of the articles that I've read that pertain to the Voter's tend to take a pessimistic view because of it. This is, of course, a natural conclusion. On the one hand, we have a form of government that requires people to vote, en mass, but which can not justify the effort to vote on a per voter basis. If my vote literally does not matter, why should I bother? It is my belief, however, that a proper understanding of the value of your vote can, in fact, liberate it.

Often people bemoan the fact that we have a de facto two party system. Numerous opinion polls have shown that many people would like to vote for so-called third party candidates but that they are reluctant to do so because they don't want to "throw away" their vote. Such a stance is a rational conclusion based on a faulty evaluation. If your vote did have a realistic probability of swinging an election, it would be foolish to squander it on a vote of a candidate who couldn't use your vote to carry the race. In such a circumstance, rational self-interest dictates that you should vote for whichever of the electable candidates most closely represents your interests. Such a tactic does, unfortunately, have the practical result that you are often forced to choose between the lesser of two evils.

When your vote doesn't have any real chance of influencing the outcome, however, there is no barrier to voting your conscience. An uninfluential vote remains uninfluential regardless of how it's spent. So long as you are voting at all, you can vote for the candidate that you believe is the best qualified without any fear that you've sabotaged your rational interests.

One might reasonably ask why one should vote at all, if this is true. I think that the best answer to that is that voting serves two functions. The primary function is, in fact, to elect candidates to public office. In those terms, whether or not an individual votes is largely irrelevant. The more subtle secondary function, however, is that voting ideally provides a snapshot of the public psyche. In order for that to work, however, it is critical that people do vote their consciences. By looking at the full range of votes, those who do take office can better understand their constituencies. For this purpose, every additional vote enhances the “resolution” of the process, providing a cumulatively more accurate picture of the electorate's will.

In truth, even for this purpose, the real worth of a given vote is small enough that one could, in good conscience, abstain from the process entirely without having to feel guilty. As such, the question remains: why vote?

Ultimately, the act of voting is something that we do because it makes us feel good. We have every right to feel good about it because, however attenuated our own votes may be, the act of voting connects us to the political process in a very literal and direct sense. I believe that there is value in this that goes beyond the magnitude of our individual contributions and which also makes it more than worth the effort that it takes to vote. The value may, in a strictly objective sense, be more symbolic than practical, but symbols and symbolic acts can have a potency all to their own.

It is because I consider my vote to have this kind of worth that I am loath to squander it on the foolish supposition that I could "throw it away" by voting for the person who I honestly believe to be the best for the job. The Voter's Paradox assures me that I can cast an honest vote with an entirely clear conscience.

Now just imagine what might happen if everyone had the confidence to do that instead of wasting their votes on lesser evils.

Thursday, October 21, 2004

Appropriate Force

We applied
A careful measure
Of mayhem

And factored in
The requirement
Of force.

We only crushed them

With a precise
Of casualties.

It was for their own good.

Even they admit
That they were
Miserable and malcontent.

this is an audio post - click to play

Tuesday, October 19, 2004

Lileks and Dislileks

Most amature web enthusiasts would be thrilled to have a site as cool as The Gallery of Regrettable Food, which is a repository of truly awful recipie book excerpts from the 50's, 60's and 70's coupled with some very sharp commentary. The Gallery, however, is merely one annex of The Institute of Official Cheer which is, in turn, merely a wing of It is the sort of site that you can lose hours of time to with narry a regret.

The Institute's mission (such that it is) is to take an ironic look at the pop culture of days gone by. Although we live in a word where everyone is trying their hand at nostalgic irony, few aspire the competence and wit of James Lileks.

In addition to the Gallery of Regrettable Food, I particularly enjoy his send up of Little Big Book comics, his observations of the curiously misogynistic art of Art Frahm, and The Orphanage of Cast of Mascots, where he looks at little known and long defunct advertising mascots.

Friday, October 01, 2004

On Vacation

I'm sorry to report that this isn't an essay titled On Vacations but, rather, an announcement that I will be going on a two week vacation starting tomorrow.

Since I haven't joined the wireless laptop generation, and since I won't have reliable access to the internet and, most pertinently, since it is my vacation (dammit!) I won't be updating the site until I return.

For those who are interested in knowing when, precisely, that will happen, I highly recommend signing up with blogarithm. I use it, myself, to track the eight, or so, blogs that I regularly read and can vouch that it is an excellent service. You may note that, if you scroll all the way down to the bottom of the page, there is a convenient sign up form.

Of course, if you don't like blogarithm, there are a multitude of blog monitoring tools.

At any rate, if you are one of my regular readers, I sincerely hope that you'll be back when I return. The blog wouldn't be the same without you.

I'll see you on the 19th.

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