Monday, January 24, 2011

Scott Adams is "Out to Lunch"

I usually enjoy posts by Scott Adams, creator of the cartoon Dilbert, on his blog. But from time to time he lets his idiotic "libertarian" silliness slip out. Today he has posted something outrageous. It simply misunderstands democracy. It shows an idolatry of "corporations" which is odd coming from the cartoonist who lampoons the idiocy of big companies:
Freedom of Data

You and I learned in school that freedom of speech is a fundamental right that all people should enjoy. There's a practical reason for that. Without freedom of speech, governments and other moneyed interests would be in a position to abuse their power even more than they already do. And obviously voters need uncensored information in order to shape their government. Democracy only works when citizens and the media enjoy freedom of speech.

But what if freedom of speech is only a benefit in a democratic system?

China's system, as I have written before, reminds me more of a corporate structure, or a meritocracy. In a corporation, you're generally free to disagree with higher ups if you do it with data, and in a professional manner. Usually you need to go through proper channels, but dissent is generally allowed, and sometimes actively encouraged. If you're a jerk about your disagreement with your superiors, or you don't have persuasive data to back up position, you could get fired. But that's a stupidity issue, not a freedom issue.

China's leadership is packed with engineers and lawyers by training. I imagine that like any corporation, they appreciate the value of information when presented in a professional manner, and through proper channels. Unlike elected politicians, managers in a meritocracy are free to change position as new or better data emerges. The advantage of having only one political party is that everyone is on the same team. And if effectiveness is the goal, which apparently it is in China, I assume that new data is generally welcome.

An American politician is likely to lose his next election if he "flip flops" on an issue, even if the reason for the change is that new information has emerged. In that environment, practical politicians simply take the position that their party has established, confident that the free media will present both sides of every argument regardless of where the data leads. A free press has the perverse effect of increasing the volume of information while simultaneously reducing its usefulness.

A free press is also a huge distraction. I would imagine that at least half of all the time and effort our elected officials put into their jobs has something to do with managing the media. Compare that to a corporate system in which managers are also concerned with image, but they focus most of their energy on getting the job done. I imagine that Chinese leaders have a similar freedom to act in accordance with data. And I imagine they spend little or no time worrying about how the media will treat them, since they control it.

What about the jailing of dissidents in China? On a human level, it certainly feels wrong to imprison someone simply for speaking out. It feels even more wrong when the dissident's only goal is to improve the lives of his or her fellow citizens. And it seems pure evil if the dissident has valid criticisms.

But what if the dissidents themselves are the ones who have it wrong? Suppose a dissident is stirring up public emotions in a direction that could be detrimental to the interests of a billion fellow citizens? Suppose, for example, the dissident is agitating for freedom of speech, a right that would be fitting for a democracy, but would be nothing but trouble - perhaps serious trouble - in the Chinese system. In that case, should the Chinese leadership value the freedom of this one individual over the wellbeing of a billion others? What would Spock say?

I'd like to be perfectly clear that I know almost nothing about the Chinese system, and absolutely nothing about any particular dissidents. My emotional reaction is that no one should be in jail for voicing an opinion. But the rational side of me doesn't have any data to support the notion that the Chinese people would be better off with complete freedom of speech, especially since we know that free speech encourages leaders to ignore data.

America has freedom of speech. China has freedom of data. Where do you place your bet?
Why is the above outrageous? Because it presents an idiotic idolization of corporations as benevolent, efficient, rational institutions. But his cartoons work because they poke fun at the incompetence and stupidity of organizations. In the above post he makes this completely ridiculous claim:
The advantage of having only one political party is that everyone is on the same team.
That doesn't pass the laugh test. Anybody who has worked inside a corporation knows that there is palace intrigue going on all the time with factions trying to topple to boss at the top. Even when they aren't out to get the boss, the incentive system in most corporations means that divisions will sabotage each other so they will "look better" at year end and get the big bonuses. People don't cooperate if they can see a way to chop off a competitor at his knees!

Tell the Tunesians that "having only one political party" is an advantage. They has a dictator at the top that made sure everybody was on the same "team". It was a team dedicated to looting the country. Worse, most governments are not "unified". Like all human institutions they are riven by rivalries and filled with incompetents. We are lucky that this was especially true of the Nazis, otherwise we would all be living under Scott Adams's ideal of a "competent" corporate overlord, our Fuhrer.

The point of "freedom of speech" is not to ensure that only highly educated, mentally competent, well organized people get to comment. It is a mechanism to allow those at the bottom of society to blow off steam and give warning signals to the elites that they are about to blow and that the elites better do something to make life for the oppressed a little easier or they could find their heads in a guillotine. Freedom of speech is the mechanism to assure what Winston Churchill saw as the strength of democracy:
Many forms of Government have been tried and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.
Democracies are messy. They drive rationalists to despair. Surely there is some better "more rational" way to organize society. But the problem is that whatever organization you come up with, the guys at the top get power and power corrupts. You need a mechanism to let the oppressed to peacefully overthrow the corrupt elite. The best mechanism. A very weak and irrational and unpredictable mechanism is democracy. With the vote you can "throw out the bums". In Tunesia, you spend years rotting under a corrupt regime until some tragic even like Mohamed Bouazizi's suicide sparks protests, clashes, and deaths that finally force out the corrupt elite. This report from the NY Times:
The antigovernment protests began a month ago when a college-educated street vendor named Mohamed Bouazizi in the small town of Sidi Bouzid burned himself to death in despair at the frustration and joblessness confronting many educated young people here. But the protests he inspired quickly evolved from bread-and-butter issues to demands for an assault on the perceived corruption and self-enrichment of the ruling family.

The protesters, led at first by unemployed college graduates like Mr. Bouazizi and later joined by workers and young professionals, found grist for the complaints in leaked cables from the United States Embassy in Tunisia, released by WikiLeaks, that detailed the self-dealing and excess of the president’s family. And the protesters relied heavily on social media Web sites like Facebook and Twitter to circulate videos of each demonstration and issue calls for the next one.


In his last days Mr. Ben Ali cycled through a series of attempts to placate the protesters, firing his interior minister, pledging a corruption investigation, promising new freedoms and a resignation at the end of his term in 2014, and finally dismissing his whole cabinet.

But his promises did no more than the bullets or tear gas to dissuade the protesters from taking to the streets. After hearing Mr. Ben Ali promise in a televised address on Thursday night to stop shooting demonstrators, crowds began to gather outside the Interior Ministry along Bourguiba Boulevard early Friday morning. And when it became clear that the police were standing idle on sidelines, several thousands more joined them, a largely affluent crowd including doctors, lawyers, young professionals and others who said they had never protested before.

For the first time in the month of protests, large numbers of young women joined the crowd, almost none wearing any form of Islamic veil.

Many, accustomed to living under one of the region’s most repressive governments, were both excited and uneasy about their new sense of freedom. “We are too many now, we are too big, it is more difficult to silence us,” one woman said, grinning. “But for us it is new to talk. We are still a little bit scared,” she added, declining to give her name.
Democracy is a much, much, much better way to change corrupt governments.

But Scott Adams has shown himself to be an idiot by idolizing the Communist regime in China as the "way of the future". Well, I only hope that Scott Adams moves there to enjoy the "benefits" of that society with its block watches, its imprisonment with anybody or anything -- including religions -- that the ruling elite thinks threatens them. It would be appropriate for Adams to take up residence there only to find that the "leadership" doesn't approve of cartoons and he finds himself in prison for life for his "violation of social order". He would have years and years to appreciate the glories of efficient "corporatist" government in China.

OK... I realize that Scott Adams probably only wrote the above post to provoke people like me. He probably doesn't believe what he says. He has done it to simply "stimulate" discussion. But the problem I see is that too many people idolize Scott Adams and can't recognize a simple ploy to get attention and mistakenly assume that it is truly and honestly well thought out and a sincerely held view. It isn't. It is the morning hiccup from a cartoonist -- a libertarian cartoonist -- who fails to appreciate the deep roots of democracy and the utter failure of utopian dreams of "rationalizing" society. The 19th and 20th century are littered with the bodies of something like 200 million victims of "rational" utopian politics from the Nazis, Communists, Fascists, to bloody dictators like Saddam Hussein and petty tyrants in the US like Huey P. Long, Tammany Hall, Father Coughlin, the Chicago Democratic machine, Tom Pendergast's Democratic machine, etc.

It is so easy to assume that there is a "sugar daddy" out there who really, really wants to take care of you, give you good things, and removes all of life's burdens from your shoulders. But it isn't true. Democracy is messy, ugly, and a continuous struggle. But it is the only form of government that over the long haul gives the greatest good to the greatest number of people. It isn't perfect. But it is better than the rest, even the over-heated imagination of an "ideal" society by Scott Adams.

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