Elections and the general will

Looking back at the debate over the Spanish election outcome, it struck me that many of the contributions to this debate suffered from a confusion between electoral outcomes and notions akin to Rousseau’s “general will”. My own contributions weren’t entirely free of this fallacious reasoning.

To clarify my point, suppose purely hypothetically it could be shown beyond doubt that, in the absence of the terrorist attacks, the PP would have won, and that those who changed their votes did so in the hope that this would appease terrorists and induce them to direct their attacks elsewhere. Much of the debate has taken it as self-evident that, if this were true, then it could justly be said that the Spanish people had displayed cowardice, given in to Al Qaeda and so on. But even in this hypothetical case,k this would not be true. It would only be true that the 5 per cent or so who changed their votes had done this.

To take a marginally less controversial example, one way of interpreting the results of the most recent presidential election in the US is that the voters couldn’t make up their minds between Gore and Bush and decided, instead, to leave the choice up to the Supreme Court. Stated baldly, the claim seems evidently silly, at least to me, but when I checked, it wasn’t hard to find exactly this analysis being offered by Time Magazine
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My new blog is growing up

Like teenage acne, the arrival of comment spam, with the corresponding need to install MT Blacklist, is a sign that a new blog is making its way into the world, being noticed by search engines and, inevitably, by spambots. So, Morse Michael, while I won’t be ordering your viagra and phentermine, I’m not entirely disappointed to say “Hello and Goodbye!”.

Reference hyper-inflation ?

The phenomenon of recommendation letters for students being written by the student was discussed a few months back, but, as recommendation letters aren’t a big deal here in Australia, I didn’t pay much attention. Today, however, I met a new version of this. I got an email from someone in the US, previously unknown to me, attaching a CV and a draft recommendation letter, and asking me to sign it. I declined without reading the CV, and without formulating a precise reason. Has anyone else encountered this?

Thanks to commenters

A variety of recent events, leading to the need to read comments threads at other blogs more than I usually do, have reminded me of the contribution made to this blog by commenters[1], regular and occasional. On almost any issue, I can count on getting incisive comments, both critical and supportive. And even though some of us get bad-tempered from time to time, the tone of debate has remained civilised and constructive. I’ve been pulled up from time to time by my commenters when I’ve lost my own temper, or tried out arguments that seemed clever to me, but turned out to be too-clever. Equally, I’ve been pleased to see, in recent disputes, that commenters who rarely agree with my position on the issues have supported my view of what constitutes legitimate debate as opposed to misrepresentation.

If you’ve been reading for a while, and thinking about posting a comment, why don’t you try it now? Anonymity is assured if you want it, and you won’t get an aggressively hostile response unless you deliberately set out to provoke it.

Anyway, thanks again to all the commenters who make such a big contribution to this blog, and thanks also to all my readers!

fn1. “Commenters” or “Commentators”? I’m not sure.

No consensus in Copenhagen (updated)

Via reader Gangle, I came across this Disinfopedia entry, which indicates that three of seven board members of Lomborg’s Environmental Insitute Assessment have resigned in protest at the Copenhagen Consensus conference he is organising. Two others resigned at the same time “to take up other assignments”. The original story is from the Copenhagen Post

Lomborg’s renewed expression of concern with development issues, and belief that they should take priority over responses to global warming, is of interest in view of the fact that the Danish government that set up the Institute, and installed Lomborg as its head (despite his lack of any relevant qualification) has repeatedly cut foreign aid. As a political appointee of the government, Lomborg can be presumed to endorse its policies unless he dissents from them publicly.

Last time I pointed this out, a number of commenters argued that Lomborg could not fairly be accused of hypocrisy, since the Institute was concerned only with environmental issues, and Lomborg could not be expected to agree with the government on issues outside his area of responsibility. I felt that, at the very least, I had failed to make my case convincing, and decided instead to take Lomborg at face value (start here and work back).

It now appears, however, that development and aid issues are within the Institute’s remit, though the departing board members apparently disagreed that they should be. The Copenhagen Post story cites Environmental Minister Hans Christian Schmidt saying “It is regrettable that the board members cannot stay at their posts and work on with the project,” said. “I am surprised as the conference seems to fit in perfectly with the institute’s aims.”

Influencing Al Qaeda (crosspost from Crooked Timber)

Much of the value of a blog like Crooked Timber is in the comments threads, but the signal to noise ratio is inevitably low, especially when flame wars erupt. I thought this point by Donald Johnson responding to Chris’ post on the Spanish election (and disregarded in subsequent comments) was valuable enough to justify more prominence.

If al Qaeda has the capability to plant bombs and kill hundreds of people, they’re going to do it however they interpret the Spanish election. They might plant their bombs before elections if they think they can influence them, or they might plant their bombs where there are large crowds on some special date, or they might choose some big symbolic target again, like the Pentagon or the WTC. The point is to stop them, not to worry about how they might read election results except to the extent that understanding what they think might give clues on what their next target is going to be.

Exactly right. The idea, that by doing what al Qaeda (supposedly) wants[1] we are sending a message that will influence them to do more of the same directly contradicts the overwhelming evidence that al Qaeda is unconditionally committed to terroristic war against us, and cannot be dissuaded from it (evidence that has been stressed more on the right of the blogosphere than anywhere else). They cannot be influenced, only incapacitated.

fn1. This applies equally to the Spanish election result and to Bush’s decision to pull US troops out of Saudi Arabia.

The mental health crisis

Along with children’s welfare, mental health seems to be the chronic disaster area of our social services. It’s not hard to see why – the problems aren’t amenable to simple one-size-fits-all bureaucratic solutions (let alone the market solutions beloved of so many policymakers), and those most directly affected rarely get heard. Still, it’s one of the tests of a civilised society how well we respond to the needs of those who can’t voice their own demands, and it’s not a test we’re passing at present. Regular reader Graeme Bond has written the story of his own family’s tragedy and the policy failures that contributed to it. Well worth reading and thinking about.


I was a bit distracted from the news yesterday by my own concerns, as a result of being verballed by Tim Blair and his goon squad. So I missed the more important fact that much the same thing was being done to AFP Commissioner Mick Keelty, who was accused by Foreign Minister Alexander Downer of “expressing a view which reflects a lot of the propaganda we’re getting from al-Qaeda”.[1] Under this attack, and more pressure from Howard, Keelty buckled and said his remarks had been taken out of context. Meanwhile, Downer put in a truly pathetic performance on Lateline trying to back away from his smear of Keelty (link via Chris Sheil).

A point of minor interest is that the Oz buries the entire story deep in a feel-good piece headed “Terror war gets $400m budget lift”. Clearly, Murdoch is in full campaign mode.

UpdateThis is truly pathetic

fn1. As readers should be aware by now, I don’t in fact agree with the view, imputed to Keelty, that our participation in the war in Iraq raised the risk of a terrorist attack because it offended Osama bin Laden. But Howard, Bush and Blair have increased the risk of a terrorist attack in Australia. They have done this by failing to fight terrorism effectively, preferring instead to go after Saddam Hussein, alienating much of the Islamic world in the process. It is they, and not Keelty who have assisted Al Qaeda’s propaganda machine. (I have scanned the preceding as carefully as possible for any source of ambiguity that might leave me open to (Tim) Blairing. I can’t find it, but no doubt Blair will).

What part of "NOT" doesn't Tim Blair understand?

My posts on the Spanish election outcome have generated plenty of discussion and trackbacks, both here and in the crossposting at Crooked Timber, but nothing as bizarrely obtuse as this piece from Tim Blair. He quotes (without the emphasis I’ve added[1]) the final para

“The key element of the case against Blair, Aznar and Howard is not that they’ve stepped to the forefront of the war against terrorism when prudence would have dictated leaving the Americans to fight it by themselves,” writes Australian economist John Quiggin. “Rather it’s that they’ve aided and abetted the Bush administration in its decision to use the war against terrorism as a pretext for settling old and unrelated scores.”

then, after a long digression on the Spanish Caliphate, comes back to my post, reading as if the word not had been omitted, saying “leaving America to fight this war by itself would be “prudent” to the point of shame.”

With sufficient ill-will, it would be possible, as one of Tim’s commenters suggests, to read this as not only. But no-one who read the entire post could possibly sustain this.

Update In a long and tedious comments thread to his post, Tim Blair stands on his right to misrepresent anyone whose words he finds ambiguous, and is backed up by his inane cheer squad. I used to wonder how Blair could believe in the WMD story, not only before the war, but as recently as October last year. Now that I’ve seen the reality filter in action, I don’t wonder any more.

fn1. The emphasis was included in an email I sent Tim, protesting about a previous similarly bizarre episode in which he put up my Monday Message Board notice (posted, as it happens, before I’d heard the outcome of the Spanish election) as my “reaction” to the election outcome. He changed this (before reading my email – reader “warbo” had already protested) but then proceeded to compound the offence in this way.