Thursday, February 2, 2012

Inventory of Political Positions


I follow politics a quite a bit, and have opinions about lots of stuff. I sometimes wish I had a nice, coherent framework to plug everything in, but that's regrettably not the case. In fact, I rarely even take stock of my political positions as a whole, rather than simply looking at things individually. Therefore this post—an attempt at making an inventory of sorts, of that part of the furniture of my mind that is labeled 'politics.'

Who knows, I might even come up with more posts on specific topics, since this is a very high-level overview.

Self-indulgent, but then what are blogs for?

Fundamental principles

I am a reformist, not a revolutionary. Revolutions are messy. Sometimes, but only very rarely, a system is so oppressive and locked-down that a revolution is the only way to reform it, and even more rarely, the system resulting from the revolution is clearly better than the one that preceded it. Usually revolutions get co-opted by the counter-revolution, or end up with tyrannies that make almost everyone even worse off. They are also difficult to roll back when things go wrong. Most revolutionary ideologies are also based on idealistic views of what a 'perfect' society ought to be like. I don't believe this can ever work. You can't wipe the slate clean. Every society is what it is; a hugely complex system of values, institutions, habits, relationships. Smashing the institutions will do little to change the substructure from which they grow, and that substructure does not change quickly.

This does not even consider the acute suffering inflicted on a society by violent revolution.

A reformist approach, on the other hand, is based on incremental change. We work with what we have, trying to make it better. We try something out and then roll back the change if it didn't work. It also lets you gradually evolve the social substructure towards something better than what it is. It is slow, but the cost of making mistakes is lower, and the process itself is inherently less violent than sudden revolutionary change.

The General Will Return
The General Will Return, Beirut, 2005. This was from the first of the Occupy movements...

As to the direction of change, I believe it should always be towards greater individual liberty. By "liberty" I mean something like "the number and quality of attractive options available to individuals in a society." This is considerably broader than the way most people who bandy the word nowadays use it. Libertarians, for example, tend to see liberty in narrowly economic and legal terms—freedom of contract, a free market, property rights. I believe that the liberty to stay at the Ritz or sleep under a bridge is a pretty shabby kind of liberty. If the accident of birth loads the dice so heavily that one baby has more than even odds of spending a part of his life in prison, whereas another is more than 75% likely to graduate from college, then that is wrong, and we ought to do something about it. Property rights, the market, and freedom of contract should be viewed in context of the power relations created and maintained within them.

There are two opposed ways of thinking about liberty. Classical liberalism and libertarianism take the view of negative liberty: they define liberty as freedom from interference by political power. They assume that a human being is intrinsically free, with that liberty abridged by laws, which therefore should be minimally intrusive. I subscribe to the opposite view. I think of liberty in terms of positive liberties—attractive options available to people at any given time. I believe that humans are intrinsically unfree, bound by chains of laws and social convention, blinkered by incorrect or overly narrow worldviews and lack of education, and walled in by lack of opportunity. Political freedom is only one aspect of this whole. The right to vote isn't worth much if the candidates are selected from among an oligarchy; equality before the law won't help if you're born in a slum and treated as a criminal from birth; citizenship means little if all your energy has to be directed to brute survival.

These approaches lead to different ways of thinking about the role of politics in the world. A libertarian would want to hack away at the restrictions on liberty explicitly imposed by laws; someone like me would try to identify the chains, walls, and blinkers that restrict the real choices people have, and use political power to break them.

This brings us to another important concept: equality. There can be no liberty without equality. Or, rather, liberty and power are conditional on each other. If power—economic, political, or other—is distributed unequally, then so is liberty. The flip side is that measures to reduce inequality will also limit liberty. This makes the maximization of liberty a very complicated optimization problem. I do not pretend to know what the optimum distribution of wealth or power to maximize liberty is, but I am certain that almost all societies that currently exist have too much inequality in both.

I do not always see eye to eye with libertarians.

Climb to Power
Climb to Power, Helsinki, 2005


I am socially liberal. I believe consenting adults should be free to live however the hell they please, as long as their choices don't deprive other consenting adults of similar freedoms. When such freedoms collide, we should arbitrate them in a way that maximizes them for the largest number of people. We must be extremely careful of restricting such choices, and should only do so for excellent reasons. When we do so, I prefer incentives and disincentives over a simple permitted/forbidden dichotomy.

Take narcotics, for example. It's clear by now that the current strategy of prohibition just isn't working. Thousands die in the war against drugs that's been going on for a century now, yet it's perfectly easy to get access to illegal narcotics anywhere. A far better approach would be to treat drug abuse as a problem to be managed rather than an evil to be eradicated. We already do that for tobacco and alcohol. Why not drugs as well?

I believe that the state and public institutions should be religiously neutral, and people should have the freedom to believe, practice, and worship as they please—or not, if they so choose. I believe a secular society is in the advantage of believers and atheists alike, and is in fact the only realistic way to construct a society in today's ever more interconnecting and multicultural world. Finland has two state churches, and I would like to see them eventually be treated the same way as any other organization of civil society; however, in practice both religious freedom and freedom from religion are very well realized even with the current arrangement, so I see no pressing need to push for formal separation of church and state at this time.

I believe in the right to national self-determination, and I believe this is best realized in a state that is nationally neutral, just like freedom of and from religion is best protected in a religiously neutral, secular state. States should not privilege one national group over another based on a mythos that declares that state as 'belonging' to that 'nation.' Minority nationalities should be afforded special protection, and given enough room to create cultural safe spaces so they're able to maintain and develop their cultures. Language is a practical matter. It is not practical to provide all services in all languages, so there must be a variety of regional languages of trade and administration in addition to local and national languages. The educational system must see to it that everybody has sufficient fluency in these languages in addition to their own.

I don't think the politics of sexuality even deserves much of a mention here, the conclusion is so obvious.

I'm a great believer in education. Nothing expands genuine freedom of choice quite as much as education. Democracies cannot function if the public is ignorant, and, conversely, oppressive polities can only persist as long as they keep their subjects in the dark. The best thing about Finland is our system of primary education. Our universities are nothing much to shout about, but we do a pretty fine job of making it possible for anyone, regardless of birth or location, to get a solid primary education that opens up possibilities elsewhere. That shows everywhere, and makes for a solid foundation for the future. Without good primary education, everything else will erode. The future of our world rests on the shoulders of primary schoolteachers.


I believe the most pressing problem humanity currently faces is the planetary ecological crisis. We are in the middle of—and the cause of—one of the mass extinctions that punctuate the history of life on Earth. I have no doubt the Earth will recover and evolution will repopulate the niches we have cleared, but that will take a million years or so, and will not be pleasant for us. We desperately need to stop the destruction of biodiversity, anthropogenic climate change, and unsustainable use of non-renewable natural resources.

One very positive development has been the rapid emergence and evolution of biological agriculture—that is, agriculture that is not based on massive use of phosphate fertilizers, monocultures, and chemical pesticides and herbicides. It will soon reach similar levels of productivity as chemically-driven factory farming. The big agricultural conglomerates have started to sit up and take notice, and to shift a part of their production to such methods, for economic rather than ideological reasons. People who are in it for the ideology hate this development (and, for what it's worth, I much prefer produce farmed by such people to produce farmed by a Monsanto subsidiary, biological or not), but if it's ever to make a real difference to the ecology, biological farming must become the norm rather than an indulgence for bobos who can afford it.

Besides which, phosphates will start to run out in another few decades. If we haven't figured out how to manage without them by then, we're kinda screwed.

As an aside, this is why I think vegans—ideological vegans, mind, not just people who only eat plants for some other reason—have got it wrong. Animals are a necessary part of biological agriculture. Fields need to be fertilized, and if we don't use phosphates, it'll have to be manure. It's not likely that we'll keep animals around just for the poop, and I don't see how that would be any more ethical than keeping them for milk, eggs, or meat. Perhaps recycled human waste will get a part of the job done too, but that does have some public-health issues that need sorting out.

At this point, this is just an aside, naturally. The current situation is that we eat way too much meat, so for the time being, the more vegans, the better. I think it'd be better if most people ate less meat, though, than some people eating none and the rest carrying on as before. I also think we ought to steer ourselves and each other to eating better meat—sustainably produced meat, rather than the factory-farmed stuff that imposes such awful conditions on the animals as well as having all kinds of other nasty side effects. It'll cost more, for sure, but then we wouldn't have to eat so much of it.

Crow Taking Flight With Frozen Treetops
Crow Taking Flight With Frozen Treetops, Helsinki, 2010

To stop climate change, we need to solve our energy problem. I don't believe it's likely that we'll persuade people to consume so much less that it'll make a difference soon enough; they'll only do that when they have no choice. Therefore, we should aggressively pursue any avenue that will wean us off fossil fuels.

Before the Fukushima disaster, I believed nuclear power would be a necessary part of this mix; however, it put a serious dent in my faith in our maturity as a society. I still think there's no technical reason we shouldn't be able to produce a great deal of our energy from nuclear power, but if even Japan isn't able to do it without cutting the corners that gave us Fukushima, perhaps we really shouldn't be doing it at all, and reserve nuclear power for the applications where there really is no other choice—planetary exploration, for example.

On the other hand, recent developments in the cost and efficiency of solar and wind power, as well as relatively simple ideas on improving the efficiency of distributing and allocating electrical power, have convinced me that we can get rid of fossil power without having to rely on nuclear. I asked many years ago why we don't just cover the Sahara with solar panels and run off that. This is now on the table, and, even better, the initiative is coming from the people living there rather than neo-colonial corporations wanting to profit off them.

But we really do need to kick the carbon habit, pronto. My vision for a post-carbon energy economy has us producing the electricity we need with solar and wind, buffering fluctuations with various methods such as pumping air underground or water uphill, and especially by producing hydrogen from water with electrolysis. The hydrogen can then replace gasoline and other chemical fuels we need to run motor vehicles.

I don't think biomass is a good idea, at least the way it's done now, because it relies heavily on factory farming chemically fertilized monocultures. If there's a way to sustainably harvest biomass from the sea or similar, then maybe.

Ultimately, we do need to change our social mores to something more sustainable as well. Ever-bigger TV's don't really add to anyone's happiness. We need to shift our consumption patterns away from throwaway material goods, back to fewer but more durable, more repairable goods and especially services. There simply aren't enough primary resources to keep producing junk at the rate we do.

And yeah, we do need to learn to recycle much, much better than we do now, too. Our landfills are full of perfectly usable primary materials. Eventually we'll have to start mining them. Before that, we need to stop filling them.


Economically, I'm a middle-of-the-road Euro-style market socialist. I believe the market is the best way to allocate scarce goods, if conditions permit a healthy market. By "healthy market" I mean a market that has a large number of participants participating on a relatively level field, with no huge information asymmetries, and nobody strong enough to be able to be predatory, and no externalities big enough to do much damage.

These kinds of markets are relatively uncommon, and they are not stable. Markets tend to concentrate wealth and power, which produces cartels, oligopolies, and monopolies. This is the situation in which the world finds itself once again.

Hauling Goods
Hauling Goods, Istanbul, 2011

Therefore, I believe that political power must regulate and police the markets pretty intrusively. Cartels, oligopolies, and monopolies must be broken up. Infrastructure which leads to 'natural' monopolies cannot be handed to the market at all; it must be maintained by direct public control. Externalities such as pollution must be priced in. Only governmental power can do this, and it can only do it effectively if it avoids regulatory capture by market participants.

This is why democracy—the active participation of informed citizens in governance—is so vital. Rejuvenation of our democratic traditions is the biggest political challenge we currently have. Without it, nothing will stop our slow slide back into feudalism.

There is at least one area in which most people would probably label me a 'radical.' This is intellectual property. I believe the system of copyrights, trade marks, and patents that define the way we relate to intellectual property is broken beyond repair. It has become a mechanism for rent-seeking. I'm willing to be convinced that we could still take it and go back to its roots, where patents and copyrights were short-term monopolies granted to the originator of an idea to encourage further innovation. However, at this time I'm skeptical about this possibility.

Transparency is vital to democracy. Our current system of intellectual property is hostile to transparency. It inhibits the dissemination of information, where it should encourage it. What's more, the means to enforce intellectual property are also admirably suited to controlling information flows and monitoring people's behavior. Measures like SOPA, PIPA, and ACTA corrode the very foundations of the open society that we've worked so hard to build. Whatever you may think of the notion of intellectual property itself, the measures copyright- and patent-holders have taken to protect it are fundamentally incompatible with democracy.

Therefore, I believe it would be better to scrap the idea of intellectual property altogether, allowing complete freedom to copy, modify, and disseminate ideas and information artifacts. This would, naturally, obsolete most economic arrangements built on the notion of intellectual property, but I'm quite certain new ones would emerge. There were composers, artists, actors, philosophers, scientists, inventors, and writers before the concept was formulated.

Being a reformist, I do not believe we should (or could) do this overnight. We must give enough time for these new models to grow.

In the meantime, I still don't pirate.

International relations

Another area of radicalism of mine has to do with international relations. I detest the notion of the nation-state. It was one of the worst political inventions ever, and I hope to live to see it being buried in the graveyard where duchies and kingdoms now reside. The idea that one 'nation' has the 'right' to a given piece of land has given us the worst wars and the most lethal massacres ever. I am in favor of any measure that weakens it, whether it's immigration, emigration, secession, federation, or confederation... as long as it does not involve weakening democracy, which I believe is even more important. I am an enemy of the nation-state. All of them.

This does not mean that I am against the concept of national identity, or national self-determination. On the contrary. I just believe very strongly that nations should not be given armies to play with. National self-determination is best, most fairly, and most safely realized in the context of a nationally neutral state, just like freedom of religion and protection of religious identity is best realized in the context of a religiously neutral, secular state.

Most of my positions on international politics spring from this principle. I am an internationalist. I would very much like to see the European Union weather its current crisis and emerge from it stronger, stabler, and above all more just and more democratic than before. I do not see any compelling reason why the current one-size-fits-all model of integration should be better than a model of concentric rings of deeper integration, contingent on the maturity and capacity of the polities joining it.

I think this new and improved EU should be built around Germany. They're the natural center of gravity of the EU as it is, and since we've pretty thoroughly wrung out the militarism from their culture, it'd be simplest just to rename it the Bundesrepublik Europa and have the rest of us join as new Länder, starting with North-Western Europe. Naturally, the door should be open for any country to join if it meets stringent entry criteria.

Besides, the eagle is cool.

Reichstag, Plenary Hall

I see no reason to deny countries like Turkey or Russia the possibility of joining either, if and when their polities and economies are similar enough to Germany's to make it feasible. In the meantime, I think we ought to have concentric rings of weaker integration, allowing countries to participate in the European project with whatever they have now.

I also believe any region should be able to de-integrate, should its people wish to do so. By 'region,' I mean any geographically and politically defined unit, from the municipality on up. A Europe of free cities loosely bound in a federation or confederation would not displease me at all; in fact, one historical precedent of ours that deserves a close look is the Hanseatic League. However, should a region want to divorce from the EU, I would consider it a serious setback for the European project. Integration should proceed because it is more attractive than isolation; if isolation becomes more attractive, then the way integration proceeds must change.

I believe one of the fundamental mistakes of the European project has been integrating too many countries, too deeply, too fast. There are some countries within the Eurozone which should not have been admitted (or applied to join), and some countries within the EU which should have the same status as Turkey today. If we had more concentric rings, I believe these problems would have been avoided, and everybody would have been better off.

I am, generally speaking, anti-interventionist. Interventions have a terribly poor track record, whatever the motives. The Libyan revolution appears to have already gone sour, with the winners imposing much the same hardships on the losers as Qaddafi would very likely have imposed on them, had there been no intervention. I am not categorically opposed to them, however; I believe that should someone have been in the position to intervene in the Rwandan genocide, for example, they should have. But the bar should be set very high, and regime change by an external power should always be off the table, however odious the regime. Yes, this applies to Syria, Iran, Burma, even North Korea.

I do not believe international politics is, or ever was, a zero-sum game. Nor do I believe that the only guarantee for peace and stability is a hegemonic power calling the shots. We can make a multipolar world work. In fact, we must—like it or not, American pre-eminence is in the past, just like European primacy. On the other hand, I don't think China or India will be in a similar position any time soon. We're also far more interdependent than we ever were. The only way to go is to negotiate. It won't be easy, but jaw-jaw beats war-war, as some limey put it.

The future

We're currently living through several upheavals. There is the ecological crisis of climate change and resource depletion. There's the demographic crisis of transitioning from exponential population growth back to stable or even declining populations. Most of our societies will go through a period where there will be lots more old people than young ones, after which things will sort themselves out again. We have the productive capacity to get through it with no problems at all; the difficulties are about distribution. That big, graying demographic bulge built that productive machine. It is in no way unfair that we and our children will see a good deal of 'our' production redistributed to our comfortably retired elders. They've earned it, and we will inherit that machine in our turn.

Once these upheavals have played themselves out—in another forty, fifty years or so, perhaps; maybe I'll even live to see it—the world will look a good deal different. Ultimately, I'm an optimist. I think we'll muddle our way through. It won't happen by itself, though; we will need all our ingenuity for it. We've gone through worse, and we've never had the kinds of tools we do now.

In the meantime, I believe very strongly that we shouldn't neglect doing the kind of stuff that makes it worth being human. We should continue to stage operas, explore the Solar System, do big science, construct beautiful architecture, play football world cups, create computer games, and generally make the most of our time here. None of us have all that much of it, after all.

Globe East, by NASA. Photos by NASA are in the public domain. Wouldn't it be cool if everything was?


  1. Beautifully presented and explained. Thank you.

  2. Hmm. You say that ideological vegans have it wrong, because we probably need some animals anyway. To me this is a bit like saying that Theravada monks have it all wrong, because survival of humanity requires some sex anyway.

  3. The difference is that Theravada monks don't say that everyone ought to be a Theravada monk.

  4. Sounds like you met some militant vegans. But I don't think they are all like that. Are your statistics good enough? :)

  5. Hence "ideological," and the explicit distinction with other people who only eat plants. You know, the "meat is murder" guys.

    Do you have any suggestions on how I could have made my intent clearer?

  6. (Also, before you suggest 'militant' rather than 'ideological,' that's not what I meant either. An ideological vegan is someone who believes that consumption of animal products is unequivocally wrong—"meat is murder"—and therefore nobody ought to do it; a militant vegan is someone who acts on that ideology in ways that defy social conventions and/or laws.)

  7. OK, that's one particular ideology. I get your meaning better now.

    As an aside, to me these guys seem to be pretty much right. Apparently over 99% of meat currently procuded is factory-farmed, so meat is not just murder but much worse. A huge environmental problem as well.

    So at the very least, some kind of counterbalance to the current culture seems to be sorely needed. We can worry about running out of animal shit later.

  8. Possibly, but I'm not quite sure of what the net impact they're having really is. I've been involved in discussions of vegetarianism, veganism, and meat-eating, and they tend to get fraught really fast. The reason is that even if they start out pragmatic, they quickly devolve into a discussion of principles, which goes nowhere fast.

    Ideological vegas are also often opposed to measures that could improve both the environment and animal welfare immediately. For example, many see efforts to improve factory-farming standards as wrong-headed, on the grounds that that will only perpetuate the greater wrong, which is animal exploitation itself.

    In other words, I agree with you on all of your substantive points—that we eat way too much meat, that most of that meat is factory-farmed, that factory-farming has huge ethical and environmental problems, that we can worry about running out of manure later, and that we need a counterbalance to the current culture of meat-eating.

    However, I have serious issues with ideological veganism—categorical and unqualified opposition to all use of animal-derived produce—as a candidate for that counterweight. On balance, I think it's doing more harm than good.

  9. "However, I have serious issues with ideological veganism—categorical and unqualified opposition to all use of animal-derived produce"

    Yes, that point of view seems pretty extreme. I agree.

  10. Interesting viewpoints and well-structured. Too long to go through each point, but since we're talking politics... What do you think of your newly-elected government ?

  11. We elected a president; parliament's been in session since last year, and the government for not much less than that. I'm overall pretty happy; Haavisto would've been my first choice, but Niinistö and Lipponen were pretty close seconds.

    Niinistö is relatively moderate for a conservative and was running on a "green" platform, especially for the second round—he made climate change one of his main planks, actually. I'm glad neither of the anti-immigration/euroskeptic/social-conservative candidates (Soini and Väyrynen) made it to Round 2, although of course that did piss off that part of the electorate. The "election machines" give my politics approximately 85% overlap with Haavisto's, and 78% with Niinistö's, so they're both fairly close. My main differences with Niinistö are about economics, and those are more a matter of degree than principle, and in any case the president doesn't have much say over economic policy at all.

    As to the government/parliament, it's been muddling along. One good side effect of the True Finn success has been that a number of issues that have previously been swept under the rug are now in the open; the hitherto latent racism here is now on the table and being seriously challenged. Both sides have had to adjust, and I think the usual Finnish instinct to grousing while finding some kind of realistic consensus is reasserting itself.

    So overall I'm pretty happy with the situation in Finland. Wish I could say the same about Europe in general.

  12. You've stayed quite consistent over the years. Gotta like that. We've still got more overlap than you ever really acknowledged, which of course means that you're largely right. :) Unfortunately, you still haven't gotten over your habit of including "and then a miracle occurs" in your proofs on occasion, but nobody's perfect. As an example, your plan for IP explicitly calls for trashing a functional system and replacing it with something wholly undefined. I would also question the viability of your "world without guns" theory, but that comes down to a debate over human nature so neither side can really claim to be "objectively right".

    Overall, not too bad for a pinko commie Euro. :) Hope you're doing well, PJ.

  13. dte, you're supposed to sign with your name, not with the name of the person you're addressing.
    Like this,


    1. I know that. PJ equals Prime Junta, not me. That's a directed pleasantry, not a signoff.