Surprising Detail

I read an excellent article off the back of an open question from Paul Graham on Twitter: Reality has a surprising amount of detail, by John Salvatier. It uses building stairs and boiling water to demonstrate that things are almost always more complicated than they seem:

Surprising detail is a near universal property of getting up close and personal with realityBefore you’ve noticed important details they are, of course, basically invisible. It’s hard to put your attention on them because you don’t even know what you’re looking for… This means it’s really easy to get stuck.

This was a good aperitif to Can Anyone Reshape the State? by Nicolas Colin, which looks at Dominic Cummings’ prospects for reshaping the British state, an undertaking full of hidden complexity if there ever was one. I appreciated his invocation of Gall’s Law, which I hadn’t heard of before:

“A complex system that works is invariably found to have evolved from a simple system that worked. A complex system designed from scratch never works and cannot be patched up to make it work. You have to start over, beginning with a working simple system.”

Nicolas agrees that the state could do with a make-over, but expects that Cummings’ efforts will fail. If so, I am sure that surprising detail will have played a part.

Efficiency and legitimacy

Any political system is a compromise between efficiency and legitimacy, balancing a government’s ability to act against the certainty that its citizens support the government’s actions. So says Against Elections: The Case for Democracy*, a book I first read a few years ago but which I have been reminded of ahead of the UK elections on the 12th December.

The UK selects its Parliamentary representatives through a First Past The Post electoral system which errs on the side of efficiency (it reliably produces governmental majorities, recent history excepted), but perhaps with a loss of legitimacy (there hasn’t been a party winning more than 50% of overall votes since 1935).

Meanwhile a key factor in the election is the Brexit referendum. We can all agree that referendums aren’t an efficient way to govern a country, but the legitimacy of the Brexit referendum is in the eye of the beholder. Some argue that it is the UK’s most legitimate political result in living memory, voted for by 17.4 million people (more than have ever voted for a single political party in a General Election). While others question its legitimacy on grounds of misinformation (based on what we know now) or technicality (it’s not legally binding). One thing which is clear is that our Parliamentary system is not designed to deliver on the outcome of referendums if there is ambiguity involved, and I don’t know if this election will change that.

Regardless, according to Jean-Jacques Rousseau, we are currently living in a rarefied period of time:

“The people of England regards itself as free; but it is grossly mistaken; it is free only during the election of members of parliament. As soon as they are elected, slavery overtakes it, and it is nothing.” ― Jean-Jacques Rousseau, The Social Contract

That seems a little drastic to me. But either way please remember to vote on December 12th.

* More broadly the book talks about the mistaken conflation of elections and democracy, proposing a deliberative democracy alternative, but that’s not for now.

Four million signed

Over four million people have signed the “Revoke Article 50 and remain in the EU” petition.

I am one of them.

I am sure some of the signatories did it without hesitation, agreeing with every word. I am sure others were like me: hesitant, for one reason or another. Maybe wondering whether it was trying to do too much (why not just “Revoke Article 50”, to stop the runaway train?) Or wondering what it meant for democracy in our country. Or maybe just indifferent, disillusioned with the whole thing, and skeptical whether it will make any difference.

I signed in the end, given my overall affinity and continued preference for Remain, but also to register my distaste at the state of things in Westminster. I also signed to be part of the larger group, a whole raising its collective voice.

I had the same sensation walking through Westminster yesterday amongst the marchers. Sure, we all shared common ground, but we were also all different – in our focus, in our passion, in our certainty. In what we wanted, and how we defined ourselves.

I expect that commentators and politicians (and normal people) will treat the signers and the marchers as one, a group with one voice, one view. But I know that not to be the case for us (the marchers, the signatories). We are heterogeneous. We contain multitudes.

I am sure that is always the case for groups on either side of a divide. If it is true for “us”, I am sure it must be for “them” as well.