Posted by: bmeverett | June 2, 2014

Friedman Watch 6-2-14


Everyone holds some views which are more or less contradictory, and struggling to reconcile those views is a constructive and intellectually important part of life. The right starting point for this process is recognizing that your views do conflict and avoiding the trap of forcing them to fit together when they really don’t. Thomas Friedman has been struggling for a very long time with his mutually exclusive opinions on democracy and totalitarianism and writes periodic columns attempting to reconcile these ideas. I first pointed this out in my post of January 17, 2010 in which he expressed admiration for the Chinese leadership who can spend their time doing the right things instead of worrying about getting elected. Mr. Friedman is at it again in his May 24, 2014 New York Times column entitled “Memorial Day 2050.”

In this piece, Mr. Friedman bemoans the fact that the American public is insufficiently motivated to follow his advice on climate change because they are “skeptical or preoccupied with the demands of daily life”. Heaven forbid that voters be skeptical of a pundit who instructs them on what to believe. Mr. Friedman is overjoyed to have found a new and creative solution to this problem in the form of a recommendation by a young Dutch philosopher named Thomas Wells. Mr. Wells is a post-doc fellow at Erasmus University in Rotterdam who suggests that a certain bloc of votes, say 10%, be reserved for “trustees” who would take the interest of future generations into account in the democratic process. According to Mr. Wells, those interests include “decarbonizing the economy” and the trustees would be “nongovernmental civic and charitable foundations, environmental groups and nonpartisan think tanks”. In other words, the Ford Foundation and Friends of the Earth get extra votes to offset the provincialism and short-term bias of the peasantry, who could care less about their children and grandchildren.

Apart from the oxymoron of non-partisan think tanks with voting power and the absurdity of charging environmental organizations with understanding the future (cf. the population bomb, acid rain, global cooling, The Silent Spring, alar, ethanol, etc.), the logical problems with this line of thinking should be obvious. Mr. Friedman starts out with the premise that he has acquired some eternal truths, particularly the link between fossil fuels and catastrophic climate change. He has thought these issues through and is absolutely convinced of the correctness of his thinking. Therefore, by definition, people who disagree with him must be flawed in some way. They are perhaps not very bright or motivated by selfish considerations or, in Mr. Friedman’s latest criticism, “preoccupied with the demands of daily life” and therefore unable to think clearly. This is the root premise of totalitarianism.

Lenin was the first to put into practice the idea of a small group of right-thinking people (The Vanguard of the Proletariat) seizing power and exercising it on behalf of the people. Since the people had limited consciousness (“clueless” in today’s parlance), smart people would rule in such a way that the broad masses would eventually enjoy utopia and be grateful. The first task for the vanguard, of course, was to eliminate the people’s enemies, and somehow those in power never got beyond that stage.

Democracy, however, is a powerful moral idea, and even Lenin was careful to create a veneer of democracy. He spoke of “democratic centralism”, i.e., a system in which anyone could voice his opinion until Lenin had made up his mind. Then everyone had to shut up and do as they were told. Lenin’s state was called the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. China is called the People’s Republic of China. Iran is called the Islamic Republic of Iran, and even North Korea is called the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea and not the Pitiless Dictatorship of Kim Jong Un.

Virtually all countries try to present a democratic face to the world. Iran, for example, holds periodic elections, but only among candidates pre-approved by the unelected rulers. The idea is that people should be free to choose, but only within a narrowly defined range of possible outcomes. This seems to be exactly what Mr. Friedman has in mind. Americans should be allowed to vote, but certain outcomes, i.e., decarbonization of the economy, should not be at issue. If, for example, the American electorate is divided 50/50 on what to do about climate change, the 10% special voting rights for right-thinking people would create the proper majority. What would happen if 90% of the population voted against Mr. Friedman’s views of appropriate climate change action is not clear.

I suspect that if you had asked Lenin privately, he would have admitted he had no interest in democracy, which he regarded as purely tactical. He wanted certain outcomes from the political process, and he was bound and determined to get them one way or another. It seems to me that it’s time for Mr. Friedman to abandon his effort to have it both ways. He really doesn’t believe in democracy. He believes in getting his way. A statement to that effect would at least have the virtue of honesty, something sorely lacking in “Memorial Day 2050”.

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