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Enlightenment Now

Book Notes

Okay, we know that I really disliked the first book I read that says things don't suck. Most of my intense dislike of the book comes from the Gladwell way that Ridley writes: "Let me state something as fact, give you a story that supports the fact, and claim it true for everything," which is, lets be open about this, quite what the whole Cheetoh delusion is about. The difference between Cheetoh and Ridley / Gladwell is that we like what Ridley / Gladwell are saying, so we don't go out and track down the sources and sees what's up. At least with Cheetoh, we know he's lying. With Ridley, we don't know, because he buried his sources and when we found them, we realized they were quoting other sources that quoted other sources and no one actually did much of the research.

Anyway. I'm grumpy. I'm not a fan of the everything is sweet and wonderful, because not everything is.

That said, show me the evidence, show me the data, and I will listen. Point out that pessimism is often used as a reason to do nothing, and I will hear you.

Show me where I am wrong, and I will change my mind.

Not about disliking a poorly supported book of anecdotes heralded as science, but about the progress of mankind.

This book does a great job at showing us just how much better we are with progress. However much we rail against the destruction of the planet, the injustices of the world, the atrocitities of men, and the shit people do to each other, in a collective way, we are much better off than we were 50 years ago, 100 years ago, 200 years ago, a millenium ago. We murder less. We starve less. We live longer. We have more opportunties.

We have different health problems, sure. Fewer women die in childbirth (yay!), more people die of drug overdoses (boo!). Fewer people die of the flu (yay!), more people die of Alzheimer’s (boo!). I don't know anyone who wants to go back to outdoor toilets, cleaning clothes by beating them, or an era without dentists, painkillers, easy transportation, or computers. "Roughing it" has its appeal in the ability to go back to not-roughing-it.

Which is what this book is saying. We are all "enlightened" similar to the Enlightenment, and that's a good thing according to Pinker. Many things happening in the world really suck, and we're heading in the wrong direction locally thanks to the deliberate greed in the Executive Branch of the United States, but overall, humans are in a better place than we have ever been.

This book is long. It took me a while to read it. If ever I were going to make an argument for tracking the number of book pages read instead of the number of books I've read, this book would be Exhibit A. I could (and should) have expected this book to break my rapid reading streak. I still recommend it, though, to anyone who can read a long book (I know a lot of people who can't or won't), or is interested in the topic, or wants to tell me that things are awful. The local might be horrible, but the global isn't.

The reason the punishment should fit the crime, for example, is not to balance some mystical scale of justice but to ensure that a wrongdoer stops at a minor crime rather than escalating to a more harmful one. Cruel punishments, whether or not they are in some sense “deserved,” are no more effective at deterring harm than moderate but surer punishments, and they desensitize spectators and brutalize the society that implements them. The Enlightenment
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Though everyone wants to be right, as soon as people start to air their incompatible views it becomes clear that not everyone can be right about everything. Also, the desire to be right can collide with a second desire, to know the truth, which is uppermost in the minds of bystanders to an argument who are not invested in which side wins. Communities can thereby come up with rules that allow true beliefs to emerge from the rough-and-tumble of argument, such as that you have to provide reasons for your beliefs, you’re allowed to point out flaws in the beliefs of others, and you’re not allowed to forcibly shut people up who disagree with you. Add in the rule that you should allow the world to show you whether your beliefs are true or false, and we can call the rules science. With the right rules, a community of less than fully rational thinkers can cultivate rational thoughts.
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So for all the flaws in human nature, it contains the seeds of its own improvement, as long as it comes up with norms and institutions that channel parochial interests into universal benefits. Among those norms are free speech, nonviolence, cooperation, cosmopolitanism, human rights, and an acknowledgment of human fallibility, and among the institutions are science, education, media, democratic government, international organizations, and markets.
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Since the 1960s, trust in the institutions of modernity has sunk, and the second decade of the 21st century saw the rise of populist movements that blatantly repudiate the ideals of the Enlightenment. 1 They are tribalist rather than cosmopolitan, authoritarian rather than democratic, contemptuous of experts rather than respectful of knowledge, and nostalgic for an idyllic past rather than hopeful for a better future.
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To take something on faith means to believe it without good reason, so by definition a faith in the existence of supernatural entities clashes with reason. Religions also commonly clash with humanism whenever they elevate some moral good above the well-being of humans, such as accepting a divine savior, ratifying a sacred narrative, enforcing rituals and taboos, proselytizing other people to do the same, and punishing or demonizing those who don’t. Religions can also clash with humanism by valuing souls above lives, which is not as uplifting as it sounds. Belief in an afterlife implies that health and happiness are not such a big deal, because life on earth is an infinitesimal portion of one’s existence; that coercing people into accepting salvation is doing them a favor; and that martyrdom may be the best thing that can ever happen to you.
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Enlightenment idea is that people are the expendable cells of a superorganism—a clan, tribe, ethnic group, religion, race, class, or nation—and that the supreme good is the glory of this collectivity rather than the well-being of the people who make it up. An obvious example is nationalism, in which the superorganism is the nation-state, namely an ethnic group with a government.
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Humans are a social species, and the well-being of every individual depends on patterns of cooperation and harmony that span a community. When a “nation” is conceived as a tacit social contract among people sharing a territory, like a condominium association, it is an essential means for advancing its members’ flourishing. And of course it is genuinely admirable for one individual to sacrifice his or her interests for those of many individuals. It’s quite another thing when a person is forced to make the supreme sacrifice for the benefit of a charismatic leader, a square of cloth, or colors on a map. Nor is it sweet and right to clasp death in order to prevent a province from seceding, expand a sphere of influence, or carry out an irredentist crusade.
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Defenders of the faith insist that religion has the exclusive franchise for questions about what matters. Or that even if we sophisticated people don’t need religion to be moral, the teeming masses do. Or that even if everyone would be better off without religious faith, it’s pointless to talk about the place of religion in the world because religion is a part of human nature,
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Yes, it’s not just those who intellectualize for a living who think the world is going to hell in a handcart. It’s ordinary people when they switch into intellectualizing mode. Psychologists have long known that people tend to see their own lives through rose-colored glasses: they think they’re less likely than the average person to become the victim of a divorce, layoff, accident, illness, or crime. But change the question from the people’s lives to their society, and they transform from Pollyanna to Eeyore.
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Whether or not the world really is getting worse, the nature of news will interact with the nature of cognition to make us think that it is. News is about things that happen, not things that don’t happen. We never see a journalist saying to the camera, “I’m reporting live from a country where a war has not broken out”—or a city that has not been bombed, or a school that has not been shot up. As long as bad things have
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The nature of news is likely to distort people’s view of the world because of a mental bug that the psychologists Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman called the Availability heuristic: people estimate the probability of an event or the frequency of a kind of thing by the ease with which instances come to mind. 11 In many walks of life this is a serviceable rule of thumb. Frequent events leave stronger memory traces, so stronger memories generally indicate more-frequent events:
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But whenever a memory turns up high in the result list of the mind’s search engine for reasons other than frequency—because it is recent, vivid, gory, distinctive, or upsetting—people will overestimate how likely it is in the world.
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Consumers of negative news, not surprisingly, become glum: a recent literature review cited “misperception of risk, anxiety, lower mood levels, learned helplessness, contempt and hostility towards others, desensitization, and in some cases, . . . complete avoidance of the news.” 15 And they become fatalistic, saying things like “Why should I vote? It’s not gonna help,” or “I could donate money, but there’s just gonna be another kid who’s starving next week.” 16
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This “ideological rather than accidental innumeracy” leads writers to notice, for example, that wars take place today and wars took place in the past and to conclude that “nothing has changed”—failing to acknowledge the difference between an era with a handful of wars that collectively kill in the thousands and an era with dozens of wars that collectively killed in the millions.
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Experiments have shown that a critic who pans a book is perceived as more competent than a critic who praises it, and the same may be true of critics of society. 27
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At least since the time of the Hebrew prophets, who blended their social criticism with forewarnings of disaster, pessimism has been equated with moral seriousness. Journalists
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The financial writer Morgan Housel has observed that while pessimists sound like they’re trying to help you, optimists sound like they’re trying to sell you something. 28 Whenever someone offers a solution to a problem, critics will be quick to point out that it is not a panacea, a silver bullet, a magic bullet, or a one-size-fits-all solution; it’s just a Band-Aid or a quick technological fix that fails to get at the root causes and will blow back with side effects and unintended consequences. Of
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Trump was the beneficiary of a belief—near universal in American journalism—that “serious news” can essentially be defined as “what’s going wrong.” . . . For decades, journalism’s steady focus on problems and seemingly incurable pathologies was preparing the soil that allowed Trump’s seeds of discontent and despair to take root. . . . One consequence is that many Americans today have difficulty imagining, valuing or even believing in the promise of incremental system change, which leads to a greater appetite for revolutionary, smash-the-machine change. 30
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Most people agree that life is better than death. Health is better than sickness. Sustenance is better than hunger. Abundance is better than poverty. Peace is better than war. Safety is better than danger. Freedom is better than tyranny. Equal rights are better than bigotry and discrimination. Literacy is better than illiteracy. Knowledge is better than ignorance. Intelligence is better than dull-wittedness. Happiness is better than misery. Opportunities to enjoy family, friends, culture, and nature are better than drudgery and monotony. All these things can be measured. If they have increased over time, that is progress.
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Max Roser’s Our World in Data, Marian Tupy’s HumanProgress, and Hans Rosling’s Gapminder.
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In my view the best projection of the outcome of our multicentury war on death is Stein’s Law—“ Things that can’t go on forever don’t”—as amended by Davies’s Corollary—“ Things that can’t go on forever can go on much longer than you think.”
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History is written not so much by the victors as by the affluent, the sliver of humanity with the leisure and education to write about it.
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“In 1976,” Radelet writes, “Mao single-handedly and dramatically changed the direction of global poverty with one simple act: he died.” 32
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For reasons we have seen, market economies can generate wealth prodigiously while totalitarian planned economies impose scarcity, stagnation, and often famine. Market economies, in addition to reaping the benefits of specialization and providing incentives for people to produce things that other people want, solve the problem of coordinating the efforts of hundreds of millions of people by using prices to propagate information about need and availability far and wide, a computational problem that no planner is brilliant enough to solve from a central bureau.
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In developing countries, inequality is not dispiriting but heartening: people in the more unequal societies are happier. The authors suggest that whatever envy, status anxiety, or relative deprivation people may feel in poor, unequal countries is swamped by hope. Inequality is seen as a harbinger of opportunity, a sign that education and other routes to upward mobility might pay off for them and their children.
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Many studies in psychology have shown that people, including young children, prefer windfalls to be split evenly among participants, even if everyone ends up with less overall. That led some psychologists to posit a syndrome called inequity aversion: an apparent desire to spread the wealth. But in their recent article “Why People Prefer Unequal Societies,” the psychologists Christina Starmans, Mark Sheskin, and Paul Bloom took another look at the studies and found that people prefer unequal distributions, both among fellow participants in the lab and among citizens in their country, as long as they sense that the allocation is fair: that the bonuses go to harder workers, more generous helpers, or even the lucky winners of an impartial lottery.
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Narratives about the causes of inequality loom larger in people’s minds than the existence of inequality. That creates an opening for politicians to rouse the rabble by singling out cheaters who take more than their fair share: welfare queens, immigrants, foreign countries, bankers, or the rich, sometimes identified with ethnic minorities.
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zero in on solutions to each problem: investment in research and infrastructure to escape economic stagnation, regulation of the finance sector to reduce instability, broader access to education and job training to facilitate economic mobility, electoral transparency and finance reform to eliminate illicit influence, and so on. The influence of money on politics is particularly pernicious because it can distort every government policy, but it’s not the same issue as income inequality. After all, in the absence of electoral reform the richest donors can get the ear of politicians whether they earn 2 percent of national income or 8 percent of it.
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Scheidel concludes, “All of us who prize greater economic equality would do well to remember that with the rarest of exceptions it was only ever brought forth in sorrow. Be careful what you wish for.” 28
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The explosion in social spending has redefined the mission of government: from warring and policing to also nurturing.
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And tellingly, the number of libertarian paradises in the world—developed countries without substantial social spending—is zero. 39 The correlation between social spending and social well-being holds only up to a point: the curve levels off starting at around 25 percent and may even drop off at higher proportions.
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In reality social spending is never exactly like insurance but is a combination of insurance, investment, and charity. Its success thus depends on the degree to which the citizens of a country sense they are part of one community, and that fellow feeling can be strained when the beneficiaries are disproportionately immigrants or ethnic minorities. 40 These tensions are inherent to social spending and will always be politically contentious.
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Today’s discussions of inequality often compare the present era unfavorably with a golden age of well-paying, dignified, blue-collar jobs that have been made obsolete by automation and globalization. This idyllic image is belied by contemporary depictions of the harshness of working-class life in that era,
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Income inequality, in sum, is not a counterexample to human progress, and we are not living in a dystopia of falling incomes that has reversed the centuries-long rise in prosperity.
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Inequality is not the same as poverty, and it is not a fundamental dimension of human flourishing.
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A second realization of the ecomodernist movement is that industrialization has been good for humanity.
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Economists speak of the environmental Kuznets curve, a counterpart to the U-shaped arc for inequality as a function of economic growth. As countries first develop, they prioritize growth over environmental purity. But as they get richer, their thoughts turn to the environment. 9 If people can afford electricity only at the cost of some smog, they’ll live with the smog, but when they can afford both electricity and clean air, they’ll spring for the clean air.
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Ronald Inglehart and Christian Welzel, using data from the World Values Survey, have found that people with stronger emancipative values—tolerance, equality, freedom of thought and speech—which tend to go with affluence and education, are also more likely to recycle and to pressure governments and businesses into protecting the environment. 10
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according to the ecologist Stuart Pimm, the overall rate of extinctions has been reduced by 75 percent. 31
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Like all demonstrations of progress, reports on the improving state of the environment are often met with a combination of anger and illogic. The fact that many measures of environmental quality are improving does not mean that everything is OK, that the environment got better by itself, or that we can just sit back and relax.
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The problem is that carbon emissions are a classic public goods game, also known as a Tragedy of the Commons. People benefit from everyone else’s sacrifices and suffer from their own, so everyone has an incentive to be a free rider and let everyone else make the sacrifice, and everyone suffers.
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I agree with Pope Francis and the climate justice warriors that preventing climate change is a moral issue because it has the potential to harm billions, particularly the world’s poor. But morality is different from moralizing, and is often poorly served by it.
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The enlightened response to climate change is to figure out how to get the most energy with the least emission of greenhouse gases.
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zones of anarchy are always violent. 28 It’s not because everyone wants to prey on everyone else, but because in the absence of a government the threat of violence can be self-inflating. If even a few potential predators lurk in the region or could show up on short notice, people must adopt an aggressive posture to deter them. This deterrent is credible only if they advertise their resolve by retaliating against any affront and avenging any depredation, regardless of the cost. This “Hobbesian trap,” as it is sometimes called, can easily set off cycles of feuding and vendetta: you have to be at least as violent as your adversaries lest you become their doormat.
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Here is Eisner’s one-sentence summary of how to halve the homicide rate within three decades: “An effective rule of law, based on legitimate law enforcement, victim protection, swift and fair adjudication, moderate punishment, and humane prisons is critical to sustainable reductions in lethal violence.” 32
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While the threat of ever-harsher punishments is both cheap and emotionally satisfying, it’s not particularly effective, because scofflaws just treat them like rare accidents—horrible, yes, but a risk that comes with the job. Punishments that are predictable, even if less draconian, are likelier to be factored into day-to-day choices.
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Troublemakers also have narcissistic and sociopathic thought patterns, such as that they are always in the right, that they are entitled to universal deference, that disagreements are personal insults, and that other people have no feelings or interests. Though they cannot be “cured” of these delusions, they can be trained to recognize and counteract them.
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Other terrorists belong to militant groups that seek to call attention to their cause, to extort a government to change its policies, to provoke it into an extreme response that might recruit new sympathizers or create a zone of chaos for them to exploit, or to undermine the government by spreading the impression that it cannot protect its own citizens. Before we conclude that they “pose a threat to the existence or survival of the United States,” we should bear in mind how weak the tactic actually is. 15 The historian Yuval Harari notes that terrorism is the opposite of military action, which tries to damage the enemy’s ability to retaliate and prevail.
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From their position of weakness, Harari notes, what terrorists seek to accomplish is not damage but theater.
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Though terrorists hope for the best, their small-scale violence almost never gets them what they want.
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Indeed, the rise of terrorism in public awareness is not a sign of how dangerous the world has become but the opposite.
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Harari points out that in the Middle Ages, every sector of society retained a private militia—aristocrats, guilds, towns, even churches and monasteries—and they secured their interests by force:
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As modern states have successfully claimed a monopoly on force, driving down the rate of killing within their borders, they opened a niche for terrorism: The state has stressed so many times that it will not tolerate political violence within its borders that it has no alternative but to see any act of terrorism as intolerable. The citizens, for their part, have become used to zero political violence, so the theatre of terror incites in them visceral fears of anarchy, making them feel as if the social order is about to collapse. After centuries of bloody struggles, we have crawled out of the black hole of violence, but we feel that the black hole is still there, patiently waiting to swallow us again. A few gruesome atrocities and we imagine that we are falling back in. 19
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As states try to carry out the impossible mandate of protecting their citizens from all political violence everywhere and all the time, they are tempted to respond with theater of their own.
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Instead, countries could deal with terrorism by deploying their greatest advantage: knowledge and analysis, not least knowledge of the numbers. The
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The media can examine their essential role in the show business of terrorism by calibrating their coverage to the objective dangers and giving more thought to the perverse incentives they have set up. (Lankford, together with the sociologist Erik Madfis, has recommended a policy for rampage shootings of “Don’t Name Them, Don’t Show Them, but Report Everything Else,” based on a policy for juvenile shooters already in effect in Canada and on other strategies of calculated media self-restraint.)
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Over the long run, terrorist movements sputter out as their small-scale violence fails to achieve their strategic goals, even as it causes local misery and fear.
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Political scientists are repeatedly astonished by the shallowness and incoherence of people’s political beliefs, and by the tenuous connection of their preferences to their votes and to the behavior of their representatives. 21 Most voters are ignorant not just of current policy options but of basic facts, such as what the major branches of government are, who the United States fought in World War II, and which countries have used nuclear weapons. Their opinions flip depending on how a question is worded: they say that the government spends too much on “welfare” but too little on “assistance to the poor,” and that it should “use military force” but not “go to war.” When they do formulate a preference, they commonly vote for a candidate with the opposite one. But it hardly matters, because once in office politicians vote the positions of their party regardless of the opinions of their constituents. Nor does voting even provide much of a feedback signal about a government’s performance. Voters punish incumbents for recent events over which they have dubious control, such as macroeconomic swings and terrorist strikes, or no control at all, such as droughts, floods, even shark attacks.
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They use the franchise as a form of self-expression: they vote for candidates who they think are like them and stand for their kind of people.
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When an election is a contest between aspiring despots, rival factions fear the worst if the other side wins and try to intimidate each other from the ballot box.
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The latest fashion in dictatorship has been called the competitive, electoral, kleptocratic, statist, or patronal authoritarian regime. 22 (Putin’s Russia is the prototype.) The incumbents use the formidable resources of the state to harass the opposition, set up fake opposition parties, use state-controlled media to spread congenial narratives, manipulate electoral rules, tilt voter registration, and jigger the elections themselves. (Patronal authoritarians, for all that, are not invulnerable—the color revolutions sent several of them packing.)
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In his 1945 book The Open Society and Its Enemies, the philosopher Karl Popper argued that democracy should be understood not as the answer to the question “Who should rule?” (namely, “The People”), but as a solution to the problem of how to dismiss bad leadership without bloodshed. 23
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Democracy, he suggests, is essentially based on giving people the freedom to complain: “It comes about when the people effectively agree not to use violence to replace the leadership, and the leadership leaves them free to try to dislodge it by any other means.”
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The contrast between the messy reality of democracy and the civics-class ideal leads to perennial disillusionment.
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Reviewing the history, Mueller concludes that “inequality, disagreement, apathy, and ignorance seem to be normal, not abnormal, in a democracy, and to a considerable degree the beauty of the form is that it works despite these qualities—or, in some important respects, because of them.” 26
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Its main prerequisite is that a government be competent enough to protect people from anarchic violence so they don’t fall prey to, or even welcome, the first strongman who promises he can do the job.
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Ideas matter, too. For democracy to take root, influential people (particularly people with guns) have to think that it is better than alternatives such as theocracy, the divine right of kings, colonial paternalism, the dictatorship of the proletariat (in practice, its “revolutionary vanguard”), or authoritarian rule by a charismatic leader who directly embodies the will of the people.
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Conversely, as people recognize that democracies are relatively nice places to live, the idea of democracy can become contagious and the number can increase over time.
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The freedom to complain rests on an assurance that the government won’t punish or silence the complainer. The front line in democratization, then, is constraining the government from abusing its monopoly on force to brutalize its uppity citizens.
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These red lines are not the same as electoral democracy, since a majority of voters may be indifferent to government brutality as long as it isn’t directed at them. In practice, democratic countries do show greater respect for human rights.
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