Living Free together

We are a richly diverse society. Our fellow citizens have different religions, tastes, and political views. When expressed by mature, good-hearted people, this makes for very interesting dinner parties and cultural life. An important reason we have successfully lived together harmoniously in the past is that our laws and culture leave us free to make our own choices and live as we see fit. But this requires a general agreement and commitment to allow such diversity and broadly accepted rules or norms for our interactions with others. It requires treating others and their choices with respect and knowing where the social boundaries are. It also requires trust in and respect for the institutions that oversee and mediate our social interactions.

When the person we voted for losses, we must respect the result. All the more so the loser herself must respect the choice of the majority of voters. When a court passes judgement, we must respect it. When we disagree with proposals from the “other side”, we should clearly state the reasons for our disagreement rather than condemning them as enemies.

We seem close to losing these minimal requirements of a peaceful, free society. The present atmosphere has turned poisonous. Violence in response to outcomes we don’t like—threatened by some shameless politicians —would be a huge loss to to the orderly and peaceful life we have known.

One element of this poison—this atmosphere of hate—is the perpetration of lies (or of misinformation to use a more polite term). Social media has made it easier to spread lies. But it would be terribly wrong and contrary to the values that have helped our flourishing, to blame Facebook, Twitter, etc. for circulating lies. It’s fine to offer suggestions to them for improving the quality and usefulness of their platform, but we are the ones circulating the lies. “Social media and fake news” The hammer that drives a nail or smashes a head is not the perpetrator of either. The person holding the hammer determines its use.

Yesterday two respected friends tweeted the following:

“Last night, Dem Mary Peltola was elected to US House beating Sarah Palin — even though in the first round of ranked-choice-voting, Peltola finished 4th, with just 10% of the votes, compared to Palin’s first-place finish of 27%”

But this is a total lie. I don’t know who invented it (and it was surely not for honorable reasons) but my friends must accept the blame for their role in retweeting it. The truth, as reported in the Washington Post (and I confirmed it with the WSJ) is that:

“Peltola had nearly 40 percent of first-choice votes after preliminary counts, which put her about 16,000 votes ahead of Palin. [Only] Half of the Alaskans who made Begich their first choice ranked Palin second,”

If that all sounds a bit strange, it reflects the operation of the innovative and promising rank choice voting.

One of the structural weaknesses in our system that we need to fix is the establishment of congressional districts that are “safe” for one or the other party. This tends to favor primary candidates with more extreme views who then are pretty much guaranteed to win in the general election. Thus, rather than strengthening the center, which is more representative of the population at large, we are strengthening the two extremes.

Rank choice voting, which was used in Alaska, is a structural change in the election process that can help lower the temperature and restore political representative who are more broadly representative of their continuance. Such structural changes can be helpful and are needed, but at the end of the day we must each take personal responsibility for our own actions. Tweeter does not post or retweet anything.  We do and we need to take our personal responsibilities seriously.

It is helpful from time to time to remind ourselves of the enormous progress our societies have made in the last several centuries after tens of thousands of years with no progress. Marian Tupy and Gale Pooley have just provided us with a beautiful collection of such data in their just published book Superabundance: The Age of Plenty“Superabundance”  This is what we have to lose.