In Praise of Passivity Michael Huemer
Citation (APA): firstname.lastname@example.org. (2014). In Praise of Passivity Michael Huemer [Kindle Android version]. Retrieved from Amazon.com
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esempi di ignoranza: protezionismo e terrorismo l ignoranza degli esperti valori: disaccordo disaccordo su tutta la linea come riconoscere quel che sappiamo xchè tanta ignoranza? 2 teorie (rat ign rat irrat) come distinguere l idealista dall ipocrita le scienze sociali sono scienze? conseguenze pratiche: nn votare trascura i problemi sociali indebolisci la democrazia non lottare x i tuoi ideali male fatto e male non impedito. asimmetria complessità. intervenire o no. asimmetrie
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In Praise of Passivity Michael Huemer
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Voters, activists, and political leaders of the present day are in the position of medieval doctors. They hold simple, prescientific theories about the workings of society and the causes of social problems, from which they derive a variety of remedies– almost all of which prove either ineffectual or harmful. Society is a complex mechanism whose repair, if possible at all, would require a precise and detailed understanding of a kind that no one today possesses.
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x SOCIETÀ E IGNORANZA
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the wisest course for political agents is often simply to stop trying to solve society’s problems.
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x LA SOLUZIONE SUBOTTIMA
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2. What Don’t We Know?
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2.1. Public Ignorance of the Political System
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Michael Delli Carpini and Scott Keeter give the flavor of public political knowledge in America: The most commonly known fact about George [H.W.] Bush’s opinions while he was president was that he hated broccoli. During the 1992 presidential campaign 89 percent of the public knew that Vice President Quayle was feuding with the television character Murphy Brown, but only 19 percent could characterize Bill Clinton’s record on the environment. Also during that campaign, 86 percent of the public knew that the Bushes’ dog was named Millie, yet only 15 percent knew that both presidential candidates supported the death penalty.
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x IGNORANZA PROV DEGLI AMERICANI
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International data indicate that Americans’ political knowledge is no more than moderately below average.[ 12,
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x APPENA SOTTO LA MEDIA
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2.2. Descriptive Social Theory: The Neglect of Expert Knowledge
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Fortunately, in some areas of social theory, one can find a clear, policy-relevant consensus among the experts. Unfortunately, this consensus is often boldly defied by both political leaders and the general public.
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x ESPERTI E PUBBLICO
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The vast majority of economists– the people whose profession is to study these kinds of things– oppose protectionism and believe that it harms the domestic economy. 2
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even left-wing economists such as Paul Krugman, famous for advocating government management of the economy,[ 21] have signed on to this consensus.
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When experts from opposite sides of the political spectrum converge on a given position, in contradiction to conventional opinion, who is the more likely victim of a cognitive bias: the community of experts, or the uneducated masses?
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A second example is provided by the issue of terrorism,
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X ES TERRORISMO
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Experts whose careers center on the study of terrorism generally agree that terrorism functions as retaliation for specific government policies, especially for foreign military occupation of territories that the terrorists prize.[ 27,
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Political leaders in countries subject to terrorist attacks, however, typically blame the attacks on fundamental and irreconcilable clashes of values, on the moral virtue of their own country and the sheer evil of the terrorists.
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x POPOLO E SCONTRO DI CIVILTÀ
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They hate our freedoms: our freedom of religion, our freedom of speech, our freedom to vote and assemble and disagree with each other.
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2.3. Descriptive Social Theory: The Limits of Expertise
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In light of the ignorance of typical political leaders and members of the general public, we might be tempted by the idea of rule by experts, as in Plato’s Republic.[ 28]  Unfortunately, when it comes to descriptive social theory, even the experts’ knowledge is unimpressive, as demonstrated recently by the social psychologist Phillip Tetlock.
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x ESPERTI E TETLOCK
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the best experts did only slightly better than chance at predicting outcomes.
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x POCO MEGLIO
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What the experts were good at was rationalizing their failures.
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Might it be that experts have highly reliable beliefs about these untestable matters? There is no reason to think so. Typically, if a person proves unreliable whenever you actually test that person’s claims, it is reasonable to assume that that person is also unreliable with regard to the claims you did not test.
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x MATERIE NN TESTABILI
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Thus, experts are probably even less reliable when it comes to these untestable matters.
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2.4. Evaluative Knowledge
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There is no generally accepted theory– either among ordinary people or among experts– for any of the central evaluative categories of moral or political philosophy. There is no generally accepted theory of the good, the right, justice, authority, human rights, equality, or liberty.
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x DISACCORDO SULL ETICA
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We may be tempted to argue that while other people are unreliable about evaluative questions, we ourselves have the correct values.
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x IO HO RAGIONE
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I would suggest that we ought to be very suspicious of any attempt to treat ourselves as special,
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x IO NN SONO SPECIALE
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2.5. What We Know
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I think we know that slavery is unjust, that democracy is superior to dictatorship, that torture is almost always wrong, that free markets work better than communist planning.
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x COSE CHE SAPPIAMO
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People often vociferously defend a policy while having no awareness of the literature on the subject.
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x LA LETTERATURA
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How can we recognize genuine political knowledge? I cannot offer a precise or complete answer to this question.
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x COME RICONOSCERE LA CONOSC
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Genuine political knowledge tends to be: 1. Simple.
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2. Accepted by experts.
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x SOGGETTA A ECCEZIONI
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5. Specific and concrete.
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6. Supported by appropriate evidence.
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7. Undefeated by counter-evidence.
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Consider now the claim that democracy is better than dictatorship. This claim fares reasonably well with respect to the above list.
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x ES DEMOCR
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3. Why Don’t We Know?
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3.1. Rational Ignorance and Irrationality
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The benefits of political knowledge are dubious. For the overwhelming majority of individuals, political knowledge makes no practical difference to how their lives go, since the probability of their causing a change in public policy is approximately zero.
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x L IGNORANZA POLITICA È RAZIONALE
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The costs of political knowledge, however, can be enormous, beginning with the costs in sheer time and effort.
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cultivation of habits of epistemic rationality.
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x UN COSTO PARTICOLARE
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1. People act only when the benefits exceed the costs. 2. The benefits of acquiring political knowledge are minimal. 3. The costs of acquiring political knowledge are substantial. 4. Therefore, people will not acquire political knowledge.
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x CONCLUSIONE IN TRE PUNTI
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politician may have strong motives to discover which positions are popular among voters and campaign contributors. But this is quite a different matter from discovering which policies are truly best.
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x L INFORMAZ NEI POLITICI
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3.2. Who Cares about the Good of Society?
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most of those who think of themselves as deeply moved by high ideals are not in fact so moved. This may seem a surprising claim. How
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x SENTIRSI SANTI
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I suggest that these individuals are chiefly moved, not by a desire for some noble ideal, but by a desire to perceive themselves as working for the noble ideal– not,
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x SENTIRSI IN PACE CON SE STESSI
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there is at least one way of distinguishing the desire for X from the desire to perceive oneself as promoting X. This is to observe the subject’s efforts at finding out what promotes X.
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x DISCERNERE I FALSI SANTI. COME FARE?
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It seems to me that most people who expend a great deal of effort promoting political causes expend very little effort attempting to make sure their beliefs are correct.
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x I FATTTI. NESSUNO STUDIA
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3.3. Social Theory Is Harder than You Think
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There is another reason why human beings are terrible at figuring out political issues: it is a lot harder to figure things out than it appears.
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x SS È DIFFICILE. PIÙ CHE LA SCIENZA DURA
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We now know that all of these theories are utterly wrong, not even close to the truth. Yet all were widely accepted by the experts for centuries.
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x ELENCO TEORIE FALSE PER SECOLI
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the number of possible theories of any given phenomenon is enormous, if not infinite. Of these, all but one are false. So given just the information that T is a theory, the probability that T is correct is approximately zero.
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x NUMERO DELLE TEORIE POSSIBILI: INFIN
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Another factor is the widespread phenomenon of confirmation bias: when we think about a hypothesis, our natural tendency is to look for evidence supporting the hypothesis, not to look for ways of falsifying it. 7
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x BIAS OVUNQUE. CONF BIAS
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We now test hypotheses experimentally, making serious and explicit efforts at falsification. But when it comes to political ideology, no such techniques have been developed.
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x POLITICA E IDEOLOGIA
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questions are difficult to investigate because of the unavailability of controlled experiments. If we want to test whether fiscal stimulus cures recessions, we cannot prepare two identical societies, with identical recessions, and then apply fiscal stimulus in one society but not the other.
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x NO LABORATORI
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social phenomena are vastly more complex than the phenomena studied by physicists and chemists.
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Generalizations about human behavior almost always contain “ceteris paribus” clauses. Almost any factor influencing our behavior can be amplified or moderated by numerous other factors. When we move to the behavior of an entire society, matters are only that much more complicated. If there are laws of social evolution, they are no doubt incredibly complex.
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x COETERIS PARIBUS
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But as Tetlock found, this rarely happens; most experts prefer to explain away their errors in ways that preserve the experts’ theoretical beliefs.
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4. Practical Lessons
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Fortunately, however, we are not completely ignorant, and we can derive some plausible recommendations for political agents.
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x NO ALLO SCETYICSMO ASSOLUTO
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4.1. Don’t Vote
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Imagine that someone asks you for directions to a local restaurant. If you have no idea where the restaurant is, you should not make it up. You should not tell the person some guess that seems sort of plausible to you. You should tell them you don’t know and let them get directions from someone more knowledgeable.
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Ignorant voting is even worse than ignorant giving of directions, because voting is an exercise of political power (albeit a very small one)– to vote for a policy is not only to make a recommendation, but to request that the policy be imposed on others by force.
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One might suggest that citizens have an obligation to become informed, and then vote. But becoming sufficiently informed to know who is the best candidate in a given election is typically extremely difficult.
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x TROPPO ONEROSO IMPORRE L INFO
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4.2. Neglect Social Problems
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Consider for example the problem of recreational drug use, which leads to health problems, addiction, and general deterioration of the lives of drug users and their families. Perhaps there is something government could do to solve the problem. But given the ignorance of political leaders, activists, and the public, a government attempt to solve the problem is unlikely to succeed.
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x ESEMPIO DROGA
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one might think that, if we were completely ignorant, our policies would be as likely to increase as to reduce the problem; but as long as we have some relevant knowledge and understanding, and we are aiming at a reduction in the problem, we should be at least slightly more likely to alleviate the problem than to exacerbate it.
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x OBIEZIONE: QUALCOSINA SO
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four reasons why this is wrong.
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First, any government policy that imposes requirements or prohibitions on citizens automatically has certain costs. One cost is the reduction of citizens’ freedom.
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x LA PROIB È GIÀ UN COSTO
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suffering on the part of those who violate the law and are subsequently punished by the legal system.
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x COSTO DEL PUNITO
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the monetary cost involved in implementing the policy.
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x COSTO BUROCRAZIA
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moral presumption against coercive interventions.
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x ETICA LIBERTY FIRST
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when the state actively intervenes in society– for example, by issuing commands and coercively harming those who disobey its commands– the state then becomes responsible for any resulting harms, in a way that the state would not be responsible for harms that it merely (through lack of knowledge) fails to prevent.
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x L OMISSIONE CI RENDE MENO COLPEVOLI
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Fourth and finally, a policy made under conditions of extreme ignorance is not equally likely to be beneficial as harmful; it is much more likely to be harmful.
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x PROB DANNO SEMPRE MAGGIORI
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It is here that we must recall the case of George Washington. Washington’s doctors, ignorant of the germ theory of disease and lacking in antibiotics, had no chance of curing Washington’s infection. The human body is a complex mechanism with parts that work together in specific ways. Nearly all things one might add to or take away from the body, and nearly all ways in which one might rearrange the parts of the body, will interfere with that mechanism. Indeed, almost all large changes in the body are fatal. Thus, given their state of ignorance, almost any treatment the former President’s doctors prescribed could be expected to be harmful. Society can be viewed as a vast mechanism, whose parts (individual human beings), like the parts of an organism, work together in extremely complex ways. 9
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x ESISTE UN EQ NATURALE: TURBARLO IN MODO INAPPROPRIATO È SEMPRE DANNOSO
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I am not arguing that states should never intervene in society. Some interventions are clearly justified. For instance, prohibitions on murder, theft, and assault are justified. What differentiates these from, say, a prohibition on recreational drug use? A number of differences might be cited, 10 but what is most relevant to this paper is the difference in the state of our knowledge with respect to these prohibitions. We know that prohibitions on murder are beneficial– there are no real counter-arguments to the claim, and all experts agree.
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x INTERVENTI PLAUSIBILI
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Rather than recommending universal non-intervention, I am advocating a strong burden of proof for those who advocate legal demands or prohibitions.
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x ONERE DELLA PROVA
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The same lesson applies to many other controversial issues, such as gun control, fiscal stimulus, the minimum wage, immigration, and so on.
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x CASI DUBBI DI NN INTERVENTO
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4.3. Weaken Democracy
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for issues that are controversial or require careful reasoning or specialized knowledge, democracy is about the equivalent of drawing policies out of a hat.
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x DOVE NN FUNZIONA LA DEMOCR
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When an issue is controversial, the best solution is not to simply take a vote; the best solution is to remove the issue from the political arena– that
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It is perhaps infeasible for a Constitution to include prohibitions on all the policies that would be controversial or whose effects would be unknown. A reasonable proxy would be to require large supermajority votes for the passage of any law. For example, a state could be designed in which a 70% vote of the legislature would be required to pass any new law, while a 30% vote would suffice to repeal any existing law.
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4.4. Don’t Fight for What You Believe In
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Fighting for something, as I understand the term, involves fighting against someone. If one’s goal faces no (human) opposition, then one might be described as working for a cause (for instance, working to reduce tuberculosis, working to feed the poor) but not fighting for it. Thus, one normally fights for a cause only when what one is promoting is controversial.
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x SI LOTA SOLO SE C È era N NEMICO
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Fighting for a cause has significant costs. Typically, one expends a great deal of time and energy, while simultaneously imposing costs on others, particularly those who oppose one’s own political position. This time and energy is very likely to be wasted, since neither side knows the answer to the issue over which they contend.
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x I COSTI DELLA CAUSA
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In many cases, the effort is expended in bringing about a policy that turns out to be harmful or unjust.
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x ESIYI DEPRECABILI
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Thus, suppose you are deciding between donating time or money to Moveon.org (a left-wing political advocacy group), and donating time or money to the Against Malaria Foundation (a charity that fights malaria in the developing world). For those concerned about human welfare, the choice should be clear. Donations to Moveon.org may or may not affect public policy, and if they do, the effect may be either good or bad– that is a matter for debate. But donations to Against Malaria definitely save lives. No one disputes that. 12
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x UN CSSO ESEMPLARE
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