Category Archives: civic theory

decentralization and civic capacity in Ukraine

Ukrainian friends have been telling me for a decade about the value of decentralization in their country. Some have even argued that it helped prepare Ukraine for an effective and motivated military defense.

A new paper by Arends, Brik, Herrmann and Roesel (2023) offers relevant quantitative evidence. The authors explain that, in “2014, the Parliament of Ukraine amended the budget code to entitle villages and cities which amalgamated voluntarily into larger local governments, so-called ‘territorial hromadas’ …. Hromadas therewith become independent from local branches of the national administration. The newly created local governments also qualified for a 60 percent share of the personal income tax collected within their jurisdiction.”

In 2015, the hromadas gained power over schools, libraries, hospitals and health centers, local roads, and fire and emergency services. In 2018, they were also given “ownership of formerly state-owned land within their jurisdiction.”

The process was popular and widespread. By 2020, “more than 10,000 Ukrainian villages, settlements and cities were amalgamated into 1470 new hromadas now enjoying considerable autonomy over local affairs.”

Arends et al show that areas with and without hromadas started with similar levels of trust in local and national government, but the ones that created hromadas saw substantial increases in trust for local (but not national) government. This empirical evidence is strongly suggestive that the reform caused trust to rise.

Here are a few reflections based on theory and studies from other countries.

First, I don’t read the paper as a general argument for decentralization, per se. Independent Ukraine had inherited a highly centralized system from the Soviet Union, and it was wise to moderate that by strengthening the local layer. The study does not imply that more power should necessarily be devolved to localities if they are already strong.

More important, I suspect, was the way the reform was designed. Contiguous communities were permitted to assemble themselves voluntarily into hromadas. This was a bottom-up process, requiring substantial agreement at the local level. One advantage was avoiding corruption: politicians and bureaucrats could not extract benefits by deciding which new local units to create or by conferring autonomy on favored local leaders. Another advantage was civic experience. Quite a few local stakeholders had to come together to negotiate and present each plan for a new hromada. They would later be able to use their network-ties, deliberative experience, and confidence for other purposes.

Second, trust in government is not intrinsically desirable. People should distrust bad governments. Some have argued that “trust” is not quite the right word for an attitude toward the state, which should rather inspire “confidence” if it functions well.

But we have survey data on trust, and the authors make good use of it to support a valuable empirical case. Still, the really interesting question is whether governance improved as a result of the reform. For example, did corruption fall? Trustful opinions may indicate improvement, because citizens are well placed to assess government, but I think the accuracy of their opinions deserves further attention.

At the same time, trust in government is often found to be a component of the construct labeled “social capital.” And social capital is a resource that communities can use to address problems–including corruption. But although trust in government is empirically a component of social capital (meaning that it correlates with the other components), it doesn’t suffice. It would be interesting to know whether Ukrainians in hromadas also developed other aspects of social capital, such as habits of participating in discussions and meetings and helping each other voluntarily.

Reference: Helge Arends, Tymofii Brik, Benedikt Herrmann, Felix Roesel,
Decentralization and trust in government: Quasi-experimental evidence from Ukraine,
Journal of Comparative Economics, 2023. See also: two approaches to social capital: Bourdieu vs. the American literature; social movements depend on social capital (but you can make your own); civilian resistance in Ukraine, revisited.

turning away from disagreement: the dialogue known as Alcibiades I

The dialogue known as Plato’s Alcibiades I is now widely believed to have been written after Plato’s death, hence by someone else (Smith 2003). Perhaps that is why no one has ever told me to read it. But it is an indisputably ancient text, and it’s a valuable work of philosophy.

In several places, Michel Foucault discusses Alcibiades I as the earliest text that offers an explicit theory of what he calls “spirituality” (Foucault 1988, 23-28; Foucault 1981, 15-16). For Foucault, spirituality is the idea that reforming one’s soul is a necessary precondition for grasping truth. One way to summarize Alcibiades I might be with this thesis: You are not qualified to participate in politics until you have purified your soul enough that you can know what is just. That is an anti-democratic claim, although one that’s worth pondering.

At the beginning of the dialogue, we learn that Alcibiades will soon give a speech in the Athenian assembly about a matter of public policy. He is talented, rich, well-connected, and beautiful, and his fellow citizens are liable to do what he recommends. Athens is a rising power with influence over Greeks and non-Greeks in Europe and Asia; Alcibiades aspires to exercise his personal authority at a scale comparable to the Persian emperors Cyrus and Xerxes (105d). However, Alcibiades’ many lovers have deserted him, perhaps because he has behaved in a rather domineering fashion (104c). Only his first lover, Socrates, still cares for him and has sought him out—even as Alcibiades was looking for Socrates.

Alcibiades admits that you should not expect a person who is handsome and rich to give the best advice about technical matters, such as wrestling or writing; you should seek an expert (107a). Alcibiades plans to give a speech on public affairs because it is “something he knows better than [the other citizens] do.” (106d). In other words, he claims to be an expert about politics, not just a celebrity.

Socrates’ main task is to dissuade Alcibiades from giving that speech by demonstrating that he actually lacks knowledge of justice. Alcibiades even fails to know that he doesn’t know what justice is, and that is the most contemptible form of ignorance (118b).

Part of Socrates’ proof consists of questions designed to reveal that Alcibiades lacks clear and consistent definitions of words like “virtue” and “good.” The younger man has no coherent theory of justice. This is typical of Socrates’ method in the early dialogues.

A more interesting passage begins when Socrates asks Alcibiades where he has learned about right and wrong. Alcibiades says he learned it from “the many”–the whole community–much as he learned to speak Greek (110e, 111a). Socrates demonstrates that it is fine to learn a language from the many, because they agree about the correct usages, they retain the same ideas over time, and they agree from city to city (111b). Not so for justice, which is the main topic of controversy among citizens and among cities and which even elicits contradictory responses from the same individuals. The fact that the Assembly is a place of disagreement shows that citizens lack knowledge of justice.

In the last part of the dialogue, Socrates urges Alcibiades to turn away from public affairs and rhetoric and instead make a study of himself. That is because a good city is led by the good, and the good are people who have the skill of knowing themselves, so that they can improve themselves. For Foucault, this is the beginning of the long tradition that holds that in order to have knowledge–in this case, knowledge of justice–one must first improve one’s soul.

Socrates verges into metaphysics, offering an argument that the self is not the observable body but rather the soul, which ought to be Alcibiades’ only concern. This is also why Socrates is Alcibiades’ only true lover, for only Socrates has loved Alcibiades’ soul, when others were after a mere form of property, his body.

The dialogue between the two men has been a conversation between two souls (130d), not a sexual encounter or a public speech, which is an effort to bend others’ wills to one’s own ends. Indeed, Socrates maintains from the beginning of the dialogue that he will make no long speeches to Alcibiades (106b), but will rather permit Alcibiades to reveal himself in response to questions. Their dialogue is a meant, I think, as a model of a loving relationship.

Just to state a very different view: I think there is rarely one certain answer to a political question, nor is there a decisive form of expertise about justice. However, good judgment (phronesis) is possible and is much better than bad judgment. Having a clear and structured theory of justice might be helpful for making good judgments, but it is often overrated. Fanatics also have clear theories. What you need is a wise assessment of the particular situation. For that purpose, it is often essential to hear several real people’s divergent perspectives on the same circumstances, because each individual is inevitably biased.

Socrates and Alcibiades say that friendship is agreement (126c) and the Assembly evidently lacks wisdom because it manifests disagreement. I say, in contrast, that disagreement is good because it addresses the inevitable limitations of any individual.

Fellow citizens may display civic friendship by disagreeing with each other in a constructive way. Friendship among fellow citizens is not exclusive or quasi-erotic, like the explicitly non-political relationship between Alcibiades and Socrates, but it is worthy. We need democracy because of the value of disagreement. If everyone agreed, democracy would be unnecessary. (Compare Aristotle’s Nic. Eth. 1155a3, 20.)

Despite my basic orientation against the thesis of Alcibiades I, I think its author makes two points that require attention. One is that citizens are prone to be influenced by celebrities–people, like Alcibiades, who are rich and well-connected and attractive. The other is that individuals need to work on their own characters in order to be the best possible participants in public life. But neither point should lead us to reject the value of discussing public matters with other people.

References: Smith, Nicholas D. “Did Plato Write the Alcibiades I?.” Apeiron 37.2 (2004): 93-108; Foucault, “Technologies of the Self: A Seminar with Michel Foucault,” edited by Luther H. Martin, Huck Gutman and Patrick H. Hutton (Tavistock Press, 1988); Foucault, The Hermeneutics of the Subject, Lectures at the College de France 1981-2, translated by Graham Burchell (Palgrave, 2005). I read the dialogue in the translation by David Horan, © 2021, version dated Jan 1 2023, but I translated the quoted phrases from the Greek edition of John Burnet (1903) via Project Perseus. See also friendship and politics; the recurrent turn inward; Foucault’s spiritual exercises

Generous Listening Symposium

This week, I am helping to lead a research symposium on “Generous Listening in Organizations” in partnership with the Vuslat Foundation. The main topic is listening to colleagues, including supervisors and employees. This practice is important for society and it matters to me, as a long-time middle-manager in a large organization (a university).

I also come into this conversation as someone who studies politics, broadly defined, and who believes that a better understanding of listening may create fruitful openings for strengthening democracy.

There is a vast literature on political communication, speech and rhetoric, deliberation, debate, and the public sphere–defined as the institutions in which people express their views. This topic is important because we do not automatically hold opinions, even about our own circumstances. We usually obtain our views through communication, which can go either well or badly. We can be persuaded to sacrifice for the common good or to become murderous racists. We can be persuaded that we are citizens of the world or members of narrow communities. Political action then follows communication.

Listening is one side of this exchange. It is certainly not absent in the literature but is less often discussed than the other side: speaking.

The research on political communication is diverse and nuanced, but quite a lot of it is critical. Survey-based research in the United States–and in many other countries–often finds that people are ill-informed, biased, and incoherent. I semi-facetiously summarize the overall message of current political science as: “People are stupid and they hate each other.”

The specific findings are often valid and worth consideration, but the overall message may hamper efforts to improve civic life. The message is most discouraging when the specific findings are linked to general claims about human beings, e.g., that we are naturally self-interested or that we evolved to use heuristics helpful in small groups of hunter-gatherers that fail to equip us for responsible self-government at a mass scale. If human beings have deep psychological limitations for participating in democracy, then perhaps we had better shore up our most basic safeguards (especially the peaceful transition of power after each election), and not be distracted by more ambitious democratic ideals.

I start with a different assumption. I presume that we exchange ideas in artificially designed settings that can help us to be wise or foolish: assembly halls, churches, newspapers, classrooms, laboratories, online networks, and many more. Designing and expanding good settings requires a degree of optimism about human potential. Therefore, research that implies we are hard-wired to be foolish can discourage people from working to build better institutions. And when our institutions are weak, we tend to think and behave in troubling ways that research then reveals, thereby reinforcing the researchers’ skepticism–a classic vicious cycle.

A focus on listening might help break the cycle. The evidence is pretty strong that when we form and state opinions, we are not as wise as we believe. We offer reasons for what we think and value that sound good to us–they sound like explanations of our views. But often, we have formed our views intuitively and then merely rationalized them in speech. Furthermore, our intuitions are unreliable, because they often reflect cognitive biases, selfishness, and limited empathy.

However, there is also evidence that we can be pretty good at listening. We can assess the reliability and competence of speakers and the cogency of their claims. In turn, our assessments of others’ statements can shift our intuitions. Indeed, Mercier & Sperber (2017) argue that we evolved to do this–to scan our human environment for people whose views are worthy of trust.

But then the questions include: How can we listen well? And how can we design institutions to enable and reward good listening?

Reference: Mercier, Hugo and Dan Sperber, The Enigma of Reason, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press 2017. See also: how intuitions relate to reasons: a social approach; how the structure of ideas affects a conversation; An agenda for R&D for democracy etc.

Providence College talk on What Should We Do?

This is the video of my Jan. 31 presentation about my recent book, What Should We Do? A Theory of Civic Life at The Providence College Humanities Forum, along with a Q&A session with good questions from the audience. The presentation should make sense and, I hope, have some value for people who don’t read the book. I am grateful to my Providence College friends for the opportunity.

civic leverage

The illustration with this post illustrates an idea from my book What Should We Do? A Theory of Civic Life, but it is not included in the book (because I just thought of it.)

The circle labeled “institutional design” refers to a process of establishing rules, norms, membership criteria, etc. for any group. Unless an institution evolves from its predecessors, it is usually designed by a single founder or a small leadership team. An inchoate collection of people cannot design an institution from scratch. Only once the design is reasonably effective will many human beings be able to coordinate their behavior sufficiently to accomplish anything worth discussing. The options for designs include democratic processes, market mechanisms, strong leaders, bureaucratic structures, and many more.

From a civic perspective, a good institution is one that encompasses some variety of perspectives and values and that enables its members to express their contrasting views in ways that inform the whole. The circle labeled “conversation about values” can mean a deliberative democracy, but it can take many other forms as well. For instance, although the Catholic Church does not purport to be a democracy, it is a rich platform for discussion and debate. Conversations about values increase the chances that a group will make wise choices and allow individuals to exercise voice and agency, which is part of a good life.

When people in a functioning group discuss values, they may motivate themselves to make sacrifices (the third circle in the diagram). Even an ordinary voluntary association asks people to spend time attending its meetings. A movement that confronts violent repression may ask its participants to put their lives at extreme risk. The degree of contribution varies, but some level is inevitable. “Organization is sacrifice,” as WEB DuBois once wrote.

Sacrifice can affect the original institutional design. For instance, an ordinary voluntary association will wax or wane depending on who gives time and money, and how much. A social movement may change the fundamental structure of the government itself.

This cycle must occur at a human scale. It’s about discussion, relationships, and individuals’ impact on groups. Participants must know one another. The maximum number of people who can engage together is not clear, but it is much less than the eight billion people who share our earth today. Thus the limitation of this cycle is its size in comparison to the scale of our problems.

The answer must be leverage–smallish groups affecting much larger groups by influencing governments, markets, corporations, or media-producers.

Leverage affords power, but it is problematic because it is unidimensional: some people affect others without knowing them or hearing from them. I think we must accept the moral disadvantage of leverage, but we can mitigate it by expecting the people who exercise power over others to do so as members of groups that are somewhat diverse and porous (or connected to other groups) and that go through the cycle of institutional design, conversation about values, sacrifice, and re-design. That process increases the odds that they will be wise in their treatment of strangers.

See also du Bois: “Organization is sacrifice.”; the kind of sacrifice required in nonviolence; a flowchart for collective decision-making in democratic small groups; both detailed institutional analysis and holistic critique;  a template for analyzing an institutionComplexities of Civic Life, etc.