political philosophy

Exposing criminals and punitive justice: is it time to reconsider the penal code?

During the last years, we have seen a rapid increase in websites devoted to publicly exposing convicted criminals. Some sites claim that the purpose is to “shame” criminals. Some claim the purpose is to make available information that will increase the safety of you and your family. Some are legal and operate within the framework of the law; others violate the law. Regardless of purposes and legal status, consequences for ex-convicts are clearly negative, and potentially disastrous. What this means in terms of punitive justice is often overlooked: what is an appropriate reaction to a situation where the expected consequences of a criminal conviction go far beyond the intended punishment? Continue reading

Home Alone? On Being Liberal in East Asia

A version of this piece was originally published on carnegiecouncil.org

What is it like to be liberal in East Asia, where political leaders repeatedly denounce liberal values for various purposes—from suppressing dissenters to pursuing popular support?

I recently had the privilege of visiting the Asan Institute for Policy Studies in Seoul, where I met academics and practitioners from South Korea, Japan, China, and elsewhere. One of the most interesting things I learned there is that liberals—those who seek to combine a fundamental commitment to liberty with the endorsement of other key values including individuality, rationality, equality, and the limited and accountable use of power—in South Korea have had difficulties in coming to terms with the country’s impressive political achievements since the late 1980s. While there is little evidence leading us to believe that the civil liberties, political equality, and economic prosperity that the populace have enjoyed in the last 25 years will turn out to be short-lived, South Korean liberals have been unable to feel at home in the newly liberal and democratic South Korea. Being used to seeing themselves as free-floating intellectuals detached from society at large, they are more bemused than amused by the series of political and economic accomplishments that they long wished for. They sometimes look at Japan with some envy as the neighbour has a longer and hence presumably more stable history of liberal democracy and a matching intellectual tradition running from Yukichi Fukuzawa through Masao Maruyama and his disciples.

Be that as it may, Japanese liberals hardly feel more at home in their society than their Korean counterparts. While it is true that Japan has been the only Asian country that has been nominally liberal and democratic for more than six decades without interruption, Japanese liberals suspect that their democracy is scarcely rooted in a genuine democratic culture and their liberal tradition is not mature enough to deserve much praise. To this, they often add the observation that Japan’s key liberal achievements are not home-grown but transplanted “from above;” after all, it was Americans that half-forcibly introduced (or “imposed”) during occupation a series of major reforms to set up liberal institutions, including the Constitution of Japan, that are still dear to the nation’s liberal (and non-liberal) left. Indeed, Japanese liberals are so uncomfortable with their country’s political achievements that they often look at South Korea with envy; unlike the Japanese, their neighbour obtained liberal democracy through grassroots movements “from below.”

The uneasiness among the well-educated liberals with their own society’s political tradition is arguably even stronger in China. Chinese liberals are of course glad to see the considerable public interest in liberal ideas that has emerged since the end of the Cultural Revolution in 1976. However, they are alarmed by the no less strong interest in recent years in the work of the critics of liberalism including Carl Schmitt and Leo Strauss, not only because these thinkers’ ideas are in themselves worrying to liberals but also because they might crush the country’s nascent liberal tradition. It is one thing that Schmitt’s Political Theology has enjoyed a renewed interest among political philosophers and historians in the safety of the faculty clubs of Harvard and Princeton; it is quite another that it has attracted increasing popularity among China’s rising educated class. Indeed, partly due to the influence of Western anti-liberal thought, in the last few decades some of the former friends of liberalism in China have been converted to enemies.

Liberals in South Korea, Japan, and China, despite their important differences that I do not wish to downgrade, may thus be said to share one thing in common: the inability to feel at home. The flipside of this is of course the notion that liberalism is something Western—and above all European—and therefore somehow alien to the indigenous traditions in East Asia. What are we to make of such a confidence problem?

First of all, the nature of the problem must be properly understood. The entity in which East Asian liberals lack confidence is not themselves but their respective societies. Typically well-educated and relatively well-off with varying degrees of international (read: Western) education and experience, East Asian liberals are a fairly self-assured bunch, seeing liberal values as a natural and essential part of who they are. What they doubt is whether the rest of their society will be as liberal as they have always been. This perceived gap between the liberals’ liberal selves and the supposedly illiberal or insufficiently liberal societies that they inhabit gives rise to a fascinating variety of elitism—strong and weak, social and intellectual, conscious and subconscious. It is in fact surprising how distrusting East Asian liberals can be of their fellow citizens, all the while professing to believe in democratic values and the power of civil society in the abstract.

It may of course be argued that the confidence problem that East Asian liberals suffer from is a false one; just because many liberal ideas and institutions originate from Western history does not mean that people in other regions cannot benefit from them. The automobile may have been invented in Europe, but East Asians have not only benefited from using it but have arguably surpassed the Europeans in manufacturing cars. This argument is coherent, but it is not as persuasive as it may appear because it is based on the dubious premise that a political tradition is to a people what the automobile is to its consumers and producers. The argument has at any rate been unable to impress sceptical East Asians, who think that the relationship of liberalism to a people is like a sense of direction to a driver; it is something that can be acquired and refined by training, but it is also partly inherited through generations and is hence ultimately unchangeable in the short run. Genuinely liberal East Asia is possible—but not in our lifetime.

The degree of essentialism accompanying such pessimism is questionable. It is important to remind ourselves in this context that Europe has not always been a continent of liberty, equality, human rights, and the rule of law. Anti-Semitism and other traditional forms of barbarism are unfortunate and yet undeniable chapters in European history. In addition, as Michael Oakeshott wrote as early as 1939, the modern doctrines of communism, fascism, and National Socialism cannot be simply ignored because each of them “is an expression of something in our civilization;” indeed, “we cannot merely regret them without regretting our civilization.” (The Social and Political Doctrines of Contemporary Europe, p. xii) One may extend Oaskeshott’s observation still further: if liberal democracy originates from “European civilization,” so do the concentration camps. One does not need to be a Theodor Adorno to see that illiberal ideas and ideologies are an integral part of European history.

Yet the idealization of Europe among East Asian liberals is not a matter of mere ignorance. It has also been a strategic move to pile up the resources of criticism, although the move has typically been a semiconscious one. That is, East Asian liberals have portrayed Europe as a sort of actually existing utopia, against which their home societies can be measured, their problems identified, and solutions found. They have thus been able to take a short cut to act as social critics by pointing across Eurasia at a model society to aspire to, instead of constructing what John Rawls called “ideal theories” and considering how these might be applied to highly non-ideal East Asia. The strategy worked well at least until the late 20th century when Asians by and large were struggling to reach the economic standard of developed Western countries. It is debatable whether the same strategy will turn out to be as effective in this “Asian century.”

Indeed, it might be the case that the entire mode of social criticism that I discussed will eventually come to an end, as the economic disparity between East Asia and Europe shrinks and will perhaps be reversed, and as the growing flow of information and people will make the idealization of Europe—or of any region in the world for that matter—impossible. Until such time arrives (if it arrives at all), East Asian liberals will continue to feel a sense of loneliness and discomfort in their home societies. Yet those sentiments may well be seen as a blessing rather than a curse by their future descendants, because the time when East Asian liberals feel utterly at home will also be the time when they lose what has been one of the most significant sources of inspiration for social and political change in the region: imagined Europe as a liberal democratic paradise. Will the loss be followed by the emergence of a new form of political imagination? The answer is too early to tell.


* Thanks are due to Bi-Hwan Kim, Shin Osawa, and Wang Qian for helpful comments on an earlier version of this piece.

The P-Factor

Electoral reform is an often-discussed topic.  But the issues often concern minor modifications to the status quo. Here I suggest an entirely new approach to electing leaders of a country.  It would have numerous benefits over the current system, including:

–       Better voter turnout

–       Better representation of the working classes among those who vote

–       Better fulfillment of democratic values

–       Producing a better informed electorate

–       The election of more competent leaders

–       The election of less deceitful leaders

–       Greater social mobility from the working classes to the ruling class


The electoral system is principally modeled on three popular television shows: the X-Factor, Big Brother, and, to a lesser extent, Strictly Come Dancing.  I call it ‘The P-Factor’.


In the first round, we would have open auditions from all around the country.   This is modeled closely on the X-Factor.  Candidates would have to audition in front of a studio audience and a panel of judges.  They would have five or ten minutes or so to give the top few reasons why they would be excellent as a ruler of the country.  (At this stage, we would use a regimented interview structure, which avoids many of the biases associated with unregimented interviews).  Rather than a decision by judges, which would be undemocratic, the decision would be made by a studio audience of 100 people or so, randomly selected from the UK population.


This stage has the benefit that the opportunity to rule the country would be genuinely available to everyone in the country, rather than the tiny proportion of people who have had a sufficiently good education and the right contacts to enable them to run for parliament.  It could thus be a powerful driver of social mobility: even someone with no home and little education could do extremely well.  Moreover, insofar as the pool of potential candidates in this system would be vastly greater than the current pool of potential candidates, this system would be much better at filtering the population to discover undiscovered latent political talent, in much the same way as the X-Factor succeeds at discovering phenomenal vocal talent that would not otherwise be found.


Those that are particularly promising, at this stage, would make it through to the televised auditions round.  The auditions would be similar to those at the first round.  However, in order to make sure that the process was sufficiently entertaining so that the ratings stayed high – so that we would have a sufficiently informed and engaged electorate – we would require every candidate to also demonstrate their crowd-pleasing ‘special talent’, which would be akin to the skills displayed on ‘Britain’s Got Talent’.


One might object that those candidates who would get voted through at this stage are those who would have the best ‘special talent’, like whoever could swallow the weirdest object.  But it’s difficult to see how this objection can be made given the presupposition that the government should be elected in accordance with democratic values.  If the current demos wishes to elect a leader based on their ability to make a dog dance, then that is what should happen.  (Though I doubt that this is what would happen).


At this stage, there would be judges.  Two independent political and economic experts, in order to point out aspects of the candidate’s performance that are particularly auspicious, qua political leader.  But also Amanda Holden, as the voice of the people, and Simon Cowell, again to keep the ratings up.  However, the judges would not be allowed to vote, as this would be undemocratic.  The voting at this stage would be open to the public, with the judges only there to offer expert opinion.


The voting system would be modeled on Strictly Come Dancing, which uses range voting (ranking each candidate on a scale of 1 to 10).  As even a cursory glance at the literature on voting theory will show, this is a far better voting system than the current first-past-the-post system, or the Alternative Vote system (which, incidentally, are among the worst voting systems ever seriously proposed: the former limits itself to the smallest possible amount of information from the voter; the latter violates conditions like monotonicity).  Though the Strictly voting system is vulnerable to tactical voting, in the presence of tactical voting it collapses into Approval voting, which is another excellent voting system.  (For those who are worried by this, we could alternatively use a sophisticated Condorcet method like the Schulze method.)


At this point, the 50 or so candidates with the greatest number of votes would enter a 2 month-long ‘boot camp’ phase, where the candidates undergo extensive training in how to lead a country – including personal presentation, debating skills, and education in economics and politics.  This would give those from the working classes a better chance against those who have had a long and expensive education.


Each week, during the boot camp’phase, there would be a different test that the candidates would have to perform, such as debating, oration, political knowledge (perhaps in the style of ‘Who wants to be a Millionaire?’), IQ tests, heuristics and biases in decision-making, and economic forecasting.  Again, in order to keep the ratings up, and to make the conditions more realistic, these tests would have to be done in a variety of stressful conditions – such as while sleep deprived, or while being insulted in every possible way by journalists.  Again, every week the voting would be open to the public, so they could use the additional information that came through the testing as they saw fit.  Insofar as this system would employ assessment of the skills required for good political leadership, whereas the current system has almost no such assessment, we should expect the leaders produced by this method to be more competent.


Once the candidates were down to a small number – let’s say the final ten – then we enter the final, ‘Big Brother’ round, where all ten candidates have to live in a house together, under constant surveillance.  A recurring complaint among the electorate is that politicians cannot be trusted: insofar as it would be almost impossible to dissimulate one’s personality for 24 hours a day, for ten weeks, using the Big Brother systems enables us to get a sense of the true character of all the potential candidates, and to develop something like a feeling of friendship and understanding towards the better candidates.  Again, we would subject the candidates to a variety of tests.  (I personally would favour Takeshi’s Castle-style challenges.  But perhaps that’s just getting silly).


This would answer the problem that voter turnout is often disappointingly low: though the claim that Big Bother has a better voter turnout than general elections is unfounded, I would guess that this competition would be far more popular (and more entertaining) than the previous Big Brother shows, and would get overall a much larger vote.  It would also ensure that turnout is better distributed in proportion with the range of the social spectrum, rather than being biased in favour of the middle and upper classes.


One final benefit of this approach is the cost.  One might worry that this system would require a substantially larger infrastructure than the current voting system. However, it seems pretty plausible that the money could be made back and more through advertising during breaks.


So this electoral system seems to have an awful lot going for it.  However, the point of this blog post is not to seriously suggest the above as a new way of electing the leaders of a country (though, I confess, in writing it, I find it remarkably convincing).  The likelihood of my coming up with the optimal system of electing the leaders of a country over an hour-long coffee with my fiancé is vanishingly small.    But I do want to suggest that, aside from the fact that people wouldn’t take it seriously, the system described above is far better than the current system of electing leaders, in the UK or the US.  And I designed it as a joke.


Political debate can often take too much for granted; in its attempt to be ‘practical’, it can unthinkingly put great weight on the status quo.  Philosophy allows us to take a step back and realise that, sometimes, what is needed is not a minor repair here and there, but rather to tear down an institution, completely redesign it, and start over.