Democracy: Still the worst kind of government except all the other kinds

In practice, no one has ever developed a democracy that works particularly well if judged in absolute terms. But all the alternatives so far have been worse.

STEVEN PINKER: Probably the most famous product of the Enlightenment was the American Declaration of Independence and Constitution, a blueprint for a form of governance that tried to get the benefits of government—seeing as how anarchy is worse because you get spirals of vendetta and feuding and violence. You don’t get the coordination of large-scale economies without some kind of governance. Trying to get the benefits of governance without the perennial hazard that anyone given a bit of power will aggrandize their power and become despotic.

So the checks and balances of American democracy were a way of – I think of it as negotiating a middle route between the violence of anarchy (and anarchy does lead to violence—We were never noble savages that lived in harmony. Regions of the world without government are almost invariably violent) but also avoiding the violence of tyranny. Mainly you give someone power, they’re going to use it to maximize their benefits, their power, their longevity of their reign at the expense of people. Democracy is a way of steering between these extremes, of having a government that exerts just enough violence to prevent people from preying on each other without preying on the people itself.

Now in practice no one has ever developed a democracy that works particularly well if judged in absolute terms. Democracies are always messy, they’re always unequal. They always involve lobbying and power grabs. But all the alternatives so far have been worse. Democracies seldom go to war with each other. They have higher standards of living. They have higher levels of happiness. They have higher levels of health. And they’re the obvious preferred destinations for people who vote with their feet. The whole world wants to live in a democracy. It’s an ongoing project. It’s currently under threat from a number of directions, but there’s never been a time in which we’ve had a well-functioning democracy in terms of meeting all the criteria in a high school civics class.

"Now in practice," says Steven Pinker, "no one has ever developed a democracy that works particularly well if judged in absolute terms. Democracies are always messy, they’re always unequal. They always involve lobbying and power grabs. But all the alternatives so far have been worse. Democracies seldom go to war with each other. They have higher standards of living. They have higher levels of happiness. They have higher levels of health. And they’re the obvious preferred destinations for people who vote with their feet. The whole world wants to live in a democracy. It’s an ongoing project. It’s currently under threat from a number of directions, but there’s never been a time in which we’ve had a well-functioning democracy in terms of meeting all the criteria in a high school civics class."

The science behind ‘us vs. them’

Humans may have evolved to be tribalistic. Is that a bad thing?

Videos
  • From politics to every day life, humans have a tendency to form social groups that are defined in part by how they differ from other groups.
  • Neuroendocrinologist Robert Sapolsky, author Dan Shapiro, and others explore the ways that tribalism functions in society, and discuss how—as social creatures—humans have evolved for bias.
  • But bias is not inherently bad. The key to seeing things differently, according to Beau Lotto, is to "embody the fact" that everything is grounded in assumptions, to identify those assumptions, and then to question them.

Catacombs of Paris: The city of darkness finds its new raison d'être

Ancient corridors below the French capital have served as its ossuary, playground, brewery, and perhaps soon, air conditioning.

Credit: Inspection Générale des Carrières, 1857 / Public domain
Strange Maps
  • People have been digging up limestone and gypsum from below Paris since Roman times.
  • They left behind a vast network of corridors and galleries, since reused for many purposes — most famously, the Catacombs.
  • Soon, the ancient labyrinth may find a new lease of life, providing a sustainable form of air conditioning.
Keep reading Show less

What early US presidents looked like, according to AI-generated images

"Deepfakes" and "cheap fakes" are becoming strikingly convincing — even ones generated on freely available apps.

Magdalene Visaggio via Twitter
Technology & Innovation
  • A writer named Magdalene Visaggio recently used FaceApp and Airbrush to generate convincing portraits of early U.S. presidents.
  • "Deepfake" technology has improved drastically in recent years, and some countries are already experiencing how it can weaponized for political purposes.
  • It's currently unknown whether it'll be possible to develop technology that can quickly and accurately determine whether a given video is real or fake.
Keep reading Show less

Baby's first poop predicts risk of allergies

Meconium contains a wealth of information.

Surprising Science
  • A new study finds that the contents of an infants' first stool, known as meconium, can predict if they'll develop allergies with a high degree of accuracy.
  • A metabolically diverse meconium, which indicates the initial food source for the gut microbiota, is associated with fewer allergies.
  • The research hints at possible early interventions to prevent or treat allergies just after birth.
Keep reading Show less
Quantcast