Sunday, January 22, 2023

How did the gold fever of the 1850s affect Australian Aborigines?

 


I began thinking about this question while reading Michael O’Rourke’s recently published book, Passages to the Northwest, The Europe they left and the Australia they discovered 1788-1858, A miscellany and scrapbook of national, regional and family history, From Ireland, Scotland, England and Germany to Liverpool Plains in colonial New South Wales, Volume II.


The full title provides an accurate picture of the nature of the book and what it is about. The history of how Michael’s family came to live on the Liverpool Plains, in the north-west of NSW, is central to the book but its focus is mainly on the context in which family members lived. I suppose Michael tells readers as much as he has been able to glean about the lives of individual family members. However, as anyone who has dabbled in family history would know, it is difficult to find much more than names and dates pertaining to ancestors unless they happen to have been rich, famous, or infamous.


Michael explains:

“I was able to pour the genealogy, almost like cream, into the dry chronicles of local history while also keeping an eye on social changes and the national political and cultural scene, especially in Australia and Ireland”.

I agree with the author’s suggestions about who might benefit from reading the book. He suggests that apart from his family and relatives, those who might benefit include people who are interested in detail about the impact of European occupation on Aboriginal people, and people who live in the north-west of NSW. Some people who are heavily involved in family history research might also find the book useful to provide context for names and dates.

Michael has provided an index of topics at the front, and a detailed index at the back, which I found helpful. I have only read those parts of the book that particularly interest me at present. I expect that is probably how the author would expect most readers to approach it. At some later stage (perhaps when I am pondering the injustices that my ancestors may have suffered) I will probably go back to read more of what Michael has written about Ireland and Scotland.  

European occupation

I was particularly interested in Michael’s discussion of the relationships between Aboriginal people and European pastoralists (sometimes referred to as squatters, settlers, or invaders) in the Liverpool plains area. By 1835, the European occupation of Aboriginal land had extended beyond Narrabri, up to 550 km from Sydney. There was violence, but as Michael describes it, the incoming settlers “so effectively swamped the locals that there were only rare clashes, peaking in 1836-38”.

Introduced disease had a devastating impact on the Aboriginal population. An epidemic (probably smallpox) killed many during 1830-31. Venereal disease became rife, as convicts - who became shepherds living in remote outstations - infected Aboriginal women.  

The pastoralists were known as squatters because they originally occupied the land without approval of the colonial government. By 1836, however, they were able to exercise sufficient political influence to have the government grant them short-term pastoral leases.

By 1850 the remaining Aboriginal population had apparently established their home bases near to the pastoral stations. Pastoralists employed Aborigines as shepherds during the 1840s but also employed Chinese in that role.

Gold fever

With the discovery of gold in 1851, many Chinese and European workers left the pastoral properties abruptly to go to the diggings, sometimes apparently leaving flocks they had been tending to the mercy of dingoes. The flocks became scattered before the owners were aware of the situation. Michael quotes from the published account of what followed according to Mary Jane Cain, a mixed-race matriarch:

 “The squatters had to go practically cap in hand to the blacks they had dispensed with, and entreat them to again assume the role of shepherds. They got the flocks together, and generally made a good save. After that the squatters steered clear of Chinese labour for a long while”.

The discovery of gold apparently led indirectly to a substantial improvement in economic conditions for aboriginal people living on the Liverpool Plains.

Michael’s account of the indirect impact of gold fever led me to look further for other information on the impact of gold discoveries on the lives of Aborigines. Some accounts view it as “a second wave of dispossession”, but also note an increase in demand for the labour of Aboriginal people on pastoral properties at that time. Aborigines became employed as police on the goldfields. They sold food and clothing to the miners and were employed as guides. They also became expert gold seekers.

Ararat

The illustration at the top of this article is a painting by Edward Roper, which depicts the gold rush at Ararat, south-west Victoria, at its peak in the late 1850s. At the centre of the scene, an Aboriginal family observes the activity around them.

Michael has included the illustration in his book. I thought it appropriate to have it accompany this article because some of my ancestors came to the Ararat diggings in the 1850s and later settled in that district.

Conclusion

The more I learn about the detail of the impact of European occupation of Australia on Aboriginal people, the more persuaded I become that “European settlement” is an inadequate description of what happened. Words like “conquest” and “invasion” are also inadequate because they conjure up images of warfare that have little resemblance to the sporadic resistance that some of the occupants of this country offered to the European squatters. The detail includes massacres, but disease seems to have been a much more important cause of depopulation. The best option for the indigenous people was co-existence with the new occupiers, but that required a radical change in their lifestyles.

Seen in that context, the advent of gold fever in the 1850s opened new opportunities for Aborigines to become more heavily involved in pastoral activities. I see this as an interesting example of the way disadvantaged people can respond to new opportunities. I hope there were lasting benefits for at least some of the families involved but I have no evidence of that.    

Sunday, January 8, 2023

Does the "Politics of Being" support progress?

 


“Politics of Being” is title of a recently published book by Thomas Legrand. The subtitle is “Wisdom and science for a new development paradigm”. The question I ask myself is whether Legrand’s views support progress as I defined the concept in Freedom, Progress, and Human Flourishing. Would widespread adoption of Legrand’s views enhance the growth of opportunities for individuals to obtain the basic goods of flourishing humans?

Before I purchased the book, I was aware that the author had shown wisdom by including this quote from Elinor Ostrom’s Nobel Lecture:

“A core goal of public policy should be to facilitate the development of institutions that bring out the best in humans.”

That passage is actually quoted several times in the book and is sometimes accompanied by the preceding sentence in which Ostrom distances her approach from that of policy analysts who design institutions “to force (or nudge) entirely self-interested individuals to achieve better outcomes”. The passage I have quoted at the top of this article illustrates Ostrom’s optimistic view of the capacity of individuals to work together to devise solutions to collective action problems without help from governments.

The essence of Legrand’s line of argument is that the world is stuck in an obsolete development path and is in need of a new “wisdom-based approach to politics”.  I will discuss briefly what he perceives to be wrong with the current development path, before discussing some elements of the alternative path he advocates.

Perception of the problem

Legrand believes that the current development path is causing many problems. The world is on track for a climate change catastrophe. Economic development and increased life expectancy are not making people much happier in high-income countries. Many countries seem to be facing mental health crises. There has been a decline in interpersonal trust in many countries. Our current model of development is rooted in a set of values that are causing a civilization crisis. He writes:

“Our economic system not only destroys social ties and the environment but feeds on these destructions that create new market opportunities. It seeks to adapt humans to its own requirements rather than adapting itself to human needs. Based on fundamental misconceptions, this system can only perpetuate itself through ever more propaganda that feeds our disconnection from ourselves, our true needs, and ultimately, our apathy.”

I agree that all is not well with the world and share some of Legrand’s concerns. However, I am more optimistic than he is about climate change, and strongly disagree with his views on economics. Readers who are interested in my views should read Freedom, Progress, and Human Flourishing.

Being and Interbeing

Legrand argues that the new development model required is essentially spiritual. He views spiritual development as:

“the process by which we come closer to our true nature. From that connection, we naturally tend to manifest the highest qualities: wisdom, love, joy, peace etc., or simply the best or most authentic version of ourselves currently available!”

Legrand’s discussion of spiritual values includes chapters on life, happiness, love, peace, mindfulness, and light.

According to Legrand the new paradigm involves a transition from “having to being, which many believe means interbeing”. So, what is interbeing?

 “Interbeing is a term coined by Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh, which goes beyond interconnectedness to touch on the very nature of our being. It expresses the nature of reality based on the Buddhist teachings of interdependent co-arising (“that is because this is”), non-self, and impermanence”.

I see no problem accepting that everything is interdependent. Impermanence does seem pervasive (except in respect of fundamental values, virtues, and the highest qualities). But “non-self” poses problems. As I see it, self-awareness is a fundamental characteristic of the kind of thing (entity or system) that an individual human is.  Self-respect arises from self-awareness, and motivates respect for other people, and other living things. Respect is the foundation which makes love possible. By the way, do you know who it was who said “one should not hurt others if one loves oneself”? The answer is here.

At various points in the book Legrand recognizes that people have “higher selves” and “true selves”, so he seems to acknowledge that we should aim to purify our egos – to remove the biases, distortions, and attachments that tarnish our perceptions of our individual selves - rather than eliminate self-awareness. He provides a good summary of his view of “being” and of personal development in this passage:

“As a person, there is little chance that I get closer to my authentic being by defining a vision of who I am and trying to actualize it. On the contrary, I can discover who I am by freeing myself from predefined and limiting identities, purifying my intentions, character, and behaviors, and expressing the deepest yearning of my soul. This is a conscious, evolutionary process of emergence, informed but not bounded by the understanding I have of my essence, which is necessarily limited. The same is true for nations.”

The world would be a better place if more people adopted that as their personal development model. However, I was tempted to leave off the last sentence of the quoted passage. The idea that nations have “souls” seems to me to be collectivist nonsense.

Governance

The part of the book providing an agenda for action envisages a larger role for government than I had anticipated. For example, Legrand suggests that government efforts to promote early childhood education should start during pregnancy. He also suggests that governments should actively promote a healthy diet. Even followers of Elinor Ostrom can sometimes find it difficult to remember to avoid adopting an overly pessimistic view of what people can achieve without government guidance.

I agree with Legrand that it is na├»ve for people to believe that “all it takes to improve our societies is to secure a majority of voters for their ideas, especially when they engender polarization”. Political leaders have no hope of implementing lasting reforms unless they can foster broad community support for them. That usually means avoiding politicization of the issues. (As an aside, one of the inconvenient truths about politics is that Al Gore’s involvement in support of U.S. action to mitigate climate change provided a focus for Republican opposition to such policies.)

The book contains interesting proposals to enact the “politics of being” in political institutions. Legrand suggests that each nation should establish a “wisdom council” to preside over discussions about the nation’s evolution with the government and parliament. The councils would consist of equal representations of four groups: randomly selected citizens, representatives of the “outer” economic, social, and environmental life of the nation, representatives of the “inner” spiritual, cultural, and psychological life of the nation, and “representatives of non-human members of the earth community”.

Legrand also suggests that the Baha’i model of governance should be adopted for lower houses of parliament. In brief, adult community members elect representatives at the local level and are urged not to discuss with others who to vote for. The local representative vote for regional representatives, who in turn vote for national representatives.

It is difficult to envisage circumstances in which politicians would enact such radical changes to existing systems of representative government. However, if the outcomes of the existing systems become increasingly unpalatable, radical alternatives will no doubt be contemplated by an increasing number of citizens. In that context, Legrand’s proposals will have stiff competition from other proposals, including the decentralist approach discussed previously on this blog.

The main problem I see with Legrand’s governance proposals is their potential to infringe individual liberty. Most of the members of the proposed governing council would be likely to advance the interests that they represent by advocating further restriction of individual liberty. The Baha’i model is presumably more responsive to community members than religious and political governance systems in which the hierarchy is self-perpetuating, but people who are indirectly elected to peak positions still have less incentive to have regard for the wishes of members at the grassroots level than if they were directly elected, or selected randomly.

Facilitating progress?

Legrand describes his book as “a drop in the ocean”. I think it may have potential to be more than that. The part of the book dealing with spiritual development has potential to be influential if it finds its way into the hands of sufficient numbers of people who are currently rudderless and yearning for inspiration.

I think contemplation of Legrand’s views on spiritual development has potential to enhance progress, viewed as the growth of opportunities for individuals to obtain the basic goods of flourishing humans. After reading the book, some people might be more inclined to wise and well-informed self-direction, healthy living, improved inter-personal relations, living in harmony with nature, and adoption of behaviors that enhance psychological well-being.

However, Legrand’s attack on “the current development path” invites further restrictions on economic freedom which would impact negatively on growth of productivity and hence on growth of opportunities for human flourishing. As outlined in the following paragraph in Freedom, Progress, and Human Flourishing, I see declining rates of productivity growth as a major threat to growth of opportunities for human flourishing:

“This chapter has focused on the threats posed by climate change, declining productivity growth, and problems with democracy. I do not dismiss the longer-term threat posed by climate change, but in my view, there are stronger reasons for concern about the more immediate threat posed by declining productivity growth. Individuals, firms, and governments are taking action to mitigate climate change, and their efforts seems likely to accelerate before adaptation becomes excessively costly. There are fewer grounds for optimism that governments will deal with emerging economic problems (of their own making) in time to avert the widespread misery that is likely to follow from looming economic crises.”

As explained in my book, my optimism about action to mitigate climate change rests on signs that the polycentric approach, proposed by Elinor Ostrom in 2009, is now being adopted successfully.

I am not greatly troubled by the thought that some readers of Thomas Legrand’s book may be persuaded to adopt economic and political views that are inimical to productivity growth. There is an ocean full of views on public policy that are similar to those which he advocates, so I don’t think his additional drop will have a significant direct impact on policies adopted. Hopefully, his book’s endorsement of Elinor Ostrom’s approach will encourage some readers to explore her views in greater detail.

My bottom line: The net impact of “The Politics of Being” will be to support the growth of opportunities for human flourishing.


Friday, December 9, 2022

How has the Neoplatonism of my youth influenced my current beliefs?

 


The kid in the photo believed that the material world is an illusion. Those beliefs about the nature of reality probably led him to be somewhat less materialistic than he would otherwise have been. However, an observer would have had to look closely to find any evidence that he, and his school colleagues who held similar beliefs, were behaving as though they did not believe the account of reality provided by their sense organs. They didn’t attempt to survive without food, to defy gravity by jumping off tall buildings, or to do much else to suggest that they had a different view of reality than most other teenagers living in Australia in 1960. The main difference an astute observer would have seen was their practice of treating illness as an error of thinking and viewing medical intervention as unnecessary and undesirable under most circumstances.

I am writing this article because a few people who have known me at different times of my life might be interested to know something about the process by which my beliefs have changed over the years.

Youthful preoccupations

When I was a child, I liked sitting on the gate post of a fence separating our garden from the farmyard. That was my favorite spot for observing what the horses, sheep dogs, cows, pet lambs, humans etc. were doing in the farmyard. One day when I was sitting there – I would have been about 6 years old - my father told me that everything I saw in the farmyard was an illusion. I thought at first that he was joking, but he was in the process of informing me that he had decided to attend the Christian Science church and had arranged for me to attend their Sunday school.

Over subsequent years, I gradually became immersed in the teachings of Mary Baker Eddy, and her book, Science and Health (S&H). The final 3 years of my secondary education were spent as a border at Huntingtower, a school run by Christian Scientists in the Melbourne suburb of Mount Waverley. At that time, the school only accepted students who had a family background in Christian Science. Huntingtower still has a focus on the individual personal development of students and provides excellent educational opportunities. I am grateful that one of my aunts paid the fees to enable me to attend that school.

I have long been aware that there was some similarity between Mrs. Eddy’s teachings and the philosophy of Plato. I now see a closer resemblance to the Neoplatonism of Plotinus. Plotinus believed that “The One”, the absolutely simple first principle of all, was the cause of being for everything else in the universe.  Mrs. Eddy wrote: 

“Principle and its idea is one, and this one is God, omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent Being, and His reflection is man and the universe” (S&H, 465-6).

The Neoplatonists saw life’s purpose as being “to bring back the god in us to the divine in the All”. Mrs. Eddy urged her followers:

We must form perfect models in thought and look at them continually, or we shall never carve them out in grand and noble lives. Let unselfishness, goodness, mercy, justice, health, holiness, love — the kingdom of heaven — reign within us, and sin, disease, and death will diminish until they finally disappear” (S&H, 248).

Secular pursuits

I abandoned Neoplatonism at the end of my teen years. At that time, I didn’t consciously reject that belief system even though I can remember becoming increasingly frustrated at the difficulty of attempting to follow Mrs. Eddy’s injunction: “Stand porter at the door of thought” (S&H, 392). My social life and academic interests made me less inclined to spend time engaging in what I was coming to view as speculations about the nature of “ultimate reality”.  I was beginning to study economics, so my thinking focused increasingly on how human aspirations could best be met. At that time, I became interested in the writings of J S Mill on liberty and utilitarianism.

Over the years, my philosophic interests developed along with a work career focused on public policy relating to economic development, international trade, productivity growth and technological progress. That led to increasing interest in the role of liberty in economic progress, and human flourishing more generally.

As a consequence of my interest in human flourishing, I have come to view Aristotle as the greatest of the philosophers of Ancient Greece. My book, Freedom, Progress, and Human Flourishing, explains the framework of my current thinking.

These days, the idea that the evidence of our senses is illusory seems as strange to me as it was when I was the child sitting on the gate post. Our senses provide the direct experience of reality that members of our species require to thrive. Since we are conscious beings, we are aware of our own use of maps, and models (both metaphorical and actual) to communicate and reason about what we experience. However, we also know that maps and models do not always correspond to reality. The search for truth is about seeking better maps and models.

The lurking questions

There were two questions lurking in the back of my mind after I had abandoned Neoplatonism. First, how could a change in thinking bring about the healing of serious illnesses which seemed to have a physical cause? Second, why did the same techniques sometimes fail to provide the lasting healings hoped for in respect of disorders that seemed to have a psychological rather than physical cause?

I do not doubt the veracity of most of the large number of testimonials that church members presented about healings that they experienced. As I remember it, most of the church members I knew either had personal experience of healings themselves or were family members of people who had obtained healings. The prevalence of healings seems to me to be the most obvious factor explaining the rapid growth of this church in the first half of the 20th century, when medical science was less advanced than it is today. Advances in medicine provide the most obvious explanation for the decline in church membership in recent decades.

I think the answer to my first question lies in the potential impact of a change of an individual’s thinking on their body’s natural defences against disease. For example, a substantial amount of evidence has accumulated about the relationship between psychological stress and the human immune system. There is a lot of advice available about the importance of stress management in maintaining good health, and about how to manage stress via physical exercise, breathing exercises, yoga, meditation, and so forth. However, I don’t think many people give enough attention to the potential for negative thinking associated with medication to influence its efficacy. Before you decide to take any medication prescribed to you, it seems to me to be wise to have at least a rudimentary knowledge of how the medication works and the impacts that most users experience. If that doesn’t provide a basis for you to expect positive outcomes, perhaps you should seek another opinion.

My answer to the question of why lasting healings didn’t always occur in respect of psychological disorders is that an appropriate change of thinking had not actually occurred. That was not necessarily attributable to insufficient vigilance as “porter at the door of thought”. In my own experience, I think the opposite was the case. Trying hard to keep fear of stuttering and blocking out of my mind resulted in greater fear of disfluency than I would otherwise have experienced.  The reason for that became clear when someone suggested that I try the “don’t think of a pink elephant” exercise. The exercise consists of trying very hard not to think about pink elephants and then observing what images come to mind. Deliberate attempts to suppress thoughts makes them more likely to occupy your mind.

The questions lurking in the back of my mind made me receptive to Neuro-Semantics – a model of how we create and embody meaning developed by Michael Hall and Bobby Bodenhamer - when I learned about it 20 years ago. For present purposes, I think the message of Neuro-Semantics can best be  illustrated by the following quote from an article by Michael Hall entitled, “The Inner Game of Frame”:   

‘The frames we set about our experiences are much, much, much more important and critical than our experiences.  In this, “there is no good or bad but thinking makes it so” as Shakespeare noted.  In this, “men are not disturbed by things, they are disturbed by their interpretation of things.”  In this, “as we think in our heart, so we are.”  In this we have the cognitive-behavioral foundation for human functioning.’

Readers of my book, Freedom, Progress, and Human Flourishing, will find a reference to Hall’s views on the importance of frames of meaning in the discussion of why people do not always move on to satisfying higher needs, as Abraham Maslow suggested they would, once their basic needs have been met (p 168-9).

Beyond utilitarianism

One aspect of Mrs. Eddy’s teachings that I have held on to is the idea that the identity of the individual person is a metaphysical concept. Mrs. Eddy made the point persuasively as follows:

‘If the real man is in the material body, you take away a portion of the man when you amputate a limb; the surgeon destroys manhood, and worms annihilate it. But the loss of a limb or injury to a tissue is sometimes the quickener of manliness; and the unfortunate cripple may present more nobility than the statuesque athlete, — teaching us by his very deprivations, that “a man’s a man, for a’ that.” ‘ (S&H, 172)

The Neoplatonism of my youth has also left me receptive to the idea that to fully flourish we need to be willing to transcend utilitarian preoccupations. That idea is, of course, also present in Aristotle’s view that practice of the virtues is central to individual flourishing. In Freedom, Progress, and Human Flourishing, I summarised my current view as follows:

Liberty and technological progress give us potential to obtain more of the basic goods of flourishing humans. To fully flourish, however, we need to be willing to transcend utilitarian preoccupations and to contemplate what our human nature requires of us as individuals. Perhaps it is in our nature to bring wonder into our lives by seeking the essence of truth, beauty, and goodness. If so, we may take pleasure in doing that, whilst rejecting the idea that it is appropriate to employ the metrics of pleasure and pain to assess the worth of our endeavors” (197).

Postscript

I neglected to mention my guru, Tim Gallwey. I have been a fan of Tim Gallwey's books for the last 20 years. I found "The Inner Game of Golf" particularly helpful in aspects of my life that have little to do with golf. Tim Gallwey's insights about the inner game of golf helped me to see some personal problems in perspective. (By the way, I play golf about once a year and play no better might be expected!)

Gallwey's messages about the importance of self-trust and ways to circumvent self-doubt comes through strongly in his books.

In this video Tim Gallwey talks about the personal philosophy that motivates him.


Monday, November 21, 2022

Does voting just encourage them?

 

A couple of weeks ago the thought struck me that it was about time I wrote something about the personal ethics of voting. That turned out to be more difficult than I had anticipated.

At first, I thought that I should argue that it is unethical to vote because politics is a dirty business. As a person who often espouses principles of libertarianism and decentralism (see the preceding post on this blog) I see voting as akin to online shopping with known fraudsters – you know that the package of goods they deliver will never be the same as the one you thought you were buying. You should avoid shopping with known fraudsters, and you should avoid voting because whoever you vote for a politician will be elected.

Then I thought of some problems with that analogy. What happens if you really need the goods that the politicians are advertising? Who will mend the potholes in your road if you don’t vote for a politician who promises to get it done? Perhaps you might tell me that you and your neighbours could organise a working bee and do it yourself. Good idea!

However, if you don’t vote, who will restrain government spending? I expect that the more cynical among you will respond that no-one will restrain government spending, irrespective of whether you vote, or who you vote for.


When my reasoning took me to that point, I couldn’t immediately think of an appropriate response. That was when I decided that to bring clarity to my mind I should read again the book, “Don’t Vote – It just encourages the bastards, by the late, great P J O’Rourke.  My discussion of the book provides only a small sample of the humor and wisdom in it. Despite having been written over 12 years ago, the book contains insightful comments about people who are still on the political stage in America, including Donald Trump. However, that is somewhat tangential to the focus of this article.

You might think that this book would make a strong case against voting, but the old saying about not judging a book by its cover does seems to apply in this instance. O’Rourke suggests that voting does have a purpose: “We vote to throw the bastards out”.  The problem, as I see it, is that when enough voters manage to persuade each other to vote to throw politicians out of office, that doesn’t establish a regime of peaceful human flourishing without any interfering politicians. Voters throw out one lot of politicians by voting another lot into office.

One of the funniest parts of the book is a listing of the personality characteristics of people who are drawn to politics. The first item on the list is “A pervasive pattern of grandiosity”. After listing 9 other characteristics, O’Rourke acknowledges that he has just quoted from the American Psychiatric Association’s diagnostic criteria for narcissistic personality disorder.

Nevertheless, O’Rourke acknowledges that “individual politicians are, after all, individuals like the rest of us and should be judged individually”:

“It would be wrong—very tempting, but wrong—to think of them all as simply bastards”.

He elaborates:

“I’ve spent some time with politicians. I like politicians. I’m friends with politicians from both sides of the aisle. Politicians are fine until they stick their noses into things they don’t understand, such as most things. Then politicians turn into rachet-jawed purveyors of monkey doodle and baked wind.”

Unfortunately, I must agree. The politicians I have met personally have all been likeable. When you meet them, they seem to be pleasant people (perhaps in the same way that the scammers who seek my friendship on Facebook often seem pleasant). A few politicians I have met even had their hearts and heads in the right places. The one who comes to mind most readily is Bert Kelly, an Australian politician whom I have written about previously.

Sometimes when I see a politician performing on TV, I wonder how a nice person like her, or him, ended up like that – I mean, like a bad actor saying things they don't believe. The fact that their future political careers are at stake is no consolation.

Is there something inherently evil about politics? O’Rourke writes:

“Maybe politics is inherently evil. Maybe politics is so evil that anything we do for it, even attempting to supply it with morality, just feeds the beast. I trust this isn’t true but I can’t say the thought doesn’t trouble me.”

That thought troubles me, too.

In his discussion of morality in politics, O’Rourke introduces (on page 88) the Venn diagram, reproduced at the top of this article. He drew the two circles to intersect, implying that there can be such a thing as moral political behavior.

It seems to me to be appropriate to maintain some optimism about democratic political processes. They don’t do much to protect our liberty and pursuit of happiness, but not many of us would freely choose to live under any of the available alternative forms of government. Many people claimed that democracy could not exist as a permanent form of government because it would not take long for citizens to learn that they could vote themselves largesse out of the public treasury. Indeed, that is largely what democratic politics has been about for as long as it has existed. Yet democracy survives! Perhaps democracy’s secret of success has been the existence of sufficient voters and politicians who have been willing to stop playing politics when crises have become imminent.

I often wish that I could be apolitical, but O’Rourke has persuaded me that is not practicable:

“The democratic political process is like the process of our children going through adolescence. There’s not much we can do to improve it and there’s nothing we can do to stop it. We cannot, however, just declare ourselves to be apolitical any more than we can declare ourselves to be “aparental.” Here are the car keys, son. Dad’s stash is in the nightstand drawer. Why don’t you take my ATM card while you’re at it? See you when you’re thirty.”

It certainly appears that there is not much that we, as individuals, can do to change the outcomes of the political process. The chance that your vote will be decisive is miniscule. But people do talk about politics and influence one another about how they will cast their votes. Paradoxically, even those of us who would like to be apolitical can make a difference if we decide that we don’t like the direction that politics is taking and choose to vote.

Before concluding, I should offer a personal explanation about the relevance of the personal ethics of voting to me, as a person who lives in a country where voting is compulsory. It is possible to choose not to vote in Australia without displaying a great deal of courage. It is possible to attend a polling place, chat with your neighbours, eat a “democracy sausage”, exchange greetings with people offering “how to vote” literature, have your name ticked off on the voting roll, be handed voting papers, and still not cast a valid vote. In a secret ballot, no-one knows what you write on the voting papers before you put them into the ballot boxes.

Conclusion

When I began writing this article, I was not sure whether I would end up persuading myself to vote, or to have nothing to do with the political process. P J O’Rourke helped me to persuade myself that there is such a thing as moral political behavior.

Democratic politics is certainly a dirty business. It doesn’t do much to protect liberty or the pursuit of happiness, but most of us would choose to put up with democratic immorality rather than to live under any of the currently available alternative forms of governance. Paradoxically, the survival of democracies may be attributable to the willingness of sufficient numbers of voters and politicians to refrain from playing politics – to stop raiding the public treasury - when crises become imminent.

Although the chances of an individual vote being decisive are miniscule, individuals do influence one another in how they cast their votes. Individuals who don’t like the way politics is heading are more likely to improve outcomes if they choose to vote and encourage other like-minded people to do likewise, rather than choosing to refrain from having anything to do with the political process.