Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Using CiteULike for Teaching

I recently rediscovered CiteULike, a free web service for bibliography management. I know I had used it in the past (I still had an account, though I had not logged in for four years) but stopped using it in favor of Zotero and Endnote (because of the latter's integration with Word). But then I stopped using Zotero, partly because it tied me to Firefox (I now use Chrome almost exclusively, and love it), and partly because it was often slow and occasionally crashed (I think it's better now - it even has word processor integration! - but I had one too many bad experiences).

Anyway, there's no software to install with CiteULike and no browser dependencies - it's just a bookmarklet - and you can easily transfer your data to and from Endnote and BibTex. (Incidentally, LaTex is great for Greek-heavy writing on Ancient philosophy with one of the Betacode packages. It's too bad most of the places I submit my work to tend to demand Word files, and that converting a file from LaTex to Word can be such a pain). But it also occurs to me that something like CiteULike would be great for teaching as well.

I typically maintain a large bibliography of recommended works and suggested readings for the essays in my courses, and it's a bit of a pain to add new entries to it and make sure the new entries appear in all the appropriate places and are appropriately organized and formatted (partly this is just the fault of the Blackboard course management system we use at Victoria - which, despite some good points, is still a pretty cumbersome piece of software). So, for example, for my POLS 209 course on Dictatorships and Revolutions I might have some recommended readings on Venezuelan politics (which I suggest the students consult before writing an essay on the relevant topic in the course), or a set of readings on the comparative economic performance of dictatorships vs democracies (for students who are writing on the topic, or might want to learn more). But every time I need to add a new reading, I have to change things in four or five different places, and manually add links and other things. Moreover, though students can add items to the general bibliography (it's maintained in an internal wiki - though the Blackboard wiki tool is terrible) they may add things formatted in odd ways, or in the wrong categories, and they cannot easily download the sources to a bibliography manager.

But with CiteULike I can maintain the entire course bibliography in one place, and then provide links to specific topics using tags (you can even subscribe to the whole thing or to specific tags using RSS, if you want to keep up with the latest additions). Readings on Venezuelan politics? Here! Or I might tag some readings as recommended for the first week of the course, or some particular lecture, and post the link in the course outline and in the appropriate place in Blackboard. And students can of course download the citations to the citation manager of their choice, click on the handy links to read the actual articles (the point of the exercise, after all), or simply copy and paste the plain text of the citations they used to their bibliographies when they finish writing their essays (too much student time is, I think, spent worrying on minor details of bibliography formatting rather than actually reading the sources).

Moreover, students who create an account with CiteULike can easily contribute readings to the common course pool, perhaps with their own review notes (I can always tag them appropriately); they just have to join the class group. (I already incentivize this sort of thing in the course outline - adding to the course bibliography in appropriate ways, or contributing to the course blog/discussion board/wiki, are all things that help students get points in my courses). In fact, that's the part I'm most interested in: I keep trying to foster collaborative research in the classroom, and if students are easily able to contribute sources to the common pool of readings, they can basically help each other in constructive ways. And they can help me as well - I have found some very interesting sources for the course (even whole new literatures) in essays that students have written in the past - sources which sometimes end up in the course bibliography (you really do learn lots from your students).

I am actually considering requiring my honours students (in POLS 401, a course on contemporary political thought) to actually create a CiteULike account and contribute readings to it periodically, perhaps with some review notes. (I tried something like this once with a wiki, but the wiki is too cumbersome for this). To be sure, there's some upfront investment on their part (I probably will have to demonstrate how to use the software in the first few classes, or write a detailed handout with an explanation and pictures) but once they learn, I imagine it could be helpful to them (both in this and other courses).

Has anybody else done similar things? What potential problems am I missing?

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Sunday Extremophile Blogging: The ARMAN and Thermoplasmatales archaea

ARMAN archaea, orange circles, with an arcaheon of the thermoplasma order, below them. The small orange particles are viruses. Nobody knows what the needle-like things do. Credit: Luis R. Cronolli/LBNL via ScienceDaily 
The ARMAN archaeon is a mysterious one (mentioned in the previous instalment of Sunday extremophiles). For one thing, it is found only in highly acidic pools of an abandoned mine in Northern California (pH < 1.5 or so; the water there is more like concentrated sulphuric acid. Related organisms are found in other acidic pools, according to Wikipedia), and it has one of the smallest genomes of all free-living organisms (that is, not parasites). Indeed, it is so small that it seems to be at the size limit for metabolic, non-parasitic life (some viruses -no metabolism, so no "life" in a sense- are bigger), with a correspondingly tiny genome (1 million base pairs, compared to hundreds of billions for complex organisms) and few ribosomes. And yet of this small genome (1 million base pairs), about 45% seems to be genes that are not found anywhere else. ARMAN could thus be the "minimal" metabolic organism - with the smallest set of genes necessary for metabolism, though it apparently interacts in some unknown way with other acidophilic archaea, perhaps to get some extra nutrition (the thermoplasmatales, among which are found the most acidophilic organisms known, thriving in pH 0.06 environments). 

I find these weird niches - far removed from human possibility - really fascinating. Are there any limits to the environments in which life can thrive, ultimately? ARMAN lives in an environment extremely hostile to most forms of life - yet even there, it is not alone (in fact, it is possible that life started in similar environments, so perhaps ARMAN's lineage is very old). Endless forms most beautiful indeed.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

A Puzzle about Character and Democracy

Elections in modern democracies function as mechanisms of both selection and discipline. With a multiplicity of candidates competing for office, elections should in theory enable voters to select the person who they believe would do the best job of governing them (e.g., the most virtuous candidate), and to discipline incumbent candidates who have failed to do what they want by not re-electing them (assuming re-election is possible), instead electing someone else. Ideally, these two functions of elections would complement each other: voters would select candidates whose characters they trust and whose promises can be determined to be credible, and then credibly discipline them if they do not perform appropriately.

We have some evidence that elections as "disciplinary" institutions really do produce better performance from political leaders, at least in purely economic terms: politicians who are in danger of losing their jobs unless they deliver results that are satisfactory to a large number of people tend to deliver policies that are at the very least not very bad (see, for starters, here and here, though the literature, both theoretical and empirical, is vast, and there are some circumstances under which elections appear to worsen economic performance). Indeed, the literature on the comparative economic performance of democracies and non-democracies typically shows that democracies are at least no worse, and often better, than non-democracies in this respect, contrary to some popular beliefs (as Dani Rodrik notes). I like to show the students in my dictatorships and revolutions class this density plot to illustrate the point:
(Solid line for democratic country-years, dotted line for non-democratic country-years. The data on democracy is taken from the Polity project; we take democratic years for a given country as those where the country scores more than zero in the Polity autocracy+democracy measure, which is only barely democratic, given the coding criteria, but indicates real electoral competition. The data on growth come from the Penn World Tables. The period covered is 1950-2007, with data for most countries with population over 500,000 people. Basically, the plot says that "autocratic" countries with less political competition tended to have a smaller median growth rate but a higher variance in that rate over this period – more miraculous years but also more disastrous years).

Yet politicians as a class are not typically held in high esteem: most people in democracies do not seem to think that politicians are people of good moral character when considered as a group. The complaint about the need for "better" leaders, and the disappointment over actual leaders, seem nearly universal (and go back a long way, to Plato: typically, the praise of the political class always applies to the past, to the ancestors who were better, as in Cicero). I admit, the evidence I have for this proposition is fragmentary, but consider for example this Gallup poll question on how US residents evaluate the "honesty and ethical standards" of different professions:

Though the low ranking of senators and members of congress in this figure is presumably driven in part by bad economic news in late 2009, I do not think it is very atypical. Other polling data also tends to show voters in the US being much more dissatisfied with Congress as a whole than with their own congressman or senator (who tend to be re-elected at an astonishing rate), which suggests that they have a low opinion of the political class as a whole even though they may have a good opinion of their own representative. And the pattern in other countries seems similar: in Italy, politicians are routinely referred to as a "caste" who enjoy immense and undeserved privileges, even as some of them (including, inexplicably, Berlusconi) remain relatively popular; complaints about the quality of the political class in India (where many members of the Lok Sabha have criminal convictions) are extremely common; and distrust of politicians in Venezuela (my native country) seems to be quite general, even if some politicians (like Chavez) are very popular. (I should look up NZ data, but I'm too lazy for that right now). I am sure most people have heard or expressed views about how most politicians are "crooks," and not only the politicians of the "other side" (whatever side one does not support) but also those of one's own side – how they are spineless, too concerned with their electoral fortunes and their image, hypocrites, quarrel too much, etc. When was the last time you heard people praise the overall character of politicians?

Yet this is somewhat puzzling. Voters presumably prefer higher-quality characters among politicians: so why are "virtuous" politicians not being elected, or, if they are being elected, why is this fact not being recognized among the electorate? (Assuming, of course, that the evidence of voter discontent with the political class noted above holds more generally, and reflects a more or less accurate judgment of the character of politicians; it could also be that voters are simply mistaken about the character of politicians as a whole, though that fact would itself demand explanation). Moreover, it's not as if politicians are a low-status group of people; buildings are named after them, resources are expended on ceremonies for them, we address them with honorific titles, and so on, but this makes the disparagement of their character as a class even more puzzling, since their high status presumably biases many judgments of their character upwards rather than downwards, especially for those politicians who are commonly thought to be successful. Politicians are both the occasional subjects of hagiographies and yet are held to have bad moral character when considered as a group.

More precisely stated, the puzzle is that given an implicit preference for high-quality politicians (in terms of character), and a competitive electoral system, voters do not elect more politicians they think actually have high-quality characters, i.e., "virtuous" politicians (for some plausible conception of virtue). What could account for this?

I suspect that there are two basic answers to this question, though they are not necessarily incompatible. The first, and most obvious, blames supply problems. Perhaps there are extremely few virtuous politicians out there, and they do not want to rule (though they occasionally rule; hence the hagiographies). This is the Socratic argument in the Republic; hence philosopher kings must be forced to rule, since they would not naturally want to. Stated differently, perhaps the rewards of political office are more appealing to the non-virtuous than to the virtuous (given some plausible definition of virtue), leading to a pool of candidates heavily weighted towards the non-virtuous (though wouldn't one expect that the virtuous, who would want to help their fellows, would also disproportionately run for office?). Or perhaps the typical political environment of modern democracies disadvantages the virtuous vis à vis the non-virtuous. This is the Machiavellian position, suitably adapted to the 21st century: if those campaigners capable of using virtuous and vicious tactics (e.g., dishonest lying, duplicity, etc.) are more successful than those who are only capable of using virtuous tactics, then the former will tend to be elected more often than the latter. This answer leads to a different sort of position, however, which attributes the problem less to the actual supply of virtuous politicians than to the epistemic constraints on voters who must distinguish between virtuous and non-virtuous politicians.

From this point of view, there are also a number of possibilities. A Platonic answer is that voters cannot distinguish between virtuous and non-virtuous politicians because they do not know what virtue is; they elect the non-virtuous while believing that they are electing the virtuous, and the non-virtuous do not even have to deceive them about this fact very much. But this answer does not work for us right now, since it implies that voters would be satisfied with the character of politicians they actually elect, but they are not.

Perhaps the problem then is that the epistemic demands of "selection" are higher than those of "discipline." In order to discipline a politician, the voter only needs to know his own situation: if he or she thinks that his life is going well, he can vote for the incumbent, whereas if he does not think so, he can vote against the incumbent (contrast with ancient methods of discipline, which, given term limits, were always quasi-judicial and placed more stringent epistemic demands on citizens). Even if the voter substantially misallocates responsibility for his or her material situation to the political class (perhaps the country's economic performance is substantially affected by factors not under the control of the political class), the incentives created by this sort of behaviour might still induce politicians to, on average and over the long run, provide relatively good policy (or at least operate as a kind of selection filter, so that even if politicians provide policy more or less at random, only relatively successful policies get rewarded). 

By contrast, in order to select a politician properly, the voter needs a lot of information that is not readily available, or that is easily subject to falsification or concealment (by the candidates themselves, among others), especially in large-scale societies where voters cannot know their leaders on a personal basis. (Thus Aristotle's distrust of large political communities, where he thinks selection institutions cannot work well because citizens can never really know each other's characters). 

More specifically, if the pool of candidates includes more non-virtuous than virtuous candidates, but voters cannot easily distinguish between them, they will tend to select the non-virtuous at a higher rate. Since, moreover, when the voter decides whether to punish the incumbent he or she has to also decide whether to take a risk on the challenger's character being bad, the voter might decide to live with leaders with bad characters but who deliver acceptable performance rather than take a chance on untested candidates who may both have bad character and deliver bad performance, knowing that his or her ability to distinguish between good and bad characters is not very good. From this point of view, disciplinary concerns about performance would normally dominate selection concerns about character, and voters would learn to live with rulers whose character they despise (at least in the aggregate), even though they care about both character and performance. (I think there arguments along these lines, though more technically expressed, in Tim Besley's Principled Agents. I really need to read that book and learn some game theory). However, this seems not to account for the phenomenon "congress is bad but my congressman is great" that we sometimes see in the US.

Two other possibilities that seem to me to be less plausible are the following. One is that character is simply too malleable. So voters elect people of good character, but such people quickly become bad upon gaining political power. Voters are thus constantly disappointed: they think they are selecting the best leaders (and in fact, they do) but these people easily become corrupted. I suspect, however, that we should see more incumbent turnover under this hypothesis than we actually see: people would learn that politicians quickly become corrupt, and hence that the best way of dealing with the problem is to turn the out of office quickly, or to impose term limits (as a kind of paternalistic policy, preventing themselves from being tempted to re-elect corrupt people simply because they provide good performance), though perhaps voters evaluate a tradeoff between competence and corruption potential and decide that good performance is worth a certain amount of corruption, as in the previous argument (except that voters in this model are always able to distinguish the corrupt from the virtuous: the difference is that the virtuous turn corrupt at a high rate). 

Finally, I suppose that the puzzle could simply be attributed to partisan biases. On this view, disagreements about policy would be easily translated into attributions of character: only people with bad characters could support the policies the opposition supports! Since even in two party systems around half the population supports positions one does not support, and elects politicians accordingly, this might result in the feeling that most of the political class is worthless. But this theory would seem to imply that politicians would be more despised in multiparty systems than in two-party systems; though I have no data on this question, I suspect this is not the case. Moreover, people often despise politicians even from their own party; they like their policies, but dislike their characters.

Other possibilities? Perhaps the disparagement of the characters of politicians results from human ambivalence about domination? What other ideas are there? (Or perhaps this is a pseudo-puzzle?)

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Pet peeves: the neglect of ancient concepts, a continuing series

(Warning: some complaints about the neglect of ancient concepts by classical scholars). 

I just read a nice piece by W. Jeffrey Tatum on "Roman Democracy?"  in the Blackwell Companion to Greek and Roman Political Thought that makes a good case for taking the "democratic" features of the late republican Roman political system seriously, contrary to the common opinion among scholars since the late 19th century that republican Rome was essentially a senatorial oligarchy. 

Tatum sensibly notes that Rome was not a full democracy in the strong sense of the term (pace Fergus Millar), yet he also seems needlessly dismissive of Polybius' and Cicero's judgment that the Roman constitution was "mixed" (pp. 215, 223). Rather, he seems to want to classify Rome as some kind of imperfect democracy, and in the process of casting about for a suitable concept ends up suggesting that Rome was a "delegative democracy" (p. 226). This is a term invented by my old teacher Guillermo O'Donnell to describe political systems like that of Argentina under Menem or Peru under Fujimori, but it is wholly unsuitable for describing the late Roman republic: a "delegative democracy" is a democracy without mechanisms of horizontal accountability, and the Roman republic certainly did not lack that! 

Why not simply say that the best way of describing the Roman political system is through something like the Polybian concept of the "mixed" constitution, or alternatively through the concept of a "hybrid" regime, to use contemporary terminology (though the concept of a hybrid regime today is much less well developed and lacks the normative associations of the idea of the mixed constitution)? The evidence Tatum cites shows quite well that the Roman regime fits the basic ancient criteria for classification as a mixed constitution. It involved a number of distinct centers of power with with complementary but also competing interests (the tribunes, whose power derived from their connection with the popular assemblies and their ability to veto senatorial proposals; the senate, which was the executive committee of the Roman upper classes; and the consuls, whose power derived from their control of military forces in the field) which were not always equally balanced against each other, to be sure, but then again the idea of the mixed constitution did not require that its constituent parts be fully balanced. And it is true that the idea of the mixed constitution had a large normative baggage and implied a certain theory about political stability (which I am currently exploring in this project), but that is no reason to abandon it entirely. 

Aside from concerns about the overwhelming dominance of the senate (which are basically refuted by Tatum), scholars tend to argue that Rome could not be a "mixed" constitution in the Polybian sense because the consuls (the "monarchical" element in the constitution, in the Polybian scheme) were senators and returned to that body, representing senatorial interests all the time. But it seems reasonably clear that in Rome the consuls' power derived not just from the senate, but from their control of armed force and their ability to extract resources from the provinces (as proconsuls after their terms); so Polybius' characterization of the consuls as the "monarchical" center of power (cf. πολιτευμάτων, Histories 6.10.6, which it seems to me could be translated as such) does not seem far-fetched. 

So why the dismissive attitude towards the ancient conceptual apparatus? Rather than throw it out, why not develop it further and see whether it can be adapted to modern conditions? (Another example in the same book: the piece by Forsdyke on the idea of tyranny in classical thought. She seems to suggest that the notion of tyranny in the 5th and 4th centuries was simply a tool in the ideological struggle between the upper and lower classes in the polis, rather than an attempt to actually grasp a real phenomenon, however imperfectly, though the last lines of the piece soften the impression a bit). 

The Class Struggle in Classical Greece

From Aristotle, Politics V.1310a9-11:
at present in some oligarchies they [the oligarchs] swear "And I will be hostile to the people and plan whatever evil I can against them"

Sunday, August 08, 2010

Sunday Strange Life Blogging

Not exactly extremophiles tonight. But I found a really neat article about a lovely sea slug, Elysia Chlorotica, which "steals" the chloroplasts of certain algae and derives nutrition from their photosynthesis: in a sense, an animal turns into a plant (picture above, from a neat blog called "Small Things Considered", which is the blog of the American Society for Microbiology; picture source here).

Also via Small Things Considered, a real extremophile, an archaeon that lives in water so hot and acidic it can melt metal rivets (probably worthy of another Sunday extremophile blogging), and the mind-boggling sex lives of mushrooms. The diversity of life never ceases to amaze me.

The most surprising sentence I read today

...while philosophers mandated self-control for kings in regard to both alcohol and sex, the Antigonid king Demetrius the Besieger appropriated the Parthenon itself for the use of his personal harem (ca. 290 BC), and the lead float in the great procession of Ptolemy II in Alexandria in 271/270 was a penis 150ft long with a 20-foot star coming out of its tip.
From a piece by Arthur M. Eckstein on "Hellenistic Monarchy," in the Blackwell Companion to Greek and Roman Political Thought, p. 256. The reference to the harem of Demetrius is from Plutarch (Demetrius, 23); the reference to Ptolemy's float is from Athenaeus (Deipnosophistae, 196a-203b). The feminist criticism basically writes itself.

The Hellenistic kings, I learned, were basically warlords (like most kings most of the time - most small coalition, small selectorate political systems are depressingly similar), though they were also more upfront about it than most (their kingdoms were more or less explicitly premised on usurpation and force; they never appeared in civilian garb; they called their territories "spear-won land").

The piece also makes good sense of the idea of deification (which happened with some frequency among Hellenistic kings and later Roman emperors): in a world were gods are basically powerful beings who can grant or deny your wishes, powerful warlords were not functionally different from gods; they too, could grant or deny your wishes, so why not build temples to them? I suspect deification as ideological control (as in modern totalitarian regimes) was probably not used much in ancient times.

One small point of contention. Eckstein thinks that the classical Greek portrayal of the Achaemenid monarchs of Persia as absolute despots (in Herodotus or Plato) was an ideological "fantasy," but the Hellenistic kings were apparently the real deal. The Persian kings, according to him, were constrained by custom and a powerful aristocracy, while the Hellenistic monarchs were (apparently) not. This may be partly true, but I doubt it settles the matter; kings constrained by small aristocracies can be as absolute as kings not so constrained (and even the Hellenistic monarchs must have had a small winning coalition that had to be kept happy, the so-called "friends" [philoi] that Eckstein mentions - friends here is an actual title, not just an informal relation). The well-attested opulence of the Persian court certainly suggests a very high extractive capacity and a not very constrained monarch from the point of view of their subjects, though perhaps their rule was legitimated in a different way and their freedom of action with respect to their selectorates and winning coalitions was smaller than the freedom of action of the Hellenistic kings.

Thursday, August 05, 2010

Education, Selection, Discipline

Consider the problem of virtuous leadership in politics. It would seem to be pretty uncontroversial to say that a government is better the more its leaders are virtuous individuals, and that a regime is better the higher the probability that virtuous leaders will be consistently selected to lead it over time. If our political leaders were just and courageous, fair and wise, that would seem to be a good thing, right? To be sure, there are important disagreements about what counts as virtuous leadership and what counts as a political virtue, and at any rate virtuous leadership is not the only thing that matters in politics, but let us put these questions aside for the moment and consider a different question: assuming a certain conception of virtue, what are the possible institutional solutions to the problem of ensuring the rule of virtue, or a close enough approximation? What possible institutions either increase the chances of virtuous leadership, or reduce its need? 

It seems to me that there are basically three solutions to this problem, which we can call selection institutions, disciplinary institutions, and educational institutions.

“Selection” institutions more or less efficiently select the virtuous as rulers and leaders (via properly structured elections, for example), taking the distribution of character and virtue in society as given, or else efficiently select good policies directly by institutional mechanisms that amplify the good qualities of citizens and dampen their bad qualities (via deliberative or aggregative mechanisms, for example). Theories of “epistemic” democracy from Rousseau and Condorcet onwards tend to emphasize these solutions, but the basic idea is quite old. For example, Plato, Aristotle, and Cicero, none of whom were “democrats” in any important sense of the word, all suggested that though regular people are not individually virtuous, collectively they may yet be good judges of character, especially in small communities where everyone knows everyone else, so that properly structured elections under the right conditions (and there is a lot riding on the qualifications) can result in a relatively good chance of selecting virtuous leadership. The same logic can be applied to the direct selection of policy: if virtuous leadership cannot be ensured, perhaps specific institutions can be created (e.g., referenda or other forms of “direct democracy”) that amplify and aggregate the good qualities of citizens (their private information and local knowledge, for example) so that the kinds of policies that a virtuous leader would implement tend to be selected (I hasten to add that the justification of referenda and other direct democratic institutions is not simply or solely that they tend to result in policies that would have been chosen by ideally virtuous rulers; typically they are justified by the values of participation, autonomy, and the like).

“Disciplinary” institutions more or less efficiently discipline rulers and leaders to act in virtuous ways even if they are not virtuous, taking the outcomes of selection as given. This is the focus of the many theories of political regimes that prescribe separation of power and other such mechanisms; public choice normative theories are an obvious contemporary example, though the basic idea, again, is quite old. So, for example, the theory of the mixed constitution in antiquity is in part a theory of how to induce behaviour that is approximately virtuous by diminishing the incentives towards arrogance and hubris among those who are powerful; it assumes that people who are overly wealthy or overly secure in their power will tend to act in ways that are not beneficial to the community, and hence that other parts of the community need to be given the tools to act as counterweights.

“Educational” institutions, finally, attempt to increase the supply of virtuous individuals in society (who can then be selected into positions of power and responsibility). Many classical writers certainly emphasized such solutions, but one can find examples in contemporary calls for civic education. Educational institutions may aim to directly increase the supply of potential leaders, or may aim to increase the overall level of virtue in the population so that selection institutions will work more efficiently (because more virtuous citizens will be more likely to select leaders properly, perhaps). They may also work directly (e.g., through laws or explicit curricula and in formal settings) or indirectly (as a by-product of other interactions, or as the result of interventions into the broader cultural environment). But the basic point is in both cases to construct institutions, or to shape the cultural environment, in ways that increase the supply of virtue, whether at the citizen level or at the level of candidates for leadership.

It is worth stressing that particular institutions may serve more than one of these purposes. For example, selection institutions such as competitive elections also serve as disciplinary institutions (they are typically selective ex ante and disciplinary ex post). And deliberative mechanisms are typically both selective (of policy) and educational (of participants). But the general analytical distinction between selection, discipline, and education is still, I think, generally useful, as the power of particular effects in any given institutional setting will vary: so elections may, for example, be more efficient at disciplining politicians (i.e., making them behave in ways that approximate virtuous behaviour) under some conditions than at selecting virtuous leaders ex ante.

At any rate, the relationships between these institutions are complex, both within a static context and in the longer run dynamics of a particular system of institutions. From a static perspective, the appropriate balance between selective, disciplinary, and educational institutions (or between the selective, disciplinary, and educational effects of institutions) will depend in great part on a judgment about the relative “efficiency” of institutions for the production and selection of virtuous leaders or the disciplining of non-virtuous leaders. It seems to me, for example, that the greater emphasis on education characteristic of classical thought reflects in part a greater confidence in the effectiveness of the educational technology available to smaller face to face societies; educational institutions for virtue do not seem to scale well in modern, large-scale societies. Similarly, it may be that in modern mass-mediated societies it is increasingly hard to select virtuous leaders ex ante (the noise to signal ratio about their characters is too high, and too susceptible to manipulation or distortion), so that elections need to be reconceived more and more as disciplinary institutions, a thought that most classical thinkers did not seem to consider. For them, elections were primarily selection institutions, and hence did not need to be especially competitive; discipline was produced through the use of the court system or specialized quasi-judicial institutions like the audit (euthuna) and short terms of office, not induced by the regularization of competition common today (note also the prevalence of “term limits” in ancient elections). The parts of the institutional context that appear to be immutable also matter; in an age of monarchy (like the middle ages), where selection institutions (hereditary succession, basically, which is equivalent to more or less random selection) and disciplinary institutions (local noble assemblies, basically) are limited in their effectiveness, it is inevitable that educational solutions would be stressed (hence the many “mirrors of princes” we find, and the relative neglect of discussions of disciplinary and selection institutions).

A potentially more interesting but also more difficult set of questions concern the longer-run dynamics of these systems of institutions. I can imagine, for example, that even though from a static perspective all three solutions are equivalent (so that we could in principle substitute a highly efficient disciplinary system for a highly efficient educational or selection system: consider Kant’s famous comment about the possibility of designing a good constitution for a “race of devils”), from a dynamic perspective things might look quite different. Perhaps an over-reliance on disciplinary institutions would tend to induce a downward shift in the supply of virtue, since all disciplinary procedures can catch people who are actually virtuous, so that potentially virtuous candidates for leadership would be discouraged; or perhaps excessive reliance on selection institutions would increase the risk of really bad outcomes (as on occasion a really bad leader or a really bad policy would slip through). Ancient writers accordingly stressed a relatively balanced mixture of discipline, education, and selection as a solution to the problem of good leadership; but perhaps the appropriate balance will always depend on the actual efficacy of the respective organizational technologies and on material and cultural conditions (so that perhaps we are today right to more or less disregard proposals for extensive civic education as unlikely to lead to significant changes in the virtue of leaders).

What am I missing? Are there other possibilities, other than education, selection, and discipline?