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Will we be all right in the end?

David Runciman: Europe’s Crisis, 5 January 2012

... to the way things are, they simply want to be free to drift along with their fate. All this makes David Cameron a classic democratic fatalist, rather than the pragmatist he likes to present himself as. He certainly behaved like one when he exercised his veto in Brussels. The definition of a pragmatic conservative is someone who wants things to change so that ...

No Exit

David Runciman, 23 May 1996

The Boundaries of the State in Modern Britain 
edited by S.J.D. Green and R.C. Whiting.
Cambridge, 403 pp., £40, February 1996, 0 521 45537 5
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... A Thatcherite history of the state in 20th-century Britain is simple: up until 1979 the state got bigger, clumsier, greedier; after 1979 it started to get smaller, nimbler, leaner. It is the story of a steady, seemingly inexorable advance, followed by a sudden and rapid retreat, as the state was determinedly ‘rolled back’. It is a heroic story, with an obvious heroine, and that alone ensures that it has not gone unchallenged ...

The Plot to Make Us Stupid

David Runciman, 22 February 1996

... Why is it,’ asks the mathematician John Allen Paulos in his book about the pitfalls of innumeracy, ‘that a lottery ticket with the numbers 2 13 17 20 29 36 is for most people far preferable to one with the numbers 1 2 3 4 5 6?’ It is not an easy question to answer. All lotteries, after all, rely on a recognition by those who participate in them that the winning numbers are chosen at random, if only so that the participants can feel that their numbers have as good a chance of coming up as any others ...

BJ + Brexit or JC + 2 refs?

David Runciman, 5 December 2019

... The​ last time the country went to the polls in winter it was also a ‘Who governs Britain?’ election. In February 1974 Ted Heath called on the voters to decide if they wanted a strong elected government with the parliamentary authority to take tough decisions or government by a left-wing clique beholden to the extra-parliamentary power of the unions, which lay behind a recent series of strikes ...

The Choice Was Real

David Runciman, 29 June 2017

... One of​ the better arguments for Britain’s leaving the EU was that it might reinvigorate and liberate national politics, stifled for too long by the absence of real choice at election time. The EU is a legalistic and treaty-based political institution designed to take some of the heat out of domestic politics. That left people complaining that the EU was generating all the heat ...


David Runciman: Dylan on the radio, 19 July 2007

... Before he discovered literature in a friend’s apartment in New York, Bob Dylan’s connection to the world beyond the narrow one into which he was born came almost exclusively from the radio. The radio is usually on somewhere in the background of his memoirs, and it’s always broadening his horizons, letting him know what American music could sound like, in all its unexpected variety ...

How many jellybeans?

David Runciman: Non-spurious generalisations and why the crowd will win, 5 August 2004

Profiles, Probabilities and Stereotypes 
by Frederick Schauer.
Harvard, 359 pp., £19.95, February 2004, 0 674 01186 4
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The Wisdom of Crowds: Why the Many are Smarter than the Few 
by James Surowiecki.
Little, Brown, 295 pp., £16.99, June 2004, 0 316 86173 1
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... Most of us, most of the time, are deeply prejudiced in favour of individual over collective judgments. This is hardly surprising, since we are all biased. First, we are biased in favour of our own opinions, which we tend to prefer to those of anyone else. Second, we are biased in favour of individuals generally, because we are all individuals ourselves, and so are broadly sympathetic to the individual point of view ...

Invented Communities

David Runciman: Post-nationalism, 19 July 2001

Democracy in Europe 
by Larry Siedentop.
Penguin, 254 pp., £8.99, June 2001, 0 14 028793 0
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The Postnational Constellation: Political Essays 
by Jürgen Habermas, translated by Max Pensky.
Polity, 216 pp., £45, December 2000, 0 7456 2351 4
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... What is wrong with the idea of a world state? John Rawls, the world’s most celebrated living political philosopher, believes that the answer is relatively straightforward. ‘I follow Kant’s lead in Perpetual Peace,’ he writes, ‘in thinking that a world government – by which I mean a unified political regime with the legal powers normally exercised by central government – would either be a global despotism or else would rule over a fragile empire torn by frequent civil strife as various regions and peoples tried to gain their political freedom and autonomy ...

Confusion is power

David Runciman: Our Very Own Oligarchs, 7 June 2012

The New Few, or a Very British Oligarchy: Power and Inequality in Britain Now 
by Ferdinand Mount.
Simon and Schuster, 305 pp., £18.99, April 2012, 978 1 84737 800 2
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... You can tell Russia is not a real democracy because there is no great mystery about its politics. Democracies are slightly baffling in how they work: just look at America; just look at Europe; just look at us. In Russia the basics are easy to understand: people use money to get power and power to get money. The country is ruled by a narrow, self-serving elite who go through the motions of holding elections and transferring power ...

A Bear Armed with a Gun

David Runciman: The Widening Atlantic, 3 April 2003

Paradise and Power: America and Europe in the New World Order 
by Robert Kagan.
Atlantic, 104 pp., £10, March 2003, 1 84354 177 7
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... Thomas Hobbes, in one of the best known and most abused phrases in the English language, described the life of man in a state of nature as ‘solitary, poore, nasty, brutish and short’. Less famous, but almost as notorious, is Hobbes’s contention that the relations between the states that human beings create in order to escape the misery of their natural condition are subject to nothing but the laws that produced that misery in the first place ...

Politicians in a Fix

David Runciman: The uses of referendums, 10 July 2003

... Valéry Giscard d’Estaing begins his generally sensible if utterly hideous preamble to the new draft European Constitution with a line from Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War. ‘Our Constitution is called a democracy because power is in the hands not of a minority but of the whole people.’ It is hard to know what to make of this. In any other context one would have to suppose it was intended ironically ...

The Cattle-Prod Election

David Runciman: The Point of the Polls, 5 June 2008

... The American philosopher John Dewey thought that democracy should be like a giant conversation: the nation talking to itself about its hopes and fears and listening to what other people have to say. Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately) for Dewey, he never got to hear what such a conversation might sound like, because the technology wasn’t available ...


David Runciman: AI, 25 January 2018

... It’s three weeks​ before Christmas and Los Angeles is in flames, though you wouldn’t know it from inside the bowels of the Long Beach Convention and Entertainment Centre, where all is cool and grey. I am here with eight thousand other attendees of the Neural Information Processing Systems (Nips) conference – the great annual get-together of people who work in machine learning ...

Ask Mike

David Runciman: City Government, 18 June 2020

The Nation City: Why Mayors Are Now Running the World 
by Rahm Emanuel.
Knopf, 256 pp., £20.89, February 2020, 978 0 525 65638 8
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... Some​ books appear at exactly the wrong moment, which only makes them more interesting. Rahm Emanuel was mayor of Chicago between 2011 and 2019. In short order he has turned out a boastful and boosterish account of his time in office, which also serves as his manifesto for a new way of doing politics. Emanuel believes that the world’s hundred leading cities generate the economic, intellectual and cultural energy of the planet ...

Too early or too late?

David Runciman, 2 April 2020

... In​ Democracy for Realists: Why Elections Do Not Produce Responsive Government, published in 2016, the political scientists Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels described what happened when sharks started attacking bathers off the New Jersey shore in the summer of 1916. It was a wholly unexpected turn of events: sharks had never been seen that far north before ...

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