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January 02, 2005

The U.N., the future of the world, and the Tsunami

[Note: I had linked to a Tsunami photo here, but it now appears they are the subject of a hoax or error.]

The latest Tsunami count is 141,000 dead, according to CNN. My wife and I felt we had to donate. Amazon is a convenient way to get money to the Red Cross and says it is taking no cut of the donations.

I think it may also be while to look at the even larger context. The Wall Street Journal ran an interesting piece on the last day of 2004. It's worth quoting from extensively:

Here's some context for 2004: The number of human beings who died of HIV/AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa was about two million. The number of people who died of bad water and bad sanitation was more than two million. These deaths broke families and even whole communities with a force as hard as that in Sumatra this week. What is the answer?

The simple and obvious answer sits inside this final piece of disaster data: The Red Cross estimates that for the past 10 years when a natural disaster occurred in a developing country, the number of people killed was 589; but in what the Red Cross calls a country of "high human development" it was 51. That's 11 to 1. (Also, there's no full-time throat-slitting in countries of "high human development.")

The answer is to compress this ratio. We won't do that with aid, important as that is right now. We will never do it with the United Nations. The way we move the world's most vulnerable people away from the high risks of 11 and toward the relative safety of 1 is with the meat and potatoes of politics.

I may believe that liberal market economics joined to repeatable free elections is the way to a safer, more prosperous life for the Sri Lankas and Iraqs of the world. But belief alone never turned rocks into silver, even when all the world believed Poseidon caused earthquakes. Political work is the means the civilized world has for replacing men and ideas that are dumb or dangerous with something better. In the aftermath of 2004's too-numerous unnatural deaths, the only resolution possible is to re-enter the arena of politics and fight the good, slow fight. It's all we've got, and it is enough.

The typical WSJ-conservative slant on the U.N. expressed above will be counterintuitive to many readers. But consider this: if you don't consider the U.N., how many truly effective organizations are there where the main power resides in five entities, each of which has veto power? Answer: None. Effective organizations don't have that kind of veto power because if everyone has to agree, there is too much of tendency toward inaction. For instance, imagine that the U.S. Presidential elections required unanimity. Obviously no one would ever get elected. That's a very extreme example, but the same bias toward inaction holds, to lessening degrees, as the number of voting entities decreases, and is only eliminated when the number of voters is 2. You won't find any successful corporation that is managed that way, because such a corporation would have such a bias toward inaction that it couldn't compete effectively.

We can't expect a organizational structure that could not even lead to a successful corporation to be the agent that solves all the world's problems. To do so would be overoptimistic at best.

Such a structural detail might seem like a small thing, but it is not. It is the foundation from which everything else grows. It biases the U.N. toward inaction except in humanitarian areas where no one could reasonably have any objection.

The only reason the U.N. has the structure it has is that the Security Council powers didn't have the courage or faith in U.N. ideals that would have enabled them to accept majority rule (as voters in any democracy do, in order to enable elections to complete successfully). If they had had that faith, and continued to, the potential for the U.N. would be very different. But, alas, that is not the world we live in.

No, we can't rely on the U.N. But we can't remove ourselves from world affairs either: "In the aftermath of 2004's too-numerous unnatural deaths, the only resolution possible is to re-enter the arena of politics and fight the good, slow fight. It's all we've got, and it is enough."

January 2, 2005 in Current Affairs | Permalink


I agree that trying to find consensus is a more time-consuming way to make decisions that majority rule, and I agree that the UN has failed to act rightly many times because one or a few members of the SC blocked a resolution (the US before and during the Rwandan genocide, for example). However, that doesn't mean that consensus decision-making is inherently bad. The World Trade Organization is an effective organization and each of its 150 or so members has a veto -- even a tiny trading nation like Benin. Granted, it's quite different from the UN in many important ways, but it is an example of an effective international organization that operates by consensus.

Posted by: Jesse Helmer at Jan 3, 2005 3:54:14 AM

The argument I made is that an organization involving veto is inferior to other structures for situations where there are truly difficult decisions to make.

That is a comparative argument: A is better than B.

The WTO has no competition; therefore it does not provide that kind of comparative evidence.

I know of no case, in competitive situations, where a veto-based structure has turned out to win against co-existing, competitive, majority-rule-based structures. THAT is strong evidence; overwhelming, actually.

That being said, I'd like to know more about the WTO: what it does and how it works.

Posted by: Gary Robinson at Jan 3, 2005 6:46:35 AM

The understanding the WTO section of the WTO's web site describes what the WTO is and what it does. Of course, the information is produced by the WTO, but it's worth reading.

I'm not sure what you mean by competition. Perhaps if you expanded on why the WTO has no competition, or defined competition, I would better understand your argument.

Posted by: Jesse Helmer at Jan 4, 2005 6:48:14 PM

Conversely, look at some far more democratic organisations, like the UK parliament or US congress. They've done some really spectacularly idiotic things, such as all the "anti-terrorist" legislation enacted at the beginning of the new September That Never Ended.

Posted by: David Cantrell at Jan 5, 2005 3:46:21 PM

Hi Gary,

I think your definition of a 'veto-based' system is looking only for formal vetos as opposed to what some theorists have described interest-based or political vetos. Unless you're in a majority-led, parliamentary system (without a second house), you can't claim that your liberal democracy is free from vetos. The US has 4 on any given issue (House, Senate, Presidency, Judiciary) and most other democracies are similar.

So, while you may claim that no veto-based system has won out against a majority-rule based system, you might not be failing to define vetos appropriately. For more info, I recommend:

Tsebelis, George (1995). “Decision Making in Political Systems: Veto Players in Presidentialism, Parliamentarism Multicameralism and Multipartyism”, British Journal of Political Science, 25, pp. 289-325.

or just his book called Veto Players.

Posted by: markschaan at Jan 18, 2005 6:04:48 AM

You raise a good subtle point, Mark.

Our liberal democratic system does indeed have vetos in the sense that the president can veto a bill; the House can block legislation from the Senate, etc. So the original way of putting my point, which could be restated as "vetos bad; majority rule good" is not enough on its own if we are going to take the time to delve into the matter fully. More nuance is needed.

First: The degree of danger in a veto-based system is largely dependent on the degree to which the voters have disparate motivations. In the U.N., for example, the relationships between some of the players, at times, approximate a zero-sum game: if one country wins another loses, in a big way. Then it is almost inevitable that someone will choose to veto, and nothing will happen.

Now let's consider the relationship between the Senate and the House. Because the members of both entities are drawn from the same pool of people, and because they are both large bodies of people, the probability that one body's interests will be that of a zero-sum game with respect to the other on any particular issue is very small. Thus, while one body can, in effect, veto the other, the negative effects of having that power are minimized because the bodies have the same basic backgrounds; unlike the U.N., they are "on the same side".

Of course, when we're talking about just two bodies, it is kind of meaningless to talk about vetoes in the first place; vetoes and votes are the same thing. The difference between vetoes and votes increases with the number of bodies. One way of looking at it is: the probability that a decision based on veto will be different from a decision based on voting increases steadily as the number of voting entities increases.

Now let's bring the Presidency into the picture. That brings us up to 3 bodies, and veto becomes meaningful.

Consider the fact that the entire United States votes for the President. The voters for the Presidency is (approximately) the sum of the group of voters for all the members of Congress. So, while the Presidency is just one person, he represents (approximately) the majority beliefs of the entire country, the same country whose (approximate) majority opinion is also reflected in the Senate and the House.

Of course, various political complexities can lead to a situation where the President is from one party and Congress contains a majority of members of the other party. But from a broader perspective, the difference is not really so great: the odds that, for example, the Congress will be Republican and the President will be a Communist or an Islamic fundamentalist are so small to as to be negligible. The difference between the two parties only seems to be great in the context where the same two parties can be regularly expected to achieve the reins of power; but they are trivial if one considers the views of parties which have little chance of achieving power. Moreover, the fact that all members of the government are U.S. citizens tends to create a shared cultural experience.

Thus, the U.S. government is fairly homogenous in its motivations. Except in situations where one body decides the future of the other, such as during impeachment hearings for the President, the likelihood of a perceived zero-sum game between the different interacting bodies is small. That is not true of the U.N. security council.

Moreover, the effective number of bodies with veto power in the U.S. government significantly smaller than is the case with the Security Council, which contains 5 veto-wielding members. The U.S. arguably has 4 such bodies, including the Supreme Court. But it's not really that way, since, for example, the job of the Supreme Court is to interpret the laws passed by Congress, and thus its decisions are highly influenced by the actions of Congress. The "effective" number of bodies is less than 4, even when one disregards the relatively homogenous ultimate human motivations of the players in the vast majority of cases.

Of course, this leads to the following question: if veto power is so bad, why does the U.S. system incorporate it at all? The answer is: because things can go too far the other way. If the President didn't have a veto, his ability to be a truly "executive" agent would be hampered, which could, for example, be a problem in times of war. Sometimes, a need to form a consenus can get in the way. That's why the concept of "design by committee" is routinely mocked -- design by committee can be a recipe for mediocrity.

The U.S. Constitution was very carefully designed to optimize the mix of powers. There is some veto facility -- just enough and not too much, the Founders would argue. And there is just enough, and not too much, majority rule. The people who framed the Constitution had the same fundamental motivations: to create an effective Government, and this was the best mix they could come up with. It has worked quite well so far.

In contrast, the creation of the U.N. involved entities that had just been in a horrific war. They were afraid of each other. Their decisions in creating the U.N charter were largely influenced by that fear. Many in government feel that the decisions of a government should only reflect the interests of that government's people. So there is not a homogeneity of motivation. Without veto, the selfish interests of some countries could produce decisions that would harm another country. Veto power is the weapon against that. By accepting a veto-based system, and eliminating that fear, it was possible for the powers to form the U.N.; otherwise it would probably not have happened.

But, veto power has the negative effects -- the tendency toward inaction -- that were mentioned in my original piece. This severely limits the ability of the U.N. to make the right decision at critical times when it is important that action be taken, which was my original point.

Posted by: Gary Robinson at Jul 1, 2005 7:50:07 AM

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