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Bland Replaces Brutal

I've been watching the difficulties of Arab Spring countries in creating new traditions of governance, most notably in Egypt and Libya. The thing that characterises both of them, as far as I can tell, is a sense of disillusionment at rate of change. Egypt's military council has had enormous difficulty keeping the peace, and their role as a transitional government until a fully post-Mubarak era begins is being questioned. Libya's transitional government doesn't even have a cabinet yet and faces tensions between technocratic and tribal leaders (the former of whom have the expertise required to run a state, the latter of whom are heroes who expect compensation for their sacrifices in winning the war). I believe there is more disillusionment to come. People need to lower their expectations of the results of revolution, at least in the short term. What will happen is that the bland will replace the brutal; they hopefully will win a state where they will be free to criticise their leaders without fear of imprisonment, but they should not expect (on an individual or group level) to be deeply enfranchised, and they should more strongly expect that they will not (on an individual or group level) to get what they want on any particular policies. The stability of democracy (even a very active, consensus-run one like those in the occupy movements in the US, which have the luxury of being being composed of cityfolk and only a few fundamentalists) is based on enfranchising at most the largest factions of society to decide matters that are not deeply foundational. Smaller groups, heroic or not, might not be effectively represented at all, and larger groups will have significant parts of their preferences blocked to them through opposition of other larger groups (as an American socialist, I am not significantly enfranchised, even though I have the same voting rights as anyone else; enfranchisement-through-numbers is a large-group mechanism, not a small-group one). Those not used to democracy will have to get used to this as well. They still will probably be better off with their new governments, provided those are well-architected (with Libya, this is virtually certain; with Egypt and Tunisia, it's too early to tell and there is probably room for reasonable disagreement on whatever history decides).

Tonight I listened to an interesting recent Radiolab podcast on epidemics. The second segment was particularly interesting in that it described the almost antimiraclous way that a precursor to AIDS is believed to have been formed in another primate; the biochemistry described sounds pretty amazing.

The first segment of that same show was also interesting in that it highlights an area where (I think) rule of law can and should reasonably be suspended (provided there are no existing mechanisms for this class of state action): epidemics. It told the tale of Typhoid Mary, in particular how she was a passive carrier of typhoid and a chef for many wealthy families who ended up coming down with Typhoid; epidemiologists tracked her down, she was forcibly taken to a hospital, had blood/fæs/urine samples taken, and then banished to an island near New York for many years. A new health commissioner was uncomfortable with the legality of holding her there, and released her on the promise of her not working as a chef again, and after a few years the monitoring regime tracking her stopped doing so and she eventually went on to work as a chef at a sanitarium, various hospitals, and other places. She was caught by the same epidemiologists tracking down the many fresh cases of typhoid she brought about and returned to the island where she spent the rest of her life. There may have been insufficient legal precedent/justification for holding her, but in this case I believe that public policy interests, coupled with the damage of outbreaks of illness, should have been sufficient to act as a raw justification of state power in compelling her isolation until and unless a legal justification can be cooked up. Basic liberties are a very good norm to have, but they are not a suicide pact, particularly when lives are at stake. Related, while I don't think STDs necessarily qualify for this kind of isolation (covered in the podcast), I do think that it is very reasonable to have an affirmative legal duty to disclose STD status before sex, and to have strong penalties for failing to do so. According to a recent Law and the Multiverse blog post (not going to dig this up right now; if you read that too and remember which entry it was, send me the link), this is an area of active research in legal theory.