Creative ambiguity, Scottish independence, and sudden death

Many political unions subsist on creative ambiguity.  That is, if the right question were posed, and the citizenry forced to answer it definitely, political order might spin out of control.

Canada, Belgium, and indeed the entire European Union seem to be organized on this basis.  It’s not quite that everyone thinks they are getting their way, but rather explicit concessions are not demanded for each loss of control embodied in the broader system.  Certain rights are held in reserve, with the expectation that they probably will not be exercised, but they can nonetheless influence the final bargaining equilibrium.

Most international treaties rely on some degree of creative ambiguity, as do most central banks, with their semi-promises of bailouts but “not too much not too certain you know” as the default.  You might like the mandated outcome (or not), but I doubt if it would improve political discourse in the United States to have an explicit thumbs up vs. thumbs down referendum on abortion.

Many partnerships and marriages rely on creative ambiguity too.  Should the Beatles have forced Lennon and McCartney to specify who had the final say over each cut?  That probably would have led to a split in 1968 and there would be no Abbey Road.  Must parties to a marriage specify the entire division of chores and responsibilities in advance?

We find the same in many academic departments.  Things can be going along just fine, but once the department has to write out an explicit plan for future growth and the allocation of slots across different fields or methods, all hell breaks loose.

Question posers and agenda setters have great power.

All praises of democracy must be embedded in a broader understanding that a) formal questions can be destructive, and b) we cannot be allowed to pose questions without limit, at least not questions which require explicit, publicly verifiable, and commonly observed answers.

Once a question is posed very explicitly, and in a manner which requires a clear answer, it is hard to take it off the table.  There is thus an option value to holding these questions in reserve, which means that the expected return from the question has to be pretty high to justify changing the agenda in a hard-to-revoke manner.

I am thus not impressed by claims that a “yes” vote for Scottish independence would represent “the democratic will of the people.”  It might just be a question which should not be asked in such a blatant form.

This article, by the way, argues quite well that the current independence referendum is not really democratic at all.  Who gets to vote, and who not, is quite arbitrary.  Maybe they first should have held a referendum on that?


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