The Sciences

Good Sentences

Cosmic VarianceBy Sean CarrollMay 10, 2010 12:13 PM


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Timothy Ferris, in The Science of Liberty:

In 1900 there was not a single liberal democracy in the world (since none yet had universal suffrage); by 1950 there were twenty-two.

Tyler Cowen at Marginal Revolution has an ongoing series of posts in which he highlights "good sentences." At first the conceit bugged me a bit, as how good can a single sentence be? It's not like you have space to develop a sensible argument or anything. But that's the point, of course. A really good sentence packs a wallop because it fits an enormous amount into very few words. One technique for doing that is to exhibit an underlying assumption that is a remarkable claim in its own right. If I were to have tried to make the point that Ferris makes above, it would have been something like this:

Liberal democracies were established in fits and starts over a period of hundreds of years. The first major steps happened in countries like Britain, the United States, and France, where aristocratic systems were replaced (with different amounts of violence) by rule by popular vote. But I would argue that a true liberal democracy is one that features universal suffrage -- every adult citizen has a right to participate. By that standard, there weren't any liberal democracies in existence in the year 1900; but fifty years later, there were twenty-two.

Makes the point, but it's a somewhat ponderous collection of mediocre sentences, rather than a single one of immense power. That's the difference between someone who writes things, like me, and a true writer. I'm trying to learn. Ferris's book seems excellent, although I've just started reading it. It has a provocative thesis: the Enlightenment values of liberal democracy and scientific reasoning didn't simply arise together. The emergence of science is rightfully understood as the cause of the democratic revolution. That's the kind of thing I'd be happy to believe is true, so I'm especially skeptical, but I'm looking forward to the argument.

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