Greece: Democracy in Action

The Greek people expressed themselves with utmost clarity. In response to an incomprehensible question posed to them by their fairly elected Prime Minister, the Greeks voted by a wide margin for the precipice instead of self-discipline. They also voted consciously for blackmail, because their government had explained to them that the “No” vote they gave would put pressure on Greece’s creditors (which include ordinary European Union taxpayers and, to a small extent, through the International Monetary Fund, US taxpayers as well.) The Greek government cynically campaigned for the same “No” vote.

Greece just joined Argentina to form a group of countries where the population deserves what’s coming to it because of its deliberate dishonesty, articulated through perfectly legitimate democratic channels.

As usual the urban poor in Greece – those who have no hens and no apple trees (like my parents in the fifties) – will be the ones to suffer the most as a result of irresponsible collective choices.

When was the last time anything good for the poor ever came out of an election won by any Left at all, anywhere, at any level? Please, remind me.

The Tyranny of Majoritarianism

Where did the concept of “majority rule” come from? Why should any majority rule over any minority?

Of course the idea of protecting minority rights also exists. It is accepted in the civilized world that minority religions, ethnicities, and cultures should be respected. So evidently the global belief in majoritarianism is not absolute. But overall, the prevailing global political culture in democratic societies is majoritarian. The party which has some majority in an election gets its leaders in the government, and it is able to impose its policies on everybody.

In a voluntary club, it seems natural that the leader be elected by the majority. Everyone in the club agrees about the mission of the club. Suppose it is a hiking club. It does not matter too much who the leader is, so a majority vote seems like the best option. Also, in deciding which location to hike in, majority rules seems sensible. Majority rule provides greater utility than minority rule, and there is general agreement that making more people happy is better than if fewer are happy.

But when it comes to government, majority rule is problematic. First of all, majority rule is based on the persons who may vote, not the whole population. Young children do not vote, and foreign residents do not vote. The adult citizens own the country, so they vote.

People believe in majority rule because they think of the alternative as either dictatorship or a rule by an elite minority. Why should one man or an aristocracy rule over the others? The global political culture now rejects monarchial rule as violating equality. What is not understood is that imposed majority rule also violates equality.

If we accept human equality, that all human beings have an equal moral worth, then the logical conclusion is equal self-governance. No person has a natural right to impose his will on another, because is it morally evil to coercively harm another person. Harm means an invasion into the domain of others, including the harm of restricting the other’s peaceful and honest actions.

When a person becomes employed, or enrolls in an institution such as a university, one does not usually expect democratic governance. The company is a non-democratic hierarchy, in which there is a top boss, lower bosses, and the ordinary workers who are directed. The workers has to comply with rules he may not favor, but the arrangement is voluntary because the worker chose to enter into employment or enrollment, and he may quit.

The equality of the employment situation is the ability of the worker to enter and exit, and the ability of the employer to equally contract with the employee and to terminate the employment. Free association is the basis of equal liberty.

The governance of territory is in accord with human equality when there is freedom of association among the members. Whether a territory is ruled by one man or by a majority does not matter so long as the individuals consent to be governed, so long as they can exit at will. After all, a traveler does not expect a voice in the rules of the places he visits. Whether the location is run by one person or the local majority does not matter to the traveler, so long as he may come and go, and so long as any unusual rules are presented in advance.

We need governing structures, but these can be contractual agreements among equals. We have today voluntary contractual communities such as homeowner associations, road associations, condominiums, cooperatives, and proprietary communities. All neighborhoods could be governed this way, and then the local organizations can form greater associations for public goods with a broader scope. An occasional hermit would not disturb the governing continuum.

Just as local communities would be able to associate, they would have the freedom to disassociate. The problem with imposed majoritarianism is that individuals and communities may not secede, and so they are forced to be dominated by the majority. Minorities are subjected to the law enforcement, schooling, drug laws, civic services, and taxes favored by the majority.

The reform that would establish deep equality would be a constitutional rule that would prohibit only coercive harm to others. Government would not impose costs and restrictions on peaceful and honest action. Contractual communities would be free to have restrictive rules among their own members. Contractual governance is best implemented bottom up, with secession where feasible.

The avoidance of imposed costs implies the absence of taxes on transactions and produced goods. There would be charges for trespass and invasions, such as pollution. In the absence of taxes on labor, capital, and trade, those who hold title to land would have to pay for civic services from the yield of their land, the rent. Ideally, people would understand the logic of equal benefits from the rent generated by nature and community. The deepest equality would consist of both equal self-governance and, as Henry George put it, standing “on equal terms with reference to the bounty of nature.”

Reply: Radical Democracy

I would have written this in reply to the blog post itself, but I must admit that I’m unsure if videos can be embedded in the comment section.

Despite the seeming radicalism of Fred’s proposal for a neighborhood-based democracy, it isn’t radical at all! It’s mainstream enough that it was the subject of an episode of Yes, Prime Minister and, as Fred himself reported, there was a serious ballot proposition in California a while back to implement something similar.

None of this should be taken to mean that Fred’s proposal is bad. To the contrary, it’s a fantastic idea that improves on democracy as is. By re-aligning districts to include only a few households, an individual’s vote matters sufficiently and there is an incentive to be knowledgeable about political affairs.

My concern is how legislation that was unpopular at the district level, but popular at the regional or national level, would get through. Take for example transportation issues, which oftentimes are unpopular at the local level despite popularity at the regional level.

In my native Los Angeles, attempts to build additional roads between the San Fernando Valley and the Los Angeles basin have been repeatedly thwarted by a few small ultra-rich enclaves that fear that people might be more easily able to visit their neighborhoods if the roads were built. Similarly, in the greater Washington DC area, the expansion of the light rail system was originally opposed in richer parts that feared the poor would gain access to their neighborhoods.

On a quick aside, if you haven’t watched Yes, Minister and its sequel Yes, Prime Minister, go watch it right now. It is several decades old now, but still holds up as a great political comedy.

Radical Democracy

Going to its roots, democracy is kratos, rule, by demos, the people. Pure democracy is the rule by all the people, not just some of the people. The only way to implement absolute democracy is for each participant to voluntarily agree to the governance structure, and be able to exit when one no longer agrees.

Democracy can be divided into mass democracy versus “cellular” or small-group democracy. Mass democracy occurs when the voting group is so large that the people cannot individually know the candidates. In a small-group democracy, the voters are able to join meetings with candidates in groups small enough so that every person is able to fully participate. In a small group, a candidate may distribute literature at a low cost. Although money can play a role in a small group, the influence of moneyed interests is limited by the ability of other candidates and promoters of propositions to counter large spending with personal contacts. A small voting group solves the problem of having both free speech and the will of the people.

The German sociologist Max Weber, writing in the late 1800s and early 1900s, wrote that “bureaucracy inevitably accompanies modern mass democracy in contrast to the democratic self-government of small homogenous units.” Mass democracy cannot be pure, radical, and absolute. “The demos itself, in the sense of an inarticulate mass, never ‘governs’ larger associations.”

A mass democracy is governed by how the leaders are elected. The politicians must use the mass media to send their messages to the public in order to curry their votes. These messages have to be condensed and simple, as most of the public will not pay attention to detailed issue analysis. The messages are often negative attacks on opponents. And the messages have to be paid for, which generates an inherent demand for large amounts of campaign funds. While individuals do send contributions to parties and candidates, much of the financing comes from special interests such as corporations, labor unions, lawyers, and the financial and real estate industries.

Economists use the odd term “rent seeking” for the seeking of subsidies, privileges, and protection from competition. The classical economists recognized that land rent is a surplus. They generalized the concept to “economic rent,” any payment beyond what is needed for production. Subsidies to special interests are economic rents.

Governments today practice imposed representative mass democracy. The implied ideology is the moral supremacy of the majority in each particular issue. The majority imposes its will by force on the minority. As Weber stated in his essay “Politics as a Vocation,” “He who lets himself in for politics, that is, for power and force as a means, contracts with diabolical powers.”

Many people think that democracy is based on equality, since each person has an equal vote. But Weber wrote, “The propertyless masses especially are not served by a formal ‘equality before the law.’” The poor believe that justice requires compensation for their economic deprivation. But the political process determines how this is done, and “under the conditions of mass democracy, public opinion is communal and born of irrational ‘sentiments.’” The sentiments of the poor tend to seek a forced redistribution of wealth in their favor, since that is the superficial solution.

The radical alternative to imposed mass democracy is voluntary small-group voting. The political body is divided into tiny neighborhood cells, just as the human body is composed of small cells. The population of a neighborhood cell should be about 1000, small enough to know the candidates and meet personally to discuss issues. Citizens vote only for a neighborhood council.

Then a group of neighborhood councils, say about 20 or 30, elect, from their members, representatives to the next higher or broader council. The second-level council elects the next higher level legislature, and so on, all the way to the highest level parliament or Congress. That legislative body then elects the president.

Such cellular democracy can replace the mass democracies that prevail today, and that would be a major improvement, in extricating money from politics. But radical democracy also requires another change: replacing imposed democracy with voluntary democracy. The neighborhood cells would be voluntary contractual organizations.

In law, the written contract is required for major decisions, such as the purchase of real estate. The American political philosopher Lysander Spooner wrote in The Constitution of No Authority:

“It is a general principle of law and reason, that a written instrument binds no one until he has signed it… The laws holds, and reason declares, that if a written instrument is not signed, the presumption must be that the party to be bound by it, did not choose to sign it, or to bind himself by it…. Neither law nor reason requires or expects a man to agree to an instrument, until it is written; for until it is written, he cannot know its precise legal meaning. And when it is written, and he has had the opportunity to satisfy himself of its precise legal meaning, he is then expected to decide, and not before, whether he will agree to it or not.”

If a signed contract is needed for real estate transactions, how much more important is the political transaction of governance? If one joins a residential or condominium association, the law requires a display of the laws governing that association, and the new member must sign if he is to join. How much more important, then, is this principle for general governance? Radical democracy requires the signed consent of each member to the written contract.

The rule of all the people begins with the recognition of individual sovereignty, a contract among equal sovereigns for governance, and then implements small-group multi-level governance to let the people govern and minimize transfer-seeking by special interests.

Of course, even radical democracy does not guarantee liberty. A free society must have a constitution that protects individual liberty from the tyranny of the majority. But without genuine democracy, a constitution is an unsigned document that becomes manipulated to provide the appearance of equality and freedom. Behind it is the reality of imposed “diabolical powers,” the tyranny of both majorities and minorities.

(This article is also at http://www.progress.org)

“Rand Paul’s Libertarian Lecture in New Hampshire”

That’s the title of this short piece of reporting by the Weekly Standard‘s Michael Warren (the Weekly Standard is a neoconservative outlet). I recommend the whole thing, but cannot resist sharing an excerpt:

Without mentioning his name, Paul took on fellow Republican senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, who may be running for president and who spoke to the conference just a few minutes after Paul. Paul and Graham were on opposing sides during a 2011 Senate debate on indefinite detention of American citizens accused of terrorism. Graham’s argument was that these Americans ought to be classified as unlawful enemy combatants, and that the rules of war apply so long as Congress has authorized military action. Enemy combatants can be detained for as long as hostilities continue or when Congress otherwise says so, goes the thinking. “And when they say, ‘I want my lawyer,’ you tell them ‘Shut up. You don’t get a lawyer. You’re an enemy combatant,'” Graham had said during the floor debate.

But Paul didn’t see it that way.

“One of them said, ‘When they ask for a lawyer, you just tell them to shut up.’ Really? That’s the kind of discourse we’re going to have in our country? Tell them to shut up?” Paul said. “You would send an American citizen to Guantanamo Bay without a lawyer, without a trial? He said, ‘Yeah, if they’re dangerous.’”

Paul cracked a smile as he launched into full libertarian lecture mode.

“It sort of begs the question, doesn’t it? Who gets to decide who’s dangerous and who’s not dangerous?” he said, pacing back and forth across the stage in blue jeans and without a jacket. “Has there been a time in our history when we decided who was dangerous based on the color of your skin? Has there been a time in our history when we decided someone was dangerous because of different beliefs, didn’t look like us, or had a different religion? Are we going to give up on our right to trial so easily?”

Say what you will about Paul, but you won’t see anybody else in the primaries discussing the issues he discusses. The rest of the article has a lot more great stuff, and not only about the battle for the soul of the GOP, but bigger issues – thanks in part to Paul’s initiatives in the Senate, but also to the work of libertarian theorists and activists for the good part of four decades – such as asset forfeiture. Also, more subtly, you can find a penetrating insight into democracy itself (and if you find it, brag about it in the ‘comments’ threads, as I’d like to discuss it further). (h/t James Parsons)

Harrington, Commonwealth of Oceana, and A System of Politics (Expanding the Liberty Canon): First of Two Parts

James Harrington (1611-1677) was synonymous with the idea of democracy in Britain for centuries, but is not much read now beyond the ranks of those with strong interest in seventeenth century British history or the history of republican thought. Republicanism was the word used for thought about a political system under law and in which power is shared, with some protection of individual liberty, until the word liberal started being used in the eighteen century, with more emphasis though on the idea of liberty of trade and commerce. The republican tradition certainly stretches back to Aristotle in ancient Greece and can be taken back to his teacher Plato, though that often troubles modern readers for whom Plato seems disturbingly indifferent to individual rights and hostile to change. That will be a topic for another post, but for now it is enough to say that Aristotle is likely to seem relevant to ideas of individual liberty for the contemporary reader in ways that Plato may not and Aristotle’s own criticisms of his teacher are likely to seem appropriate to such a reader.

Harrington’s texts are not an easy read in that their structure is not clear and he does not have much in the way of literary style. This explains to a large degree why he is not a familiar name now along perhaps with the appearance of more recent writers in English concerned with liberty and democracy who are both more readable and more concerned with liberal democracy as it has developed since the late eighteenth century, particularly John Stuart Mill. In comparison Harrington seems stuck in early modern idea of democracy and republicanism which are expressed through a knowledge of texts which though not forgotten now are less obviously known to the educated reader. That is the texts of the ancient Greeks and Romans and the Bible. The educated in Harrington’s time were likely to read Latin and often read Greek as well, with major classical texts forming a common frame of reference. The Bible was widely known in the seventeenth century because Christianity was a very dominant force, and Harrington was writing at a time when the Protestant Reformation which led to the translation of the Bible into modern languages and encouragement to the faithful to read the Bible carefully and frequent was still a very living force. Catholics of course read the Bible, but the Catholic authorities resisted translating the Bible into modern languages before the Reformation and gave comparatively less importance to the individual study of it than the Protestant churches. So in short, Harrington’s writing comes from a  time of intimate and shared knowledge of ancient and religious texts, and his way of writing is not too suited to expressing itself to those not acquainted with that culture.

In addition Harrington, assumes some familiarity with the British and European politics of his time, though much of it is of lasting interest with regard to understanding of the formation of modern European states and ideas about the most just form of politics for those states. Venice is a very important example of a republic for Harrington, reflecting its status as the longest lived and most powerful republic known to Europeans at that time. The formation of the Dutch Republic in the late sixteenth century promoted a possibly stronger republic, but Harrington regards it as a loose assembly of city and regional republics, so still leaving Venice as the most powerful republic with a  unified sovereignty. Italy was not united politically at that time and Venice had existed since the eight century as an aristocratic republic in which aristocratic government combined with merchant wealth to an extent that made Venice a leading trading and naval power in the eastern Mediterranean. The Ottoman Empire appears fleetingly as the model of monarchy, an image which dissipated in the eighteenth century when the Ottomans began to seem backward and despotic, and to be at the head of a declining power. The power and the sophistication of the Ottoman state applying a system of laws and justice across a large and diverse territory made a rather different impression in a seventeenth century Europe suffering from religious wars and internal conflict even within powerful states.

Harrington himself lived through the English Civil War (1642-1651), also known as the The English Civil Wars (because it was a series of wars), the Wars of the Three Kingdoms (because it comprised separate conflicts in England, Scotland, and Ireland), and the English Revolution (because it resulted in the execution of King Charles I along with a period of constitutional innovation in the commonwealth and lord protector systems), which included religious conflict between different forms of Protestantism and political conflict between crown and parliament. Harrington was himself part of the section of the gentry supporting parliament against the king, though he also appears to have had friendly relations with Charles I while he was detained by parliamentary forces.

Oceana was originally banned while being printed during the Lord Protector phase in which the head of the parliamentary armies, Oliver Cromwell had become something close to a king. The book was legally published after negotiations between the Lord Protector’s government and Harrington’s family, with a dedication to Cromwell. Harrington was however accused of treason after the restoration of the monarch and though he was released after a short period of punishment never recovered in mind or body. So Harrington’s life and publication history is itself marked with the historical traumas of the time and the failure to establish enduring republican institutions.