Liberalism, Democracy, and Polarization

Is polarization a threat to democracy and what is the liberal position on this?

As I pointed out in Degrees of Freedom, most liberals have a preference for democracy. Modern-day democracy – with universal suffrage, a representative parliament, and elected officials – has been developed over the course of the twentieth century. The idea has its roots in antiquity, the Italian city states of the Renaissance, and several forms for shared political decision-making in Scandinavia, Switzerland, the Netherlands, and England. Democracy is not a liberal “invention,” but the term ‘liberal democracy’ has taken firm root. This is true because modern democracy is based on liberal ideas, such as the principle of “one man, one vote,” protection of the classical rights of man, peaceful change of political leadership, and other rules that characterize the constitutional state.

Remarkably, the majority of liberals embraced the idea of democracy only late in the nineteenth century. They also saw dangers of majority decision making to individual liberty, as Alexis de Tocqueville famously pointed out in Democracy in America. Still, to liberals democracy is better than alternatives, such as autocracy or absolute monarchy. This is not unlike Sir Winston Churchill’s quip “it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government, except all the others that have been tried.” Yet there is a bit more to it for liberals. It is has proven to be a method that provides a decent, if imperfect, guarantee for the protection of individual freedom and the peaceful change of government.

Of course there is ample room for discussion inside and beyond academia about numerous different issues, such as the proper rules of democracy, different forms of democracy, the role of constitutions in democracy, whether referenda are a threat or a useful addition to representative democratic government, the roles of parties, party systems, and political leaders, et cetera. These are not the topic here.

In the context of the election of President Trump, but also before that, both inside and outside the US, there is a wide debate on the alleged polarization in society. By this is meant the hardening of standpoints of (often) two large opposing groups in society, who do not want to cooperate to solve the issues of the day, but instead do everything they can to oppose the other side. Consensus seeking is a swear word for those polarized groups, and a sign of weakness.

There appears less consensus on a number of issues now than in the past. Yet this is a questionable assumption. In the US it has been going on for a long time now, certainly in the ethical and immaterial area, think about abortion, the role of the church in society, or freedom of speech of radical groups. Yet most (Western) societies have been polarized in the past along other lines, like the socialist-liberal divide, the liberalization of societies in the 1960s and 1970s, or more recent debates about Islam and integration. Current commentators claim something radically different is going on today. But I doubt it, it seems just a lack of historical awareness on their side. I can’t wait for some decent academic research into this, including historical comparisons.

As a side note: a different but far more problematic example of polarization is gerrymandering (changing the borders of legislative districts to favour a certain party). This has been going on for decades and can be seen as using legal procedures to rob people not of their actual voting rights, but of their meaningful voting rights. Curiously, this does not figure prominently in the current debates…

The (classical) liberal position on polarization is simple. Fighting for, or opposing a certain viewpoint, is just a matter of individual right to free speech. This also includes using law and legislation, existing procedures, et cetera. The most important thing is that in the act of polarizing there cannot be a threat to another person’s individual liberty, including the classical rights to life, free speech, and free association, among others. Of course, not all is black and white, but on the whole, if these rules are respected I fail to see how polarization is threat to democracy, or why polarization cannot be aligned with liberalism.

One Cheer for NATO

The largest military NATO exercise since the end of the Cold War will start shortly in Norway. About 50.000 troops and 10.000 vehicles from all 29 NATO countries plus Sweden and Finland will commence ‘Trident Juncture 2018’ on October 25.

Before the actual exercise starts, there are already logistical tests. As the news release of NATO explains:

Over the next few days, 70 Foxhound, Husky and Landover vehicles will make the 2,000km journey from the Hook of Holland harbour through northern Europe to Norway. The UK convoy’s move through the Netherlands, Germany, Denmark and Sweden will test how efficiently soldiers and equipment can move between European countries. It will also test customs, border regulations and infrastructure’s ability to cope with rapid and heavy troop movements.

“Military mobility is vital, especially to reinforce in a crisis. That’s exactly why we exercise it,” said NATO spokesperson Oana Lungescu. “Over the past few years, NATO has made real progress in improving our ability to deploy troops quickly across Europe. We are overcoming legal hurdles and cutting red tape, including by working closely with the European Union. Looking ahead, we aim to further reduce border-crossing times (clearances within five days by the end of 2019), identify alternative supply routes, and exercise even more to practice military mobility.”

The exercise itself has an article 5 or collective defense scenario, training NATO’s crisis response ability. It will last about two weeks. “NATO is a defensive Alliance. We’re not looking for a fight, but we are committed to defense and deterrence. That’s what this exercise is all about: training to defend, and providing a deterrent effect, ready to respond to any threat from any direction at any time,” commanding officer Admiral Foggo underlined.

I think this exercise, with all NATO members, on this scale, in these uncertain times, deserves one cheer. It shows that the Alliance is still able and willing to get together, to show it is the most powerful military alliance on earth, and that it realizes it needs a lot of training to remain so.

There are still two cheers lacking. The second cheer is lacking because the partnership is still unbalanced. Despite increases in the defense budgets in some of the European NATO members (The Netherlands included), the main burden (also in relative numbers) still falls on the Americans. That is simply wrong. And it is also dangerous, because in current times, for example also with cyber warfare becoming ever more important, any shortage of budget is putting (future) lives at risk. The third cheer is lacking because anti-NATO rhetoric (on both sides of the Atlantic) will sow the seeds of doubt about the use and future of NATO. That is also simply wrong and dangerous. Whether it is Russia, or other powers, the West cannot afford to leave any current or future authoritarian ruler in any doubt about the military ties across the Atlantic, all the way to the Russian border. It is in the best interest of all NATO members, the US included.

Halliday’s ‘The World’s Twelve Worst Ideas’

I came across a collection of essays and blogs by the late Fred Halliday, entitled Political Journeys (2007), published in the last few years of his life. Halliday, who died in 2010 at only 64 years of age, was one of my professors in the International Relations Department at the London School of Economics in the mid-nineties. By some standards he was the big departmental star, not only as a researcher, but also as a public intellectual.

Like most professors he was firmly left wing, a former communist who moved somewhat to the centre. To his credit, his teaching was immaculate: you could not tell his political ideas from his lecturing or the extensive international political theory reading list he gave. He was known for his expertise of the Middle East, revolutions, and his feminism. But he was also a good theorist, and his book Rethinking International Relations (1994) is especially a real treat.

While going through Political Journeys my eyes fell on a piece about ‘the world’s twelve worst ideas in 2007’. Most of them still stand, also from a classical liberal and libertarian viewpoint, and warrant a full discussion by themselves. Yet for now I just list them here, in descending order, with short explanations between parentheses when not self-explanatory:

12. human behaviour can be predicted (against the scientific fallacy in the social sciences)

11. the world is speeding up (large areas I human life still consume the same amount of time as ever before, despite acceleration in other areas)

10. we have no need for history

9. we live in a ‘post-feminist epoch’ (still a need for feminism, given the position of women in most parts of the world)

8. markets are a natural phenomenon, which allow for the efficient allocation of resources and preferences (clearly I strongly disagree with Halliday here, although he seems to mix up real free markets and those characterised by government interference)

7. religion should again be allowed, when not encouraged, to play a role in political and social life (points to the fight against the influence of religion on public life)

6. in the modern world we do not need utopias (aspiration to a better world as necessary part of the human condition)

5. we should welcome the spread of English as a world language (while practical it comes with cultural arrogance by the Anglo-Saxons)

4. the world is divided into comparable moral blocs or civilisations (there is indeed a set of common values shared across the world)

3. diasporas have a legitimate role to play in national and international politics (refutes the idea that diaspora have a special insight into their homeland, and Halliday then points to the negative and backward role in the resolution of the conflicts in their countries of origin)

2. the only thing ‘they’ understand is force (plain colonial and hegemonic thinking)

1. the world’s population problems and the spread of AIDS can be solved by ‘natural’ means (against those who oppose condoms use and other contraceptives)

Pinker wrote a nice rejoinder

Steven Pinker, the Harvard professor, recently published Enlightenment Now. The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress.

NOL Pinker Edwin
Buy it

It is a fine book that basically sets out to do what its subtitle promises. It does so covering a wide range of ideas and topics, and discusses and rejects most arguments often used against Enlightenment thought, which Pinker equates with classical liberalism.

Those who know the work of Johan Norberg of the Cato Institute, the late Julian Simon’s writings, Jagdish Bhagwati’s magisterial In Defense of Globalization, or last but not least, Deirdre McCloskey’s Bourgeois Trilogy will be updated on the latest figures, but will not learn much in terms of arguments.

Those new to the debate, or searching for material to defend classical liberal ideas and values, will find this a very helpful book.

Underrated & overrated libertarian thinkers

Here is my take on Tyler Cowen’s views on libertarian thinkers who are either overrated or underrated in shaping the libertarian tradition. Please be aware that I think libertarianism and classical liberalism are two different strands of liberal thought, as argued in more detail in an earlier post here at NOL and in my latest book. Please also note that my judgement will be particularly informed by their views on international relations.

Overrated:

  1. Hans-Hermann Hoppe – completely esoteric ideas about international relations, especially his erroneous and ill-thought idea about private defence through private insurance companies.
  2. Deepak Lal – no complaints about his general work, but his praise for empires was deeply disturbing, even though he meant well. Liberalism and globalization do not need empires, no matter how civilized – in the Oakeshottian meaning – they are meant to be.
  3. Ron Paul – I admire Ron Paul in many ways, but his ideas for ‘a foreign Policy of freedom’ are not much better than Hoppe’s. ‘peace, commerce, and honest friendship’: nice Jeffersonian goals, bad underlying analysis, not least about human nature.

Underrated:

  1. Friedrich Hayek – a far more sophisticated thinker on international relations than he is ever given credit for.
  2. Adam Smith – nowadays erroneously equated with ‘trade leads to peace’ fairly tales. Yet any reader of the complete two volumes of the Wealth of Nations recognizes that the book is also a lot about war and foreign policy, as are his Lectures on Jurisprudence and even a bit in The Theory of Moral Sentiments. Together these make for a full and sophisticated position on international affairs.
  3. David Hume – basically the same as Smith.
  4. Robert Jackson – ok, I am taking liberties here. I do not think Jackson would consider himself a classical liberal or libertarian. But his writings on international relations are important and often have a classical liberal leaning, especially The Global Covenant.

2018 Hayek Essay Contest

The 2018 General Meeting of the Mont Pelerin Society will take place from September 30 – October 6, 2018 at ExpoMeloneras and Lopesan Hotels in Meloneras, Gran Canaria, Canary Islands. As with past general meetings, the Mont Pelerin Society is currently soliciting submissions for Friedrich A. Hayek Fellowships. The fellowships will be awarded through the Hayek Essay Contest.

The Hayek Essay Contest is open to all individuals 36 years old or younger. Entrants should write a 5,000 word (maximum) essay that addresses the quotation(s) and question(s) detailed on the contest announcement (available at the above link). The deadline for submissions is May 31, 2018. The winners will be announced on July 31, 2018. Essays must be submitted in English only. Electronic submissions should be sent in PDF format to this email address (mps.youngscholars@ttu.edu). Authors of winning essays must present their papers at the General Meeting to receive their award. The essays will be judged by an international panel of three members of the Society.

Please feel free to share this announcement with any individuals who may have an interest in submitting an essay for consideration of a fellowship award. All questions may be directed to the MPS Young Scholars Program Committee by email at mps.youngscholars@ttu.edu or phone at +1.806.742.7138.

MPS Young Scholars Program Committee

Ayn Rand and International Politics

In a previous post I promised to write about Ayn Rand and her views on international politics, based on a recently published article.

I find Ayn Rand a fascinating figure in libertarian history, for a number of reasons. Her life style and ways she went about it in her life are so far distanced from me, that made me curious. Some of her philosophical ideas are great, others do not appeal to me at all. I plainly admire her for making the moral case for capitalism and individualism, which stands out in the economist-dominated libertarian tradition.

I am on the one hand annoyed by the way she fostered such cult-like circle of followers, in her own day and after her death in 1982, that led to dogmatism and intellectual isolationism, which goes against all basic academic standards I think are crucial.

On the other hand, I think the people at the Ayn Rand Institute do a great job preserving her legacy and attempting to widen her appeal. Overall, I am convinced that no matter what your take on this fascinating figure or her work is, Rand deserves to be studied in academia, because she remains influential to this day, especially in the US, and left a serious collection of writings that warrant intellectual analysis, even by people who do not consider themselves Randian.

Against this background I made a comparison between mainstream liberal theories of International Relations (IR) and the ideas on world affairs of Ayn Rand. The brief summary of the first is as follows:

  • World peace is attainable, in the belief that humans are rational enough to overcome war and conflict.
  • The nation is seen as a problematic actor in world affairs. Its room for maneuvering needs to be curtailed, including the importance of the balance of power between states, and the alleged influence of ‘war mongering’ diplomats and the so-called military-industrial complex.
  • Peace oriented foreign policies can be fostered by domestic institutional arrangements, most notably democracy (democratic peace theory).
  • In the international realm, there is an important role for intergovernmental and non-governmental organizations, regimes and international law (liberal institutionalism), which aim to overcome or neutralize the effects of the logic of power politics.
  • International trade is also expected to foster peace, often in combination with the alleged pacifying influence of interest groups and public opinion of foreign policy decision-making.
  • A recent addition is the broad support for humanitarian intervention.

To keep this blog at readable length I will not go into the details of Rand’s writings, but limit myself to her main views on these ideas, which should be seen in the context of her fierce opposition to the Soviet Union and its allies in the Cold War, and her concern for America losing its super power position through internal causes, not least the loss of the individual liberty-enhancing spirit among the American people.

  • In contrast to classical liberals from Smith to Hayek, Rand did indeed think that world peace would be attainable, but only in an Objectivist world. Among rational men living according the Objectivist principles there would be a harmony of rational interests. Yet in the current world there was also abundant irrational behaviour, bad morality, and other grounds for dispute.
  • The main causes of war were not material issues, domestic interests, institutional arrangements, or the structure of the international system. Rather, war was rooted in human nature. It went back to the tribal era, when brute force was the prime rule of conduct. The (socialist) dictatorships were contemporary examples in her mind, with their lack of respect for the rights of their own citizens, and those of foreigners alike. ‘Statism needs war, a free country does not’.
  • Rand was inconsistent in her valuation of the power of public opinion. She noted that most people often do not want war. Yet the origins of war still lay with those civilians, also in non-democratic regimes, because they failed to reject the doctrine that it was right and justified to achieve goals by physical force. If people put up with a dictatorship like the Soviet Union, or decided not to flee, they were co-responsible for the deeds, and deserved the same fate as their government.
  • Rand recognized that individuals live in groups or communities, but she regarded respect for tribal roots, ethnicity, and regional languages as uncivil and, above all, irrational and a limit on individual liberty. Ethnicity was also an important cause of war. Nationalism was perhaps less abstract than Marxism, but it was at least as vicious in stirring emotions such as hatred, fear, and suspicion. Therefore rational people would altogether disregard their roots as guides in (political) life.
  • Rand had two positions on the issues of sovereignty and intervention, depending on the moral character of the nation in question. Sovereignty was a right that had to be earned, but could also be forfeited. If a nation fully respected the principle of individual rights, it’s right to sovereignty was morally secured and should be respected by other nations. However, if a state violated the rights of its citizens it would lose its sovereign rights. ‘A nation ruled by brute force is not a nation, but a horde, whether led by Atilla, Genghis Khan, Hitler, Khrushchev, or Castro.’
  • Dictatorships were outlaws and could therefore be invaded as a matter of choice for the free nations, although there was no duty to do so. The right to self-determination and sovereignty only existed for free nations, and for societies seeking to establish freedom.
  • Yet this way, anarchy loomed. Rand divided the world into three groups of countries. First, countries complying to the Objectivist principles, with full sovereign rights. Second, countries on their way to freedom, often referred to as ‘mixed economies’, or half-way houses between freedom and dictatorship. Third, countries not worth existing, such as dictatorships and tyrannies. Unfortunately, the world lacked fully free countries. The mixed economies did not have unlimited right of intervention, they could only interfere when another country seriously breached Objectivist principles, for example by establishing one party rule, enacting censorship laws, executing people for political offences without trial, or nationalizing or expropriating private property.
  • Rand acknowledged the perpetual influence of power in world politics. The character of international politics was, and always had been among states, a balance of power game.
  • The US army was under domestic, non-patriotic attack for its virtues, for being a competent and strong force. It was unwise to cut the defence budget, while -in another contrast to liberal IR thought- ‘the military-industrial complex’ was ‘a myth or worse’.
  • Statism at the international level, in the form of ‘a planetary community’ and other cosmopolitan ideas had to be rejected. The collaboration of semi-free countries with communist dictatorships in the UN was evil and stood in contrast to reason, ethics, and civilization. The UN provided the Russian camp with prestige and moral sanction, suggesting that ‘the difference between human rights and mass slaughter is just a matter of opinion’.
  • Another point of contention with the social liberals was development cooperation. Foreign aid was nothing but ‘altruism extended to the international realm’.
  • While, in contrast to social liberals, she lacked faith in international law as such, Rand did regard international treaties as firm obligations.
  • Also, Rand saw peaceful effects of laissez-faire capitalism, because it was based on the recognition of self-interest by free individuals and the non-initiation of force. Capitalism fostered a society of traders. Therefore the essence of Objectivist foreign policy had to be free trade.

To briefly sum up: Rand’s writing show that not all liberals are peace-seeking cosmopolitans, attempting to minimise the role of the nation, the balance of power, the military, and warfare in international relations. She rejected most forms of international governmental organization and other expressions of liberal institutionalism. Often her ideas lack sufficient (legal) detail, while they are also centred on America, and hence limited to the perspective of an influential super power with large military capacity. Yet her writings show that fostering liberty in international relations can be done in several ways, and that different liberals have different ideas about the route towards that goal.