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.

Eye Candy: Gay marriage in Europe (2018)

NOL gay marriage Europe
Click here to zoom

Opponents of gay marriage might have trouble explaining this one, at least in the free world.

Too many shadows whispering voices. Faces on posters too many choices. If when why what how much have you got…

The TSA Wins

Since 2012 I have been a semi-frequent flyer making about five cross continental round trip flights a year, plus several shorter flights within the Pacific coast. Between now and then I would make it a point to ‘opt out’ of the standard TSA procedure and receive the pat down. I did it for a variety of reasons. For one, don’t like being exposed to radiation and don’t trust the government on the issue.

More than that though, I wanted to resist and encourage my fellow citizens to resist, however small, the security theater the government has us go through in exchange for our freedom to travel. I would not encourage people to resist the police or any armed agent of the state, but by opting out I was taking a stand against government and hoped others would join me.

In five plus years, no one did. The only people I ever had join me in the opt out process was ‘randomly selected’ individals, often Muslims or mis-identified Sikhs. I never saw someone else voluntarily opt out. In retrospect, I suspect noone else saw my actions as a form of protest.

When I took a flight earlier today I went through the standard procedure.* My will to resist, at least in this form, has gone away. In the coming year the TSA rules will become stricter as real ID is finally implemented. I like to think this will lead to popular opposition, but I wouldn’t wager on it. As a nation we’ve given up on asserting our freedom to travel with minimal intrusion.

When I arrived at my final destination I found the below containers blocking me from the entrance. To leave the airport I had to get checked one last time. They don’t seem to be scanners, but when you enter them you are held up for ten or so seconds before being let free. Are they just trying to see what we will put up with before unveiling the next wave of security theater antics?

Thoughts? Have a story about your flying experience(s) to share? Post in the comments below.

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*Funnily enough I ended up being “randomly” choosen to have my luggage physically inspected anyway.

Freedom of Religion Secures Other Rights As Well

Ethan’s post on “The Why of Religious Freedom” inspired me to add one more to his list of reasons why freedom of religion deserves special treatment and protection. The freedom of religion preserves other freedoms we hold dear. Even those who do not wish to belong to an organized religion or to hold strong religious opinions have their freedoms secured because of the protection granted to religious freedom.

Freedom of religion, the first freedom protected by the US Constitution’s First Amendment, is part of having freedom of speech. Imagine a country where you could say anything you wanted, except those ideas and principles you hold most dear to your heart. How free would you feel your speech actually is? If you have freedom of the press and can print any opinion or argument you care to, unless it is about your conscience, how free is your press? To say that you may express your political opinion and vote unless you have religious reasons for that opinion similarly denies the equal protection clause of the 14th amendment.

Freedom of religion is also a guarantor of freedom of assembly. This last weekend while in Atlanta for the Teaching Professor Conference in Atlanta, my colleagues and I toured Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s church and neighborhood. The civil rights movement for many years worked through the churches because it was the only place African Americans were freely allowed to assemble together in many areas. As they assembled, they had the freedom to speak out against the injustices and oppressions they faced and work together to overcome them.​

As Rev. King put it, “Freedom is like life. It cannot be had in installments. Freedom is indivisible – we have it all, or we are not free” (The Case Against “Tokenism”). To extend that argument, when we say ‘freedom of religion’ it is the people who are free, free to believe how they will, to speak and gather and act according to their beliefs freely. In “The Ethical Demands For Integration,” Rev. King argued:

“A denial of freedom to an individual is a denial of life itself. The very character of the life of man demands freedom. In speaking of freedom … I am not talking of the freedom of a thing called the will [or in our case, religion]. The very phrase, freedom of the will [religion], abstracts freedom from the person to make it an object; and an object almost by definition is not free. But freedom cannot thus be abstracted from the person … . So I am speaking of the freedom of man, the whole man.”

If we cannot be free in our religious thoughts and exercise – whether connected with an organized religion or not – we cannot be a free people.

BC’s weekend reads

  1. What equivalent claims (if they could be established) would falsify your political position?
  2. White males may enjoy a great deal of privilege, but they still have rights, and when those rights are violated, they ought to be rectified.
  3. […] actually, the whole country of France is like an attractive museum that would have a superlative cafeteria attached.
  4. They worked hard to look like they weren’t working too hard.

The Behavioural Economics of the “Liberty & Responsibility” couple.

The marketing of Liberty is enclosed with the formula “Liberty + Responsibility.” It is some sort of “you have the right to do what you please, BUT you have to be responsible for your choices.” That is correct: the costs and profits enable rationality to our decisions. The lack of the former brings about the tragedy of the commons outcome. In a world where everyone is accountable for his choices, the ideal of liberty as absence of arbitrary coercion will be delivered by the resulting structure of rational individual decisions limiting our will.

The couple of Liberty and Responsibility is right BUT unattractive. First of all, the formula is not actually “Liberty + Responsibility,” but “Liberty as Absence of Coercion – What Responsibility Takes Away.” The latter is still right: Responsibility transforms negative liberty as “absence of coercion” into “absence of arbitrary coercion.” The problem remains a matter of marketing of ideas.

David Hume is a strong candidate for the title of “First Behavioural Economist,” since he had stated that it is more unpleasant for a man to have the unfulfilled promise of a good than not having neither the good nor the promise of it. The latter might be a desire, while the former is experienced as a dispossession. The couple “Liberty – Responsibility” dishes out the same kind of deception.

It is like someone who tells to you: “do what you want, enjoy 150% of Liberty”; and suddenly, he warns you: “but wait! You know there’s no such thing as a free lunch, if you are 150% free, someone will be 50% your slave. Give that illegitimate 50% of freedom back!” And he will be -again- right: being responsible makes everybody 100% free. Right – albeit disappointing.

Perhaps we should restate the formula the other way around: “Being 100% responsible for your choices gives you the right to claim 100% of your freedom.” Only a few will be interested in being more than 100% responsible for anything. But if it happens that someone is expected to deal alone with his own needs, at least he will be entitled to claim the right to his full autonomy.

The formula of “Responsibility + Liberty” is associated with the evolutionist notion of liberties, which means rights to be conquered, one by one. Being responsible and then free means that Liberty is not an unearned income to be neutrally taxed. It is not a “state of nature” to give in exchange for civilization, but a project to grow, a goal, a raison d’etre.

Putting first Responsibility and then Liberty determines a curious outcome: you are consciously free to choose the amount of freedom you are really willing to enjoy. Markets and hierarchies are, then, not antagonistic terms, but structures of cooperation freely consented. Moreover, what we trade are not goods, not even rights on goods, but parcels of our sphere of autonomy.

Flag Burning, the Bill of Rights, and Leaving America Behind: Fourth of July Special

Yes, the American Revolution was special. It’s not yet uncool to recognize facts. You are entitled to your mistaken and unsupported opinions, however; this is a free country. (Not thanks to you!)

First, there were no massacres. It may have been different if Britain had won, I don’t know. The Loyalists were treated harshly in many places. Many lost their property. Many became the English-speaking root of that milder version of ourselves, Canada. Americans were so generous-minded however that they even allowed Hessian (from Germany) mercenaries from the defeated British army to settle among them. Try to imagine any of the formerly occupied countries in Europe in 1945 allowing Russian SS from the German armed forces to stay behind and prosper! (Yes, there were Russian SS, thousands of them.)

Second, the US Constitution was and probably remains the most clear, exemplary embodiment of the healthy political idea of separating powers, a major step in uprooting the habit of despotism. (I may be wrong but I think the desirability of the separation of powers my have been enunciated earliest by the French philosopher Montesquieu. The French themselves mostly made a mess of the idea.)

Third, it took an embarrassingly long time but American constitution-builders eventually produced a wise list of specifically enunciated rights. A bill of rights is a necessity to protect political, intellectual, and religious minorities and, especially, individuals from the potential, and the very real, threat of tyranny of the majority.

The next to try a bill of rights, the French, did it only a few months later, also in 1789. With the privilege of having Ben Franklin right there in Paris to lend a hand, with Lafayette – who understood the idea well – involved, they also screwed up that one. Most of them don’t know it to this day, I think, but the insertion of one sentence in their Bill has the potential to nullify the whole: “Art. 6. La Loi est l’expression de la volonté générale.* “The Law, is the expression of the general will.” This general will, the will, the will of all, has the power to eradicate any of the individual rights carefully enunciated elsewhere in the same document. Correspondingly, today in France, there are concrete limitations on freedom of speech, for example, although freedom of speech is specifically guaranteed by the French Bill. These limitations were imposed in a carefully legal manner via acts of parliament, and signed by the president yet, they are still a form of despotism and a slippery slope. The little sentence above makes a constitutional challenge on these restrictions on speech difficult, if not impossible.

Incidentally, and going back to the US, there have been recent episodes of US flag burning by activists protesting – somehow – the Charleston church massacre. Go ahead, burn away, it’s your right so long as you don’t accidentally set afire a neighbor’s or public property! I feel forced to link this kind of petulant, childish behavior to a poll I saw recently that describes 50% of millennials as wishing to emigrate, to leave this country.** So, after voting massively for Mr Obama seven years ago, they want to escape the massive failures of his administration instead of staying put and contributing to reverse them. One the failures imputed to Mr Obama is wage stagnation. It has frozen many thirties-something in place, economically speaking. I am not sure it’s fair to blame Mr Obama but it’s done to every administration.

I know quite a bit about emigration/immigration as you might guess. So, I will presume to give potential emigrants advice: You may move to Australia, my friends. Australia will be glad to have you. The country is an admirably successful redneck project. You will enjoy the Australians’ great pubs. Of course, there is a good chance that the first night out to one of the pubs, you will open your mouths too wide. Then you may well end up beaten to a pulp in some dark alley. I don’t wish you such a fate; I disapprove of such rowdy behavior. If it comes to my attention, in the news or in the newspaper, I will not laugh openly. There will just be a little smirk on my face.  Have a good trip.

* 1789 Déclaration universelle des droits de l’homme et du citoyen

** Ordinarily, I am the first one to point out that fewer than two convergent polls from respected sources is nothing. So, take this with two grains of salt.