Eroding norms and political transformation: A new chance for liberty?

The Hammelsprung

Usually, the debates in Germany’s highest political body – The Bundestag – right before Christmas are not that exciting for the public. Parliamentarians are exhausted from long nights and intense discussions from the past weeks. But on Friday the 14th December, the last scheduled plenary session this year, something remarkable happened in the Bundestag, symbolically standing for the erosion of political norms, which democracies experience for a few years. The topics this day were not too fascinating – they discussed how to make the country more appealing to top-level researchers and if fixed book prices should be abolished. Not trifling, but nothing too crucial either.

But around noon the right-wing party AfD decided to initiate a Hammelsprung. The Hammelsprung is a control mechanism to ensure two crucial things.

First, it can be used to achieve absolute clearness of a voting result. Since the counting of votes mostly takes place via counting hands, a Hammelsprung can help to bring about a final decision in close polls. The process is relatively old-fashioned and quite funny in my opinion: The parliamentarians have to get out of the plenary hall first and then reenter through doors labeled “Yes,” “No,” and “Abstention” while an official counts these votes loudly.

Second, it is a tool to assure that crucial decisions of the parliament are made by a majority of the parliamentarians. If a parliamentary group has doubts that more than half of the parliament’s members are present to an assembly, it can propose a Hammelsprung to determine the exact amount of parliamentarians present. If there are less than half of the parliamentarians present, the parliament does not have a quorum and thus the parliamentary session gets canceled.

How the parliament works

At this point, it is important to mention that the German parliament is a working parliament rather than a debating one (such as the British house of commons). Hence, most of the parliamentary work takes place in exclusive committees. These committees consist of members from each party and are all dedicated to certain political topics such as defense policy, health policy and so on and so forth. Parties look for alliances to back up their policy proposals within these committees. Thus, the majority ratios regarding political proposals are played out not in the big parliamentary debates, but in rather small expert working groups. So one can expect that what gets resolved within a committee, gets resolved in the parliament as well.

These committees meet simultaneously to the parliamentary debates. On top, a parliamentarian has to inform himself, manage his team, be present in his election district and many more things. So it is impossible for him to be present in every parliamentary session. So over the years the norm established, that not every member of parliament need to be physically present during the parliamentary session, but only the experts in the certain relevant subject. During their election campaign, the AfD aggressively attacked this particular norm by labeling parliamentarians of established parties as “lazy” and “self-indulgent”, referring to the many empty seats during parliamentary debates.

A battle against norms and the establishment

The AfD used the Hammelsprung on Friday the 14th December in the second meaning mentioned above: To enforce a cancellation of the parliamentary session regarding the acquisition of top-level researchers. This was not a topic related move to ensure the necessary quota, it was rather yet another milestone in the ongoing battle against existing norms. We can say this for certain because AfD didn’t even re-enter the hall: they purposely stayed outside in order to enforce a cancellation of the session. Alexander Gauland, the party whip of the AfD, explained that they wanted to show that the AfD wants to give the government a “hard time” and added: “He that will not hear must feel.” This can be seen as an act of revenge against the parliament because the AfD’s candidate for the vice presidency of the Bundestag failed to get elected a second time in a row. Contrary to their expectations, enough parliamentarians somehow made their way quickly enough into the parliament to reach the quota necessary to proceed with the debate.

How norms foster social cohesion

But the danger remains: There are several tools populist parties (right or left wing) can use to impede effective governing within a perfectly legal framework. This development is not at all a specifically German one. Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt provide an in-depth description of the erosion of norms in the American political system in their book How Democracies Die. According to their theory, functioning democracies do not only rely on a thought-out constitution and functioning political organs but also on shared norms. The most important norms for Ziblatt & Levitsky are mutual tolerance and forbearance.

Mutual tolerance describes the recognition of the political enemy as an opposed actor instead as an existential threat to the country. Contrary, forbearance means to restrain the urge of using every legal means to achieve a political end.

It is certainly not too difficult to quantify the erosion of these two norms in America, specifically when one pays closer attention to the skyrocketing amount of “filibustering” in the Congress or, as seen recently, to the increasing times of governmental shutdowns caused by a lack of agreement between Republicans and Democrats over the federal budget. We can see the effects of this abandonment of norms on a daily basis: The more hostile political environment, the lack of respect for other political opinions, the increasing difficulties for finding a compromise between parties. The political opposition is on the verge of drifting away from constructive criticism towards impeding the government in every possible way.

A liberal response?

In my opinion, there are two ways to react to this threat.

First, we could change the rules of the game and narrow the legal framework for processes which can be used to impede effective governing such as filibustering and the Hammelsprung. I do not think that this is the right way to counteract populist parties (or tendencies more generally). These processes exist for a good reason. But they hinge on the observance of forbearance. There was no extensive problem of filibustering in the Roosevelt, Truman, or Wilson administrations, although their policies were also quite controversial. The problem is not the rules themselves, but the lack of shared norms for a solid foundation to put them to good use. Furthermore, changing the rules would only foster the thought that a perfect constitution is somehow reachable. And here I see the danger, that we might jeopardize the status of the law as a neutral guardrail for society and it instead becomes an arbitrary mean to achieve political ends, as Frederic Bastiat describes in his work The Law.

The second option is to adjust our own behavior to the changing circumstances brought by the new populist players one the pitch. Therefore the established political actors need to carefully reevaluate the importance of certain norms and if necessary transform them. Of course, this is not as easy as said: It presupposes a willingness to cooperate among established actors (which is nothing to take for granted in today’s times) as well as a vigilant public, which backs up those norms. Additionally, norms do not emerge from scratch. They are rather the result of a slow change in the mutual understanding of social human interaction.

What the future will bring

The AfD already has announced that they want to continue to use every legal (and in some cases illegal) way to make it harder to govern the country, which is their way to battle the establishment. Whereas the established parties tried various strategies to cope with this right-wing populist party ranging from ignoring to direct confrontation. Still, nobody knows exactly how to deal with these new political circumstances. But what is for certain is the political landscape is further going to change; and thus also politicians and parties will need new strategies, structures, and norms.

Although this development is mostly seen as the road to a gloomy and authoritarian future, I believe (or at least I hope) that democratic parties will find new ways to counter right and left wing populist proposals. Instead of trying to engineer our legal framework to preclude populist from polls, politicians should focus on giving scope for spontaneous order and new alliances. This process is incredibly exciting to me. As Steve Davies describes it, we are currently witnessing a “great realignment” of party structures in Europe. And where old structures break up, there is room for new ones. European liberal party leaders (carried by the Axis of Linder – Rutte – Macron) are still looking for their place in this new power vacuum. Nobody can predict where this development will lead us. That is why we must proceed to fight for our liberty: inside and outside of political party structures.

Nightcap

  1. How did history abdicate its role of inspiring the longer view? Jo Guldi, Aeon
  2. Third World Burkeans Rod Dreher, American Conservative
  3. Enemy of The People Pierre Lemieux, EconLog
  4. Why wasn’t there a Marshall Plan for China? Roderick MacFarquhar, ChinaFile

Nightcap

  1. Mia Love, Trump, and abortion Rachael Larimore, Weekly Standard
  2. Presidents and the Press — A Brief Modern History Rick Brownell, Medium
  3. The gatekeeper of Israeli democracy and rule of law Mazal Mualem, Al-Monitor
  4. Contrarians in public life Chris Dillow, Stumbling & Mumbling

Islamophobia!

Thousands of Islamists have pressured the Pakistani government to keep in jail a woman who was just acquitted by the Pakistani Supreme Court. Two European countries have offered to take her in.

Her lawyer has fled the country in fear for his life.

She was acquitted of blasphemy. Yes, speaking ill of the Prophet… or something. In Pakistan, they kill you for this.

The woman is a frail mother of several in her fifties. She is a landless agricultural worker by trade. She is a Christian in a country that is 98% Muslim.

If she did anything resembling blasphemy, she should be released for reason of insanity anyway. How could such a person so provoke her bloodthirsty neighbors and not be mad?

The silence of “moderate Muslims” on this case is making me deaf.

Yes, much of Western public opinion is Islamophobic. Perhaps the spectacle of thousands of bearded adult males demanding that a slight woman who has been declared not guilty of this grotesque “crime” be hanged, perhaps, it does not help.

Should you vote today? Only if you want to.

Today is election day in the United States and everywhere I turn I see “get out the vote” ads. Even on Facebook my feed is filled with people urging others to vote. I am fine with these nudges insofar that they are just that – nudges.

I am concerned when I see claims that voting is one’s duty. I am especially concerned when I see claims that, if you don’t vote, you are allowing the evil [socialists/white men/etc] to govern. These claims concern me because they respectively promote worship of the state and tribalism.

There is more to life than being a politico. If Americans at large sacrificed their other activities in order to become fully informed voter-activists, we would be a boring lot. If you enjoy politics, go vote, but you needn’t feel superior over someone who thinks their time would be better spent playing music or grabbing a beer with friends after work. Life is short and should be spent doing what one enjoys.

Likewise, it is perfectly okay to have an opinion on how government should be run. I, and I imagine most NoL readers, have strong policy preferences. It is however beyond arrogance to believe that an educated person can only believe X and only a mustached villain would believe Y. To be clear, I am not saying that truth is relative.

NIMBYist policies lead to housing shortages, that is a fact. I am in favor of revising zoning regulations and ending parking subsidies to mitigate the problem. I don’t think that the family that owns a detached unit in Santa Monica and opposes denser development is evil though. I understand their hesitance to see their neighborhood changed.

If you wish to vote today, please do so but please don’t act like a snob towards those who do not. Express your policy preferences, but leave your holier than thou attitude at home.

Tldr; play nice.

Nightcap

  1. Learning about World War I through German eyes Jonathan Boff, OUPblog
  2. The Danger of a Distorted View of the Right Conor Friedersdorf, the Atlantic
  3. It was supposed to be a simple troll John Holbo, Crooked Timber
  4. Strauss on Nietzsche: the God Killer Keith Whitaker, Claremont Review of Books

The Intolerance of Tolerance

Just recently I read The Intolerance of Tolerance, by D. A. Carson. Carson is one of the best New Testament scholars around, but what he writes in this book (although written from a Christian perspective) has more to do with contemporary politics. His main point is that the concept of tolerance evolved over time to become something impossible to work with.

Being a New Testament scholar, Carson knows very well how language works, and especially how vocabulary accommodates different concepts over time. Not long ago, tolerance was meant to be a secondary virtue. We tolerate things that we don’t like, but that at the same time we don’t believe we should destroy. That was the case between different Protestant denominations early in American history: Baptists, Presbyterians, and so on decided to “agree to disagree,” even though they didn’t agree with one another completely. “I don’t agree with what you are saying, but I don’t think I have to shut you up. I’ll let you say and do the things I don’t like.” Eventually, the boundaries of tolerance were expanded to include Catholics, Jews, and all kinds of people and behaviors that we don’t agree with, but that we decide to tolerate.

The problem with tolerance today is that people want to make it a central value. You have to be tolerant. Period. But is that possible? Should we be tolerant of pedophilia? Murder? Genocide? Can the contemporary tolerant be tolerant of those who are not tolerant?

Postmodernism really made a mess. Postmodernism is very good as a necessary critic to the extremes of rationalism present in modernity. But in and by itself it only leads to nonsense. Once you don’t have anything firm to stand on, anything goes. Everything is relative. Except that everything is relative, that’s absolute. Tolerance today goes the same way: I will not tolerate the fact that you are not tolerant.

Nightcap

  1. Religion and human rights Bruce Clark, Erasmus
  2. Voltaire and the Buddha Donald Lopez, Public Domain Review
  3. The politics of the past in Europe and Russia Douglas Smith, LA Review of Books
  4. Lessons unlearned, empire falls Niall Ferguson, Vanity Fair

Nightcap

  1. The firing of Kevin Williamson was a bad idea Conor Friedersdorf, the Atlantic
  2. Among the abortion extremists Ross Douthat, New York Times
  3. Back alley regulation Bryan Caplan, EconLog
  4. What deterring abortion means Russell Arben Fox, In Medias Res

Who needs a list of progressive professors?

Turning Point USA has a new list out of progressive professors. The list has already begun to be attacked as signaling the rise of a new era of McCarthyism where academics will be prosecuted for anti-American discourse.

I agree that the list should be attacked in so far that it tries to define what is acceptable discourse in academia. Academia should be a place where ideas, no matter how absurd or controversial, can be discussed and this list doesn’t help that goal.

There may be a limited place for safe places. Recently I’ve been willing to accept ‘safe places’ in those cases where individuals genuinely cannot handle certain ideas being discussed. There’s no point in, for example, attending the university’s Jewish student club and claiming that the Holocaust didn’t happen. There’s no point in going to a support meeting of transsexuals and claiming they’re going to hell. Etc etc. Emphasize on the limited though. I am willing to hold my tongue in support group settings, but that’s it.

That said the list, and the response to it, are funny in several ways.

Turning Point USA crafted the list to indicate professors who have been documented attacking conservatives. One professor barged into a Republican student and shouted profanity. I can see a point in the list if it listed only those professors who had a reputation for encouraging an environment of hostility – there is a different between being able to discuss radical ideas and yelling fire in a theater. I’m not so clear why Holocaust deniers are listed though. I don’t agree with such individuals, but if they only express the ideas I see no reason to avoid them. If Turning Point USA is serious about promoting a culture where conservative ideas can be freely discussed in academia it must be willing to protect the Holocaust deniers. Does Turning Point USA not realize the absurdity of trying to, on one hand, create a safe place for Judeo-Christian conservatives, and promoting the right of conservative ideas to be discussed in academia

What I find funny about progressives talking about the need for universities to tolerate their own ‘radical’ speech (what’s radical about wanting more government?), they themselves are intolerant to conservatives. Consider this: I’m a double minority – an illegal alien libertarian. Which of these two identities do you think is more cumbersome in academia?

After the election of Trump several members of the academic community assured me that I would be protected if need be. Yesterday the President of the University of California system released an op-ed defending the undocumented student community. Earlier today she announced that the UCs, including its police force, would refuse to cooperate with any deportation efforts.

In comparison as a libertarian I am often advised to keep quiet about my political views. At minimum I should try to avoid researching things that make it clear that I diverge from the rest of academia in political thought. Otherwise I will have a hard time getting my research published or be cut off from the social networks needed in the job market. On occasion I have found myself ostracized socially for voicing dissent on things like the minimum wage or affirmative action. I’m not alone in this.

In an ideal world I should be able to be an illegal alien, a Holocaust denier*, homosexual, and a devout Muslim** without feeling the need to suppress my view points. Academia should be a safe place for ideas no matter how radical.

Thoughts, comments?

*I’m not a Holocaust denier.
**I’m not a Muslim either.

Milton on Freedom of Printing: Areopagitica

Areopagitica 

A Speech of Mr John Milton for the Liberty of Unlicensed Printing to the Parliament of England (1644).

(For my general introduction to Milton, click here)

‘We turn for a short time from the topics of the day, to commemorate, in all love and reverence, the genius and virtues of John Milton, the poet, the statesman, the philosopher, the glory of English literature, the champion and martyr of English liberty’, Thomas Babington Macaulay (Whig-Liberal historian, writer and government minister), 1825.

The digitised text of Areopagitica can be found at the Online Library of Liberty here.

The strange sounding title is a reference to one of the key institutions of ancient republican and democratic Athens, the court of Areopagus. Appropriately, as we are looking at an essay on politics by a great poet, the Areopagus and its mythical foundation was celebrated as the core of Athenian justice in Aeschylus’ tragic trilogy, the Oresteia. The Areopagus was itself an aristocratic institution preceding democracy in Athens and as such can be seen as what balanced the changeable majorities of the citizens’ assembly with enduring standards of justice, which have meaning in all ways of constituting political institutions.

What Milton looks for in this great institution of early experiments in constituting liberty is a standard for freedom of publication and finds that it offered a very tolerant standard, at least in the context of the seventeenth century. Milton suggests that the only restrictions the Areopagus placed on books of the time (all handwritten manuscripts of course) was with regard to atheism and libel. We are not going to look back at Milton or the Areopagus now as the most advanced instances of liberty when they prohibit expressions of atheism, but these are times when the idea that a good and rational person could not be an atheist were all pervasive and the assumption can still be found later in the seventeenth century in John Locke, one of the general heroes of modern thinking about liberty.

The restraint on libel applies in all societies and all political thinking I am aware of, but one should never discount the possibility of an interesting exception. Leaving aside possible interesting radical alternatives, there is nothing repressive by the standards of general thinking about liberty in restraining libel. Milton’s interest in the standards of pagan Greece is itself a tribute to a spirit of pluralism and open mindedness in someone generally inclined to take moral and political guidance from the religious traditions of Hebrew Scripture and the Gospels, along with the writings of early Christians, and the Protestant thinkers of the sixteenth century Reformation.

The Reformation, as Milton himself emphasises, relied on the printed word, and it is no coincidence that Protestantism emerged soon after Europe discovered printing (after the Chinese of course), as a weapon against the institutional authority of the Catholic Church and its hierarchy. The structure of the Catholic Church was not just a matter of church offering a choice to people seeking a faith-based life, it was connected with state power and pushed onto societies as the only allowable life philosophy. The politics of religion comes up in Milton’s essay, including the issue of the relation of the state to the church hierarchy.

While England had a Protestant Reformation in the sixteenth century (England including Wales, but excluding Scotland which had its own distinct Reformation before union with England), it had retained a state church, the Church of England, with Bishops. Milton, like many on the side of Parliament in the Civil War, was against Bishops, referred to as prelates, as part of the old Catholic hierarchy in which the ‘truth’ was given from above to the mass of believers.

Inspired by the pamphlets of and books of Protestant reformers, Milton argues that truth can have many forms and that while Christianity may require acceptance of central truths, they can be expressed in more ways than the Catholic hierarchical state-backed tradition allows. State backing, of course, included the imprisonment, torture, and burning to death of ‘heretics’ by the Inquisition.

Milton refers to the last pagan Roman Emperor, Julian ‘the Apostate’ (reigned 361-363) with regard to his policy of banning Christians from pagan education. Milton argues that this was the biggest possible blow to Christianity, because it deprived believers of the intellectual capacity and credibility to influence pagan inhabitants of the Empire. Christian truth could only be convincingly understood, communicated, and taught if it drew on all areas of learning including what had been produced by pagans.

Truth benefits from being tested in argument and contestation, something undermined by state-enforced church power as well as by the monarchical institution of courts full of sycophants and yes-sayers. Political liberty requires republican representative institutions and truth, including the truths of religion, require testing in conditions of liberty.

Unfortunately, Milton supported legal discrimination against Catholics, but as with prohibitions on expressions of atheism, this was part of the general understanding of a just state at the time, and Milton was more tolerant than many on the Protestant as well as Catholic sides. His arguments make up a part of the general movement to tolerance and freedom of speech, making very powerful points on behalf of liberty, enabling us to take them beyond the limits within which he constrained them.

Next post, Milton on political institutions

Language and Informational Prisons: The Case of Arabic

What language you are born into matters. It matters because it’s a means of communication and it matters even more because it’s a kind of soft prison. I regularly turn off the French language media because I become cumulatively irritated at the number of absurd statements I hear coming out of the mouths of presumably university-educated French newsmen and newswomen. There are fewer absurd affirmations in the news in this English-speaking country simply because good information is more abundant in English than it is in French.

We are used to believing that whoever is intelligent is also well informed. The reverse, we know, is not true. There are plenty of people who accumulate information and who are perfect fools. The best way I have heard it put is from an anonymous author played recently on my local radio station (KSCO Santa Cruz 1080 AM): Being aware of the fact that a tomato is a fruit is to be well-informed; to abstain from putting tomatoes in a fruit salad is to be wise!

The assumption that intelligent people are automatically well informed is so general that when we come across someone who is obviously intelligent but ill-informed we study him like an infinitely interesting creature. I have known several people like that in my life. They drove me crazy. One I know now, is smarter than I, I suspect but nearly everything he believes to be true is false. My friend has made a philosophical decision not to have any electronic media in his house. He usually carries a book. Over time, I have come to suspect that he does not read very well, that he is dyslexic (whatever that means) or something like that. In general, we don’t think enough of this rare case: The ignorant intelligent person. Continue reading