Monday, November 30, 2009

On liberty, democracy, history and minarets

Liberty and democracy are closely related both historically and philosophically - but they are nevertheless distinguishable. The various attempts in the blogosphere to pretend this isn't so would be amusing - if they weren't so depressing.

Amongst the recent converts to the sort of democracy that forbids people to wash their clothes after ten o'clock include these no crash-helmet wearing 'libertarians' who are so ubiquitous in the blogosphere. What to do when a democracy passes an illiberal measure that you happen to approve of? You pretend it's really liberal, of course. Here's someone, for example, who takes his moniker from a brand of rolling tobacco:
"The people told the Government, not the other way round."
Despite the government's attempts to argue that the firstborn should live, the people stood their ground and said NO! and subsequently approved the Slaughter of the Firstborn Proposition. This qualifies it as a liberal measure. This is the argument that is being made in all seriousness. Welcome to the fucked-up world of the internet libertarian.

But what to do if you're a democrat and you disapprove of the tough on minarets, tough on the causes of minarets line recently validated by our Swiss friends? Similar strategy, different tactic: rather than stretch the concept beyond its conventional usage, narrow it instead to exclude things that you don't approve of:
"We on the Left know very well that this measure, far from being a triumph for democracy – except in the formal sense – serves only to divide the people of Switzerland one from another. If democracy is merely about the relationship of individuals to authority then I’m wrong, but if democracy is about associative relationships and how we collectively relate to authority, then the Swiss have weakened that associative relationship and its collective relationship with the Swiss state."
This is neither as offensive nor as philosophically convoluted as the previous 'libertarian' argument but it still isn't good enough. Democracy is concerned with the source of power, liberty with its scope. Is it really too difficult to acknowledge that these two are a) distinct b) can collide - both in theory and in practice?

Chris Dillow, being a clever sort of chap, understands this 'trade-off' perfectly well. Unfortunately he's spent too much time reading econometrics and other sundry ahistorical stuff, hence his cavalier dismissal of the historical compromise that civil society has come to in what we like to call liberal democracy. For example, one tool for balancing power and freedom that has proved quite popular through the ages is the notion that individual rights should be entrenched in law. Mr Dillow finds this unsatisfactory, arguing, "[A] bill of rights would not solve this problem at all, as it merely prioritizes liberty over democracy.".

But is this as simple as he suggests? Bills of Rights are not static things but evolve and are mediated through democratically-controlled institutions. These decide what these mean in a contemporary setting. Who has decided, for example, that a constitutionally-protected freedom of religion does not include the right to burn witches or sacrifice goats in the town square? Parliaments, Congresses, Constituent Assemblies of various kinds.

Moreover, even if this were not so - what, exactly, is the problem with prioritizing liberty over democracy? You either believe in human rights or you don't. If you do then these are rights that no power should override, regardless of how impeccably democratic the origins of its authority. Imperfect, certainly - but I'm unconvinced by the historically untested alternatives Chris suggests:
"One possibility which I favour is to use demand-revealing referenda. If people had to stake their own money - even though the risk of loss is actually small - they would be less ready to vote to reduce others’ liberty. They’d figure: a minaret does me no harm, so why should I pay to stop them being built?"
I don't really get this demand-revealing referanda thing. Is it able to overcome the free-rider problem? More specifically, how does it overcome the sort of problem thrown up by this particular case? Let's try this formulation: "If people had to stake their own money - even though the risk of loss is actually small - they would be less ready to vote to increase others’ liberty. They'd figure: a pogrom against Muslims does me no harm, so why should I pay for their rescue?" I'm sure I'm missing something but until someone explains to me why I'm wrong, I prefer the wisdom of ages and of nations to that found on the blogosphere.

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