Tuesday, September 21, 2004

Civil Freedom vs. Political Power

My recent post on Illiberal Democracy generated some interesting comments. In particular, I was accused of being "illiberal" for opposing the right of the masses to run society however they please. I think that accusation is quite misguided. What I want to pursue here is the distinction between civil liberty and political power.

First of all, let me reassure you all that I'm a big fan of personal liberty. Some commentators seemed to think I was advocating some kind of extreme paternalism. That would be a gross misunderstanding of my position. I entirely agree that individuals have the right to make their own decisions and live their lives as they please (so long as they don't harm others, etc.). Nothing in my post suggested otherwise.

But individual liberty is an entirely separate matter from political power. Supporting the former does not imply that "the people" should be free to impose whatever laws they please on the rest of society. (Bear in mind that "the people" really just means the majority of citizens, tacitly excluding those who do not conform to the norms of the mob.)

Again, I must emphasise, the form of government entails nothing about the degree of civil liberty in a society. A benevolent autocrat could allow freedom of speech, association, and the press (etc.), whereas a direct democracy might vote to outlaw homosexuality, burn the atheists, and deport all the 'coloured folk'.

I think some of the outraged comments arose from a failure to recognise this important distinction. Consider the following, from 'Idiot' of NRT:
The real difference is not that I am more democrat than liberal, but that I think that freedom is not just the freedom to be intelligent, rational, and well-informed, but also the freedom to be stupid, irrational, and flat-out wrong - even about what's in your own best interest.

So long as we're talking about an individual's "private sphere", I would agree. But freedom to make mistakes in my private life does not extend to imposing those mistakes on the rest of society through the use of political power.

NRT also claims that "Democracy is not about making good decisions - it's about making our decisions".

I strongly disagree. As far as I'm concerned, the only justification for government is utilitarian: it has good consequences. The mere fact that it expresses the will of the majority ("our decisions") is irrelevant. As J.S. Mill put it, If all mankind minus one, were of one opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person, than he [...] would be justified in silencing mankind.

To the greatest extent possible, each individual should rule over themselves. That's liberalism. Democracy, by contrast, suggests that the majority should rule over the minority. There's nothing intrinsically virtuous about that, and anyone who claims otherwise is indeed "more democrat than liberal".

I do agree that, overall, democracy is the best form of government - but only because it has the best consequences. Democracies are more likely (than dictatorships or oligarchies, etc.) to make "good decisions" and produce a liberal society. But perhaps if the voters were required to meet some basic threshold of competency, then the resulting decisions might be even better.

I'm not certain of that - it's an empirical question after all. And, as discussed in my earlier post, there are certainly some risks we would need to watch out for. But if it really would result in a better government, then I think my proposal would be eminently justified. It might be (mildly) 'undemocratic' of me to suggest such a thing, but as I said, I don't much care about that. The proposal in itself entails nothing about 'liberalism', however, so to fault it on those grounds would be to mistakenly conflate two quite separate matters.


  1. I can't be bothered making an account

    So my new handle is the Anonny Mouse

    I agree wholeheartedly (except I only think that democracy is the best salient system. I wouldn't rule out the possibility that there are better ones, such as uninvented ones for instance!)

    -Anonny mouse (Patrick)

  2. Yay, someone else agrees at last! I was starting to think it was me vs. the world for a while there ;)

    The possibility of uninvented political systems is an interesting one - though a little difficult to imagine what they might be. I wouldn't want to rule out anything absolutely, but I suspect that some variant of democracy will turn out to be the best humans can come up with. But that variant could (I suppose) be as different from modern democracy as the latter is from Ancient Athenian democracy.

    In general, I think the move to more indirect / representative forms of democracy is probably the way to go. (Those "Binding Citizens Referenda" wotchamacallits sound to me like an awful idea.) Keep the people as far away from direct power as possibile, all the whilst ensuring that the rulers are ultimately held accountable to them.

    But yeah, I would want to work within the existing democratic framework, rather than tossing it out entirely to start afresh. (Not that you implied any such thing. I just thought I'd clarify the point anyway.)

    P.S. Nice handle! I once considered writing a short story about a mouse named Nonny, but it never quite worked out, alas.

  3. I note that you didn't actually propose any competency questions. Should you attempt to do so, I think you will find it much more difficult than you imagine. I guess you realise that; hence your reference to a "non-partisan committee of experts"! Lawyers who think there should be no laws or that justice should be withheld from criminals? Teachers who think that everyone should self-educate? Philosophers who think that people shouldn't think about things? Or maybe you are the expert; The one objective perspective in a world full of subjective self-interest. Democracy combined with liberalism is the best solution because there is no way to distinguish ignorance from unacknowledged wisdom.

    You will be aware that Mill recognised the importance of education, even today's liberals seem not to appreciate how vital education is for the maintenance of liberal democracy. I'm not referring to qualifications or the acquisition of skills, but the comprehension of important concepts. For example, every primary school child should at some point be taught in depth the meaning of words like subjective, objective, coercion, etc. So long as people don't have the appropriate vocabulary and associated concepts then democracy will be vulnerable to attack from various quarters including yourself. I would not however propose that we seek to test voters for see if they have acquired these important concepts - for the reasons elaborated above.

  4. Dave, I explained what sorts of questions I had in mind, in my earlier post.

    Of course it would be inappropriate to test people's values or opinions (on controversial matters). If that's your objection, then I fully agree with you. But then, I never suggested any such thing. Rather, I'm suggesting we test their knowledge of some relevant, known facts.

    These would come in two broad classes:
    1) General facts about the social/economic situation in their society at present. E.g. "How big is the current economic deficit?", or "The estate tax directly effects only the richest ___% of the population?"

    2) Facts about the specific policies of the major parties. "What does party X propose to do about issue Y (e.g. the death penalty, abortion, healthcare, etc).

    The committee would be non-partisan to try to ensure that they framed the questions in as politically-neutral a manner as possible (something I probably failed to do in my above examples). And their status as 'experts' would hopefully ensure that they included only facts which are known to be true.

    Also, I should repeat that this 'test' is intended to be passable by absolutely anyone who is willing to make the effort. Both questions and their answers could be disseminated in advance. I wouldn't even mind if voters could just copy the answers directly, so long as the process of doing so forced them to think about them somewhat.

    The point isn't to separate out the 'unworthy'. It's to ensure that everyone who votes (and if that is everyone in the country, then all the better) has some basic knowledge of what it is that they're voting about.

    So, if done properly (and I recognise that this is a big 'if'), I think this sort of thing could actually enhance democracy, not 'attack' it.

  5. "How big is the current economic deficit?"
    That question doesn't even mean anything. If you are referring to the government current account deficit, then if I want to vote for individual liberty, limited government, free speech, free trade, free enterprise and justice for all, why would I care what the current account deficit is? This is even more true in my case, because I have sufficient knowledge of accountancy to know that any quoted figure represents a consolidated summary of a large number of assumptions and subjective decisions. I'm just not interested in that; Does that mean I am unworthy to vote?

    "Estate tax directly effects only the richest ...% of the population?"
    On way or another, every tax effects us all, so the answer is 100%. An I unworthy to vote because I can outsmart you?

    "What does party X propose to do about issue Y?"
    Do you mean what their policy actually says; Most written policies are long on positioning and very short on explicit promises to take specific actions. Most of what we understand that parties propose to do is actually taken from the speculations of pundits and journalists. Furthermore, people tend to forget that parties quite often don't do as they propose. Maybe a better question for your purposes might be "How sure can you be that any party will do what you imagine it might do?" I don't care what Labour's policy is on anything, because I believe that they think that the best approach to tackling any social issue is to spend money. I don't agree with that. Does my willful ignorance mean that I'm unworthy to vote?

    Give up on this Richard. I'm sure you could improve on your questions, but if you desire to have them vetted by experts to ensure that they referred to facts which were sure to be true, then they would have ultimately to be questions of science not politics.

  6. Okay so this post is ages old... but I just found it (and your blog) through a link on somebody else's blog... but I just wanted to say, thank you for this post sequence.

    I completely agree with why we should value liberal democracy. (Unfortunately I don't think there's a better system out there than the one we've got--the possibility of tyranny in all the others is probably even higher.) But if protecting individual liberty isn't the ultimate goal of government, maybe the existence of governments can't be justified. And this is something that you don't really see talked about (perhaps because the social conservatives rely on an evangelical belief system where the government should be 'fixing' or 'saving' people).


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