Inspired by Brian’s thoughts here:
Some say to be involved in elections at all - even by voting - is to accept the result and the inevitable state violence. I don’t know how I feel about this.
One of my theories is that if you do accept that voting is allowable then you can only endorse candidates that make a clear commitment to reducing the size and scope of the state.
Related theory: freedom never comes about in one go. It comes about slowly, in fits and starts, two steps forward one step back all the way.
Related (and slightly contradictory) theory: you get reeled in. I sometimes imagine what it would be like if I were in charge and trying to move in the right direction but not completely in the right direction. That would mean having to take responsibility for and having to justify a lot of violence. “Violence is wrong, but I’m doing all this violence because I don’t think I’d win an election if I didn’t.” Not sure that’s a winner.
Getting back to clear commitments to freedom: what does this say about Brown and Cameron? I agree with Brian that Brown was appalling but Cameron is little better. And his littebetterness will end up doing all sorts of damage to the Conservative brand.
Could there be an argument that a politician who goes in the same wrong direction but more slowly is better than one that rushes?
The Republicans are clearly having dreadful problems coming up with a credible candidate. Could this in some bizarre way be a strength? In that (some) people stop looking for messiahs. This is very much a half-formed thought.
There was a comment on this posting by Brian Micklethwait that annoyed me.
Ian B had written:
...you rarely get liberty at the point of a bayonet.
To which Alisdair had replied:
Magna Carta - signed cuz of good-will on King John;’s part ? Or at the pointy end of bayonet-equivalents ?
US getting out from under Lord North’s Privy Council ? Generosity on Lord North’s part ? Or at the pointy end of colonists’ weaponry (and rented mercenaries)?
Israeli democracy - Allah being the Compassionate and the Merciful ? Or at the pointy end of Irgun and Hagganah and other probably not kosher ‘persuaders’ ? (Numerous times since (and including) 1948)
European democracy post 1939 - inevitable voluntary stepping-down by Herr Schicklgruber ? Or at the pointy end of actual bayonets and other less-than-gentle persuasions ?
Are you detecting a pattern, yet ?
You see I ask the question how did particular freedoms come about? For instance, how did freedom of speech come about in England? Or, how did slavery end, again, in England? Or the end of serfdom? Or freedom of religion?
The answer is that all these things came about slowly over a very long period of time. Warfare had little to do with it. I am not denying that warfare can be essential in defending an existing freedom but it seems to me that rarely does it extend them.
And then I think: "Do I really want this to be solved constitutionally?" There is so much unpicking that has to be done of taxes and regulations and contracts and international agreements that I doubt it's even possible. I don't doubt the horror, at least initially, of a constitutional collapse, especially with so many members of the population convinced socialists (of one flavour or another) but it seems to me to be the only way of sweeping away the Sargasso Sea of government.
The Fall of Rome v1.0 went something like this:
1. They created for themselves a welfare state (think: bread and circuses)
2. They went bankrupt
3. Gazillions of barbarians brushed past the army which hadn’t been paid and sacked the place.
It would appear that in the West we have met Condition 1, are about to meet Condition 2 and have the barbarians (I use the term in its literal rather than pejorative sense) for Condition 3 in the form of gazillions of actual and would-be immigrants.
Can anything be done about it? Well, if the ideas of Mancur Olsen (I believe it’s pronounced Man-Sir) are to be believed, not much. Now you understand I haven’t actually gone to the effort of actually reading anything Olsen wrote but I am reasonably familiar with his ideas. Or, at least what I think are his ideas. If they are not his ideas then there’s a good chance they are my ideas which is even better. Anyway, his argument (or, at least what I think is his argument) is that over time societies introduce ever more layers of regulation creating ever more interest groups. These laws and interest groups form a tight web that not only stiffles progress but is highly resistant to change. The only way it can be changed is through the total collapse of the state as in the case of the Soviet Union or Rome.
It is not difficult to think of examples of the kind of thing he’s getting at. I sometimes imagine what it would be like to be a reforming Transport Minister. Let’s say I wanted to liberate the railways. I might, for instance, want to close down loss-making lines but I would be greeted with howls of protest - not to mention the considerable bureaucratic obstacles in the way. I might wish to end price control and would get much the same response. If I wanted, heaven forfend, to allow train operators to own the tracks on which their trains ran, first the UK would have to leave the EU - which would mean repudiating a treaty. Big stuff.
And so on and so forth. And that is just an area I know about. It’s bound to be repeated right the way across government.
So, a collapse of the West seems inevitable. But is it a bad thing? The Dark Ages do not get a great write up but that’s mainly because they didn’t get any sort of write up (great or otherwise) at the time. It is possible that it’s inhabitants were experiencing a land of milk and honey. Certainly, it is one of the complaints that my immigrant colleagues make that the West constantly claims how free it is but you just try building yourself a house…
The litmus test will come when the barbarians try to feed themselves. Given the complexity of modern agriculture with its technology, financial systems and distribution networks we can only hope they succeed.
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It’ll be interesting to see what Niall (pronounced Neil, I believe) Ferguson will be saying in his Channel Four series which starts tonight. According to the ads for the show his theory is that the wars (hot and cold) of the 20th Century represented one, continuous, century-long struggle which the East won. Which makes me wonder what he means by “East” - East Europe, Middle East, China or (surely not) India?
It’ll be interesting for me because I, too, believe that the wars of the 20th Century represented a continuous struggle. But for me that struggle was an attempt to answer the question: how should industrial societies be governed? The answer, incidentally, being more or less the one we started off with: democracy.
I notice quite a lot of people have been getting steamed up over the Abolition of Parliament Bill (not real name). They seem to think Parliament is a Good Thing. Which begs the question: is it?
The truth is that Parliament doesn’t matter all that much. It is no longer the place where the issues of the day are resolved. That role is now fulfilled by means of the mass media, opinion polls and elections, occasionally supplemented by referendums and insurrection. And because it is not the place where issues are resolved it can no longer attract talented people to fill its benches.
There are good reasons why Parliament is so weak. Almost every MP knows full well that he owes his seat to his party and its leader which is why he toes the party line. He owes his seat to his party and leader because elections are fought on a national basis. They are fought on a national basis because the media is national.
Now, I am not saying that the executive shouldn’t be held to account - far from it - but perhaps it is time we accepted that Parliament isn’t the way to do it.
I was struck by a comment made by Ralf Goegens in response to Brian Micklethwait’s post on the EU:
“One example, Britain has never signed up to the Schengen teraty, but I can tell you that is a huge relief not to have to show your papers at every border you come to, and move your property across them without a hassle. That is a huge increase in individual freedom.”
Or to put it another way: we can’t do it on a national basis because we can’t convince the electorate, therefore we need to do it on a super-national basis because there the electorate don’t count.
I have my disagreements with democracy but the thing that makes me cleave to it is that it enshrines debate. The ability to debate issues is the primary reason for Western success - especially military success. To lose it would mean jeopardising everything. Debate and democracy does not always lead to the right answer but it is a lot more likely to succeed than any of the forms of government available.
So, sorry Ralf but there’s no quick fix. You have to get out there and make your point. It’s tedious and time-consuming but ultimately, it’s worth it.
More democracy blogging. Randall McElroy asks:
Can you name a democratically-ruled country where the government and its bureaucracies, dependents, employees, contractors, and powers have been in decline for any significant amount of time?
I can’t. Margaret Thatcher gave up power in some areas but increased it in others. Mind you I find it difficult to think of any regime democratic or otherwise where the state has shrunk. When people recapture their freedoms it seems to require either the collapse of a regime eg. the Soviet Union or invasion eg. Germany.
If that’s the case, the implications for us in the West are not good.
I agree that I didn’t say much about how democracy is good for freedom, but I do say that civil wars are bad for it. Do you disagree with that?
Indeed, I don’t. Should have made that clear. Civil wars, nay all wars are bad for freedom.
Brian then draws a distinction between freedom during war and freedom afterwards. He was thinking mostly of the former, though it occurs to me that it is the thought of the latter that keeps the former going. We put up with the horror of war because we believe that the world will be a better place afterwards.
It occurs to me that democracy (or other cracies and isms) are not the only answer to the question: how do you prevent violence? Another option is law. Another option is property. Of course, they are related. Democracies produce law (though they are not the only source). Property rights cannot exist without laws to defend them. But the point is that where you have the rule of law everyone knows where they stand. Although we tend to think of the law as something that only deals with its transgressors, its role in telling us what we can and can’t do is probably far more important. Similarly, where you have private property that tells us what bits of the world we can play around with and what bits we can’t. The point is that where people know what is theirs and what isn’t you get less violence.
I am not quite sure if this is related but often when we have a chat, Brian will talk about the importance of debate. It is at least one of Brian’s theories (and I agree with him on this one) that debate has been key to the West’s military successes. If debate is good for the fighting of wars then it is probably good for other things to including the political system. It is difficult to think of a political system that enshrines debate better than democracy.
UPDATE. So law means that you know where you stand? Tsk, tsk, Crozier. Not anymore it doesn’t.
Brian Micklethwait extols the virtues of democracy. Or, at least, he appears to. He claims that democracy is good for freedom. Unfortunately, unless I’ve missed something, he never makes good on that claim.
What he actually says is that democracy prevents civil wars. The implication (I don’t think he actually ever says this) is that civil wars are bad for freedom.
First of all, democracy does not always prevent civil wars. Think Ulster, Euskadi (aka the Basque Country) and, of course, America in the 1860s.
Actually, that last example, occuring in a country in which (I think) there was a restricted franchise - and not just for slaves - does beg the eternal question of just what a democracy is.
Secondly, I am not happy with the equation: preventing civil wars = good for freedom. Some civil wars are good for freedom eg English Civil War, the Glorious Revolution, the American War of Independence.
(The American War of Independence was, indentally, at least in part, a civil war. Not every colonist was a rebel.)
I am also not happy with that equation because even if one accepts that civil wars are bad for freedom they are bad in a general purpose way rather than a specific way. Civil wars are awful. Let’s put it this way: even communists think they are a bad thing.
Hmm. It occurs to me that by bringing up those “good” civil wars I am doing Brian a disservice. He is making the point that where the option is available democracy is better. Of course, in the examples I give the option was emphatically not available.
UPDATE. Incidentally, from a “how do we promote freedom” perspective this is all rather academic. If libertarians do badly under democracy right now then they aren’t going to do any better by taking up arms against the state. The only real course of action is to keep on trying to spread the ideas and hope for the best.
Hans Hermann-Hoppe, the Austrian-cum-American philosopher is at it again:
…under democratic conditions the popular though immoral and anti-social desire for another man’s property is systematically strengthened. Every demand is legitimate if it is proclaimed publicly under the special protection of “freedom of speech.” Everything can be said and claimed, and everything is up for grabs.
Now, I have a soft spot for Hoppe and even more of a soft spot for his democracy-bashing. I note that as the franchise has been extended, so liberty has been curtailed. Being something of a monarchist (uniforms, marching bands, gongs - marvellous), I am naturally attracted to his advocacy of monarchy as a better (or less bad) form of government.
However, I am not unaware of the counter-argument: say what you like about them but democracies win wars. Now, I can’t say in so many words why I think the ability to win wars is so important but there can be little doubt that at the end of the 20th century, after three world wars and having faced down autocracy, national socialism and international socialism; in this department, at least, democracy had well and truly earnt its spurs.