Autonomous political institutions

In a post about Swaminathan Aiyer’s recent article in The Times of India about “freeing the police”, Aristotle the geek makes a very good point:

All coercive capabilities of the state must always be under civilian political control.

Aiyer’s article reminds me of Fareed Zakaria’s book “The Future of Freedom – Illiberal Democracy at Home & Abroad” where Zakaria advocates the creation of autonomous regulatory entities not subject to political control. Both Zakaria and Aiyer seem to want to temper the consequences of a run-away democracy. There is a slight difference in context though. Aiyer writes about the police which is a legitimate state activity whereas Zakaria writes about areas where the government should have no role at all.

Regardless of the difference in context, both Zakaria and Aiyer are wrong. Both advocate the creation of an unaccountable bureaucracy. Both seem to forget that there is indeed an independent government entity not directly subject to political control – the judiciary. The judiciary can be independent because it deals with issues that are not political. In a properly limited and functional democracy, the judiciary should be sufficient to address any misuse of power by the agents of the state. The solution to a runaway democracy cannot be an unaccountable bureaucracy. Both need to be abolished. And that leads me to the point I want to make. Abolishing the ability of a democratic government to run out of control can only work in a culture that respects individual rights.

Political change is necessarily preceded by cultural change.

Aiyer’s article shows that despite all his claims to be a liberal, he does not really understand liberty at all. Anyone who thinks liberty can be achieved by political means fundamentally misunderstands it.

Macaulay’s speech in the House of Commons in 1833

I came upon this speech delivered by Thomas Macaulay in the House of Commons in 1833 via this post on Sanjeev Sabhlok’s blog. I have only read the extract in Sabhlok’s blog so far. It is interesting enough that I will read the whole thing and more about the history of the British Empire when I find time. Some excerpts follow:

“We come then to the great question. Is it desirable to retain the Company as an organ of government for India?

“In India you cannot have representative institutions. Of all the innumerable speculators who have offered their suggestions on Indian politics, not a single one, as far as I know, however democratical his opinions may be, has ever maintained the possibility of giving, at the present time, such institutions to India. One gentleman, extremely well acquainted with the affairs of our Eastern Empire … was examined on this point. That gentleman … a very bold and uncompromising politician … has written strongly, far too strongly I think, in favour of pure democracy. He has gone so far as to maintain that no nation which has not a representative legislature, chosen by universal suffrage, enjoys security against oppression. But when he was asked before the Committee of last year, whether he thought representative government practicable in India, his answer was, “utterly out of the question.”

 “This, then, is the state in which we are. We have to frame a good government for a country into which, by universal acknowledgment, we cannot introduce those institutions which all our habits, which all the reasonings of European philosophers, which all the history of our own part of the world would lead us to consider as the one great security for good government. We have to engraft on despotism those blessings which are the natural fruits of liberty. In these circumstances, Sir, it behoves us to be cautious, even to the verge of timidity. The light of political science and of history are withdrawn: we are walking in darkness: we do not distinctly see whither we are going. It is the wisdom of a man, so situated, to feel his way, and not to plant his foot till he is well assured that the ground before him is firm.”

Do I call the government of India a perfect government? Very far from it. No nation can be perfectly well governed till it is competent to govern itself. I compare the Indian government with other governments of the same class, with despotisms, with military despotisms, with foreign military despotisms; and I find none that approaches it in excellence. I compare it with the government of the Roman provinces, with the government of the Spanish colonies; and I am proud of my country and my age.

“It is scarcely possible to calculate the benefits which we might derive from the diffusion of European civilisation among the vast population of the East. It would be, on the most selfish view of the case, far better for us that the people of India were well governed and independent of us, than ill governed and subject to us; that they were ruled by their own kings, but wearing our broadcloth, and working with our cutlery, than that they were performing their salams to English collectors and English magistrates, but were too ignorant to value, or too poor to buy, English manufactures. To trade with civilised men is infinitely more profitable than to govern savages. That would, indeed, be a doting wisdom, which, in order that India might remain a dependency, would make it an useless and costly dependency, which would keep a hundred millions of men from being our customers in order that they might continue to be our slaves.

“It may be that the public mind of India may expand under our system till it has outgrown that system; that by good government we may educate our subjects into a capacity for better government; that, having become instructed in European knowledge, they may, in some future age, demand European institutions. Whether such a day will ever come I know not. But never will I attempt to avert or to retard it. Whenever it comes, it will be the proudest day in English history. To have found a great people sunk in the lowest depths of slavery and superstition, to have so ruled them as to have made them desirous and capable of all the privileges of citizens, would indeed be a title to glory all our own.

“The sceptre may pass away from us. But there are triumphs which are followed by no reverse. There is an empire exempt from all natural causes of decay. Those triumphs are the pacific triumphs of reason over barbarism; that empire is the imperishable empire of our arts and our morals, our literature and our laws.

It was only as I read this that I realized that in all the history taught in school, this period of the empire was never covered – atleast as far as I can remember. Hastings and Clive – whom Macaulay condemns as corrupt – were covered in school history but Elphinstone and Munro – whom Macaulay calls spotless – were not. School history as it was taught jumps from Clive and Hastings in the 1770s to Dalhousie and the “First war of Independence” in the 1850s to the 1920s and beyond. And of course it is completely silent on what happened after 1947.

Independence? day

Another anniversary of India’s independence is approaching. And there are children on the streets, at traffic signals, selling paper flags to anyone who wants to celebrate the occasion. Wonder what they do on other days? They sell a lemon and two (or is it more?) chillies tied with a string to anyone who wants to ward off evil spirits. So what exactly are we supposed to celebrate? Independence? Whose independence? From whom? More than 60 years ago, thousands of people gave their lives to achieve political “independence”. What did they achieve? They replaced British rule with democracy. Some of the British rulers were doubtless oppressing a people willing to be oppressed. But others were rendering a service – the white man’s burden. After “independence”, India’s government was led by men of the second kind – British educated socialists who resented the white man’s burden because they wanted to make it their own. They were men with a “noble” purpose; to teach the uneducated masses how to live – by taking control over their lives. These men had “noble” dreams, but their dreams were not dreams of what they would do with their lives; they were dreams of what they would do with other people’s lives. That meant that no one else would be allowed to dream. This was supposed to be independence. Inevitably, this “independence” has produced the worst kind of dependence imaginable. The politician is dependent on the poor, the uneducated, the superstitious, the irresponsible and the incompetent for their votes. And it is in his interest to let them remain as they are. And these people are dependent on the politician for favors or promises of favors. This dependence is the essential and defining feature of the kind of unchecked democracy that India’s leaders established after independence. The modern intellectuals call this dependence “corruption”. But the manifestation of the essential nature of a system is not corruption. Unchecked democracy is corrupt to begin with.

There is no such thing as political independence. The concept of independence is properly restricted to the realm of a person’s mind. A man’s thoughts, wishes, desires can be independent – of the judgements of other people. Like all virtues independence applies to individuals, not to a collective. And like many other such concepts, this one too has been stolen by collectivists to disguise their true goals. What the Indian political leaders fought for was not independence – of any kind. What they fought for was sovereignty – the state of affairs when a country is governed by people of the same race, religion or culture that have historically occupied it. There is nothing particularly desirable about sovereignty as such. Some of the most oppressive places in the world to live in suffer from sovereignty. It does not matter whether a country is governed by natives or not. What matters is the system of government.

The proper socio-political goal is freedom, not some meaningless independence or a tyrannical sovereignty. Freedom to believe and express one’s ideas – without being censored by the government or by thugs (M.F. Hussain); freedom to marry the person of one’s choice – without being murdered by one’s family or community (honor killings); freedom to develop a technology and market it – without having to buy the rights to do so (3g auction); freedom to buy land and use it for any purpose – without having to rely on the government (Tata Nano); freedom to contract with people on mutually agreeable terms – without being tied by labor laws; freedom to spend one’s money as one chooses – without having it confiscated for subsidies and hand-outs; freedom to run a school – without having to declare it as a non-profit; freedom to start a political party – without having to swear by socialism…

When will India become free? I am not holding my breath (remember the lemon and chillies?). And I am not going to celebrate “independence” day either.

Secularism, Enlightenment and India

A colleague sent me this link to an article in The Hindu and asked for my thoughts. From the article

For a long time it was held that a close link existed between the modernisation of society and the secularisation of the population. Consequently, it was argued that the influence of religion declined in post-enlightenment society. This assumption, Professor Habermas suggests, was based on three considerations. First, the progress in science and technology made causal explanation possible and more importantly, for a scientifically enlightened mind it was difficult to reconcile with theocentric and metaphysical worldviews. Secondly, the churches and other religious organisations lost their control over law, politics, public welfare, education and science. Finally, the economic transformation led to higher levels of welfare and greater social security. The impact of these developments, it is argued, has led to the decline of the relevance and influence of religion.
…the view that “the secularist certainty that religion will disappear worldwide in the course of modernisation is losing ground.” It is not only that this expectation has not been realised, religion has emerged as a powerful influence in the public sphere all over the world. This is particularly so in India.

The existence of the public sphere [in Europe] was contingent upon the access of all citizens to, and protection of individual rights by, the rule of law. In essence, the character of the public sphere as it evolved in Europe in the 18th century was secular and democratic.

Unlike in Europe the public sphere in India was not the product of a free bourgeois society; it took shape within the political, social and economic parameters set by the colonial government.
(Emphasis mine)

The article concludes with

Retrieving the secular character of the public sphere is therefore imperative; otherwise its religious character is likely to impinge upon the functions of the state.

The article with its implied positive evaluation of enlightenment ideas and recognition of their relevance to the issue of secularism is very much welcome in an age where enlightenment ideas have almost been forgotten. But it itself suffers from an incomplete understanding of all the implications of these ideas. Protection of individual rights by the rule of law is not compatible with democracy (atleast as we might understand it from concrete examples today). Democracy is about placing the control of human affairs in the public sphere. Individual rights are about limiting the control of human affairs to the actual individuals involved, primarily by the recognition of private property. (This might seem unrelated to the issue of secularism and the influence of religion, but bear with me for a while.) This uneasy relationship between democracy and individual rights (note the difference in character between the French revolution which was essentially democratic and the American revolution which instituted a government for the purpose of protecting individual rights) persists to this day and has been the apparant cause of the failure of enlightenment ideas to have as large and lasting an influence as might have been expected. But that is not all. It is worth noting that pre-enlightenment Europe was neither democratic nor did it have any conception of individual rights. How did both ideas emerge out of the same intellectual change?

I am no historian – or even a good student of history – but it seems to me that the enlightenment thinkers never really rejected religion in all its implications. Religion offers more than an explanation of the world. It offers moral principles. The progress in science that made causal explanations possible led people to abandon the role of religion in understanding the world. Note that this progress has been lasting. Even the church today accepts that religion is not a guide to understanding the world. But there was no equivalent progress in moral theory that would lead people to abandon the role of religion in evaluating the world and guiding human action. The enlightenment brought about political, scientific and industrial revolutions. It did not result in any moral revolution. The moral base of religion – altruism – was not challenged at all. On the contrary, it led some intellectuals to believe that morality is mostly irrelevant to progress. For example, the character of Enjolras in Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables – the leader of an uprising, and in my reading, a mirror to Hugo’s own ideas – believed (if memory serves me right) that progress would be automatic and inevitable provided that people had access to (scientific) education. This was naive. Morality is indispensable to human existence.

It seems to me that enlightenment ideas split into two distinct streams. One stream could be characterized by the French revolution, militantly anti-religious and with an emphasis on democracy, equality and social justice. This stream secularized altruism without changing any of its fundamentals. It substituted God by society and the church and the king by the state. The other stream could be characterized by the American revolution, ambivalent to religion and with an emphasis on liberty and self-evident inalienable individual rights endowed by a creator. But a complex concept like individual rights cannot be self-evident. By not grounding individual rights in reason, this stream was left without a moral foundation independent of religion. The overtly-secular, altruist, democratic stream failed. It took Europe through several dictatorships, wars and misery. The liberal, pro individual rights but more religious stream succeeded. It allowed America to enjoy more than a century of uinterrupted peace and prosperity (except for the civil war that abolished slavery). But, over time, through lack of an explicit moral foundation, the American stream itself split into the modern secular Europe inspired liberals (an insult to the original classical sense of the term) and the religious conservatives seeking to conserve the political system of liberty with an incompatible base of altruist Christianity.

Note that no stream ever rejected altruism and it was the secular democratic, left-leaning intellectuals who upheld it most consistently. Now the case of India. Indian political leaders educated in Europe brought back the European ideas and attempted to foist them upon a servile, religious people. Worse, in attempting to fight colonialism, they absorbed Marxist ideas from Russia. Needless to say, they failed miserably, discrediting secularism in the process. As Gurcharan Das’s wrote in the article that I criticized in my last post, “Part of the reason that the sensible idea of secularism is having so much difficulty finding a home in India is that the most vocal and intellectual advocates of secularism were once Marxists”. Marxism – the most consistent political implication of altruism, is only for educated idiots. The uneducated “masses” – that Marx had such a disdain for – never have and never will accept it. But the association of secularism with Marxism does indeed make the spread of secularism difficult.

Anyone concerned with the increasing role of religion in public affairs in general and political affairs in particular should be looking to discover/establish a morality based on reason. Until such a morality becomes culturally dominant, it will be impossible to eliminate the role of religion. But that is not something the secularists in India understand. For a concrete example, consider the expose of the Khap Panchayat system in Today’s Times. Read it here, here, here and here. From the last link,

Daryal Singh, one of Tikait’s retainers, adds that “shameless people (lovers) deserve to die.’’ He gives graphic accounts of lovers being “hanged, tortured or nailed to death”. But Singh stands alone in providing the only real explanation for what sustains this medieval system: bad governance. “The government has failed to provide basic necessities. It’s impossible for people to survive without the samaj. They can’t challenge it,’’ he says.

It would be difficult to mis-diagnose the problem worse. Even the villagers are more intelligent than that. They know that they are following a moral code. Providing basic necessities is not going to change their moral code. And what basic necessities anyway? From another article in the links

There are pucca houses, cobbled streets, wellfed cattle, neat schools and sprawling green fields. It’s easy to be impressed by the colleges and professional institutes that dot the area. But Sanghi, like most villages in this prosperous belt, has dark secrets to keep. Here, rape is casual, murder-by-pesticide of teenage daughters acceptable and it is routine to dispose of their bodies by burning them in cattlecarts.

Defeat the morality and religion – with all its mindless rituals and superstitions – will go away. But without challenging the morality and in the lack of any alternative (socialist ideology is not an alternative), religion will continue to grow in influence.

The climate is changing

The climate is changing (via The New Clarion). And the change is certainly induced by humans. (I couldn’t resist the pun but it is not funny at all)

A couple of weeks ago I talked to the director of marketing for a leading private aviation company, which offers fractional jet ownership, pre-paid membership packages of private jet flight, and concierge-organized private jet travel. In her 15+ years in the industry, she said, she’d never encountered as many people who would not buy and travel in this manner because they were afraid of being seen and judged harshly. Many even feared having their companies singled out for reprisal by the government. She said, “I’m doing business in a climate of fear, almost clandestinely, as if engaged in espionage rather than commerce.” She too asked not to be identified.

Normally I would not have linked to an article that mentions no names. But I just read this (also via The New Clarion).

Forced abortions. Mass sterilization. A “Planetary Regime” with the power of life and death over American citizens.

These ideas (among many other equally horrifying recommendations) were put forth by John Holdren, whom Barack Obama has recently appointed Director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, Assistant to the President for Science and Technology, and Co-Chair of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology — informally known as the United States’ Science Czar. In a book Holdren co-authored in 1977, the man now firmly in control of science policy in this country wrote that:
• Women could be forced to abort their pregnancies, whether they wanted to or not;
• The population at large could be sterilized by infertility drugs intentionally put into the nation’s drinking water or in food;
• Single mothers and teen mothers should have their babies seized from them against their will and given away to other couples to raise;
• People who “contribute to social deterioration” (i.e. undesirables) “can be required by law to exercise reproductive responsibility” — in other words, be compelled to have abortions or be sterilized.
• A transnational “Planetary Regime” should assume control of the global economy and also dictate the most intimate details of Americans’ lives — using an armed international police force.

What is most remarkable about Holdren’s views is that they are totally unencumbered by any sense of morality.

Adding a sterilant to drinking water or staple foods is a suggestion that seems to horrify people more than most proposals for involuntary fertility control. Indeed, this would pose some very difficult political, legal, and social questions, to say nothing of the technical problems.
(Emphasis mine. Note that there is no mention of moral questions)

The man is a monster. He is in power and he has merely substituted overpopulation with climate change. Worse, the president who appointed him was elected with a comfortable majority. It has come to this. Can the situation still be reversed peacefully? I doubt it.

Update:

Here is an illuminating comment on the Holdren piece

It is way too late for forced sterilization and abortions! There have been mass dieoffs of our species before we are on the brink of one again. One way or another there will be far fewer of us by the end of this century. It blows my mind that youall mostly seem to think that we have a right to dominate this planet at the expence of all other life forms. Have a nice day.

Democracy and anarchism

Aristotle The Geek has written a partial response to the debate on my previous post. He writes

What is an “unfree” market? Let me ask the question the other way round – what is a “free” market? It is a market in which the State does not interfere (the only “interference” would be of the enforcement of contracts kind). Political/ economic freedom is always defined in terms of the State, not in terms of non-State actors. The latter don’t lay any claim to morality when they engage in fraud, theft, murder, confinement etc. It is the State which does that. So, an “unfree” market would be one with State interference.

At this point I would ask “What is the State?” Ayn Rand defines government (which I will use interchangeably with State) as
A government is an institution that holds the exclusive power to enforce certain rules of social conduct in a given geographical area. (emphasis in original)

I will modify it to make one aspect of it more explicit
A government is an institution whose exclusive power to enforce certain rules of social conduct in a given geographical area is generally accepted.

Compare that to a modern democracy. Modern democracies are characterized by the lack of acceptance of any fundamental rule for social conduct. Any rule or law (no matter how fundamental) passed by a legislature may be repealed, completely modified or contradicted in its next session. Read this very illuminating article about how Oliver Wendell Holmes’ dissent in a famous case has served to create a legal orthodoxy that believes that the American constitution does not contain any fundamental principle. In a modern democracy, there is no inviolate fundamental principle that the state or its members are bound by. This means that the modern state lacks an identity. The state is a collective and the identity of a collective is determined by the identity of its constituents. But the modern democratic state is highly disparate. The only thing that is generally accepted is that there are no fixed rules.

The state in a modern democracy is an ever-changing group of men who enforce certain ever-changing rules of social conduct in a given geographical area.

This is about as close to anarchism as I think (and hope) we will ever get. Anarcho-capitalists such as Rothbard (based on some quotes by ATG) write of competing (while also cooperating with each other) private defence agencies. If these competing-yet-cooperating private agencies bind themselves by fundamental principles and refuse to allow other private agencies that do not accept those principles, then they together form an entity which is remarkably similar to a state. If they do not bind themselves by any fundamental principles but still cooperate among themselves, then they are remarkably similar to a modern democracy – a disparate set of power wielders that manages to avoid open warfare.

The only difference between anarchism and modern democracy is the issue of the size of government. But the size of the government is an inessential characteristic. What is essential is the principles that make up its identity. Modern democracies are constantly increasing the size of government and at the same time destroying its identity. But no entity can last long without an identity, especially large ones. A large government devoid of any fundamental identity is just waiting for some autocratic group to seize it (something that seems to be beginning in the U.S.). Anarchists want to do away with government altogether. But that is something that can never happen. Anarchy must degenerate into smaller states (waiting to be conquered by a more powerful state intent on conquest) or into a democracy for the reasons in the paragraph above.

If you make x private…

T.R. asks a question that begins with “If you make education private”

The question should be the other way round, “if you make education <i>public</i>…”
Education is just a service rendered by some people (teachers, school administrators) for others (students). Like any other service, it has to be paid for in some form. The default is (should be) for the service beneficiaries to pay the service providers. The default is <i>not</i> to have a service public. My point is that you are starting from a socialist framework (where everything is public). But that is not a natural framework to start with. A framework (when it is explicitly created by interactions of men) needs justification. Your question already assumes that there is some justification to have education be public.
You should start from the natural state of affairs, where education like other services is a private service. Now ask “Should this service be made public?” Immediately several questions arise: How is this service (education) different in principle from other services? What sort of differences require a service to be public? Who decides what these differences are? What happens in the case of a disagreement? Note that none of these questions arise when the service is private. Individuals make all the decisions themselves, with no physical force being used.

Suppose, for the moment, that you find the answers to these questions. Several other questions now arise. What constitutes a proper education? Should mathematics be a part of this education? Should astrology be a part of this education? Should religious teachings be a part of this education? What sort of clothing is acceptable for students (or teachers)? What costs are acceptable? What compensation is acceptable for the service providers? Should parents who do not accept the public answers to these questions be allowed to teach their own children? Should they then still be taxed? Note that I am not making up any of these questions. They are all actual issues that have come up at one time or the other. There have been petitions claiming that maths should be optional. There has been a court case regarding the inclusion of astrology. The issue of teaching creationism (or intelligent design) keeps coming up in the U.S. There are court cases in places like France, U.K and Turkey about scarves, turbans and burkhas. There are teachers unions in some places in India. I remember reading about a teachers association in the U.S. that does a lot of lobbying in the government. There is an active homeschooling movement in the U.S. I remember there was a proposition about tax credits for homeschooling parents (I don’t know if it was passed). Again, note that none of these questions arise when the service is private. If a parent does not like a particular school, he can choose another one or maybe not choose any school at all.

Once you think it through, it is obvious that any answers (no matter what political process is used to arrive at it) to these questions will involve the initiation of physical force against individuals. You might argue that I am mixing up examples from the U.S. (a developed country) and India (a developing country). That India needs public education (even if it involves some force) if it is to develop. Note that (in its somewhat credible form) this is a variant of the benevolent dictator arguement (For the democratic form, look at today’s frontpage of The Times of India). The problem with that arguement is it ignores man’s nature and the conditions required for progress. Why is India a developing country (despite decades of public education) while the U.S. achieved near universal literacy with mostly private schools (according to this article in Wikipedia – “The school system remained largely private and unorganized until the 1840s. In fact, the first national census conducted in 1840 indicated that near-universal (about 97%) literacy among the white population had been achieved.”)? The benevolent dictator arguement mixes up causes and effects. Freedom is the cause, progress (of which education is an indicator) is the effect (look at the history of Europe for example). The two cannot be interchanged. India will remain a “developing” country until people realize the value of freedom. Just compare the results of 60 years of public education and 20 years of limited economic freedom. Which of the two have caused progress?

Terrorism and democracy

If The Times of India is to be believed, the mood of the public after the latest terrorist attack is different – it is one of outrage and anger.

…this was one outrage which finally snapped the endurance and infinite generosity of India. In the past, every assault on Mumbai — where, at times, the death toll was higher — had produced a flicker of anger, followed by an astonishing display of fatalism…
The mood is different this week; it is palpably angry…

So a country of men who look to the state to solve their personal problems is outraged that the government they have elected has failed to solve its problems? A country of men who cannot take personal responsibility in social and economic matters is outraged that their government has failed to take collective responsibility in political matters? A country of men which believes in a political system that grants voting rights to men who perpetrate honor killings and communal riots is outraged that their government lacks the moral courage to take appropriate measures?

Jug Suraiya writes

This is why 26/11 is tantamount to a blood-drenched referendum on India: which of the two Indias the world’s largest and most irrepressible democracy, or the world’s most corrupt and cynical mobocracy will emerge from the ordeal?…
It’s referendum time for India. Are we going to remain weak and vulnerable to repeated assault because of our inner divisiveness? Or are we going to beat the bastards, are we going to triumph over terror by surviving it, not on its dehumanising terms but on our own terms of a proudly free society and a strong and cohesive democracy impervious and unsusceptible to the exploitative politics of caste, creed and ethnic division? It’s time to choose.

Indeed it is time to choose. But what are the two choices that Suraiya is writing about. I see only one choice there. Suraiya is calling for a strong, free and cohesive democracy. Sounds good, except for the fact that the meaning of these words will be decided by a vote. And among the voters will be the men who perpetrate and condone honor killings, who kill their new-born daughters, who participate in riots, who indulge in violent strikes and hold cities to ransom. And manipulating these voters and ruling over them will be the men who are best able to play ruthless games of power. And cheering them on and waxing eloquent will be fools like Suraiya who believe that there is some magic in a democratic vote that turns vice into virtue. No, we will not achieve either freedom or security by going down this path. The path of democracy is what we have been following all this while. And this is where it has brought us. Care to see where it will take us next? We will have stronger laws and more teams of trained commandos. And when the next terrorist strike happens, these commandos will be busy raiding a party of teenagers high on drugs or settling some political score in a country that will have turned into a police state.

What is the alternative? It is to develop the moral courage to assert that political principles are not open to a vote, to assert that the right is a matter of fact and not of consensus, to reject a system of government that allows the least scrupulous to grab the most power, to develop a sense of personal responsibility for our problems, to value our lives and freedom enough to reject any interference.

So long as we do not value our own lives and allow our freedom to be chipped away in small pieces – by laws that ban smoking and make helmets mandatory – and large ones – by laws that enforce reservations, ban the setting up of educational institutes for profit, ban people from selling their property on their own terms – we have no cause to be outraged that the government does not value our lives either.

It is time to choose – freedom, responsibility and security or democracy, corruption, paternalism and terrorism. And if we make the wrong choice we will find that the rejection of all principles in a democratic free-for-all does not magically turn into sound politics. The last century saw the collapse of socialist governments under the weight of their flawed principles. Democracies do not have that risk – they have no weight to collapse under. But that will not prevent them from being blown away under the onslaught of Islamic terrorism which does have an ideology, believes in it and is committed to do whatever it takes to establish it.

Book Review: The Future of Freedom

Summary

Fareed Zakaria’s book “The Future of Freedom – Illiberal Democracy at Home & Abroad” is a critique of democracy. Zakaria notes that democracy is not the same thing as constitutional liberty. He notes that democracy is a process of selecting governments whereas constitutional liberalism is about selecting government’s goals and refers to the Western tradition of seeking to protect an individual’s autonomy and dignity against coercion. Drawing examples from history and from around the world, he argues that societies that had liberal institutions, the rule of law and protection of property rights were able to turn into liberal democracies, whereas in societies that did not have such institutions, democracy allowed tyrants, demagogues, dictators and autocrats to cement their power. He argues that the presence of the church as an independent authority from the state helped in preventing concentration of power and allowed liberal institutions to develop. Similarly he argues that the political strength of the landed aristocracy in England was good for liberty as it helped to institutionalize property rights and kept the monarchy weak, while the political strength of the state in France was bad for liberty as it kept society dependent on the state.

Zakaria picks several examples of countries around the world that tried to democratize too early – before developing the necessary social institutions, or before becoming sufficently wealthy – and failed. He also notes that the wealth necessary for a liberal democracy must be earned wealth and not the wealth obtained from taxing a canal or exporting oil.

Regarding the Middle East, Zakaria denies that there is anything specific about Islam that makes its followers more susceptible to authoritarian rule. He also rejects the idea that Islamic terrorism has anything to do with poverty in the Muslim world. He notes that until the 1940s and 1950s, Arab countries seemed to be doing better than several other newly democratizing ones. Instead he blames the total failure of politics in the Arab region for the rise of radical Islam. He writes that with no free press and no political parties, mosques became the place to discuss politics, and the language of opposition became the language of religion. He also notes that the Arab states have allowed free reign to the most extreme clerics to give themselves legitimacy.

Regarding the American political system, Zakaria writes that since the 1960s all of America’s political institutions have democratized. He cites several examples – the selection of candidates by primaries instead of party decisions, the campaign finance laws that made candidates dependent on fundraisers, the expanded number of sub-committees, the changing of rules to allow unlimited number of bills, the open committee meetings and recorded votes and the system of referendums and initiatives. He describes how all these changes have opened up politics to the influence of special interest groups and lobbyists and how democracy has defeated itself with all its institutions being controlled not by a majority but by a variety of highly motivated minorities and special interest groups.

Zakaria goes on to describe the deep changes that democratization has caused even outside politics. He describes how religious figures like Billy Graham and Jerry Falwell have toned down religion to make it appeal to the masses. Zakaria writes that in general, members of professions such as law, medicine and accounting were public spirited individuals who operated on high standards and these standards have deteriorated with time. He blames this on the changes made to make these industries more open and competitive such as the decision to allow lawyers to advertise and to allow accountants to charge contingency fees. He writes that the internet frenzy destroyed the separation between the bankers and the researchers in the banking and brokerage industries, opening up conflicts of interest and perverse incentives. He writes that the central shift underlying these changes is the role of the elites. He writes that while elites in the earlier days saw themselves as elites and recognized their responsibilities, today’s elites are a bunch of smart college graduates, who are not conscious of their elite status and thus enjoy power without exercising responsibility. He writes how a school such as Groton which once emphasized character over achievement in its students now focuses only on achievement. He describes how in the movie “Titanic”, the first class passengers are shown to scramble into the small number of lifeboats, whereas in the actual accounts of survivors, the “women and children first” convention was observed almost without exception among the upper classes. He writes “The movie-makers altered the story for good reason: no one would believe it today.”

In his concluding chapter Zakaria writes that the 20th century was marked by the regulation of capitalism and the deregulation of democracy and that both experiments overreached. He writes that whenever a problem arose, the solution was more democracy and more regulations. He writes that the way out of the problems is to delegate democracy to mostly autonomous entities, that are limited by democracy but shielded from political pressures. He writes that the institutions and attitudes that preserved liberal democratic capitalism, built up over centuries are being destroyed in decades and if these trends continue, democracy will face a crisis of legitimacy. He finishes with “Eighty years ago, Woodrow Wilson took America into the twentieth century with a challenge to make the world safe for democracy. As we enter the twenty-first century, our task is to make democracy safe for the world.”

Comments

Zakaria’s critique is very welcome today in an age where democracy is often seen as unquestionably good and historically inevitable. The numerous examples he draws clearly show that it is neither. His description of the state of American politics and the role of democracy in causing it is well presented with concrete examples. He makes a number of good points in this book. And yet, there is something missing in his analysis. There are atleast three distinct phenomena that he refers to as democratization – the way people select their government and the increased amount of power that elected representatives have, the way people make economic decisions and the increased importance these decisions have in shaping the economy, and the shift from “high culture” to “popular culture”. While these phenomena are certainly related, they should not be lumped together under a single concept, especially considering that the purpose of the book is to examine the problems with democracy. It is only the first phenomenon that can accurately be called democratization. Including the other two phenomena under the same concept makes the concept useless for analytical purposes – something that Zakaria himself warns about at the start of the book.

Consider these phenomena in more detail.

Political democracy:
All over the world, government powers and policies are increasingly being determined by popular opinion (or atleast what is seen as popular opinion). Politics is increasingly seen as a struggle for inclusion and representation and not as a means to achieve a proper social organization. The focus is increasingly on ‘who gets to make decisions‘ and not on ‘what decisions are made and whether they are legitimate‘. In the absence or weakening of any limits on political power, government necessarily become corrupt, illiberal and dysfuncional. Special interest groups take over such a system and dominate all policy making. This is a problem inherent in democracy and Zakaria does well to illustrate this.

Economic changes (“consumerism”): 
In the last few decades the bargaining power that “consumers” enjoy has risen steadily. We have come a long way from Henry Ford’s times (“You can have any color as long as it’s black”). This is a result of technological progress and has almost nothing to do with democracy. The only connection it has with (political) democracy is that it makes democracy more dangerous and its ill effects more catastrophic. It is impossible for people today to know about the workings of the global economy in any sort of detail. Which makes it impossible for the government (whether democratic or not) to control or regulate the economy effectively. Zakaria does not discuss these issues much and incorrectly labels this phenomenon as part of a process of democratization.

Rise of popular culture and the decline of values:
In the last few decades, high culture has declined and popular culture has risen. Zakaria uses a quote by Seabrook to describe this process “The old cultural arbiters, whose job was to decide what was ‘good’ in the sense of ‘valuable’ were being replaced by a new type of arbiter, whose skill was to define ‘good’ in terms of ‘popular’…” This decline of high culture goes hand in hand with a general decline in values – people no longer have rigid standards for judging behavior, the word ‘judgemental’ has become a perjorative and a good number of people would assert that there are no objective values. Zakaria does a good job of describing the symptoms of this trend. However he does not even attempt to examine its causes. But without an understanding of these causes, there is no way to reverse the ill-effects of democracy. Consider Zakaria’s proposed solution – the creation of autonomous regulatory bodies such as the US Federal Reserve (which he considers a success and seems to hold in high esteem). Today we see that the Federal Reserve has not been able to prevent a catastrophe and there is strong evidence to suggest that the catastrophe was in fact its own creation.

It is clear from the book that Zakaria is troubled by the general decline of values and that he respects the older value system, atleast in a general sense. He writes

It is easy to mock the Anglo-American elite, with its striking air of high-minded paternalism, born of a cultural sense of superiority. But it also embodied certain values – fair play, decency, liberty, and a Protestant sense of mission – that helped set standards for society…When powerful people acknowledge that there are certain standards for behavior, they limit their own power, however indirectly, and signal to society, “This is what we strive for.”

and a couple of pages earlier describing the decline of the elite status of the WASPs (White Anglo-Saxon Protestants)

As America became more diverse, open, and inclusive over the twentieth century, the WASP establishment faced a dilemna: it could maintain its power and refuse to allow new entrants into its sanctuaries, or it could open up to the new rising non-WASP members of society…But in the end the WASPs opened the doors to their club… Therein lay the seeds of the establishment’s own destruction… The WASPs made this move partly because they were pushed, but also because they knew it was the right thing to do. Confronted with a choice between their privilege and their values, they chose the latter.

If this description is correct, there is a paradox. The elite chose their values over privilege and yet this choice helped in the decline of their values. This paradox is at the heart of all of man’s problems. It has plagued people throughout the ages. The way out of this paradox is a code of ethics that is geared to man’s life, here on earth, by which the moral is also the practical and which when practised results in both material and spiritual reward – the code of rational egoism.

The complete expression of the constitutional liberal democracy that Zakaria wants to protect is a system of capitalism and it can only be protected with an explicit moral base. Although Zakaria presents a quite insightful analysis of the workings of democracy and its problems, he does not discuss the foundations of politics at all, and without it, his book is incomplete.

Note: This post can also be found on desicritics.org with an independent comments section.

In Defense of the Status Quo

While India’s parliamentarians were busy brokering power deals, managing defections and alliances, arranging, accepting and reporting bribes supposedly over the nuclear deal, The Times of India was busy defending the status quo with articles like this and this.

From the first article (titled “For India’s Future”)

“…a superficial look at news headlines conveys the impression that the vote is all about the loaves and fishes of office, a numbers game, where not much is at stake…
…Let’s not be fooled. This is a time for sober reflection. The trust vote is not just about the survival or fall of a government. It is about the future direction of India…
…Those are the issues at stake in tomorrow’s trust vote. Let parliamentarians now choose which way India should go.

And from the second (titled “It’s Messy, But It Works”)

“…It was indeed a new low in the history of Indian democracy…
…Over the better part of two days, the best speakers from major political parties held forth with varying degrees of eloquence on the Indo-US nuclear deal and its consequences for the country…
…And the best part was that there was a mad scramble for seats in the visitors’ gallery to hear speeches.
That is precisely what Parliament is supposed to do – debate issues of national importance before voters…
…This is not a pretty picture. But we must not make the mistake of judging Indian democracy and Parliament only by its low points…
…Indian democracy can often be exasperating and messy…For all its chaos, Indian democracy and its institutions have served us reasonably well.

Yes, in spite of the tamasha in Parliament that you all saw last evening.”

Most people look at what is going on and worry about what the country and its institutions are coming to. But those who bear the responsibility of analyzing current events and forming the basis of educated opinion tell us that not much is wrong with our political institutions, that we should contain our outrage, that we should be happy we are not a banana republic, that our institutions are serving us reasonably well, and above all that we must not judge these events as a failure of democracy.

But the events we see today are inevitable in a system that places majority opinion over rights. When people realize that they can succeed only by being in the majority, they will try to manufacture a majority by whatever means they can. A system that prevents people from achieving their ends by fair means, encourages them to resort to foul means. A democracy is an embodiment of the principle “Might makes right”. Is it any wonder that rogues succeed at it? We must realize that these failures are inherent in a democracy, that the role of government is to subordinate might to right, that the right is not a matter of consensus and that the only way to achieve the right is to leave men free to follow their judgement. Our national motto is “Satyameva Jayate” (Truth alone triumphs). We need to realize that truth triumphs only when it is left free.

%d bloggers like this: