Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Liberty More Important than Democracy

Samuel Gregg writes in Witherspoon Institute Blog, (Public Discourse, Ethics, Law and the Common Good) HERE

Samuel Gregg is Research Director at the Acton Institute. He authored On Ordered Liberty and The Commercial Society. His Wilhelm Röpke’s Political Economy, will be published in early 2010.

Reflecting upon the expression political economy might not be a bad place to start for those interested in rethinking economics’ foundations in a post-crisis era. In Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations, the term acquires three meanings.

The first is the commonly accepted positive sense of political economy as the scientific study of “the nature and causes of the wealth of nations.” More broadly, however, Smith’s political economy also embraces the study of the interrelationship between economic theory and the political ideas and movements of a given time. Lastly, there is the sense in which Smith understood political economy in terms of what we today call economic policy: “a branch of the science of the statesman or legislator” whose objective was “more properly to enable [people] to provide such a revenue or subsistence for themselves; and . . . to supply the state or commonwealth with a revenue sufficient to the public services.”

On one level, the Wealth of Nations does involve abstract analysis of economic life. Smith carefully dissects the claims of prevailing economic thought, presents a fresh theory about how wealth is created, and elaborates on what should be done in policy-terms if wealth creation and society’s overall material enrichment are deemed desirable. But in doing so Smith also attempts to develop a powerful normative argument for an economy based around private property, free competition, and limited government over and against the mercantilist systems that dominated eighteenth-century Europe.

As the economic historian Emma Rothschild reminds us, Smith sees economic liberty as something to be approved and pursued partly because of its capacity to liberate people from many forms of oppression. For Smith, the move from mercantilist to market economies was not only a matter of following the promptings of scientific economic reasoning focused on wealth-creation. Smith also regards market economies as superior to previous economic arrangements on grounds of the greater efficiency and liberty they accorded to ever-widening numbers of people to seek human fulfillment.

Unfortunately, with some notable exceptions, this Smithian conception of political economy did not persist after Smith’s death in 1790. By John Stuart Mill’s time, political economy was being defined as studying the behavior of homo economicus, a creature whose nature is far removed from that of the more complex, not-always rational being found in Smith’s writings. From here, it was only a short step towards the reduction of much economics to a branch of applied mathematics, however valiantly this trend has been resisted by the Austrian and Public Choice schools

I find myself in broad agreement with this part of Samuel Gregg’s analysis and I commend his approach to you. I would add that I think liberty in Smith’s terms is more important than democracy as represented by mere elections which may be held regularly but are often, across the world, well short of being open, transparent, and an accurate reflection of the free choices of independent electors ( see Iran recently, as an example).

Liberty expressed by free speech, an independent judiciary, trial by jury, Habeas Corpus, rights of assembly, policing as a service - not a force of the politics of the government, and personal rights codified in law, is rare enough (as it has always been), and when its lack is covered up by farcical elections it is a disappointment for optimists for the human condition and a comfort for cynics and oppressors.



Blogger Donald Pretari said...

"however valiantly this trend has been resisted by the Austrian and Public Choice schools"

I don't see the Austrian School as practicing Political Economy as Smith and Burke did. For both of them, it involved a heavy emphasis on pragmatism and practicality. The Austrian School appears to me to be an ideology and program far removed from practical politics in the US. I can understand someone feeling that such an approach is better than practical political economy, but I don't see Smith or Burke agreeing with such an approach.

I would also add Bagehot, Irving Fisher,Keynes, and the Chicago School of the 1930s as practitioners of Political Economy. Milton Friedman had a similar approach, which he described as the difference between utopia and the real world. However, he made it clear that he considered dealing in the real world important, and he did so.

Don the libertarian Democrat

6:44 pm  
Blogger Richard Ebeling said...

We should remember that liberty refers to the range and limits in which an individual is free to act in any manner he chooses, as long as he does not infringe upon the equal liberty of another.

Democracy refers to the a method by which those who will hold political office are to be selected (through periodic elections, and usually by some majoritarian rule) and for how long (their term in office).

But by itself democracy does not specify what the role, duties and limits of State conduct will be.

This requires something beyond the idea of peaceful election of those who old political office. That is, it requires a political philosophy of what and who have "rights" and what may or may not be done in guaranteeing of those right by the political authority.

9:39 am  
Blogger Gavin Kennedy said...


Democracy may, and is faked, by totalitarian regimes that deny liberty to their citizens.

Liberty cannot be faked easily, and it can be eroded too by governments.

North Korea, Zimbabwe, Iran, among others have the trappings of democracy ('through periodic elections, and usually by some majoritarian rule) and for how long (their term in office)') and have few pretensions of liberty.

That is my point about Liberty being more important than democracy.


7:03 pm  
Blogger Unknown said...

liberty, as in freedom of the individual to act and do and believe as he or she deems fit for his or her own life is surely more important than democracy. But it is power that subjugates liberty, and in a capitalist society, money is power. In fact, the power held by some corporations is more than comparable to the power of the government. Note that the propaganda on television that some would call news is not directly from the government, but nevertheless works undeniably in favor of American power structure. In your comparison of liberty and democracy, you called our elections farcical. Totally accurate, but they are farcical because political power is traded like a commodity. Campaign contributions can be used as a scarily accurate predictor of policy, because politicians work for the special interests who give them their power. I think this is a pretty stark and relevant example of how the 'free' market works to destroy liberty.

2:44 am  

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