Liberty and/or Democracy?
Below is an Exchange of Correspondence on Comments about Liberty and Democracy, which may interest readers who do not follow exchanges on the Blog comments contributions. I refer to the numerous comments that followed my post last Friday: “Hayek and Liberty”.
I write from an Adam Smith perspective. He never had a vote under the existing franchise in 18-century Scotland; he never showed his allegiance to either of the two existing political parties operating in the governance of Britain, Whig or Tory, and he gave advice to both of them when they were in office (at their request). His writings on the long struggle for Liberty are best seen in his “Lectures on Jurisprudence” [1762-63], which are summarised in my book: “Adam Smith: a moral philosopher and his political economy (Palgrave Macmillan, 2ND edition, 2010), from which I take my stance that Liberty is more important than democracy, though I prefer both when they operate together, and I consider governance without Liberty a fig-leaf to tyrants who adopt “democratic” forms.
“Why the Worst Get on Top”. That is the title of one of Hayek's books, as mention above. An appropriate title for the day considering that tomorrow is the 40th anniversary of "Watergate". That dastardly deed was perpetrated by some of the worst that got to the top.
I completely agree. It was also an utterly futile exercise in power mania. Nixon had the votes for a sweeping victory but just couldn't resist to illegally use executive power to bug the office of the busted flush of the Democratic Party. That is why Liberty is more important than democracy or any other alternative to it (most of them worse, I must say).
The irony or question is how can you maintain liberty without democracy
It appears the worst have stayed on top. Watergate seems trivial compared to now (warrantless wiretaps, indefinite detention, 30,000 spy drones, etc.) the only difference is back then people seemed to care about the law unlike now our investigative media is almost non existant and people just banter back and forth oblivious to real issues, (at least that’s the way it seems for me) A great tribute to Hayek and his insights into political science.
I have not space to make the full case for Liberty being more important than democracy, but the road to Liberty, as enshrined in the history of England, was one of gradual adoption of the instruments of Liberty from Magna Carta (a small step to shackling the power of Kings: judgement by peers, and later Habeas Corpus (ending arbitrary arrest), the King sharing governance with parliaments of peers and commoners, later, after Cromwell, parliament deciding on legislation of money bills, trial by Jury, Judges appointed for life and good behaviour, no standing armies (annual money bills through parliament), and later still, freedom of speech and assembly. Many countries have 'democracy', without Liberty, too numerous to list. Only justice can maintain liberty.
SM Yes, little has changed. The perpetrators of illegal wiretaps were a minority. The anti-liberty people generally are a minority; no more numerous, I suspect than previously. Both ends of the political spectrum have their practitioners of the 'dark arts'. We know more about the problem and ideas people - like Hayek and Smith - set out the alternative morality. Pessimism is the default mode of Libertarianism.
I thought the Magna Carta was the start of democracy, not just liberty. Liberty seems to be for some, whereas democracy is for all. I guess, though, if you are going to have democracy for all some are going to think they have lost their liberty. Justice, if meant as the rule of law, does maintain liberty. But it also maintains democracy.
Of course most would agree that democracy with a justice system is better than liberty without democracy. The problem is that democracy without liberty is prevalent throughout the world, followed by governance without either mode; which was once the predominant form of governance across all human societies throughout history and pre-history. Liberty, or rather steps towards liberty, were the first crucial steps towards democracy (hence , Magna Carta in recent history), but democracy was itself a long process, not a single event. Universal suffrage only arrived in Britain in the 20th century, through various steps, not all at once (franchise restricted to property qualifications; they had the money the King wanted to access; gradual lowering of property qualifications to enfranchise more male payers; then all adult males (only whites in the US, until late 19th century - in practice until 1960s); spread of franchise to adult women. So the outcome is not a free choice. The process is complicated. Hence, I support the clear benefits of liberty over the easy pretence of democracy as used by tyrannical leaders across the world (Zimbabwe, North Korea, Cuba, China, Syria, and the rest).
"Hence, I support the clear benefits of liberty over the easy pretence of democracy as used by tyrannical leaders across the world (Zimbabwe, North Korea, Cuba, China, Syria, and the rest)." I am sorry but you are confused. Those countries you listed have nothing to do with democracy. Democracy is not just about casting a vote, if that is what you mean. It is about a system that honors and protects your vote. It is also cultural and a way of life that gives us, without making a big deal about it, choices, freedoms, mobility and, yes, liberty. We don't think about it. Democracy is also about a built-in separation of powers. Those countries you listed have no separation of powers and therefore no democracy and certainly no liberty.
What you are describing is democracy supported by liberty, which, of course, is the optimal centre of demoractic parties, moral philosophers, left-of-centre democratic parties, social democratic parties, and such like who participate in democratic processes in societies where Liberty is practised. Openly tyrannical regimes dispense with both, but some tyrannical regimes try to clothe their tyranny with the trappings of democracy, including election results with 98% majorities, making oppositions illegal, censorship, etc.. You try to restrict the definition of democracy to the democracy in liberty (the optimum combination), while excluding those behaviours that you (and I) disapprove of. We should approach these issues as social philosophers, not with prejudices about what is or is not democracy. Hence, I argue: Liberty is more important than democracy. You cannot dispute the nature of Liberty, as defined, among others by Adam Smith. Where Liberty exists - the rule of law - democracy can flourish; without Liberty it most likely does not.
Conservative love the idea of liberty. For them " liberty also implies that government won't stand in the way of individuals gaining as much economic power as they can as long as it doesn't involve criminal behavior." What is criminal behavior? Under the definition of liberty it's probably not a landlord being able to over charge tenets for rent in a building that is in disrepair, or discriminating against people because he doesn't like them. If a landlord - he thinks, couldn't do those things it would infringe on his liberty. After all, it is his building. Democracy is what brings justice to the situation, limiting the liberty of landlords so that they don't abuse their position and run roughshod over the less empowered. In essence democracy empowers the less liberated. Democracy is a governing system. Liberty is not.
We are closer to an understanding of the relationship between Liberty and Democracy. Liberty is the central principle of justice and its protective role in the rights of individuals. It preceded democracy as we understand it from the late 19th century to its entrenchment from the by mid-20th century in some (few) countries. Both Liberty and Democracy were preceded by many millennia of history and all pre-history by tyranny in its many varied forms. You seem hooked on the idea that democracy, which has wide range of alternative forms, is an antidote to tyranny, because it brings justice to the "situation". Liberty is the rule of law, applicable to all. Your examples of 'landlords' and the 'less empowered' miss the point. Liberty is not unbridled freedom. It is freedom under the law, enforced by justice. No owner of a building can do whatever she likes (commit murder, store flammable chemicals, radiation sources, hold slaves, commit offenses against children or a spouse, plot the violent overthrow of the government, and so on). If the law infringes other people's rights, then it can be changed. Democracy is a process not a one off event.
Gradually the rights of the Barons against arbitrary rule by the King were extended to other prominent groups, and eventually to all citizens a few hundred years later in some countries. Parliament, Congress, or National Assemblies can pass laws to rectify unjust laws that no longer serve their purpose. That is a role for democracy under Liberty. The law struck Nixon down, eventually.
"Democracy is a governing system", so is the rule of law under Liberty. The Founders of the US understood that principle of governance. So did the British parliament, eventually. In my view, given the unfinished process of democracy in most human societies, Liberty is more important than democracy because it is Liberty that initiates what followed and guaranteed the rule of law that empowered the individual against injustice. That you have concerns about some current power imbalances in your society is your right. These can be changed should you persuade others, while recognising that others can persuade competitively against your proposals in due democratic processes, under the protection of Liberty for all of you.