Monday, June 18, 2012

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.

airth10 said...
“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.

 Gavin Kennedy said...
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).

 airth10 said...
The irony or question is how can you maintain liberty without democracy

SM said...
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.

 Gavin Kennedy said...
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.

 Gavin Kennedy said...
 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.

 airth10 said...
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.

 Gavin Kennedy said...
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).

 airth10 said
"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.

 Gavin Kennedy said...
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.

 airth10 said...
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.

Gavin Kennedy said...
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.


Blogger airth10 said...

It is interesting what this has morphed into, a posting of its own, on liberty and/or democracy.

It is not about liberty or democracy, or liberty vs democracy. It is about liberty and democracy, not about who is on top and who is not. The successful governances of the world have been about both, like in the yin yang of human governance. Together they constitute the DNA of the modern world. Francis Fukuyama presented this combination as 'liberal democracy' in his book "The End of History" .

Modern human governance must address two constantly competing and legitimate masters, the individual and society. It therefore has to have two branches of governance that address the needs and aspirations of both - liberty for the individual and democracy for society. Over the years these opposing interests have learned to work as a tag team and in tandem for the benefit of the whole. Neither can survive without the other, like the human body can't survive on a single strand of DNA. They both, in competition and cooperation, live, gain and revitalize each other.

Having both competing branches bundled together is the way to go, to keep tyranny at bay. If a human governance is developed just on a single one, tyranny is inevitable, like a lot of the world experienced under communism.

8:48 pm  
Blogger Gavin Kennedy said...

Where we differ, if we do, is on your non-historical version of the events that led from absolute tyranny up to the significant medieval change brought about what may have appeared to be a mere concession by a ruling English monarch to some of his dissatisfied Barons in a time of need in what he considered a crisis, culminating in the Magna Carta Libertartum iglaterra signed by King John in 1215 at Runnymeade, by the River Thames in Surrey. After which his unruly Barons relaxed their threats and in return for meeting their demands they renewed their oaths of loyalty to him a few days later. The gist of what King John signed re-appears in the US Constitution and the Bill of Rights. That is how important that event was for the future course of Liberty over the next few centuries, though it still is not applied across the world.

Be clear: Liberty preceded Democracy by centuries, and I would go so far as to say that nowhere adopted democracy (in the sense that we both recognise it) before Magna Carta. That is why I suggested that historically Liberty is more important than Democracy.

We agree (I think) that Liberty and Democracy are not about ‘top dogs. Nor, (I would suggest), are these two entities “opposing interests”, that happen to be “bundled together” in some (too few) places. They are both historical processes that may in certain circumstance come together but in many others remain stubbornly absent, where not non-existant. But the adoption of elements of Liberty has always been previous to Democracy, usually in the form of curbs to the exercise of the society’s default status of tyrannical power. Liberty and Democracy are evolving processes, not finished events. Liberty formed over many centuries and was theorized about long after it appeared (aspects of theories of Natural Liberty in Greek philosophy, articulated in detail in the Works of Grotius and Pufendorf in the 17th -18th centuries, and adopted by Adam Smith in his Works, many others since.

PS: I have found Francis Fukuyama interesting but not as an authoritative source of history, past, or current, nor, especially, his predictions of the future.

2:13 pm  
Blogger airth10 said...

I'm not arguing that liberty didn't precede democracy. In fact democracy grew out of liberty. But the way it seems to have unfold is that even though liberty was first it wasn't enough to produce the open society the world was in need of, hence the emergence of democracy to facilitate that process.

Democracy pried open the libertarian ideals that were stifling the development of a more open and robust society. In essence democracy threw open the doors of the 'club' and helped spread the liberty that so many could not attain on their own or were denied.

Kant, long before real democracies existed, got the idea that democracies wouldn't go to war with each other. And as it appears today, he was right. It hasn't been liberty that has prevented nations from going to war with each other. It has been democracy. In fact, it was the denial or the lack of liberty that drove nations to war in the past.

The 'rule of law' has been associated more with liberty than democracy. I am thinking of The Supreme Court of the United States who in 1954 ruled that segregation was unconstitutional. But there were a number of libertarian jurisdictions that ignored that law. Cultural intransigencies also made that law difficult to implement and make universal. However, in the end it took the democratic process to help facilitate and insure that law became the law of the land, through legislation and affirmative action. Some liberties were lost but on the whole the the US is a more open and just society.

4:51 pm  
Blogger airth10 said...

I just re-read what the Spanish economist Ortega y Gasset remarked about liberty and democracy: "The English revolution is a clear example of liberalism. The French, of democracy".

The writer of the article in the journal The Independent Review, Randall Holcombe, added: "In contrast, the goal of the American Revolution was liberty and the Founding Fathers explicitly sought to avoid creating a democracy in the sense of government directed by the preferences of the general public. Once the new government had been created, however, somebody had to run it and it was designed so that those in charge of its operations would be selected through the democratic process. In the centuries since the Constitution was adopted, the federal government had become increasingly accountable to the pressure of citizens."

Today America is a tussle between liberty and democracy. That is where it gets its energy and vitality.

11:31 am  
Blogger Dummyfixer said...

In the purest form Democracy is merely legitimate mob rule.
Liberty is vital for the free exercise any sort of self determination.

6:49 pm  
Blogger airth10 said...

From the book "The Science of Liberty" by Timothy Ferris: "Democracy has always been less popular than liberalism - if liberalism is a gift, democracy is the rattletrap truck that delivers it ."

"Why does democracy work so well? Social scientist are beginning to glimpse part of the answer, in what is known as the wisdom of the crowds."

2:03 pm  
Blogger Gavin Kennedy said...

Churchill is reputed to have said that democracy is the least worse of all of its alternatives.

He had a point. However, he also didn't say which form of democracy; there is a stark contrast between parliamentary/congressional democracy and Zimbabwe democracy.

The wisdom of crowds ideas is not mediated through a persuasion process dominated by lobbyists, money, or intermediaries.


4:41 pm  
Blogger airth10 said...


I just wondering what makes you think Zimbabwe has a democracy. It certainly doesn't have the institutions, the liberties and the separation of powers that are the hallmarks of Democracy.

No doubt Churchill was referring to the democracy he was partaking in, that of the United Kingdom.

5:00 pm  

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