Lars Seier Christensen, co-founder & CEO of Denmark’s Saxo Bank A/S, looks on at the destruction of Cyprus’s economy by the Euro Zone bailout and begins sounding like Tocqueville.
There are very few limits to what you can do to people in the modern interpretation of democracy. A version where only majority rule is required, but where there is no longer a respect for personal negative rights – as we know them from the American Constitution.
The easiest target will always be wealthy people, or even just working people and savers who did the right thing all their lives. As the bloated welfare states begin to collapse under their irresponsible promises, their crumbling value systems and their unsustainable demographics, it will be easy to convince more than 50 percent of voters that confiscating and stealing other people’s money is OK for the greater good. Boston Consulting Group calculated that 28 percent of ALL private wealth is needed to meet just existing debts – not future obligations , mind you – and the money can only come from one place… Your pockets. Beware.
A lot of things have gone wrong over the past few years, but the seeds were planted many years ago. In the form of pressure for more people having the “right” to own their properties, even if they did not fulfill the traditional mortgage criteria – hence subprime. In the form of enormous “entitlements” to not just poor, but also middle-class people in the welfare states – hence ballooning deficits and debt. In the form of a Euro, a grand, political project with no practical foundation – hence crisis after crisis, with the dominoes stretching far into the distance.
The United States has precisely the Liberal political tradition of well-established and legally-recognized Natural Rights protecting property, but we also have Barack Obama and a radical democrat majority in the US Senate sharing views identical to those of European Union socialists and caring absolutely nothing for the American Liberal political tradition, which they neither respect nor understand.
The election of Islamic Party municipal councilors in several towns in Belgian is provoking controversy, as the newly elected officials do not bother to conceal their intentions to use democratic means to overthrow democracy and turn Belgium into an Islamic state operating on the basis of Sharia law.
Beyond a certain point of negative understanding, of course, it is better for someone not to vote.
Joseph C. McMurray discusses the Marquis de Condorcet’s mathematical analysis favoring decision-making by larger numbers of people.
An interesting, if somewhat uncommon, lens through which to view politics is that of mathematics. One of the strongest arguments ever made in favor of democracy, for example, was in 1785 by the political philosopher-mathematician, Nicolas de Condorcet. Because different people possess different pieces of information about an issue, he reasoned, they predict different outcomes from the same policy proposals, and will thus favor different policies, even when they actually share a common goal. Ultimately, however, if the future were perfectly known, some of these predictions would prove more accurate than others. From a present vantage point, then, each voter has some probability of actually favoring an inferior policy. Individually, this probability may be rather high, but collective decisions draw information from large numbers of sources, mistaking mistakes less likely.
To clarify Condorcet’s argument, note that an individual who knows nothing can identify the more effective of two policies with 50% probability; if she knows a lot about an issue, her odds are higher. For the sake of argument, suppose that a citizen correctly identifies the better alternative 51% of the time. On any given issue, then, many will erroneously support the inferior policy, but (assuming that voters form opinions independently, in a statistical sense) a 51% majority will favor whichever policy is actually superior. More formally, the probability of a collective mistake approaches zero as the number of voters grows large.
Condorcet’s mathematical analysis assumes that voters’ opinions are equally reliable, but in reality, expertise varies widely on any issue, which raises the question of who should be voting? One conventional view is that everyone should participate; in fact, this has a mathematical justification, since in Condorcet’s model, collective errors become less likely as the number of voters increases. On the other hand, another common view is that citizens with only limited information should abstain, leaving a decision to those who know the most about the issue. Ultimately, the question must be settled mathematically: assuming that different citizens have different probabilities of correctly identifying good policies, what configuration of voter participation maximizes the probability of making the right collective decision?
It turns out that, when voters differ in expertise, it is not optimal for all to vote, even when each citizen’s private accuracy exceeds 50%. In other words, a citizen with only limited expertise on an issue can best serve the electorate by ignoring her own opinion and abstaining, in deference to those who know more. ...
This raises a new question, however, which is who should continue voting: if the least informed citizens all abstain, then a moderately informed citizen now becomes the least informed voter; should she abstain, as well?
Mathematically, it turns out that for any distribution of expertise, there is a threshold above which citizens should continue voting, no matter how large the electorate grows. A citizen right at this threshold is less knowledgeable than other voters, but nevertheless improves the collective electoral decision by bolstering the number of votes. The formula that derives this threshold is of limited practical use, since voter accuracies cannot readily be measured, but simple example distributions demonstrate that voting may well be optimal for a sizeable majority of the electorate.
The dual message that poorly informed votes reduce the quality of electoral decisions, but that moderately informed votes can improve even the decisions made even by more expert peers, may leave an individual feeling conflicted as to whether she should express her tentative opinions, or abstain in deference to those with better expertise. Assuming that her peers vote and abstain optimally, it may be useful to first predict voter turnout, and then participate (or not) accordingly: when half the electorate votes, it should be the better-informed half; when voter turnout is 75%, all but the least-informed quartile should participate. ...
If Condorcet’s basic premise is right, an uninformed citizen’s highest contribution may actually be to abstain from voting, trusting her peers to make decisions on her behalf. At the same time, voters with only limited expertise can rest assured that a single, moderately-informed vote can improve upon the decision made by a large number of experts. One might say that this is the true essence of democracy.
His conclusion seems to accord with observed results. Ordinary people are surprisingly well able to correct the follies and delusions which too commonly afflict the experts and elites, but there are also people so clueless that they are always going to vote wrong.
Vladislav Inozemtsev, in the American Interest, argues that democracy has gotten far too democratic, and that over-extended democracy is inevitably going to prove to be democracy’s own worst enemy. He’s perfectly right.
It was therefore no coincidence that democracy developed in national contexts defined by, as noted already, a demos comfortable in its social skin. It is even the case, to take an obviously unsettling example, that American democracy might not have developed as it did had it not been for slavery and acute racial prejudice. Only by separating out of the democratic process those considered at the time not to be a part of the demos could American democracy unfold. That is the other side, so to speak, of the Jacksonian-era expansion of the franchise. ...
[E]ven universal secondary education can no longer reliably produce a responsible citizen. Liberal democracy born in the Republic of Letters has to survive in the Empire of Television, where information flows in one direction and need not involve direct response. The civic dialogue that was once the very foundation of democratic decision-making has become a one-way process of convincing voters. The political dialogue of liberal democracies is not just degraded, as is widely acknowledged; it is qualitatively different.
Moreover, as the capacity of citizens to grasp policy issues has eroded from one side, the percentage of citizens expected to grasp them has risen from the other. In Western countries today there is far more inequality within electorates than ever, simply because, as was not the case during the 19th century, everyone above age 18 can vote. ...
Democracy was the optimal form of government when voters were capable of making rational choices through an understanding of what was at stake, when they were ready to bear the responsibility for the consequences of their choices, and when the right to vote was understood to be a privilege, or the result of a struggle still remembered. Nowadays it is difficult to shake the impression that democratic societies are rapidly turning into ochlocracies, where the vast majority of citizens, seeing their rights as given and their responsibilities not at all, are easily addled by propaganda, distracted by spectacle and either unable or unwilling to invest the time and energy required to be a responsible democratic actor.
Mark Anthony Signorelli turns his review of Mark Steyn’s After America: Get Ready for Armageddon into an essay supplementary to Steyn’s book, arguing the author’s view of cause and effect can be improved by reading a much earlier (1930) attack on the same forces of dissolution by the Spanish philosopher Ortega y Gasset.
Throughout his book, Steyn catalogues the demoralizing effects of unlimited government upon the American citizenry. No one can ignore the power of the case he presents. But as much as government overreach erodes the character of a people, the debased character of a people manifests itself in arbitrary government. Bad institutions make bad people, but bad people also make bad institutions. Our ugly politics is every bit a reflection of our cultural failings as are our worthless schools. Steyn is not unaware of these facts; one of the passages I found most compelling in his book was when he argues that the truly horrifying thing about the rise of Obama was the fact that the majority of the American people had been duped by such an evident buffoon. Our folly created his administration, and all of its works. So Steyn clearly understands the way a people’s faults can manifest themselves in inept government. Still, the obvious emphasis of his book is on the causal relationship which runs opposite, on the way that inept government debases the character of a people. I think that emphasis is misplaced; I think the effects of a people’s character on the character of their government are more fundamental, more decisive to their happiness, and more subject to reform than the effects which flow from a corrupted government upon the citizenry. Or, to put the point in a different way, I believe that culture is far more consequential for the maintenance of a well-ordered community than politics. Steyn himself advises that, “changing the culture is more important than changing the politics,” but since the emphasis of his book is on the way that bad politics has changed our culture for the worse, he actually seems to undermine this bit of advice.
The book that most effectively delineates the ruinous social mechanisms of liberal democracy is The Revolt of the Masses, by the early twentieth-century philosopher Jose Ortega y Gasset. For Ortega, modern western society was marked by the rise to power of the “mass-man,” the unqualified or uncultivated man, who, lacking all necessary intellectual and moral training in the duties of civic life, had nonetheless asserted his immutable right to impose his own mediocrity of spirit upon society: “The characteristic of the hour is that the commonplace mind, knowing itself to be commonplace, has the assurance to proclaim the rights of the commonplace and to impose them wherever it will.” The mass-man is not bound by any traditions or maxims of prudence; he cares only about having his own way in the world. And when he is taught (as all modern political theory teaches him) that the state is a manifestation of his own will, he freely grants it an unlimited scope of action, just as he (theoretically) grants himself a perfect freedom of action: “This is the gravest danger that today threatens civilization: State intervention, the absorption of all spontaneous social effort by the State…when the mass suffers any ill-fortune, or simply feels some strong appetite, its great temptation is that permanent, sure possibility of obtaining everything – merely by touching a button and setting the mighty machine in motion.” The consequences of this trend are catastrophic:
The result of this tendency will be fatal. Spontaneous social action will be broken up over and over again by State intervention; no new seed will be able to fructify. Society will have to live for the State, man for the governmental machine. And as, after all, it is only a machine whose existence and maintenance depend on the vital supports around it, the State, after sucking out the very marrow of society, will be left bloodless, a skeleton, dead with that rusty death of machinery, more gruesome than the death of a living organism.
Exactly as Steyn describes it in his book, some eighty years later. But what Ortega makes us see is that “big government” results from the prior moral corruption of the people, in particular from their unbounded self-love and self-assurance. It destroys them in the end, but at the first, it was their creature.
Historian Bernard Lewis discusses the causes of unrest in the Middle East and is pessimistic about long-term prospects for democracy. His take on all this makes quite a contrast with the kind of naive optimism we read in conventional news sources in the West.
The Arab masses certainly want change. And they want improvement. But when you say do they want democracy, that’s a more difficult question to answer. What does “democracy” mean? It’s a word that’s used with very different meanings, even in different parts of the Western world. And it’s a political concept that has no history, no record whatever in the Arab, Islamic world.
In the West, we tend to get excessively concerned with elections, regarding the holding of elections as the purest expression of democracy, as the climax of the process of democratization. Well, the second may be true – the climax of the process. But the process can be a long and difficult one. Consider, for example, that democracy was fairly new in Germany in the inter-war period and Hitler came to power in a free and fair election.
We, in the Western world particularly, tend to think of democracy in our own terms – that’s natural and normal – to mean periodic elections in our style. But I think it’s a great mistake to try and think of the Middle East in those terms and that can only lead to disastrous results, as you’ve already seen in various places. They are simply not ready for free and fair elections.
One of the most moving experiences of my life was in the year 1950, most of which I spent in Turkey. That was the time when the Turkish government held a free and genuinely fair election – the election of 1950 – in which that government was defeated, and even more remarkably the government then quietly and decently withdrew from power and handed over power to the victorious opposition.
What followed I can only describe as catastrophic. Adnan Menderes, the leader of the party which won the election, which came to power by their success in the election, soon made it perfectly clear that he had no intention whatever of leaving by the same route by which he had come, that he regarded this as a change of regime, and that he had no respect at all for the electoral process.
And people in Turkey began to realize this. I remember vividly sitting one day in the faculty lounge at the school of political sciences in Ankara. This would have been after several years of the Menderes regime. We were sitting in the faculty lounge with some of the professors discussing the history of different political institutions and forms. And one of them suddenly said, to everyone’s astonishment, “Well, the father of democracy in Turkey is Adnan Menderes.”
The others looked around in bewilderment. They said, “Adnan Menderes, the father of Turkish democracy? What do you mean?” Well, said this professor, “he raped the mother of democracy.” It sounds much better in Turkish…
This happened again and again and again. You win an election because an election is forced on the country. But it is seen as a one-way street. Most of the countries in the region are not yet ready for elections. ...
I can imagine a situation in which the Muslim Brotherhood and other organizations of the same kind obtain control of much of the Arab world. It’s not impossible. I wouldn’t say it’s likely, but it’s not unlikely.
And if that happens, they would gradually sink back into medieval squalor.
Remember that according to their own statistics, the total exports of the entire Arab world other than fossil fuels amount to less than those of Finland, one small European country. Sooner or later the oil age will come to an end. Oil will be either exhausted or superseded as a source of energy and then they have virtually nothing. In that case it’s easy to imagine a situation in which Africa north of the Sahara becomes not unlike Africa south of the Sahara. ...
There’s a common theme of anger and resentment. And the anger and resentment are universal and well-grounded. They come from a number of things. First of all, there’s the obvious one – the greater awareness that they have, thanks to modern media and modern communications, of the difference between their situation and the situation in other parts of the world. I mean, being abjectly poor is bad enough. But when everybody else around you is pretty far from abjectly poor, then it becomes pretty intolerable.
Another thing is the sexual aspect of it. One has to remember that in the Muslim world, casual sex, Western-style, doesn’t exist. If a young man wants sex, there are only two possibilities – marriage and the brothel. You have these vast numbers of young men growing up without the money, either for the brothel or the brideprice, with raging sexual desire. On the one hand, it can lead to the suicide bomber, who is attracted by the virgins of paradise – the only ones available to him. On the other hand, sheer frustration. ...
There was a little Arab boy whose arm was broken by an Israeli policeman during a demonstration and he appeared the next day on Israeli television with a bandage on his arm, denouncing Israeli brutality. I was in Amman at the time, watching this. And sitting next to me was an Iraqi, who had fled Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, and he looked at this with his jaw dropping and he said, “I would gladly let Saddam Hussein break both my arms and both my legs if he would let me talk like that on Iraqi television.” ...
The sort of authoritarian, even dictatorial regimes, that rule most of the countries in the modern Islamic Middle East, are a modern creation. They are a result of modernization. The pre-modern regimes were much more open, much more tolerant. You can see this from a number of contemporary descriptions. And the memory of that is still living.
It was a British naval officer called Slade who put it very well. He was comparing the old order with the new order, created by modernization. He said that “in the old order, the nobility lived on their estates. In the new order, the state is the estate of the new nobility.” I think that puts it admirably. ...
In the Western world, we talk all the time about freedom. In the Islamic world, freedom is not a political term. It’s a legal term: Freedom as opposed to slavery. This was a society in which slavery was an accepted institution existing all over the Muslim world. You were free if you were not a slave. It was entirely a legal and social term, with no political connotation whatsoever. You can see in the ongoing debate in Arabic and other languages the puzzlement with which the use of the term freedom was first perceived.
They just didn’t understand it. I mean, what does this have to do with politics or government? Eventually, they got the message. But it’s still alien to them.
Online reviews are currently scarce, but Anthony Baird did a decent job on Amazon.
Kenneth Minogue has brilliantly deconstructed the way that modern democracies have assumed for themselves the moral judgements that individuals once decided for themselves. Take obesity. Getting fat is surely one of the ultimate personal decisions, but no, it is apparently a `health’ issue now, and is properly the concern of the whole of society. This is because the populace has surrendered to the State the obligation to take care of the nation’s health, and since obesity is a major factor in the expense that the health provider must pay, the state now requires us all to be slim. Successfully elected politicians praise the electorate for their good sense in electing them to office, and then privately despair at the non “politically correct” views held by those same voters on the matters of multiculturalism, capital punishment or sex.
With the State taking over more and more of the obligations that private citizens used to consider were their own concern, (and levying high rates of tax to fund them), then this leaves those same citizens free to spend the rest of their incomes on personal pleasures, secure in the knowledge that their education, health and pensions are taken care of. While all this sounds like some Utopia, it is actually more of a “Brave New World”.
The folks at Maggie Farm and I tend very frequently to think alike. I was amused to find the New Junkie had slightly preceded me today in noticing the same book.
Neil Reynolds comments on the financial collapse of the European welfare state.
Democracies produced Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy, fulfilling the expectation of Socrates and Machiavelli that democracies end in tyranny. Now democracies are fulfilling the complementary expectation of Nobel laureate economist Milton Friedman that democracies end in bankruptcy. Put a democracy in charge of the Sahara, Mr. Friedman once said, and sand itself will become scarce. Democracies are indeed profligate trustees – or have been for the past 30 or 40 years. Mr. Friedman’s primary fret, though, was the tendency of democracy to centralize political and economic power in the same hands. Most critiques of democracy reflect this elemental distrust. “Democracy is two wolves and a lamb,” Benjamin Franklin reputedly said, “voting on what to have for lunch.”
Kenneth Minogue has a very important essay on the propensity of the modern democratic state to invade and to attempt to control regions of behavior and thought previously regarded as personal and private.
[W]hile democracy means a government accountable to the electorate, our rulers now make us accountable to them. Most Western governments hate me smoking, or eating the wrong kind of food, or hunting foxes, or drinking too much, and these are merely the surface disapprovals, the ones that provoke legislation or public campaigns. We also borrow too much money for our personal pleasures, and many of us are very bad parents. Ministers of state have been known to instruct us in elementary matters, such as the importance of reading stories to our children. Again, many of us have unsound views about people of other races, cultures, or religions, and the distribution of our friends does not always correspond, as governments think that it ought, to the cultural diversity of our society. We must face up to the grim fact that the rulers we elect are losing patience with us. ...
Our rulers, then, increasingly deliberate on our behalf, and decide for us what is the right thing to do. The philosopher Socrates argued that the most important activity of a human being was reflecting on how one ought to live. Most people are not philosophers, but they cannot avoid encountering moral issues. The evident problem with democracy today is that the state is pre-empting—or “crowding out,” as the economists say—our moral judgments. Nor does the state limit itself to mere principle. It instructs us on highly specific activities, ranging from health provision to sexual practices. Yet decisions about how we live are what we mean by “freedom,” and freedom is incompatible with a moralizing state. That is why I am provoked to ask the question: can the moral life survive democracy?
Evgeny Morozov challenges conventional wisdom on the efficacy of the Internet as a tool for democratizing dictatorships.
Morozov questions the significance of what he calls “iPod Liberalism,” and argues that the “Spinternet” and the use of the Net for “authoritarian deliberation” actually significantly aid authoritarian regimes.
A small Latin American country actually stands up to imminent dictatorship. Its Supreme Court defends the country’s Constitution and its Army enforces the law, removing from office the president who was in the process of overthrowing the Constitution and making himself into a dictator.
Splendid! Democracy and the rule of law triumphs for once in Latin America. But, how does the US Government in the Age of Obama respond?
Barack Obama joins Fidel Castro, Hugo Chavez, and Daniel Ortega in condemning the removal of the criminal from office. Evidently, democracy for Mr. Obama is a one-way street. Democracy is inviolable with respect to the election of Marxists (like himself), but once in office any winner of a democratic election on the left is perfectly free to declare that the game is over, he will now govern by decree, and no further real elections are required. In future, the democratically-elected Marxist administration will count all the votes, Chicago-style, aided by organized supporters (like ACORN) who will intimidate opponents and register hosts of imaginary voters and the deceased while driving busloads of winos and welfare scum from precinct to precinct to cast ballots early and often. That’s real democracy in action.
U.S. President Barack Obama said on Monday the coup that ousted Honduran President Manuel Zelaya was illegal and would set a “terrible precedent” of transition by military force unless it was reversed.
“We believe that the coup was not legal and that President Zelaya remains the president of Honduras, the democratically elected president there,” Obama told reporters after an Oval Office meeting with Colombian President Alvaro Uribe.
Zelaya, in office since 2006, was overthrown in a dawn coup on Sunday after he angered the judiciary, Congress and the army by seeking constitutional changes that would allow presidents to seek re-election beyond a four-year term.
The Honduran Congress named an interim president, Roberto Micheletti, and the country’s Supreme Court said it had ordered the army to remove Zelaya. ...
Obama said he would work with the Organization of American States and other international institutions to restore Zelaya to power and “see if we can resolve this in a peaceful way.”
Personally, I think the Honduran army made one serious mistake. They exiled the dictator, instead of hailing him before a military tribunal and executing him. Now he will be playing political games from abroad, seeking foreign intervention to restore him to power.
And who knows? Some Marxist regime, Cuba, Venezuela, or the United States, might intervene and return him forcibly to power.
Michael Gerson, in the Washington Post, tells conservatives why Americans should be willing to fight for other peoples’ freedom.
In the backlash against President Bush’s democracy agenda, conservatives are increasingly taking the lead. It is inherently difficult for liberals to argue against the expansion of social and political liberalism in oppressive parts of the world—though, in a fever of Bush hatred, they try their best. It is easier for traditional conservatives to be skeptical of this grand project, given their history of opposing all grand projects of radical change.
Traditional conservatism has taught the priority of culture—that societies are organic rather than mechanical and that attempts to change them through politics are like grafting machinery onto a flower. In this view, pushing for hasty reform is likely to upset some hidden balance and undermine the best of intentions. Wisdom is found in deference to tradition, not in bending the world to fit some religious or philosophic abstraction, even one as noble as the Declaration of Independence.
A conservatism that warns against utopianism and calls for cultural sensitivity is useful. When it begins to question the importance or existence of moral ideals in politics and foreign policy, it is far less attractive.
At the most basic level, the democracy agenda is not abstract at all. It is a determination to defend dissidents rotting in airless prisons, and people awaiting execution for adultery or homosexuality, and religious prisoners kept in shipping containers in the desert, and men and women abused and tortured in reeducation camps. It demands activism against sexual slavery, against honor killings, against genital mutilation and against the execution of children, out of the admittedly philosophic conviction that human beings are created in God’s image and should not be oppressed or mutilated.
And the democracy agenda goes a step further. It argues that the most basic human rights will remain insecure as long as they are a gift or concession of the state—that natural rights must ultimately be protected by self-government. And this ideology asserts that most people in all places, even the poor and oppressed, are capable of controlling their own affairs and determining their own rulers. If this abstract argument seems familiar, it should, because it is the argument of the American founding.
The Washington Post notes that the president’s failure to gain control of the federal bureaucracy has paralysed the implementation of his intended policies, and left him in the frustrated role of outsider critic of the government he theoretically heads.
By the time he arrived in Prague in June for a democracy conference, President Bush was frustrated. He had committed his presidency to working toward the goal of “ending tyranny in our world,” yet the march of freedom seemed stalled. Just as aggravating was the sense that his own government was not committed to his vision.
As he sat down with opposition leaders from authoritarian societies around the world, he gave voice to his exasperation. “You’re not the only dissident,” Bush told Saad Eddin Ibrahim, a leader in the resistance to Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. “I too am a dissident in Washington…”
In his speech that day, Bush vowed to order U.S. ambassadors in unfree nations to meet with dissidents and boasted that he had created a fund to help embattled human rights defenders. But the State Department did not send out the cable directing ambassadors to sit down with dissidents until two months later. And to this day, not a nickel has been transferred to the fund he touted.
Two and a half years after Bush pledged in his second inaugural address to spread democracy around the world, the grand project has bogged down in a bureaucratic and geopolitical morass, in the view of many activists, officials and even White House aides. Many in his administration never bought into the idea, and some undermined it…
“It’s our policy,” the official said.
“What do you mean?” the bureaucrat asked.
“Read the president’s speech,” the official said.
“Policy is not what the president says in speeches,” the bureaucrat replied. “Policy is what emerges from interagency meetings.” ...
Still, after an invigorating start in 2005, progress has been harder to find. Among those worried about the project is (Natan) Sharansky, whose book (The Case For Democracy) so inspired Bush. “I give him an A for bringing the idea and maybe a C for implementation,” said Sharansky, now chairman of the Adelson Institute for Strategic Studies at the Shalem Center in Israel. “There is a gap between what he says and what the State Department does,” and he is not consistent enough.
The challenge Bush faced, Sharansky added, was to bring Washington together behind his goal.
“It didn’t happen,” he said. “And that’s the real tragedy.”