Russian emigre philosopher Georgy Fedotov (1888-1951) proposed two basic principles for all of the freedoms by which modern democracy lives. First, and most valuable, there are the freedoms of “conviction” — in speech, in print, and in organized social activity. These freedoms, Fedotov asserted, developed out of the freedom of faith. The other principle of freedom “defends the individual from the arbitrary will of the state (which is independent of questions of conscience and thought) — freedom from arbitrary arrest and punishment, from insult, plundering and coercion on the part of the organs of power … ”

In an ideal world, all of these freedoms would be present. But Fedotov also cautioned that “freedom is the late, refined flower of culture.”

For the flower to bloom, the roots need to be watered. A free society, from the ground up, requires a respect for the rule of law, a judiciary and police force that aren’t easily bought, a political culture that knows how to rid itself of corruption, and a vigorous free press to keep the pols and bureaucrats honest. I would also add a liberal measure of economic freedom and property rights that secure wealth from the “arbitrary” plunder of the government.

All of which gets us back to Russia. In an interview this week in the Financial Times, President-elect Dmitry Medvedev pledged to root out the “legal nihilism” that plagues his country. Excerpt:

[Medvedev's] starting point is his legal background – he is, he says, “perhaps too much of a lawyer”. Meticulous and precise, he sees almost every issue through the prism of legal thinking. But behind the occasionally laboured language lies a deeper goal. Mr Medvedev says he wants to do what no Russian leader has done before: embed the rule of law in Russian society.

“It is a monumental task,” he agrees, switching momentarily to English. “Russia is a country where people don’t like to observe the law. It is, as they say, a country of legal nihilism.”

The pledge to overcome “legal nihilism” became a central part of Mr Medvedev’s low-key election campaign. It seems a restatement of Mr Putin’s own promise eight years ago to establish a “dictatorship of laws”, although critics say Mr Putin delivered too much of the former and not enough of the latter. Even today, Russians quote the 19th-century satirist Mikhail Saltykov-Shchedrin’s aphorism that “the severity of Russian laws is alleviated by the lack of obligation to fulfill them”. The result is a society plagued by endemic corruption, arbitrary use of the law by the state against individuals or companies – and by companies against each other – and a judiciary that has never known genuine independence.

To paraphrase, all democracy is local. One of the strengths of the American democratic tradition is its intensely local nature. Most Americans’ experience with democracy happens when they vote for a judge, attend a school board meeting, or run afoul of the local traffic cop. If democracy doesn’t work at this level, it doesn’t work at all. As Medvedev pointed out to his interviewers: “When a citizen gives a bribe to the traffic police, it probably does not enter his head that he is committing a crime … People should think about this.”

But bribing a cop is a moral issue, just as much as it is, if not exactly a political crime, then a seemingly simple act of convenience. Morality cannot be legislated, but it can be taught and for this we need the Church and the family and those other neighborhood groups, charities, and small businesses, that act as civic training grounds and make up a healthy community. Edmund Burke called these “the little platoons” of society.
In a new article on faith and politics, Russian Patriarch Alexy II noted that “building a society or a government without God is doomed to failure. The history of the twentieth century testifies to this.” This is not a call for theocracy, caesaropapism, or imperial symphony. It is a spiritually pragmatic judgment that those who run a government — it is after all a human institution and not an abstraction — cannot function properly and serve the people without getting its bearings, its orientation, to the Truth. Does that sound terribly idealistic? If it seems so, just pay attention to what usually goes on in Washington. Or maybe even Detroit.

Patriarch Alexy raises the issue of faith as a force in political life. But it must not be used as a prop by politicians, nor should religious leaders be complicit in such a degradation:

The secularisation of political consciousness has had quite a negative impact on the relationship between politics and religion. The utilitarian approach to religion is dangerous for politicians. I would like to remind all those who would consider using or have already tried to use the ‘religious resource’ of a comment from the nineteenth-century Russian publicist and philosopher Yuri Samarin, who wrote: “Faith is not a stick, and in the hands of those who use it as a stick to defend themselves or frighten others, it crumbles into splinters.”

Once, after a sermon, representatives of various political trends went up to the priest to thank him for the support he bad shown. Pleasing anyone was the last thing he had had in mind! It is simply that the church has always talked of values close to every human being — love for one’s neighbour and one’s country, charity and justice, decency and responsibility.

Good luck to President-elect Medvedev. In light of the witness of Russian history he is, you might say, ambitious. Perhaps the words of James Madison, in the Federalist Papers, will give him heart:

But what is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself. A dependence on the people is, no doubt, the primary control on the government; but experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions.

Cross posted from The Observer.