Posts tagged with: democracy

A schoolhouse in New England from the 1830s.

According to a recent Pew Center report, “Record levels of bachelor’s degree attainment in 2012 are apparent for most basic demographic groups.” 33% of 25- to 29- year-olds are completing both high school and college. According to the report, this number is up from five years ago and at record levels for the United States in general. But what does it mean? Statistics like these are constantly being produced, but they are no good to us if we do not know how to interpret them. After attending the joint Acton/Liberty Fund conference this past weekend on Acton and Tocqueville, I have Tocqueville on the brain and wonder if, perhaps, he might have some insights that are still relevant today. (more…)

Peter Lawler, Dana Professor of Government at Berry College, has written a piece at Ethika Politika urging those upset by last week’s election results to be calm and take a deep breath. First, Lawler says we have to understand that there are small political parties and great ones.

Great parties are parties of high principle.  Their dominance on the political stage has the advantage of bringing great men into political life.  They have the disadvantage of rousing up animosity that readily leads to war.  So great parties make great men happy and most men miserable…

Democracies, however, hardly ever have great parties.  Most of the time our parties are coalitions of diverse interests and short on clear and divisive principle.  Politicians make petty appeals to ordinary selfishness, and people vote their interests.  The bad news is that great men are repulsed by the small stakes and contemptible motives of political life, and so they stay away from it.  The good news is that the outcomes of elections aren’t so important, and people aren’t roused up to take to the streets or grab their weapons.  The winning candidate and party is the one that most effectively builds a majority coalition of diverse interests, and the losing candidate and party end up acknowledging that, most of all, it got outhustled.

The problem, as Lawler sees it through Tocquevillian glasses, isn’t one party winning over another or one candidate leading by shining example. No, the problem is that America is now obsessed with individualism. We don’t care much any more what is best for all, but merely what is best for me. I want what I want, damn the consequences.

I think Tocqueville would conclude his observations by noticing what’s changed the most since the America he wrote about is the breakdown of the religious-based American consensus on the limits of self-obsessive individualism.  His America was all about chastity, marital fidelity, what’s best for children, and common moral duties.  This consensus has broken down, and the resulting devolution of marriage into a contractual entitlement devoid of real duties or even duration is the real cause of the growing acceptance of same-sex marriage.  The question posed by gays is roughly this:  Given how little marriage really means under the law these days, you have no right to exclude us from its benefits, which have become mainly symbolic.

Read “Tocquevillian Reflections on the Meaning of the Election” at Ethika Politika here.

Blog author: jballor
Friday, September 21, 2012
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Book Note: “As If God Existed”
Maurizio Viroli. As if God Existed: Religion and Liberty in the History of Italy. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2012.

Religion and liberty are often thought to be mutual enemies: if religion has a natural ally, it is authoritarianism–not republicanism or democracy. But in this book, Maurizio Viroli, a leading historian of republican political thought, challenges this conventional wisdom. He argues that political emancipation and the defense of political liberty have always required the self-sacrifice of people with religious sentiments and a religious devotion to liberty.

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This is a book review by Rev. Johannes L. Jacobse, president of the American Orthodox Institute. He blogs at AOI’s Observer. This review will appear in the forthcoming Spring 2012 Religion & Liberty. Sign up here for a free digital subscription to R&L.

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Roads to the Temple: Truth, Memory, Ideas, and Ideals in the Making of the Russian Revolution, 1987-1991. By Leon Aron (Yale University Press, June 2012). 496 pages

Review: The Second Russian Revolution (1987-1991)

Rev. Johannes L. Jacobse

“There are different ways to understand how revolutions work,” writes Leon Aron in his new book Roads to the Temple: Truth, Memory, Ideas, and the Ideals in the Making of the Russian Revolution, 1987-1991 that chronicles the collapse of Soviet Communism during Glasnost from 1987-1991. The most dominant is structuralism, an approach that draws from Marxist thought and sees the state as the central actor in social revolutions. In the structuralist view revolutions are not made, they happen.

Aron explains that structuralism has some merit because of its chronological linearity. It can reveal the events that lead from point A to B to C; an important function because the historian’s first step is to grasp what actually happened. But structuralism also has a grave flaw: the materialist assumptions (“objective factors”) informing it are deaf to the “enormously subversive influence of ideas.” (more…)

In the context of commentary on protests like those in Quebec and the Occupy movement more broadly, it’s worth reflecting on the dangers of democratic tyranny.

The “people” can be tyrannical just as an individual sovereign or an oligarchy might. That’s why Aristotle considered democracy a defective form of government, because it too easily enshrines the will of the majority into an insuperable law. As Lord Acton put it, “It is bad to be oppressed by a minority, but it is worse to be oppressed by a majority.” For this same reason Tocqueville worried about the tyrannical power of the will of the majority, once settled:

So, what is a majority taken as a collective whole, if not an individual with opinions and quite often interests, in opposition to another individual whom we call a minority? Now, if you admit that and all-powerful man can abuse his power against his opponents, why not admit the same thing for a majority? Have men, united together, changed their character? Have they become more patient of obstacles by becoming stronger?

Of course not. As Tocqueville goes on to observe, the self-righteous assurance of the majority makes their impatience even more striking. They will brook no dissent because of the assurance that they are correct and that the majority rules, as it ought to.

When the majority (99%) can simply decide to take what they decide they “deserve” from the minority (1%), you have the recipe then for deep injustice. What I don’t see, however, is any unified majority (yet). The student protesters in Quebec might have some sympathy, but whatever the political fallout will be, it is unlikely that the younger generation is going to be politically successful in their bid to protect their economic interests against the entrenched interests of the boomer generations. In part this is because as much as they might protest, or complain, or start Internet petitions, young people don’t vote and they don’t have powerful lobbying groups.

The dynamic is likely to be the same here in the US. As the share of federal spending is increasingly dominated by entitlements like Medicare and Social Security, you’ll end up having recipients of various entitlements fighting it out. And no matter how upset college students and recent graduates are, I don’t see their political interests holding more sway than say, the retired. The AARP will beat the student union six days a week and twice on Sunday.

We can see this dynamic playing out all over the world. As Bill Frezza writes (HT: The Transom) in the context of Greece and the EU crisis, “Democracy becomes a cancer if its powers are not limited. That is because a sustainable democracy requires not just votes, but also governing institutions that protect the rights of minorities against predatory majorities. The disease of voters voting themselves benefits at someone else’s expense has infected much of the world.”

He concludes, “Greece provides a stark example of what happens when a government runs out of other people’s money. If the rest of us don’t take heed while there is still time, we will all end up like you.” And if the Greek leftists have their way, it may not matter what the rest of the world does: “…if you want to send us to the bottom, we will take you to the bottom too.”

Blog author: jcouretas
Tuesday, November 22, 2011
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German Chancellor Angela Merkel is congratulated in late September after the German parliament ratified key reforms of the eurozone's bailout fund

At National Review Online, Acton Research Director Samuel Gregg observes that “much of Europe’s political class seems willing to go to almost any lengths to save the euro — including, it seems, beyond the bounds permitted by EU treaty law and national constitutions.” Excerpt:

“We must re-establish the primacy of politics over the market.” That sentence, spoken a little while ago by Germany’s Angela Merkel, sums up the startlingly unoriginal character of the approach adopted by most EU politicians as they seek to save the common currency from what even Paul Krugman seems to concede is its current trajectory towards immolation.

As every good European career politician (is there any other type?) knows, the euro project was never primarily about good economics, let alone a devious “neoliberal” conspiracy to let loose the dreaded market to wreck havoc upon unsuspecting Europeans. The euro was always essentially about the use of an economic tool to realize a political grand design: European unification. Major backers of the common currency back in the 1990s, such as Jacques Delors and Helmut Kohl, never hid the fact that this was their ultimate ambition. Nor did they trouble to hide their disdain of those who thought the whole enterprise would end in tears.

Read “Eurocracy Run Amuck” on NRO.

Blog author: ehilton
Thursday, June 23, 2011
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It is nice to know that we here at Acton have friends in high places.  This article at Catholic Exchange by George Weigel points out that Blessed John Paul II had some keen insights into what makes economic life flourish:

“John Paul taught that what the Church proposes is not simply the free society, but the free and virtuous society.

It takes a certain kind of people, possessed of certain virtues, to make free politics and free economics work toward genuine human flourishing.

Democracy and the market are not machines that can run by themselves, so a vibrant public moral-cultural life is essential to disciplining both the market and democratic politics.

In fact, in the Catholic vision of the tripartite free and virtuous society—democratic polity, free economy, vibrant moral-cultural sector—it’s the latter that’s most important over the long haul. The habits of heart and mind of a people are the best defense against their allowing their political and economic liberties to become self-destructive.”

Blog author: jballor
Friday, May 20, 2011
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Over at the Comment site, I review Dambisa Moyo’s How the West was Lost: Fifty Years of Economic Folly—and the Stark Choices Ahead. In “War of the Worldviews,” I note that the strongest elements of Moyo’s work are related to her analysis of the causes and the trends of global economic power. “Faced with the combined might of the Rest,” writes Moyo, “the West is forced to grapple with a relentless onslaught of challengers from all corners of the globe. And all these countries are growing in confidence, gaining in competence, and jockeying for a frontline position in the world’s economic race.”

A recently released World Bank report echoes Moyo’s sentiments, which are broadly shared by many forecasts. As Motoko Rich at the NYT Economix blog summarizes, “A new report from the World Bank predicts that by 2025, China, along with five other emerging economies — Brazil, India, Indonesia, South Korea and Russia — will account for more than half of all global growth, up from one-third now.”

One way of understanding these trends is that it is simply what you get in an age of global competition. Nations like China, India, and Brazil are increasingly able to make sustained GDP gains because of increased access to global markets, particularly the US. And the US is forced to adapt to remain competitive, and in many cases this hasn’t happened. It’s not clear at all why all this is such a bad thing. After all, it’s not that the US will cease to be affluent in the foreseeable future. It’s just that other nations won’t be as relatively poor.

Even so, Moyo can’t help but cast these developments in negative terms for the West: “…even while globalization could contribute to a rising tide for all boats, it is clear that the relative quality of life will almost certainly have to decline in the West to accommodate a rise in the Rest.” Thus the relatively greater quality of life enjoyed in the West will decline compared to the Rest. But why must this be so dire for the West?

The weakest part of Moyo’s project comes through in her attempts to provide prescriptive guidance for the West to avoid this “precarious path of forecast decline.” All you really need to know about her suggestions appears in this line: “there is, after all, nothing inherently wrong with a socialist state per se if it’s well engineered and designed and can finance itself.”

Moyo wants the US to adopt the Chinese model of state-directed markets because of the “the speed with which policies can be taken and implemented.” Deliberative democracy is just too slow, too cumbersome, and too captive to special interests. We need a lean, mean set of government committees to run the economy properly and efficiently.

What’s difficult for me to understand is why, given the West’s historical success by embodying “a fully fledged capitalist society of entrepreneurs,” we should abandon that model. Moyo should instead be calling the West back to its strengths, its foundations in “democracy and the sanctity of the rights of the individual elevated above all else,” instead of issuing the siren song of state-driven capitalism. If it is really a competition between state-run and entrepreneurial “capitalism,” it’s not clear at all (as Moyo seems to think) that the statists will win.

It seems to me that the West will only truly be “lost” when we give up our commitments to the inherent dignity and rights of the individual, the rule of law, freedom of association, exchange, religion, and expression. The thrust of Moyo’s book is a classic, “It became necessary to destroy the West to save it,” project, and that’s one that’s simply not worth fighting for.

Blog author: jcouretas
Thursday, December 16, 2010
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In “Human Nature and Capitalism” on AEI’s The American, Arthur C. Brooks and Peter Wehner look at three different “pictures” of what it means to be human and point to the one, foundational understanding that has undergirded the flourishing American culture of democratic capitalism:

“If men were angels,” wrote James Madison, the father of the Constitution, in Federalist Paper No. 51, “no government would be necessary.” But Madison and the other founders knew men were not angels and would never become angels. They believed instead that human nature was mixed, a combination of virtue and vice, nobility and corruption. People were swayed by both reason and passion, capable of self-government but not to be trusted with absolute power. The founders’ assumption was that within every human heart, let alone among different individuals, are competing and sometimes contradictory moral impulses and currents.

This last view of human nature is consistent with and reflective of Christian teaching. The Scriptures teach that we are both made in the image of God and fallen creatures; in the words of Saint Paul, we can be “instruments of wickedness” as well as “instruments of righteousness.” Human beings are capable of acts of squalor and acts of nobility; we can pursue vice and we can pursue virtue.

And they draw a parallel to institutions of government where democracy, with all of its flaws, also works itself out to be the most fitting form of government under this model of human nature. When I engage with critics of the market economy, I use the following Churchill quote but substitute “market economy” for “democracy.” Valid, I think, because we have some disastrous experience with political systems that do not operate in concert with a more or less open market.

Many forms of Government have been tried and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time. — Winston Churchill (House of Commons, Nov. 11, 1947)

Brooks and Wehner:

… our “picture of human nature” determines, in large measure, the institutions we design. For example, the architects of our government carefully studied history and every conceivable political arrangement that had been devised up to their time. In the course of their analysis, they made fundamental judgments about human nature and designed a constitutional form of government with it in mind.

What is true for creating political institutions is also true for economic ones. They, too, proceed from understanding human behavior.

It is hard to overstate the importance of this matter. The model of human nature one embraces will guide and shape everything else, from the economic system one embraces (free-market capitalism versus socialism) to the political system one supports (democracy versus the “dictatorship of the proletariat”). Like a ship about to begin a long voyage, a navigational mistake at the outset can lead a crew to go badly astray, shipwreck, and run aground. To use another metaphor, this time from the world of medicine: A physician cannot treat an illness before diagnosing it correctly; diagnosing incorrectly can make things far worse than they might otherwise be.

Those who champion capitalism embrace a truth we see played out in almost every life on almost any given day: If you link reward to effort, you will get more effort. If you create incentives for a particular kind of behavior, you will see more of that behavior.

A free market can also better our moral condition—not dramatically and not always, but often enough. It places a premium on thrift, savings, and investment. And capitalism, when functioning properly, penalizes certain kinds of behavior—bribery, corruption, and lawlessness among them—because citizens in a free-market society have a huge stake in discouraging such behavior, which is a poison-tipped dagger aimed straight at the heart of prosperity.

Read the full article on The American.

Blog author: jcouretas
Tuesday, November 2, 2010
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“Elections belong to the people. It is their decision. If they decide to turn their back on the fire and burn their behinds, then they will just have to sit on their blisters.” — Abraham Lincoln (HT: PBS)