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. (more…)