The Beauty of America

Eric X. Li writes the most controversial piece of the year thus far, in which he concludes that democracy is a problem for the West:

Many have characterized the competition between [America and China] as a clash between democracy and authoritarianism. But this is false. America and China view their political systems in fundamentally different ways: whereas America sees democratic government as an end in itself, China sees its current form of government, or any political system for that matter, merely as a means to achieving larger national ends.

In the history of human governance, spanning thousands of years, there have been two major experiments in democracy. The first was Athens, which lasted a century and a half; the second is the modern West. If one defines democracy as one citizen one vote, American democracy is only 92 years old. In practice it is only 47 years old, if one begins counting after the Voting Rights Act of 1965 — far more ephemeral than all but a handful of China’s dynasties.

Why, then, do so many boldly claim they have discovered the ideal political system for all mankind and that its success is forever assured?

The answer lies in the source of the current democratic experiment. It began with the European Enlightenment. Two fundamental ideas were at its core: the individual is rational, and the individual is endowed with inalienable rights. These two beliefs formed the basis of a secular faith in modernity, of which the ultimate political manifestation is democracy.

In its early days, democratic ideas in political governance facilitated the industrial revolution and ushered in a period of unprecedented economic prosperity and military power in the Western world. Yet at the very beginning, some of those who led this drive were aware of the fatal flaw embedded in this experiment and sought to contain it.

The American Federalists made it clear they were establishing a republic, not a democracy, and designed myriad means to constrain the popular will. But as in any religion, faith would prove stronger than rules.

The West’s current competition with China is therefore not a face-off between democracy and authoritarianism, but rather the clash of two fundamentally different political outlooks. The modern West sees democracy and human rights as the pinnacle of human development. It is a belief premised on an absolute faith.

China is on a different path. Its leaders are prepared to allow greater popular participation in political decisions if and when it is conducive to economic development and favorable to the country’s national interests, as they have done in the past 10 years.

However, China’s leaders would not hesitate to curtail those freedoms if the conditions and the needs of the nation changed.

The fundamental difference between Washington’s view and Beijing’s is whether political rights are considered God-given and therefore absolute or whether they should be seen as privileges to be negotiated based on the needs and conditions of the nation.

Li has made a staggering error: he has conflated individual rights with democracy. These are actually two separate ideas. In fact, the two notions can sometimes be opposed: in a pure democracy, 51% of the population could successfully vote to cook and eat the other 49%. That is where the notion of individual liberty and creator-endowed rights come in: while some democracy is tenable, the actions of a democracy that would be damaging to an individual’s liberty are deemed to be unconstitutional. This was the shape of America’s constitution after the revolution.

So Li is correct — America was not at its birth a democracy. America was set up as a constitutional republic. Its constitution was designed to protect individual liberty (even if it has not always been entirely successful at doing so). The Constitution is written very simply and beautifully. Here’s the First Amendment:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

Simple, specific, categorical. No ifs, no buts. Other nations have paid lip-service to fundamental human freedoms, but they always wrapped themselves up in fineries. Here’s Europe’s attempt:

Everyone has the right of freedom of expression. This right shall include freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart information and ideas without inference by public authority and regardless of frontiers. This Article shall not prevent States from requiring the licensing of broadcasting, television or cinema enterprises.

The exercise of these freedoms, since it carries with it duties and responsibilities, may be subject to such formalities, conditions, restrictions or penalties as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society, in the interests of national security, territorial integrity or public safety, for the prevention of disorder or crime, for the protection of health or morals, for the protection of the reputation or rights of others, for preventing the disclosure of information received in confidence, or for maintaining the authority and impartiality of the judiciary.

In Europe, you have a right to free expression at the discretion of the democratically-elected authorities. And that’s not really a right at all. It’s a semi-right; a right with a whole lot of strings. You have the right to life — so long as the other 51% don’t vote to cook and eat you. 

But America’s constitutional republic is a long-gone ideal. America’s Congress pumps out a wealth of legislation not specifically authorised by the Constitution. The first breaches were done with the best of intentions: the Fourteenth Amendment applied the Bill of Rights to the states, albeit shredding the Ninth and Tenth Amendments. The Civil Rights Act gave racial minorities equal accessto public and private facilities, thereby ending the right of property owners to discriminate against whomever they chose. I am broadly supportive of those measures. But later breaches have been much more dangerous.

Corporations are now routinely bailed out, destroying the market mechanism and creating an aristocracy of “systemically important” corporations with access to Uncle Sam’s chequebook. The power to coin money has been delegated from the Treasury to a private cartel known as the Federal Reserve, allowing the private bankers to create massive and dangerous credit bubbles. The PATRIOT Act, and the NDAA of 2011 shredded the Fourth Amendment and ended the ancient right to Habeas Corpus. Presidents since the Second World War have routinely gone to war without an express declaration authorised by Congress. Obamacare has created a healthcare mandate, compelling American citizens to buy a commercial product — health insurance. Even the First Amendment has been turned upside down — corporations (who are not people) can spend limitless money on political campaigns, while political protestors (who are definitely people) are now confined to caged “free speech zones”. And that’s just from the top of my head.

So it is important to remember that criticisms of America today are criticisms of the present politics of America, and not of the ideals of constitutionalism, or of individual liberty.

It is certain that America today is in dire straits: deeply indebted to the rest of the world, heightened unemployment, the world’s largest prison population, a broken and zombified financial system stripped of the market mechanism, a huge swathe of citizens without access to medical treatment, tent cities.

And it is also certain that America’s welfarism has contributed to its debt. But that is more the fault of large corporations, farmers, and the military industrial complex who suck up subsidies and then call it “profit”, than it is the poor who without subsidies probably could not eat. But certainly all the subsidies have come out of America’s newfound democratic status. Give people the ability to vote for more free stuff (and lobbyists the ability to lobby for more free stuff) and more often than not they’ll take that chance. After all, who doesn’t love a free lunch?

But it is totally foolish to blame these problems on “too much liberty”.

In fact, right now it is China that seems more libertarian — at least in purely economic terms. As I wrote last month, China’s economy consists of just 20% of federal government spending, whereas America’s consists of 37%. China is more of a market economy, while America is more statist. So while China’s leaders might have taken a more “flexible” approach to individual liberties, at least when it comes to economic liberty, they are practically way ahead of America. And maybe that’s why China is doing so well economically — the freedom to do business, to create, to produce.

When it comes to social and cultural freedom, America is way ahead of China — and unsurprisingly, America is still the world’s cultural powerhouse.

What if this little thing known as liberty — and these little things known as unalienable rights are far more important than Li recognises? What if they are the driving energy that underpins innovation, that underpins economic prosperity, that underpins a robust economic system?

America was once the richest and most productive nation on the planet (and by certain measures she still is). This was a direct product of a system of cultural and economic freedom. People were free to think differently, to act differently, to create new businesses, new products, new techniques and this ultimately led to the greatest sustained period of wealth creation in history. They didn’t have to ask the permission of a feudal lord or monarch or commissar. They didn’t have to kowtow to an aristocracy. Only now — since America has adopted statism and bureaucracy — has America begun to fall behind.

So Li’s conclusion is right, but only in a twisted and roundabout way:

The West seems incapable of becoming less democratic even when its survival may depend on such a shift. In this sense, America today is similar to the old Soviet Union, which also viewed its political system as the ultimate end.

History does not bode well for the American way. Indeed, faith-based ideological hubris may soon drive democracy over the cliff.

Yes — ideological and faith-based hubris may soon drive America off a cliff. But that ideological and faith-based hubris that we find today in American government and in the American intellectual elite is not for America’s constitution, nor for individual liberty. Instead it is for statism, for big government, for surveillance, for authoritarianism, for central planning, for endless war and imperialism. The zeal that will drive America off a cliff is exactly what Li advocates more of.

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51 thoughts on “The Beauty of America

  1. “Controversial”- perhaps. Deluded- absolutely. Leaving aside the US and it’s system (clearly an authoritarian corporatist system), the idea that the Chinese, like the Russian soviets before them, will “transition” to a new and enlightened, political system once the conditions are right is total nonsense. when it comes to people giving up power, the time is never right.

  2. Well said @Azizonomics. While Democracy is 2 wolves and a sheep voting on what’s for dinner, Liberty is what has made people healthier, wealthier and happy. If Indians have their Vedas, and the Chinese have their Tao–Then the Anglo-Americans have our faith in Liberty… Although perhaps that has changed.

    • I am worried that it has changed. Our culture has pushed democracy as the highest ideal, when in many ways purer forms of democracy are fundamentally opposed to individual liberty.

      • I would argue that some form of anarchism is a “pure” form of democracy, while what have now in western democracies is nothing but a sham of central planning, and not just financial.

  3. You picked the obvious flaw in Li’s analysis, his complete lack of understanding, apparently, of the distinction between the 18th century American concept of individual liberty, on the one hand, and democracy, on the other. The founders established a constitutional democratic republic in an effort to protect individual liberty (at that time effectively limited to propertied white males, but with a foundation that could expand easily as the cultural environment became more liberal).

    Today, most of America’s liberal left and so-called elite operate as if they have little interest in these founding principles, especially the thought that individual liberty should be the centerpiece. I have frequently had encounters with those promoting direct popular elections of all elected officials, in other words ‘pure democracy’, and they invariably refuse to acknowledge any dangers in this approach. Most of our unalienable basic human rights would soon be a faint memory if we go this route.

  4. I don’t really see a reason to separate the idea of a constitution from democracy. The constitution is merely a component of the whole system meant to make it more stable, but ultimately it’s still the people who can decide to alter/modify or simply abolish the constitution.

    And even without tampering with the contents of the constitution (which is totally and democratically doable), it’s still left to the democratic system to interpret what’s actually in the constitution – our societies are simply too complex for a 20 word phrase to be applicable unequivocally to situations in our daily lives (i.e. what if I decide to exercise my freedom of speech at midnight in an apartment block using a megaphone). I’d argue that the EU additions merely state what the US has been doing all along since they wrote the constitution…

    …and if things may look more bleak now in the US, it seems a bit utopian to me to blame this downward trend on some departure from a few clear, simple rules that would have always ensured the survival of a democratic-constitutional system. So if the system (very young in the history of mankind as Xi noted) fails, then the system failed, period. Backward looking ideas of the type “if only we’d have done this differently” could all be treated equally.

    As for liberty, I’d side with John N. Gray who said: “As Hobbes knew, what human beings want most from the state is not freedom but protection. This may be regrettable, but building a political philosophy on the denial of human nature is foolish. It is better to face facts. Personal liberties do not naturally dovetail. Often they make competing demands, and when they do, the task of government is to craft a mix that affords citizens an acceptable degree of security.”

    As for China, it’s a pity that they’re currently viewed as only being able to copy the Western fads; in their millennial history, they have contributed to humanity with many important discoveries and innovations (I don’t think I have to name them here – but I will note one that I recently came upon which seemed funny in the current context: the invention of paper-money).

    As for the Chinese, many people do not like the idea that humans can be more different than would be politically-correct to accept. For example see page 49 here (click on 48): http://books.google.ro/books?id=0dyIjbHIvMIC&lpg=PP1&dq=on+human+nature&pg=PA49&redir_esc=y#v=onepage&q=chinese&f=false

    …it’s entirely plausible that the current Chinese model could be uniquely suited to the Chinese people and their culture and/or can evolve in other ways different from democratic-constitutionalism, but still in viable ways.

      • “The West seems incapable of becoming less democratic even when its survival may depend on such a shift. In this sense, America today is similar to the old Soviet Union, which also viewed its political system as the ultimate end. History does not bode well for the American way. Indeed, faith-based ideological hubris may soon drive democracy over the cliff.”

        After re-reading this, I’m beginning to wonder whether he’s actually right, and whether he actually agrees with you. If we accept that the current democratic system in the US is a sham as Bill Bonner and probably you would argue (doesn’t matter who you vote for because you’re voting for the same things), and if we accept the idea that hubris prevents any “patriot” from voting for a kook like Ron Paul who wants a complete overhaul of the system (may be what Xi names as “less democratic”, looking at what really ails the system instead of marching forth blindingly trusting the democratic process) then we probably arrive at the same conclusions.

        I always believed that there’s more meaning in one’s mind than one can express in a static text and oftentimes quality conversations degenerate due to the subtleties that are lost when various complex concepts are verbalized – so I am merely trying to go behind words and see what Xi really means. I may be wrong, but forgive me anyway – you know I’d never say anything that isn’t contrarian.

        • Another take on his conclusion: I see his interpretation of the Chinese model as a system that is deliberately amorphous and adapting, is very tight-knight and opportunistically aims for the survival and long term thriving of the whole system. His idea of curtailing freedom could be likened to a man putting alcohol on a wound – which would hurt but would be beneficial in the long run.

          When talking about “less freedom” for the US, you could interpret it like: it’s not only a few malevolent zombie corporations that have taken over the system, but basically it’s the voters that are themselves zombies and would scream out loud if Ron Paul was to implement some of his measures. I agree with the view of Daily Reckoning that the Occupy protesters are themselves half-zombies screaming for more state intervention and who would vote for the guy that would give them easy solutions on a plate. So the system can’t be easily fixed because the voters (freedom) are themselves zombies who would never vote for a guy like Ron Paul.

        • When talking about “less freedom” for the US, you could interpret it like: it’s not only a few malevolent zombie corporations that have taken over the system, but basically it’s the voters that are themselves zombies and would scream out loud if Ron Paul was to implement some of his measures. I agree with the view of Daily Reckoning that the Occupy protesters are themselves half-zombies screaming for more state intervention and who would vote for the guy that would give them easy solutions on a plate. So the system can’t be easily fixed because the voters (freedom) are themselves zombies who would never vote for a guy like Ron Paul.

          This is an extremely liberal interpretation. I think he means what he says, which is that it would be helpful if the U.S. government could curtail personal freedoms (e.g. internet freedom) in the name of “economic interest”.

          The thing is — as you suggest — I am sympathetic with his comments on democracy if by democracy we only mean majority rule, and not individual liberty . The problem with majority rule is that the majority will just spend and spend and spend until we reach the point of printing money to pay the bills, and finally to the point of financial breakdown, as we are seeing in Greece. That is why Ron Paul is less successful than he is — because he is not promising that the government will give people stuff for free. This is extremely problematic, and I think that there ought to be constitutional controls on this — a balanced budget amendment, for example (but definitely NOT as regards individual years — during recessions I still support government increasing their spending to smooth the business cycle — but perhaps over a 20 year or 30 year block).

          But his actual words suggest that his position entails Chinese-style “flexibility” on both majority rule, and individual liberty, which I vehemently disagree with.

        • Whatever the causes are of America’s problems, it ain’t democracy. If anything, it’s the failure of democracy to prevent such problems occurring in the first place. This merely highlights the limits of democracy, which are not resolved by competing types of governments.

    • Correction: “Backward looking ideas” -> “Looking backwards ideas”. I will post from now on using my WordPress account so hopefully I’ll be able to edit mistakes without posting again.

    • Since when is a megaphone a prerequisite for freedom of speech? The only limits to freedom should be when it impinges on others, such as murder, rape, theft, and so on. Hence, stating an opinion considered offensive by others is acceptable as it does not impinge on their freedoms unless it incites violence, etc.

      Hobbes was a cynic and a fatalist. He made the leap from merely stating the reality of human politics into having actual moral equivalency. Just because I can doesn’t make it right.

  5. “First Amendment: Congress shall make no law ……. abridging the freedom of …the right of the people peaceably to assemble”

    This was my point in a previous post. If OWS assembled regularly, peaceably, and just to ensure they had the authority under the 1st, wore respectable business attire (Interview grade grooming) they would have achieved their goals (If the chose a common goal and had a leader to focus attention, maintain peacful order)

    Instead it was hijacked by “Demonstration Terrorists” This who would provide a focal point for ridicule from the 1%”

    “Divide and Conquer” is such a simple strategy.

    • This was my point in a previous post. If OWS assembled regularly, peaceably, and just to ensure they had the authority under the 1st, wore respectable business attire (Interview grade grooming) they would have achieved their goals (If the chose a common goal and had a leader to focus attention, maintain peacful order)

      Instead it was hijacked by “Demonstration Terrorists” This who would provide a focal point for ridicule from the 1%”

      I agree with you. OWS suffered from a certain strain of confrontationalism. Another problem was that they had no specific goals in particular. They ultimately had the same division that the rest of society has — some of us want bigger government, and some of want libertarianism.

  6. And one more thing. The intellectuals of the enlightenment obviously never lived in a village, or hung around women. Gossip is a human trait. Humans would prefer to hear “news, entertainment” than research the facts for themselves. How can one assume that humans act “Rationally”. They don’t!

    How can one vote and change the course of history, if one does not understand the policies of a candidate (If they in fact follow up on promises)

    We might as well use a random number generator!

    @Andrei: John N. Gray who said: “As Hobbes knew, what human beings want most from the state is not freedom but protection..building a political philosophy on the denial of human nature is foolish”

    I say we have been mislead by Philosophers who did not understand what they were promoting. It was a half baked idea when you realise that human genes and not environment drive our ideas, aspirations, reaction, desires, beliefs.

    Thanks for the book link Andrei.

    • John N. Gray who said: “As Hobbes knew, what human beings want most from the state is not freedom but protection..building a political philosophy on the denial of human nature is foolish”

      I think Hobbes and Gray are both guilty of a horrendous misunderstanding.

      Liberty and “protection” are not necessarily opposed. Having liberty means having a system that protects individuals from the tyranny of the majority, it means having the rule of law, it means having property rights, it means having free and open markets etc. And that’s the states job — to protect individual liberty. So liberty in fact requires some state power, and some state action.

      What Gray is doing is making the jump that “protection” necessarily means authoritarianism and the leviathan state which of course it does not. That is an extremely dangerous conflation.

      • Having read most of his books I can say that he never prescribes a leviathan state or anything similar. Actually, he never prescribes anything at all. Most of his work is about attacking the people (and their views) who prescribe ultimate solutions for humanity’s problems. The idea that democratic-constitutionalism is the pinnacle of human advancement, and is the way that all societies around the world should organize, and that this system is a stable unerring and self-correcting one (unless we break some very simple and easily identifiable rules) would probably be an idea being worth attacking in his view.

        With regard to that specific quote, he was merely noting that the foundations of legal systems (at a philosophical level) rarely pay attention to human nature (as if we don’t know much more about human nature to be able to make more informed choices). If you define “liberty” as something that any man would want in any kind of circumstance then I guess by definition liberty is all that anyone would want. What he meant though, was that the common man cares little about the lofty idea of “liberty” as most would define it and philosophers would do well to actually look at what human nature is and start from there.

        • What he meant though, was that the common man cares little about the lofty idea of “liberty” as most would define it and philosophers would do well to actually look at what human nature is and start from there.

          I didn’t really accuse Gray of advocating the leviathan state, just of failing to realise that “protection” and liberty (at least as I define it, and certainly as Adams and Jefferson did) are kind of the same thing.

          The problem is with philosophers defining liberty in increasingly abstruse ways. By liberty, I mean life, the freedom to keep the fruits of your labour, free expression, free association, freedom of belief, freedom from violent coercion. Now if Gray or Hobbes want to define those as “protection”, that’s fine. But the idea that these things are unwanted or undesired by the common man seems wrong Certainly, human history is studded with tyrants that have denied their people (what I define as) liberty who have subsequently been violently overthrown.

        • I think John N. Gray is merely saying that those things you’re talking about (“these things are unwanted or undesired by the common man seems wrong”) should be defined after studying human nature and not by deciding what those things are after armchair-philosophising about them. As long as the fundamental drives of the human nature are satisfied, the framework of a state could have almost any imaginable shape. Same shapes will be more stable than others under different historical/economical/etc. conditions (also we should include here the fact that human nature may be different in some respects for an entire population).

          To get back to what I was saying about “this system is a stable unerring and self-correcting one (unless we break some very simple and easily identifiable rules)” one could argue that it’s the NDAA or some other act that clearly is against the constitution. But that’s what I was saying: that the system is not a stable unerring and self-correcting one because it evolved from the very best intentions of the founding fathers – with no clear point where the system got off track – to one where there might not be a way for the system to self-correct using mechanisms that are internal to the system and that are more peaceful than not. So I was merely trying to find common ground with Xi – and I think there’s a lot of common ground to be found (maybe even by yourself).

        • As long as the fundamental drives of the human nature are satisfied, the framework of a state could have almost any imaginable shape.

          The point is — in the long run — the fundamental drives of human nature will not be satisfied unless people are free (or “protected”) to satisfy them.

        • Well, yes, but that’s not saying a lot. The fundamental drives of human nature will be satisfied until they won’t be – people don’t care what “free” means as long as their fundamental drives are satisfied. When they are no longer satisfied to a reasonable extent, they rebel – I thinks this harks back to the idea of how stable the framework of a state is (given all historical/geographical/economical/human nature/etc. constraints).

        • Another point I wanted to make: you could argue that there are various systems with various degrees to which those fundamental drives of human nature are satisfied. But I think this could still be related to the “stability” of that system (i.e. there would be tensions inside the system which would “appear” when “measuring” the stability of the system).

        • I did not see any statement that said the republic under the US Constitution was unerring and self-correcting. But I do think it is the best existing form of government. Several of the founders gave ample warnings that it could be corrupted by inattention and unknowledgeable voters. The point remains that individual liberty, and it’s protection as a state responsibility, is the key component, and this is not dependent on whether or not individual members of the society have an awareness or a desire regarding individual liberty, only that it is an inherent and unalienable right of every individual. Ron Paul is no kook, but sees the erosion that has occurred over the last century, really without positive actions by the electorate, and he is merely trying to restore us to constitutional behavior. Left-leaning liberals who support the direction we have gone never even suggest anything like a constitutional amendment to get there, Nancy Pelosi does not even consider the constitutional issue to be serious enough for discussion when legislating.

        • “But I do think it is the best”
          “The point remains that individual liberty”

          I’m not against what you are saying, I merely tried to get to a more scientific understanding of those concepts and show that if we go behind Xi’s words, he no longer sounds so off base.

          “Ron Paul is no kook”

          I don’t think that either, I was merely quoting from his detractors.

  7. The idea of bailout would have been fine if it was done fairly, money went out only to corporations that failed and were deemed as “too big to fail”. They were too big to fail and still failed, is not this a contradiction? Small to medium size successful corporations were not given access to bailout money. Individuals who own small business or with personal financial trouble were not given access to any bailout money.

    • They were too big to fail and still failed, is not this a contradiction?

      Well the idea was that if they were allowed to fail, it would have had catastrophic consequences for America and the world. Ultimately, I think that that was an outright lie designed to extract money out of the taxpayer.

      Individuals who own small business or with personal financial trouble were not given access to any bailout money.

      Yes, that is one thing that makes it very unfair, and it probably would have been better if smaller people and institutions had access to the same packages. But I do also think that all bailouts are on one level wrong because it distorts the market mechanism and creates moral hazard. If badly-run companies and enterprises can be just as successful as well-run ones, then what incentive is there to run your company effectively?

      Is the US constitution a scared document that should not change?

      Well, Thomas Jefferson thought every generation should have their own revolution. I don’t look at it as a sacred document. But in terms of protecting liberty, I’d say it’s still much better than the EU Human Rights laws, or the Canadian equivalent, or the South African equivalent, because it is simple, short and unambiguous.

    • Would it change after a debate and ratification of an amendment, or drafting again from the scratch it would be ok. It would still serve it’s purpose, people would be aware that some dramatic change is being proposed. In case of USA you have more or less the same foundations, while large part of the building is actually resting on some sneaky temporary supports that were never in the blueprint.

  8. What you say is so one-sideed that it cannot possible deal with America’s current problems. There are two threats to the freedom and creativity of tjhe individual. One is the state. Americans certainly know about that. It is beatened into their brains almost everyday in school. The state is the enemy of freedom. That is what you talk about. But there is another pofential threat to individual freedom and creativity in every society and that is civil society itself. The most obvious example of how society curtails freedom is lawlessness, the threat to a person’s survival if he walks down the street in a community where muggings, rape, and murder are commonplace. Americans have a serious problem dealing with this sort of threat to individual freedom, and in fact, don’t do it very well, considering the rates of violent crimes happening in the country, compared to most countries in Europe. There is more statism there, which Americans like you complain about endlessly, but there is less of a threat to inndividual freedom in Europe coming from civiil society. Anarchy on the streets, moreover, is only one, and the most obvious, way that individual freedom and crfeativity are restrained. If a civil society, nominally a democracy, fall prey to monied interests, which turn the civill society and its institutions into a plutocracy, then individual freedom and cfreativity is also restrained. And that is what has happened in America. Pay some attention to that side of the equation, where the real menace to freedom exists, because the state is not much of a threat to the liberity of individuals in America, whatever the liberterians say. Just go live some where else and you’ll see just how nonoppressive the state vis a vis its citizens is in the USA and how helpful it is, compared to other countries, when serving citizen’s interests..

    • I live in semi-rural western America and I sense no threat to individual freedom from the civil society except where that element of civil society we call ‘corporate’ has made common cause with government to exert power over the common population. Much of Ron Paul’s prescription to cure the country of its present woes will deal very directly with this.

      The lawlessness of muggings, rapes, and murders is the least of our problems related to personal liberty. And such crimes are state issues, not federal, so are not addressed in our federal constitution. The federal constitution is to protect the individual from the government, not from other individuals.

  9. Robert —

    But there is another pofential threat to individual freedom and creativity in every society and that is civil society itself. The most obvious example of how society curtails freedom is lawlessness, the threat to a person’s survival if he walks down the street in a community where muggings, rape, and murder are commonplace.

    I agree, and I think you’re misjudging me. When Britain was in the throes of riots last summer, I argued very strongly that the state should be aggressive in restoring the rule of law precisely because the greatest menace to liberty is the breakdown of the rule of law. As I wrote above in response to Buddy Rojek: “Liberty and “protection” are not necessarily opposed. Having liberty… in fact requires some state power, and some state action.”

    If a civil society, nominally a democracy, fall prey to monied interests, which turn the civill society and its institutions into a plutocracy, then individual freedom and cfreativity is also restrained. And that is what has happened in America. Pay some attention to that side of the equation, where the real menace to freedom exists, because the state is not much of a threat to the liberity of individuals in America, whatever the liberterians say.

    I agree with some of that, too. While the state can itself be a menace (look at the legislation I cited in the article), so too can monied interests and corporations.

    The proper solution requires balance: that the power of corporations be counterbalanced by the power of the state, and the power of the state by counterbalanced by civil society and individuals; checks and balances.

    Just as the state should prevent individuals from going out and stealing from each other, so should individuals be able to harness the state to stop corporations and monied interests from acting injuriously.

    Right now we have the anomalous reality that the power of the state and of the corporations is mutually-enhancing, rather than each being a check and balance on the other, and the power of the individual is diminutive next to the state and corporations.

    And, by the way, I’m British!

  10. Probably the simplest way to improve the democratic process is to ban corporate donations to politicians and their parties. Leave fundraising to party membership of individuals only. open donations = open power oversight.

      • And this is one of the areas where the left liberals in the U.S. are very vocal in supporting the idea of restraint on money contributions in politics. The Supreme Court has ruled restriction unconstitutional in violation of free speech rights. This would seem to be a perfect candidate for a constitutional amendment, but I don’t see much of an effort.

    • I tend to agree, but there is a good counter-argument to that in Freakonomics. Of course, it does point out that it still matters in tight elections. The point of course was that value-for-money only applies due to the “winner take all” result of elections.

      It should be pointed out that the issue of collusion between corporations and the state is much bigger than simply one of donations to parties.

  11. Seems there’s room here for a contrary opinion. I happened to be writing on this topic last week.

    The US is the only developed nation without a modern constitution or cohesive national plan for the 21st century. This might be considered a liability for a nation trying to take care of its people and long term sovereignity in a rapidly changing, technologically-charged world.

    Indeed, the US Constitution is the oldest working relic still in force anywhere in the world. It is painfully short — barely an outline. As modern constitutions go, it is also rather stingy when it comes to human and civil rights. At one time, the US Constitution had a central and referential role among the courts in the world’s modern democracies — but its global stature is rapidly waning and its influence diminishing due to its lack of modern context. “America is in danger, I think, of becoming something of a legal backwater,” noted Justice Michael Kirby of the High Court of Australia.

    What’s worse, the U.S. Constitution is the most difficult to amend of any constitution currently existing in the world today. (Yugoslavia used to hold that title, but Yugoslavia did not work out.) This makes it inflexible and unable to evolve effectively to today’s demands — for a nation that hopes to compete and participate meaningfully in a global context.

    The average age of a national constitution today is 17 years. Then it is updated. The citizens of most nations have come to expect extensive human rights (based on the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights) and they regard with astonishment the US constitution’s parsimony in that area. These days, people simply demand more.

    • As modern constitutions go, it is also rather stingy when it comes to human and civil rights.

      As I argued in the piece, I’d say the U.S. Constitution is the least stingy, because the rights are presented as absolute: every other constitution (I gave Europe as an example, but we could also use Canada, or Soviet Russia, or South Africa, etc) give more numerous rights, but there are always listed circumstances when these rights don’t apply.

      I’d be all for rewriting the U.S. Constitution for the 21st Century, but only if the rights granted remain absolute, and cannot be revoked at the whim of a public official. Let’s just say our present-day political culture does not give me much hope in this regard.

      What’s worse, the U.S. Constitution is the most difficult to amend of any constitution currently existing in the world today.

      If the U.S. Constitution was easier to amend, George W. Bush would most likely have amended it to enshrine the Patriot Act, etc, into the constitution. As it stands, there remains a strong chance that all of the Bush-era authoritarian legislation will eventually be thrown out as unconstitutional.

      Right now I’d say that it is not the constitution that is failing, but the political and judicial systems that are failing to obey the principles enshrined in the constitution.

      • The difficulty in amending the US Constitution is one of the features that helps protect individual liberty. BTW, the US Constitution is not a national constitution but a federal constitution. A federal constitution needs to be more difficult to amend than a national constitution, if it is to maintain its character.

  12. Great essay. The problem with constitutions is that they are created and voted for by a minority and there is no moral or rational reason why generations of people afterwards and the masses of people should adhere to them. An American living today can dismiss the American constitution as something not signed by him/her, something moribund and without any authority, there is really no such thing as a unwritten social contract binding all individuals to the constitution. The pledge of allegiance can also be seen as a type of government coerced custom. In a way the Bush administration was right to reject it as a ‘old bit of paper’ and this is bound to happen sooner or later given inherent flaws in the founding of the nation.

    Greek Democracy, was based on small city states and only the freeman and male landowners made the rules. Contemporary democracy is just mass control, individual votes do not really count and the choices of candidates and policies are limited. Money power and corporations rule, they select the politicians and it is because this has served the corporations and money power so well that they promote democracy throughout the world as the ‘best form of government’.

    We really need noble, aristocratic leaders who want to serve their people, who want to be a source of justice, prosperity and peace. They will look after the weak and the poor and they will exact compassion from the rich. Man likes to think he is independent, an owner of private property, he likes to think he has little or no responsibility towards the natural environment or other humans, he often gets anxious about livelihood, he worries about the future in a very hostile world. This makes him ruthless, some men who become dominant want to skew or order the world so that they get the lions share of the wealth for minimum effort. This type of man needs to be pitied he has created a world in his own image, his soul is constricted, he needs to be made aware that if he serves humanity and opens up his wealth it will help him as well as the community. Corporations have been given a ‘legal personality’ in law, and they have become the ultimate sociopathic personality refraining from healthy competition, and scooping up wealth and keeping it locked.

    • Thanks.

      Corporations have been given a ‘legal personality’ in law, and they have become the ultimate sociopathic personality refraining from healthy competition, and scooping up wealth and keeping it locked.

      Great quote. Corporate personhood is, I think, the greatest perversion thus far: the idea that a corporate entity designed to shield its controllers from liability is somehow a “person” with rights.

  13. “When Britain was in the throes of riots last summer, I argued very strongly that the state should be aggressive in restoring the rule of law precisely because the greatest menace to liberty is the breakdown of the rule of law.”

    I am British too btw, this comment is ironic given that the British state itself breaks the law often. And this is why the Enlightenment, the French Revolution and Modernity have brought us to this Nihilism…. All laws are man made and can therefore be broken by Power and not all men are equal therefore Money Power makes the rules. Pre revolutionary France had small armies, and huge linguistic and cultural diversity in France, after the Revolution they had million man standing armies, one language, fiat currencies and the Terror. The modern world is just the natural growth pattern of the seed planted during the Terror. It is the price of Atheism and ‘maturity’.

    • I am British too btw, this comment is ironic given that the British state itself breaks the law often.

      Yeah. The British state and the British constitution are imperfect vehicles. But there are few things worse than the terror of the mob.

  14. A “semi-right” is a privilege, not a right at all. How would people react to their rights being referred to as mere privileges? You’re also right about democracy bring merely a means to an end – that end being the preservation of individual liberty.

  15. Pingback: Britain’s Orwellian Nightmare? « azizonomics

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