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February 01, 2013

Democracy And Its Discontents

“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 for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time."

― Winston Churchill, Speech in the House of Commons, 11 November 1947

On a post about immigration policy, Grim comments:

If we are asked to talk about amnesty, we really ought to start by asking about Mexico. Why are people so eager to come here while our own economy has been so slow for so long, and is contracting again? What's going on with the war on our border that is worse than the war in Afghanistan? The US Navy has recently put out sequestration guidance that will entirely eliminate its fleet presence in the Caribbean sea. Why is the priority to guard everything in the world except our own borders?

All of these questions are available to be asked, by Republicans or anyone else. I don't quite understand why we are having the debate we are having at all.

There are a number of fascinating questions here. Why are people still coming to America in droves when our economy has been in recession for so long? I think the answer to this, for once, is very simple: comparatively speaking, as much as we complain about it (being used to levels of prosperity and opportunity that are almost unimaginable in most other countries), things are just so much better in America.

It all depends on your expectations. If you come from a poor country where the rule of law is spotty at best, America seems like paradise. It is still the fabled Golden Mountain of Chinese lore. If you're willing to take the risk and come here illegally, if you're willing to take menial jobs and accept pay that is low by American standards but almost absurdly high by foreign standards (remember how many recent immigrants - legal and illegal - regularly send money home to their families abroad), you'll have more opportunities and enjoy a higher standard of living in America than if you stay in your country of origin.

If that weren't so, the flow of illegal immigrants would shut off just like a faucet.

We need to be careful. We have - I know that I have - become used to so much abundance and comfort. We don't have the same frame of reference as most of the rest of the world.

A few years ago, I met a woman while participating in a software industry consortium. I am not sure of her immigration status - when she first came here she was married. I don't know whether her husband was an American citizen and I never inquired. She had several advanced degrees, one of them in engineering.

She was originally from the Ukraine. For several years she was employed at a major university on the East Coast. When her original contract position (always meant to be temporary) expired, she secured another but then that, too, was up. And she was unemployed.

I often wondered how she survived, but our friendship, though close, was not the kind where you exchange intimate confidences or ask intrusive questions. The thing is, she sent money to her parents in the Ukraine even when I wasn't sure how she was getting by. And her perspective - her expectations of life - were so different from mine.

Grim asks, "Why is the priority to guard everything in the world except our own borders?" It seems important to ask, "What is the harm we guard against on our own borders?" Armed invasion? Or merely intrusion by people we'd prefer to keep out? What is the anticipated harm, what is the last time something really bad happened because of a breach of border security? All of these factors inform our perception of risk. My intent is not to dismiss what I view as valid concerns, but rather to ask, "What is the worst we fear?"

Conservatives are unhappy that there are so many illegal immigrants. I am unhappy that our President, whose express job it is to enforce the laws of the United States, has openly stated that he has no intention of enforcing our immigration laws. I think this is harmful to the rule of law, which is all that protects us from the less principled of our fellow citizens. Under the social contract, we agree to cede certain freedoms in return for the protection of certain rights from our fellow humans. And relatively speaking, the government actually does a pretty good job of that.

If I have a dispute with a neighbor or a business, I don't have to pick up a gun or get into a fist fight to protect my property or my rights. It's fairly easy to resolve the majority of disputes because by and large, Americans are aware that wronged parties have legal recourse. When disputes arise, we don't have to reinvent the wheel; rather, we live within a framework of deliberated laws - some wise and some not so wise - that lend order and predictability to our lives. When we think our rights have been violated, we can call the police or appeal to our local or state governments, or file a lawsuit. That implied threat ("If we can't come to some agreement, I'll take this to Someone in Authority") is enough to cause most people to work things out peaceably.

That's not the case in Afghanistan (or in the South side of Chicago). There, there is little trust in the rule of law. And so there are tribal alliances, and right and wrong is not determined by neutral third parties but rather by who is more violent or ruthless - who has the strongest allies or the most weapons. Disputes often lead to murder or violent intimidation and it's quite common for innocent bystanders to be killed or injured.

Is that system better than what we have now? How do the weakest members of society fare where the rule of law is weak to nonexistent? Is relative anarchy good for children, or women, or families? Are these people generally prosperous? Are they secure when they leave their homes (or even in them?) In a later comment, Grim writes:

As often, you have given me a good reason to reconsider my support for democracy. It comes in a good hour. But if I am to swing away from democracy, it must not be in favor of an elite like this one. William Buckley's wager was well given if Hagel and John Kerry are to be pitted against the top few names in any given phonebook.

There must be some system that encourages, if not perfect virtue from leadership, at least more than this. If there is nothing better from democracy nor elitism than this, then maybe we should reconsider anarchy.

I often think we have things so comparatively easy that we lose our sense of perspective. Certainly, I have been struggling with a sense of despair lately. I see government doing things that are so monumentally stupid that they seem Kafka-esque. And I wonder, like Grim, if our entire system of government has become unworkable? But then I take a step back from it all and look at the broader picture. Certainly government often behaves foolishly, but People still flock to the United States from all over the world. They are willing, in many cases, to hazard life and limb to come here - to leave family and friends behind and take huge risks on the chance of improving their lives. And I look at history; the thousand tales of government bumbling, corruption and venality, and (sometimes) outright evil that have characterized our largely trial-and-error progression through the centuries.

We see through such a narrow lens, taking the unprecedented prosperity and security we've experienced as "normal", and wonder why things look so dismal right now? And people in other countries look at what dismays us and think, "Maybe someday I could have that...."

Because to them, "that" is better than what they have experienced in their lifetimes. It's enough better that many of them will hazard all for the chances we take so lightly.

I'm not sure it's just our relative prosperity and security that are affecting our perspective. With cable TV, the Internet, and 24/7 media coverage (much of it skewed) we see so much more detail on the day to day operation of government that I wonder whether we're not focusing on the trees and losing the big picture? So much of the analysis we read is politically driven (in other words, the analysts have a vested interest in making the target look bad). This plays out in the mainstream media as "blame the GOP", but the internet also acts as a funnel. Conservatives and liberals select sources that provide a filtered (and often biased) perspective on the news. The same actions are vilified when the opposing party is involved and excused when it's our own party.

Regardless of which side of the aisle you call home, there's a lot of uncomfortable truth here:

Memo to Political Commentators for the Next Four Years: With a switch from Republican to Democratic control of the White House a few weeks away, I thought I would remind political commentators of the new ground rules.

1) Republicans Must Now Oppose Executive Power; Democrats Must Be In Favor Of It. In the last few years, Republicans have been the defenders of executive power: A muscular executive has been needed to fight the war on terror. On the other hand, Democrats have opposed a strong executive on the ground that it threatens the rule of law. Please note that these arguments must now switch. Republicans must now talk of the dangers of executive power; Democrats must now speak of how a strong and agile executive branch is necessary to a modern democracy.

2) Republicans Must Now Oppose Judicial Confirmations; Democrats Must Be In Favor. In the last few years, Republicans wanted an up-or-down vote on judicial nominees; one of their leading blogs on the judicial confirmations was ConfirmThem.com. On the other hand, Democrats focused on the importance of carefully evaluating judicial candidates. Please note that these arguments must now switch, too. Republicans should now visit RejectThem.com (still an available domain name, btw -- won't be for long!), and Democrats should emphasize the need for a quick up or down vote.

3) Republicans Must Now Favor Legislative Oversight; Democrats Must Now Oppose It. You get the point by now. Yup, everyone has to switch sides on this one, too. If we all stick to the script, in 6 months the old arguments of the Bush era will be long forgotten. (Oh, and extra credit to those who charge the other side with hypocrisy for changing sides without noting that they have changed sides, too.)

I hate to keep banging my Pollyanna bongo drum, but I have to ask (because Grim's questions are the same ones keeping me awake at night): what system would be better? Enlightened autocracy is subject to just as many abuses as an excess of democracy. The problems, I think, are ones of human nature and of the undeniable truth that we learn best by screwing things up and learning from our mistakes.

That sort of experience doesn't seem to transplant well - we need to make our own mistakes and rarely learn until our fingers have been well and truly burned.

Discuss amongst your ownselves, knuckle draggers.

Posted by Cassandra at February 1, 2013 07:19 AM

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Comments

This is why I wanted to read through and discuss Aristotle's Politics, and did so chapter by chapter for a while -- but only Joseph W. seemed interested in it, so when he had to take one of his occasional absences from the Hall (he is an Army officer) there seemed no point in continuing the discussion.

But maybe you'd prefer a more modern philosopher -- and maybe you have more time for audio than for sitting down and reading? Here's a lecture series on Hegel's philosophy of right that is worth listening to. Maybe your commute gives you time to listen to audiobooks? I know the professor, and he genuinely believes that Hegel is worth hearing (the initial lecture says that he believes the study will give students the resources necessary to evaluate the modern world, as well as to engage ethics without nihilism).

Some serious rethinking does seem to me to be needed here.

Posted by: Grim at February 1, 2013 11:46 AM

What's needed is not something other than democracy. What is needed is to push it down as close to the people as possible.

There is more consensus within a city than a county. There is more consensus within a county than a state. There is more consensus within a state than a country.

Trying to manage everything at the Country level does nothing more than manage to piss a lot of people off.

If New York City wants to raise taxes sky high and require all employees to be members of one union or another, then have at it. Good Luck with that. Just stop trying to make those of us in Weddington, NC live that way and we'll get along much better.

Posted by: Yu-Ain Gonnano at February 1, 2013 11:47 AM

...but only Joseph W. seemed interested in it, so when he had to take one of his occasional absences from the Hall (he is an Army officer) there seemed no point in continuing the discussion.

I so wish I had the time I used to have, Grim. I was very interested in the discussions but the truth is that my brain is generally so shellshocked by the end of the day that I can't deal with anything mentally taxing or stressful.

I hate that, and am sorry I couldn't join in. I will check out your link :) I do often listen to audiobooks during my (horrible) commute. It keeps me from wanting to yield to road rage!

Posted by: Cass at February 1, 2013 11:55 AM

Now, as regards the Navy, what is the threat we are guarding against anywhere else? It's certainly not armed invasion there either. In the Gulf of Aiden, it's chiefly piracy, though to a small degree it's Iranian smuggling (chiefly of weapons to insurgents). In the Caribbean, it's chiefly smuggling (of drugs and weapons to American organized criminal groups, as well as people -- both illegal immigrants and sex slaves of the type we were also discussing in that comment section).

But if there is a hot war in Mexico, as there certainly is, there's reason to fear it spilling over via this network of organized criminal groups. Why shouldn't it? If they're fighting there, why shouldn't their proxies here be fighting too?

This war in Mexico has been heating up for seven years, and is now worse than the war in Afghanistan. Yet in spite of what seems to be a serious threat of genuine spillover -- our nation is interlaced with criminal groups tied to the warring factions -- we are treating this very lazily. The Border Patrol isn't being resourced at the level you'd expect, the border is being kept intentionally open, and now the Navy is being de-resourced in the area most subject to these smuggling operations. The CIA is running a very interesting operation down in Mexico, and of course we still don't have solid answers about the Fast and Furious program (or the other gunwalking programs that the Obama administration has run, where unlike the Bush administration they removed tracking components that would let them trace the guns).

I have a huge number of questions I'd like to see answered about all this. We just had confirmation hearings for Secretary of State and Defense, and the issues didn't come up. We're having a huge debate directly related to Mexico, and nobody's talking about it. The policies we have in place don't make any sense, and nobody seems inclined to question them.

Posted by: Grim at February 1, 2013 12:00 PM

I like Yu-Ain's formulation (that's probably why I consider myself conservative) but here's a great question:

It's my belief that federalism is better for most people but is less likely to protect minorities. And it's important to note that who's in the minority varies from locale to locale.

I understand (though don't always agree with) the progressive faith in federal govt. power to protect what they consider basic human rights. We differ on what those rights may be, but I do see their concern. It may be that even being female, my tolerance for treating people differently (discrimination) is greater than that of your average progressive.

Theoretically at least, groups who are ill treated b/c of their minority status in one locale can band together to increase their power (enclaves, if you will, where they are NOT in the minority... and where they may be able to get away with treating other groups the way they found intolerable when they were outnumbered :p).

Concentrating power in the federal govt. has a homogenizing effect most conservatives don't like. But with the changing demographics in many states, a return to federalism might well result in whites being treated badly where they are in the minority. The older I get, the more I'm convinced that tribalism is inbred into the human race. It has obvious survival value but it's also enormously destructive in some of its manifestations.

Posted by: Cass at February 1, 2013 12:01 PM

That's not necessarily a strong criticism of federalism; it might be a strong criticism of secession. But under a federal system, you're free to move from one part of the federation to another; so if changing demographics did lead to oppressive systems, you can shift house.

Indeed, that's just what happened in the 1970s: we call it "White Flight," but it was nothing other than a movement away from areas where blacks were attaining larger amounts of political power, and putting policies in place that whites didn't like. So they moved to the suburbs, which were more comfortable to them, and where they could set rules they preferred.

The problem for me was that these suburbanites eventually wanted to move into what had been a nice rural county, and change the rules to suit city folk. That's a problem of federalism (and democracy): the majority rules, even when they're treading on people who have been there longer and have a way of life they'd prefer to continue living.

Posted by: Grim at February 1, 2013 12:09 PM

That's why I said the lowest level possible. Some things must be done at higher levels. The military is the obvious one that must be done at the Country level. And our experience with Poll Taxes and literacy tests for voting have demonstrated that not everything can be pushed down to the local levels.

But Prohibition showed the opposite. National prohibition caused no shortage of disasterous side effects that didn't and haven't happened when counties decide for themselves to go dry or not.

Posted by: Yu-Ain Gonnano at February 1, 2013 12:18 PM

That's a problem of federalism (and democracy): the majority rules, even when they're treading on people who have been there longer and have a way of life they'd prefer to continue living.

I think that's always going to be a problem regardless of the form of government because it's another facet of human nature. More people = louder voice = more power, even under a more autocratic system (autocrats still have to worry about rebellions, so if the malcontents reach a critical mass they're a threat).

I've been thinking a lot about the problems we face these days, and most of them seem more attributable to tribalism than anything else. And I"m not sure that if we could wave a wand and restore an older version of American government (but not change the current demographics), those problems would go away.

IOW, I'm really not sure it's the system that's the problem. I think the system responds to other forces, like demographics and culture and technology. I don't think merely imposing a different system on top of our current culture would necessarily change things all that much.

Most of our conversations have sort of rested on the assumption that it was the *system* that was the problem, but my growing sense is that the system is a symptom and the problem is actually us (the culture).

This is really just a twist on the old maxim about democracy being unsuited to an amoral populace. What bothers me is that I see conservatives as arguing for freedom as some sort of moral absolute, and I don't think that's right. Societies are organic - they change incrementally. If the culture no longer reigns in individualism, the government simply steps into the shoes society or culture used to occupy.

Not saying this is good, but I think maybe we have our focus all wrong.

Posted by: Cass at February 1, 2013 01:07 PM

If the culture no longer reigns in individualism, the government simply steps into the shoes society or culture used to occupy.

You could also turn this around and say that as government begins to step into those shoes, there's less incentive for culture/society to fight to stay in them (the crowding out effect). But I suspect that what starts government intervention moving is a power vacuum in the areas culture abandoned.

Posted by: Cass at February 1, 2013 01:10 PM

Granted that the culture and demographics are a huge part of the problem, there remains a systemic issue. The culture doesn't write the deployment orders for the Navy, for example; it doesn't appoint Secretaries of State or Defense, nor does the culture serve to confirm them, nor does it have the power to exercise formal oversight operations (e.g., the culture lacks access to classified materials, which make up almost all of the decision-making of our foreign policy and military apparatus).

So yes; but at the same time, also, no. :)

Posted by: Grim at February 1, 2013 01:26 PM

"There must be some system that encourages, if not perfect virtue from leadership, at least more than this. If there is nothing better from democracy nor elitism than this, then maybe we should reconsider anarchy."
- Grim

The problem is not in the systems nor in our stars (candidates); the problem is in us.

"Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people."
- John Adams

This has been demonstrated as true beyond argument to all with a sufficient interest in matters more heady than themselves.

“The supreme function of statesmanship is to provide against preventable evils.”
- Enoch Powell

A national identity, society, and culture, that had been based on Anglo-Saxon political philosophy is not one that can survive multiculturalism. The importation into the country of those who have no greater interest in the country then wealth or welfare and/or to whom the principles upon which the country had been made are antithetical to theirs, and furthermore exhibit a hostility to ours, should have no place here – none, nada, لا شيء.

"The problems, I think, are ones of human nature and of the undeniable truth that we learn best by screwing things up and learning from our mistakes."
- Cass

Where there is no sin, where there are no wrongs, there are no judgments. Judgment may be used only in the event someone insists there are so such things.

Posted by: George Pal at February 1, 2013 01:42 PM

"The problem is not in the systems nor in our stars (candidates); the problem is in us."

A kind of bedrock belief of conservatives is usually that institutions guide character. Cass has been talking about that extensively in the comments to a recent post, and I won't attempt to better her on the subject.

If the problem is "us," then the problem must also be the institutions. They aren't doing what we want institutions to do -- guiding and developing the character of the people in virtuous ways.

Posted by: Grim at February 1, 2013 01:51 PM

Grim,

Yes the problem is in our institutions. I should like to hear of just one institution, one, that is not sufficiently corrupt so as to be mostly corrupt – I include the under the heading 'institutions' all that purport to be Christian. I noted recently the Boy Scouts had capitulated to the Gay Agenda. It must be that the Gay Agenda has greater sway in this country than does Christian influence. And it's no wonder - they are battling a paper tiger - a corrupt, if paper tigers can be so, paper tiger.

Posted by: George Pal at February 1, 2013 02:49 PM

"It may be that even being female, my tolerance for treating people differently (discrimination) is greater than that of your average progressive."

That's interesting. It had the opposite effect on me. Being female is just about the only experience I have of being tempted to sign on for a strong centralized government in order to protect myself against a local majoritarian belief that I should accept a subordinate status. (I'm talking about decades ago, of course. I don't detect much of a majoritarian bias in that direction any more.) But whenever I'm tempted to eliminate the federal government altogether, I remember when it seemed that only federal intervention could accomplish something like protecting the lives of black people who wanted to ensure their right to vote, or their right to attend a better school.

I don't pretend to have an answer for the danger of majoritarian tyranny in a democratic society. The only answer that seems plausible is a variation on the Constitution's separation of powers: I'd like the government to be only one among a variety of powerful institutions, no one of which can get too big for its britches. It will be a less nimble and efficient power that way, which is a price I accept in every situation short of a major war or epidemic.

Posted by: Texan99 at February 1, 2013 03:11 PM

I don't pretend to have an answer for the danger of majoritarian tyranny in a democratic society.

That's what a constitutionally limited republic was supposed to do.

"Thou shalt only do *this*. All else thou shalt not do."

Posted by: Yu-Ain Gonnano at February 1, 2013 03:20 PM

It doesn't matter how many people don't like what you say, the .gov still can't put you in jail. Keith Olbermann has still not been locked in an airless cell with the frilly panties of oppression pulled over his head.

Oh wait...

Posted by: Yu-Ain Gonnano at February 1, 2013 03:26 PM

Keith Olbermann has still not been locked in an airless cell with the frilly panties of oppression pulled over his head.

We can hope, now that the Obama administration seems hell bent on doing all the things to brave, truth-telling truth to powerers that Bush was only accused of :p

Posted by: Cass at February 1, 2013 05:22 PM

"We see through such a narrow lens, taking the unprecedented prosperity and security we've experienced as "normal", and wonder why things look so dismal right now? And people in other countries look at what dismays us and think, 'Maybe someday I could have that....'"

Happiness lies not in having what you want.
It lies in wanting what you have.

A lesson Americans as a whole have long forgotten.
0>;~{

Posted by: DL Sly at February 1, 2013 06:19 PM

You consort with software?
*thud*

My son and I were discussing this last week; why America was so blessed and still the only place in the world to live.

There is no place like home. While I think there is something intrinsically special about this land, the ideals and doctrine that our founders dared to experiment with could establish this type of republic anywhere in the world or the universe.

Except Antarctica. The penguins rule.

Posted by: PuffOnMeds at February 1, 2013 10:27 PM

James P. Hogan, "Moon Flower", a utopian science fiction novel about why man chooses the short-sighted goals rather than the long-sighted ones. It's not really one of his best works, there's lots of handwavium quantum physics exploitation to rationalize our misbehavior. That's what it is, though. Misbehavior.


I saw it this afternoon at the car dealer's. Lady (technical term for human female with mink, rings, and dog in a bag) drove her car in, no appointment, and wanted the body work repaired instantly. Dealer doesn't have those parts in stock, will have them Tuesday. None of the dealers in a hundred miles has them (plastic body parts break, can't be bent back.) Her car was safe to drive, they were sorry. She went off on a long tirade. She eventually left, almost hitting another customer (human) as she blew through the opening doors.


We do not think. We want. We rationalize.


Her arrival had interrupted my being checked out and paying my bill. When she left, I looked at the two service writers and the mechanic and said "I'm going to go get a cup of coffee and calm down after that. Don't worry, I can spend another half hour letting the new windshield dry." I came back a bit later and they thanked me for having done so.


All of us do this, at times (both the good and the bad behaviors); our culture, though, usually rewards the bad behavior.

Posted by: htom at February 1, 2013 10:55 PM

And when I was in Scouting in the 50's and 60's it was not a Christian organization and it did have both gay Scouts and (I suspect) some gay Scoutmasters. Nothing wrong with either. Pedophile Scoutmasters I have a problem with, gay or straight, male or female, Christian or not (and actually Scoutmaster or not.)

Posted by: htom at February 1, 2013 11:00 PM

This is all fine. Since all laws are mutable then you should have no problems with any of my actions.

I do not recognize anyone's recourse to the law when they do not recognize existing law.

Moot.

Posted by: Allen at February 4, 2013 01:37 AM

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