This is an invitation to any reader of this blog who would like to discuss liberty and democracy, two mythic symbols of both the American mixed enterprise system and the limited tyranny we call a constitutional democracy. I would like to inquire about the manner in which we justify our negotiated positions using arguments more appropriate to the polar positions. In dialectical terms, does the synthesis in the particular struggle between liberty and democracy have any theoretical support aside from the arguments of the thesis and the antithesis?
I hope that such a discussion will help me clearly think about a course I am designing for the fall semester, so I am deeply appreciative of any clarifications, speculations, and bibliographic guidance. Aside from this selfish motive, one of the initial intentions for this blog was to provide a low stakes space for debates and discussions of just this sort. And a dialogue about the internal contradictions between democracy and liberty may be fruitful for others as well. (Besides, how much more “low stakes” could this opportunity be, with the possibility of even anonymous comments?)
The set up: If “pure” democracy is, at its essence, a system by which a majority wields power over a minority; and if “pure” liberty is, essentially, the state of being free from the oppression of any other group or individual, then is it far fetched to describe democracy and liberty as near opposites, at least in their ideological forms? A libertarian goal may be to restrict the tyrannical devices of a majority, thereby protecting the liberty of even the smallest minority. And a democratic mandate for the “greater good,” may ignore injustices done to a minority.
The compromise that has been successfully struck between liberty and democracy to form rather workable (if constantly renegotiated) systems of economy and governance seems to function despite any legitimating arguments of its own. Certainly we could all argue the justifications for democracy as a legitimacy-providing-approach. And we can all, presumably, argue the case of freedom, especially the freedoms of “life, liberty” and the pursuits of things like pleasure and profit. But libertarian ideas and democratic ideas have been used against the compromise positions, the syntheses, such as “constitutional democracy” and “state regulated free enterprise system,” the very compromise positions that make the whole system function.
And I recognize that nothing yet in this observation is new. We have heard some decry regulations of industrial emissions on private property using libertarian arguments involving property rights and free enterprise. And we have heard others argue to empower elected officials to impose motorcycle helmet laws, decency standards, and birth control regulations on society, under the notion of electoral will. But how can we use either utilitarian or libertarian arguments to justify the magnitude of the compromises? How progressive should be a tax policy? How much head protection should be enforced on motorcycle riders? How many crude expressions can be tolerably included in the script of a PG-13 film?
My question might involve positivism, pragmatism, or utilitarianism, in this struggle against the synthesis by the alliance of the thesis and the antithesis. And I must admit to being unsure of how to phrase the question.
But when we apply this struggle between liberty and democracy to economics, my yet un-phrased question may become clearer. Living in a hypothetical cardboard box, I may wonder why my neighbors’ homes are all MacMansions. The democratic ideal of “equality” might suggest to me that unequal distribution of wealth is wrong. If each of us has an unalienable equal vote, then ultimately the only way someone might succeed in gaining more than one share of society’s stuff would be through the mechanism of voluntary relinquishment.
On the other hand, now that my neighbor has finally paid off his hypothetical law school loans, he considers it only fair and just that his MacMansion is the biggest on the block. He thinks, frankly, that the cops should move me and my cardboard box into another zoning district.
Obviously, both of these attitudes, mine and my neighbor’s, can be rationalized. I shout “democracy” while my neighbor in the mansion screams “liberty.” Yet, because there are enough of both kinds of people in the social mix, mansions can exist relatively near huts. A compromise position arises. This compromise, barely tolerable to both of us, endures for so long as a majority of people eat, find shelter, and safety. Hence, the underpinning rationalization for the system seems to be utilitarian. Once the majority (or powerful enough minority) is not eating, sheltered, and safe, then the system fails, property gets redistributed, and aggregate wealth generation suffers.
So must we consider this compromise between liberty and democracy through utilitarian bifocals? Are there better justifications, rationalizations, and ethical systems “out there” that might better theorize this tentative synthesis beyond the “greater good for the greater number?” If so, can you direct me to another level of complexity in my thinking?
Comments, arguments, critique, insults, and complaints will be gracefully accepted.