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More Democraphilia from Wilkinson

August 12, 2009

Looks like we’ve got ourselves a good old-fashioned libertarian throwdown! Wilkinson argued that democracy was key to “real freedom,” which charter cities cannot provide. Kling offers a definition of freedom, “absence of monopoly,” under which democracy was certainly not key. Now Wilkinson is questioning Kling’s definition, and goshdarnit, he’s standing up for the importance of voice. Now, if this were a debate round, I’d be happy to go line-by-line, but I do have a book to write, and Kling is perfectly capable of defending himself. So let’s just zoom in one part of Wilkinson’s post that is extremely revealing:

And I would also say, though perhaps Arnold would not, that citizens of a state do not have “real freedom” if they are denied the right to voice their opinion about the laws, or are denied the right to have some formal role in shaping the system in which they live their lives. (bold mine)

These are two completely separate things, and it’s bizarre for Wilkinson to lump them together, because they get to the heart of whether or not democracy is key to “real freedom.” I, and I think Kling, and Patri, and everyone else, would agree that you don’t have “real freedom” if you are unable to voice your opinion about the laws of your country. That’s freedom of speech.

However, whether or not you have a formal role in shaping the system in which you live your life is a question of power, not freedom. To borrow from Charles Stuart, by way of Mencius (ironically discussing this exact predilection of Wilkinson’s…)

Truly I desire their liberty and freedom as much as anybody whomsoever; but I must tell you their liberty and freedom consists of having of government, those laws by which their life and their goods may be most their own. It is not for having a share in government, sir, that is nothing pertaining to them. A subject and sovereign are clear different things.

Do you feel less “free” in Amsterdam than you do in New York City? I don’t. I certainly feel like I have a lot more freedom in Amsterdam. But yet, by Wilkinson’s definition, I should feel less free – because I don’t have a formal role in shaping Amsterdam’s system.

Wilkinson might try to get out of that by saying that they should be able to shape “the system in which they live their lives.” But even under that interpretation, that would still mean that no expat could experience true freedom. As Patri wrote yesterday: democracy is a mechanism, freedom an outcome. If you define the right to shape your political system AS freedom, then congratulations, you’ve defined your way to victory, but you’ve hardly proven your point.


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8 Comments
  1. August 12, 2009 11:44 pm

    Will,

    Please show me where exactly I have argued that democracy is “key” to real freedom? You make it sound as if I have argued that democracy is constitutive of freedom, or some such thing, but I have not.

    I agree with Patri that democracy is a means, not an end. There are indeed very illiberal democracies. But, as a matter of fact, the freest places in the world are liberal democracies. To acknowledge the fact that freedom is generally greatest in democratic countries does not imply that democracy is necessary for freedom, and I don’t think I even implied that it is implied. In the very post you cite, I warily admit that freedom in some places might be best served not by first becoming democratic, but by their first installing or improving their market institutions.

    I don’t think tourists or expats are less free than voting citizens, if they aren’t. But places where citizens have no more democratic rights than a tourist as a matter of fact tend to be the least free places. It’s just true! It’s okay to admit it.

    My view of democracy is basically the same as Mises and Hayek modified by the insights of Arrow, Olson, Buchanan, Tullock, et al. I’m exasperated by the idea that so many libertarians out there find something mildly scandalous about the market liberal tradition of defending the utility of democracy. Anyway, I have a distinct sense that the argument some folks seem to want to have about democracy is standing in for the good old debate between statists and anarchists. Are we not having the real debate because we’re tired of having it, or for some other reason?

    I’m a liberal meliorist who doesn’t think nation-states are likely to go anywhere and who wants them to be governed in a way that does the best possible for freedom and prosperity. I understand the utopian aspirations that animate this blog, and I wholeheartedly support experiments in living and jurisdictional competition. But it is precisely the empirical spirit some of you profess to uphold (when in an evangelizing mode — some of the thousand blooming nations will be democratic!) that leads me to stand by the well-tested success of liberal democracy. If there is some non-state, or non-democratic mode of governance demonstrated to do better, I’ll happily acknowledge it. But, as one might say when throwing down, put up or shut up.

    • Will Chamberlain permalink
      August 13, 2009 12:41 am

      “Please show me where exactly I have argued that democracy is “key” to real freedom? You make it sound as if I have argued that democracy is constitutive of freedom, or some such thing, but I have not.”

      I think the quotation provided in my original post is sufficient. If you are arguing that having “the right to have some formal role in shaping the system in which they live their lives” is a prerequisite to possessing real freedom, then you are arguing that democracy is a necessary prerequisite to freedom, imho. I guess you could argue that there are non-democratic systems that preserve the citizens “formal role in shaping the system” but I don’t know what those would be…feel free to enlighten me.

      “In the very post you cite, I warily admit that freedom in some places might be best served not by first becoming democratic, but by their first installing or improving their market institutions.”

      Indeed, but you then continue to argue that this liberalizing of markets will LEAD to democracy – wondering if “liberal democrats do the most for liberal democracy by promoting market authoritarianism…” (which is a clever point, fwiw.)

      “I don’t think tourists or expats are less free than voting citizens, if they aren’t. But places where citizens have no more democratic rights than a tourist as a matter of fact tend to be the least free places. It’s just true! It’s okay to admit it.”

      I’m glad we both agree on not just one, but two things! But I have trouble reconciling this statement with statement that: ” citizens of a state do not have “real freedom” if they are denied the right…to have some formal role in shaping the system in which they live their lives.”

      “Anyway, I have a distinct sense that the argument some folks seem to want to have about democracy is standing in for the good old debate between statists and anarchists. Are we not having the real debate because we’re tired of having it, or for some other reason?”

      I can only speak for myself on this one. I’m not an anarchist, so that’s not the reason I’m having the debate. Rather, what I’m trying to demonstrate is that it is not the precise form of government that matters, but rather the outcome generated by that government. If we care about outcomes, then creating an ecosystem in which a lot of types of governments can be tried out is what we should be looking for, rather than trying to get the entire world to move towards democracy.

      “I’m a liberal meliorist who doesn’t think nation-states are likely to go anywhere and who wants them to be governed in a way that does the best possible for freedom and prosperity.”

      I also want nation-states to be governed in a way that does the best possible for freedom and prosperity. I just believe that getting rid of the high barrier to entry in the government industry is the way that happens, not agitating for policy change. Additionally, I don’t think that democracy is necessarily the best route possible to freedom and prosperity. I accept Churchill’s maxim (with some notable exceptions), but see it as a starting point as opposed to a stopping point.

      “But it is precisely the empirical spirit some of you profess to uphold (when in an evangelizing mode — some of the thousand blooming nations will be democratic!) that leads me to stand by the well-tested success of liberal democracy. If there is some non-state, or non-democratic mode of governance demonstrated to do better, I’ll happily acknowledge it. But, as one might say when throwing down, put up or shut up.”

      Singapore and Liechtenstein both seem to work fantastically. It’s impossible to demonstrate that those forms of government would do better if applied to every country on earth – we can’t create an alternate history of earth in which every government was run by clones of Prince Alois. This sort of demand is one constantly made of libertarians – “Show me a free market health care system that works better than the NHS” – and it’s no more pertinent in that debate than it is in this one.

    • August 13, 2009 12:45 am

      My guess is he’s referring to: “Unlike many of my libertarian friends, I do not think democracy is incidental to liberty.”, although perhaps you just meant that as a purely empirical statement?

      “But, as a matter of fact, the freest places in the world are liberal democracies.” – Net freedom, sure. But it seems awfully telling to me that the economically freest places in the world are illiberal – the top 2 in 2009 by the Heritage Foundation Index are Hong Kong and Singapore.

      “I don’t think tourists or expats are less free than voting citizens, if they aren’t” – but this contradicts what WillC quoted from your post – that ” that citizens of a state do not have “real freedom” if they are denied … the right to have some formal role in shaping the system in which they live their lives.” Tourists and non-citizen expats have no formal role in shaping the system in which they live their lives.

      I will respond to the rest in a brief post :).

    • August 13, 2009 12:58 am

      p.s. I find anarchy to be theoretically beautiful, and worth trying, but think there is a substantial chance that it would not work in practice – that only territorial monopolies are a governance equilibrium. So I don’t think this is anarchy vs. minarchy. On the other hand, I can see how we could look at this as a sort of generalized anarchy vs. minarchy debate, in the sense of “status quo vs. what is possible”.

  2. August 12, 2009 11:49 pm

    Votes and elections and representative assemblies are not democracy; they are at best machinery for carrying out democracy. – Hilaire Belloc.

    People who think that elections are democracy simply don’t know what democracy is.

Trackbacks

  1. Liberal Democracy: D- or B+? « Let A Thousand Nations Bloom
  2. Exit, Voice, and Liberty « Brad Taylor’s Blog
  3. Designing Ideas for Democracy: Conceptualizing Charter Cities | brianfrank.ca

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