Wednesday, March 02, 2005

Column on Political Rights

What Happened to Political Rights?

Tibor R. Machan

Political rights are the rights of citizens to take part in political
affairs. But that doesn?t tell us much?it depends on what count as
political affairs. Today, unfortunately, nearly anything can become
political. The US Constitution and the constitutions of many nations
around the globe no longer limit the scope of the political. One can
practically vote on anything, lobby for anything, legislate anything, so
long as there are enough or loud enough voices agitating about the matter.

This is why democracy today has become an illiberal device, one by which
liberty itself is imperiled. The result is that democracy is imperiled,
too, since majorities will at times vote to eliminate all opposition, so
the minorities will become disenfranchised.

A movement spreading political rights is afoot, supported by the very
prestigious Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen of Harvard University?s Department
of Economics. It is called the capability movement. Sen advocates the
spread of political rights, which at first sounds the right thing to do.
Surely everyone in a country needs to have his or her right to take part
in the political process protected. This is simply the extension of one?s
right to liberty, the liberty to weigh in on political matters.

Trouble is that by ?politics? Sen and his followers around the globe,
including the United Nations, have in mind any issue that concerns people.
Sen?s comments about democracy make the point clear: ?Democracy can make,
I think, three major contributions to a country. First, since political
freedom is an important freedom, the freedom to participate, to speak and
to vote is part and parcel of human freedom that we have reason to value.
Democratic freedoms have intrinsic importance, no matter what else they
achieve.? He goes on: ?Second, a democratic political system is
instrumentally important, both (1) because it gives the rulers the
incentive to respond to problems and predicaments of the public (the
government has to take note of opposition criticism as well as the
possibility of electoral defeat), and (2) because information becomes more
easily available and shared with democratic practice.? Finally, he adds,
?Third, through allowing and encouraging public discussion, democratic
political systems can help the formation of values. For example, the
importance of gender equality or of protecting minority rights or of
taking note of inequalities in the distribution of economic fortunes or
social benefits can become more fully understood through forceful
democratic dialogue and discussion - but all this can be suppressed if
political freedoms and electoral politics are suspended.?

Now notice, first of all, the slip of tongue where Sen says that
democratic systems ?allow? public discussion. In fact, such discussion is
a matter of one?s right, not someone?s permission. More important,
however, is the view that ?through forceful democratic dialogue and
discussion? such issues as ?taking note of inequalities in the
distribution of economic fortunes or social benefits can become more fully
understood.? Just what does this come to?

Simply that democracy in Sen?s mind?which I need to stress is a very
influential mind these days?really has to do with a sort of Hobbesian war
of all factions against all factions for whatever goodies there are to be
distributed and equalized. What this does to democracy is make it into a
war zone where, in the end, some faction can win at the expense of the

Mind you, the intention behind this, especially in the case of Professor
Sen?who has been deeply concerned with poverty, especially famines, all
his career?is decent enough: by making it possible for all to take part in
politics, the least well off will have a chance to obtain what they need.
The problem is, however, that in a limitless democratic polity there will
indeed be ?forceful democratic dialogue? and a lot more, which tends to
favor not the poor but those with savvy, with the expertise to get what
they want from the government.

This is what the theorists of public choice have demonstrated over many
years. Led by another Nobel Laureate, Professor James M. Buchanan of
George Mason University?who, sadly, is not as influential as Sen?they have
show that politicians and bureaucrats know all too well which side of
their bread is well buttered. That is the side that favors the wealthy and
powerful factions of society. In short, a bloated democracy is not only
unstable, unjust, but also bad for those who lack clout.

Instead of such a system, a constitutional democracy, which limits the
scope of politics so that people cannot deploy the system to rob or
conscript Peter for the sake of Paul, is far more desirable. And it is,
most of all, more just. It rests on the idea of basic rights to one?s
life, liberty and property, of which political rights are but a limited
albeit important part.

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