Friday, February 23, 2007

Morality and Illiberal Democracy

by Tibor R. Machan

When the term "democracy" is used loosely, as in geopolitical discussions, it is used to mean that kind of political system in which everyone can have an input into decisions bearing on public affairs. What is left mostly unspecified is just what count as public affairs.

In a totalitarian state everything counts as the public realm; in a free country there are strict limits. In most existing countries today it's somewhere in between. Democratic decisions impact taxation, government regulation, international diplomacy, education and health policies, and whatever else the government is involved in. The idea of limiting the public realm has gone out of fashion and was never taken very seriously except by some few political theorists and even fewer politicians, let alone bureaucrats. Once in power, there is a very strong temptation to expand the reach of the power one has. People who get chummy with government tend not to like it when its powers are limited—they have agendas and such limitations could impede their efforts to carry them out.

And in democracies the politicians' constituency often urges government to expand its power so as to provide the voters with various benefits —ones, however, that have to be obtained by confiscating other people's resources, including their labor.

In short, democracy often tilts quite powerfully against morality. No, there is no consensus about what is the right morality for people to practice, but there are some general principles or virtues most of us support at least in the realm of private conduct. Few people champion robbing Peter so as to "help" out Paul—we usually believe that Peter needs to agree to the idea. Instead of confiscation, stealing, most would tend to endorse generosity and charity. The same is true about honesty—on the whole, other than in exceptional cases, most of us value straight talk and have contempt for liars. I think the same can be said about respecting the liberty of others—we hire them if we would like them to work for us and do not coerce them into doing such work. Millions of others do valuable labor but we tend to consider it wrong to conscript this labor for our benefit.

So while there are disagreements about various moral matters—abortion, assisted suicide, child-raising and so forth—there is a very large sphere of agreement, too. Yet when we look at the way democracy functions in most countries, it is in these areas of basic moral agreement where a serious discord is evident. Democratic decisions do, in fact, lead to robbing Peter so as to "help" out Paul. (I use the scare quotes because one can hardly call forcing people to part with their resources bone fide help given to anyone! This is why government cannot be compassionate!) Democratic decision making routinely endorses conscripting people's labor, limiting their liberty, making them act as they do not choose to even when they are not violating anyone's rights, and so forth. In short, illiberal, unlimited democracy is routinely in conflict with standards of morality or ethics.

In practical terms this means that most countries are replete with public policies that are out and out immoral ... yet widely accepted, too. Is it so curious, then, that young people in these countries get mixed messages about how they ought to conduct themselves? If it is OK for politicians and bureaucrats to make promises they not only will not but cannot keep, who is to communicate any objections to this in how young people comport themselves toward each other and their elders? Why should they not lie when governments do so all the time? If it is OK for democratically established public policies to violate strictures of ethics—let's take Peter's wealth (he has too much, he doesn't need it so much, she is using it badly, etc., and so forth) and transfer it to Paul (but take a good chunk on the way to pay for our diligent transfer efforts)—why should young people abstain from stealing? What if, especially, they get peer approval—isn't that like democracy, after all?

Throughout the schools in most Western countries democracy is hailed day in and day out but at the same time some of the worst kind of human conduct is carried out in democracy's name, with the democratic process's sanction. Does this not tell those students that, well, when there is wide consensus for breaching morality and ethics, it's just fine to perpetrate the breach? So go ahead and cheat, copy other's tests, plagiarize, bully some kids, steal from a few, and so on. I would think it does.

It seems clear to me that if one expects the younger generation to grow up to be decent people, illiberal democracy isn't helping to facilitate this.

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