Democracy, Coercion, & Liberty
I’m afraid that in our recent discussion of democracy and coercion the conversation tended to hew toward the relative merits of democracy rather than on what I think was my more important point: namely, that all societies require coercion in order to exist, even anarchistic ones or night watchmen states.
The coercion present in those societies would mostly be designed to prevent other forms of government. Hopefully they’d be designed to protect against various forms of autocracy, but they would also by necessity be designed to bulwark stable rules and individual liberties against the vagaries of democracy.
The question then, for me, becomes one of balance. I’m not exactly in thrall to the notion of majority rule. I’m equal parts egalitarian and skeptical of any and every form of populism. I find myself in the awkward position of tending to agree with libertarians on many, many economic and social issues, but then simply not seeing eye to eye when it comes to redistribution.
In a society that is very libertarian, how do we create a system that is fair enough and humane enough to be sustainable? A system with too great a degree of inequality of opportunity or outcome is not a politically viable system. Redistribution of some kind, if only to create stability, strikes me as pretty fundamentally important to the bigger picture, whatever your views of liberty, property rights, and so forth. Ideology gets in the way of pragmatism – on every side of the political spectrum.
I am constantly drawn to extreme positions. I am constantly reminded, when I go that route, that I am too much the pragmatist to sign up. The extreme critiques are valuable and often they are more honest than what passes for moderate in our political system. But they are also often blind to the merits of other extreme positions, and so become myopic.
When I make the case for democracy, and level a critique of libertarian coercion, I am not simply taking aim at libertarians – nor am I advocating majority rule. I feel a strong connection to libertarian ideas, and maintain a strong aversion to unfettered democracy. Some level of coercion is necessary, even if that is to limit democracy or limit government. Maybe that coercion is a net good, but we should still call it what it is.
So I invariably return to talking about balance: how do we maintain a free market society, with limited government and protection of individual liberties, and avoid creating an inherently brittle system that is vulnerable to popular backlash? I think we combine the best aspects of a market economy and civil society within the framework of the welfare state. As technology advances rapidly, and the job market continues its eternal churning shift, this is more important than ever.
We can and should quibble about the details, and I think that’s where the recent discussion of pity-charity liberalism and neoliberalism has been taking place: what sort of welfare state do we want? What overlap do we want between civil society and the state? But too often I think we let ideology – especially in this country – hamper progress toward straightforward goals. This is particularly clear in our system of government, which promotes gridlock and therefore the worst sort of special-interest influenced bipartisanship, rather than efficiency and accountability.
One more thing: I think what I’m driving at, somewhere in all of this, is that I see truth in extreme positions that is perhaps not present elsewhere. But I think this truth can also mask certain blindness. Crafting a “moderate” position that isn’t bullshit, though, requires a healthy respect of the extremes.