On The Counting Of Heads



Jaybird is Birdmojo on Xbox Live and Jaybirdmojo on Playstation's network. He's been playing consoles since the Atari 2600 and it was Zork that taught him how to touch-type. If you've got a song for Wednesday, a commercial for Saturday, a recommendation for Tuesday, an essay for Monday, or, heck, just a handful a questions, fire off an email to AskJaybird-at-gmail.com

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127 Responses

  1. Avatar Jaybird says:

    Douglas Adams said it best:

    [An extraterrestrial robot and spaceship has just landed on earth. The robot steps out of the spaceship…]

    “I come in peace,” it said, adding after a long moment of further grinding, “take me to your Lizard.”

    Ford Prefect, of course, had an explanation for this, as he sat with Arthur and watched the nonstop frenetic news reports on television, none of which had anything to say other than to record that the thing had done this amount of damage which was valued at that amount of billions of pounds and had killed this totally other number of people, and then say it again, because the robot was doing nothing more than standing there, swaying very slightly, and emitting short incomprehensible error messages.

    “It comes from a very ancient democracy, you see…”

    “You mean, it comes from a world of lizards?”

    “No,” said Ford, who by this time was a little more rational and coherent than he had been, having finally had the coffee forced down him, “nothing so simple. Nothing anything like to straightforward. On its world, the people are people. The leaders are lizards. The people hate the lizards and the lizards rule the people.”

    “Odd,” said Arthur, “I thought you said it was a democracy.”

    “I did,” said ford. “It is.”

    “So,” said Arthur, hoping he wasn’t sounding ridiculously obtuse, “why don’t the people get rid of the lizards?”

    “It honestly doesn’t occur to them,” said Ford. “They’ve all got the vote, so they all pretty much assume that the government they’ve voted in more or less approximates to the government they want.”

    “You mean they actually vote for the lizards?”

    “Oh yes,” said Ford with a shrug, “of course.”

    “But,” said Arthur, going for the big one again, “why?”

    “Because if they didn’t vote for a lizard,” said Ford, “the wrong lizard might get in. Got any gin?”


    “I said,” said Ford, with an increasing air of urgency creeping into his voice, “have you got any gin?”

    “I’ll look. Tell me about the lizards.”

    Ford shrugged again.

    “Some people say that the lizards are the best thing that ever happened to them,” he said. “They’re completely wrong of course, completely and utterly wrong, but someone’s got to say it.”

    • Avatar Roger says:

      Thanks for sharing this perfect summary of democracy’s quest for the better lizard. This pretty much sums up everything I feel about politics and most of Elias’ posts. Lizard wars.Report

      • Avatar ThatPirateGuy says:

        I like democracy mostly because it allows for peaceful transitions of power.

        Non-peaceful power transitions are very unpleasant. This is all that democracy holds for me in terms of appeal, but that is quite sufficient.Report

  2. Avatar greginak says:

    Maybe the next symposium should be “If not democracy, then what???”
    For all the good questions about democracy that doesn’t lead to answer, which leads back to D is better then anything else.Report

    • Avatar Jaybird says:

      I would say that if the “Liberal” is there, it doesn’t matter whether there is Democracy, or Monarchy, or even Communism.

      It’s secondary, perhaps even tertiary.Report

      • Avatar Mike Schilling says:

        Democracy doesn’t mean that there’s voting. There have been lots of countries where there’s been voting. Once. After that, there’s either the same people in power forever, or bloody revolution, or perpetual civil war.

        Democracy means that, if you lose the vote, on the day you’re supposed to hand over the keys and go, you hand over the keys and go. That’s primary.Report

        • Avatar Jaybird says:

          Part of the issue with the government we have is the sheer number of government positions that have nothing, nothing at all, to do with who wins what election. This guy wins, that guy wins… whatever. There are buildings that don’t even (and won’t ever) notice.

          That’s indicative of a bit of a problem.Report

          • Avatar Mike Schilling says:

            I don’t see how this isn’t a worse problem with a monarchy, or some other system that has no procedure for orderly change of government.

            And while I don’t think you meant the judiciary in particular, yes, life terms that can start at 40 are absurd.Report

            • Avatar Jaybird says:

              I’ve read that the upside of Monarchy is that nobody in the country is under any illusions about the legitimacy of the government telling people what to do.Report

              • Avatar Mike Schilling says:

                “For King and Country” is always meant ironically? I am dubious.

                Monarchy (think Jordan) has a definite advantage over thugogracy (Syria), since the ruler isn’t simply the most murderous of the various contenders.Report

              • Avatar Jaybird says:

                I imagine that “For King and Country” will sound a lot different after what’s-his-name takes the throne once Elizabeth becomes a Queen Emeritus or however it’s handled over there than it did, say, in 1930.

                I also wonder how much Jordan would look like Syria if it didn’t have “the consent of the governed”. (Black September was a hell of a thing, after all.)Report

              • Avatar Mike Schilling says:

                The UK, while technically a constitutional monarchy, is in reality as much a liberal democracy as the US. In other words, you’ve lost me.Report

              • Avatar tom van dyke says:

                I think this hangup on terms illustrates the underlying [overriding!] reality, O gentlepersons. In both the cases of the Hashemites of Jordan and the Alawites of Syria, a tyranny of the minority has/had the consent of the governed! Honest brokers of tyranny, who wouldn’t rather take their chances on a neutral tyranny rather than YOUR tyranny?!


                “When President Adams recommended a national “day of solemn humiliation, fasting, and prayer” in March 1799, political adversaries depicted him as a tool of establishmentarians intent on legally uniting a specific church with the new federal government. This allegation alarmed religious dissenters, such as the Baptists, who feared persecution by a state church.
                “A general suspicion prevailed,” Adams recounted a decade later, “that the Presbyterian Church [which was presumed to be behind the national day of prayer] was ambitious and aimed at an establishment as a national church.” Although disclaiming any involvement in such a scheme, Adams ruefully reported that he “was represented as a Presbyterian and at the head of this political and ecclesiastical project. The secret whisper ran through all the sects, ‘Let us have Jefferson, Madison, Burr, anybody, whether they be philosophers, Deists, or even atheists, rather than a Presbyterian President.’” Adams thought the controversy, which drove dissenters into Jefferson’s camp, cost him the election.”Report

              • Avatar James K says:

                after what’s-his-name takes the throne once Elizabeth becomes a Queen Emeritus or however it’s handled over there

                I think the word you’re after is “dead”.Report

              • Avatar Rod says:

                No. She can basically retire. Becomes the “Queen Mother.”Report

              • Avatar Trumwill Mobile says:

                I think the implication is that Charles becomes king over her dead body and not before.Report

          • Avatar Fnord says:

            You complain in the OP about the tyranny of the majority and the fickleness of the will of the people when it comes to liberal values. You throw out a quote about the popular will being Nero instead of Marcus Aurelius.

            And now the problem with modern democracy is that too many positions are insulated from the will of the people?Report

            • Avatar Jaybird says:

              I’ve had a nap so let me see if I can’t square that circle:

              Folks make a lot of assumptions about liberal democracy… one of the assumptions is that the latter term has a whole lot (or anything at all, really) to do with the former. Another assumption is that our country (These United States) provides a particularly good example of the phenomenon.

              The OP spent more effort tackling how the terms have very little overlap. Once we started getting into the nuts and bolts, it struck me how very much of our government is completely immune to (aloof from?) democracy.

              In either case, I’m glad we’re as Liberal as we are. That precludes a lot of options that either the mob might take as well as the ones the machine parts might take.Report

            • Avatar DensityDuck says:

              The point is that the system we’ve got now is the worst of both worlds–an inflexible bureaucracy that claims authority derived from the democratic process.Report

      • Avatar greginak says:

        To a great extent the idea of Democracy represents the aspirations to the kind of society we want. If we need liberalism to make any sort of society work, which i would generally agree with, then the question is how do we make that. Clearly it can be consiously created since two very succsessfuly late 20th/ early 21st century democracies, Japan and Germany, have sort of checkered pasts.Report

        • Avatar Jaybird says:

          The cultures pretty much had to have their previous cultures associated with great shame and then given a shiny new one to put on (coincidentally similarish to the one of the conquering country).Report

          • Avatar greginak says:

            Yeah but democracy and liberal culture are not just what we are given by history but the choice we make.Report

          • Avatar Tom Van Dyke says:

            France had King Louis XIV, then Robespierre, then Emperor Napoleon. Throughout it all they stayed French.

            As Chou en-Lai apocryphally said about the French Revolution, of Germany and Japan I’d say as well—it’s too soon to tell.Report

            • Avatar greginak says:

              To soon to tell can apply to humanity in general if you want it to.Report

              • Avatar Tom Van Dyke says:

                I’m not a fan but just stumbled on Steven Pinker’s 2002 Blank Slate free online. Relevant, I reckon.Report

              • Avatar Tom Van Dyke says:

                Ooops Day. Steven Pinker’s 2002 Blank Slate free online:


              • Avatar Burt Likko says:

                Wow. How is that not all kinds of copyright violation?Report

              • Avatar Maribou says:

                It is all kinds of copyright violation. Russia (despite its gung ho pursuit via Berne channels of stricter copyright laws for everyone else) is not exactly known for its stringent anti-piracy regime.

                Tom linking to it, however, is not afaik any kind of copyright violation. Reading it on our own computers, without downloading a permanent copy, may or may not consist of any kind of copyright violation, depending on who you ask – case law is ambiguous and has yet to catch up with the technologies involved.

                (I am of course not a lawyer and none of the above is legal advice. I did get a 99 in my Copyright for Librarians course though. And I enjoy discussing copyright far too much for someone who thinks the whole thing should be started over from scratch.)Report

        • Avatar Don Zeko says:

          “sort of checkered pasts” has got to be the best understatement of the day.Report

  3. Avatar damon says:

    “The problem is that, many many many times, “the voice of the people” is one that is more than happy enough to abandon freedom, individualism, equality, fraternity, and, yes, liberty at the drop of a hat. ”
    What is liberal democracy? You defined it. “An emphasis on freedom, individualism, and how no one is entitled to more standing under the law than anyone else. All that stuff. Freedom from meddling”
    Everything after this statement deviates from the above and should be tossed aside, but won’t because folks have lost their way….

    This is why I watch the crumbling of this country with a mix of amusement and sadness. Sadness that a once great country, vigorous and wealthy with industry and attitude that has fallen so far from its height. Amusement because one day I hope to explain to the mob that THEY alone are responsible for this, that it was predictable if they had just paid attention, and were not so quick to surrender what our predecessors had fought for. They’ve started a fire that will consume us all—with luck, I’ll get to see them realize that fact before the end.Report

    • Avatar Don Zeko says:

      “Amusement because one day I hope to explain to the mob that THEY alone are responsible for this, that it was predictable if they had just paid attention, and were not so quick to surrender what our predecessors had fought for. They’ve started a fire that will consume us all—with luck, I’ll get to see them realize that fact before the end.”

      Narcissism-as-Libertarianism, here we go.Report

    • Avatar Mike Schilling says:

      OK. When was the Golden Age that we are nowadays unworthy of?Report

      • Avatar ThatPirateGuy says:

        When you identify said golden age can we ask some non-white straight males with property if they agree about the goldeness of the age?Report

        • Avatar Liberty60 says:

          Actually, I was nodding in agreement with him, on the understanding that he was talking about the conservative assault on the traditions of the New Deal.
          Was he referring to something else?Report

          • Avatar Tom Van Dyke says:

            ” freedom, individualism, equality, fraternity, and, yes, liberty… ”

            These are not synonymous. They aren’t even necessarily compatible.

            Narcissism-as-Libertarianism, here we go.

            Uh oh. 2 on, none out. Now warming up in the bullpen, #54, James Hanley…Report

          • Avatar ThatPirateGuy says:

            Can we at least agree that when the papers declare a golden age, the should remember to put ‘opinions differ’ below the fold.Report

  4. Avatar wardsmith says:

    Was too busy writing my own OP (recently submitted) to read this, but coincidentally it seems to address some of these points JB. Naturally it has plenty of raw meat for the commentariat to quibble about. 😉

    We really really really need to dig down a bit on the term “liberal” because I’ve never seen it adequately defined. Needless to say, there will be many readers who won’t like my quotes’ definition. Hopefully I made it in under the wire.Report

    • Avatar Jaybird says:

      We really really really need to dig down a bit on the term “liberal” because I’ve never seen it adequately defined.

      If “all that crap” ain’t sufficient, I don’t know what would be.Report

    • Avatar Tom Van Dyke says:

      Aye, Ward. I started writing an OP and got stuck on “liberal”meself. Never finished, since the “tyranny of the majority” isn’t liberal, and much of the democratic world is surrendering its “popular sovereignty” to the EU, the Euro, and/or the UN, often without the people ever even getting a vote on it.


      “Most issues that matter to voters, such as health, education and policing, are handled by national parliaments. The EU deals mainly with arcane regulatory questions. But that is only part of the reason voters cannot see how their choice of MEP matters. Legislation is proposed by the European Commission, the EU’s civil service (led by an appointed college). Laws must then be approved by the Council of Ministers (where governments strike deals behind closed doors) and the European Parliament (where alliances shift from issue to issue). Differences must be resolved by haggling among all three bodies. The system provides lots of checks and balances. But voters cannot throw the bums out.”Report

      • Avatar greginak says:

        Those UN black helos really suck don’t they.Report

      • Avatar Stillwater says:

        Never finished, since the “tyranny of the majority” isn’t liberal,

        It can be. For example, if a subgroup embraces a cultural norm that is illiberal – slavery say – then enacting a policy eliminating it is clearly liberal even if it is enacted via the mechanism of popular consent, what you’re referring to as tyranny of the majority.

        Majority support expressed via voting isn’t sufficient for liberal policy. It isn’t necessary either. That’s why JB is distinguishing between the two. More to the point, tho, is that the idea of a “tyranny of the majority” confuses the role state power plays in shaping social arrangements with whether those arrangements are or are not liberal. Just because government imposes “the will of the people” doesn’t mean that doing so is inconsistent with liberalism. In fact, it confuses of liberalism as a set of interpersonal and cultural values and norms (which JB is focused on) with freedom from governance.

        Just because a society is free from governance doesn’t mean it’s liberal.Report

        • Avatar Tom Van Dyke says:

          Congrats, Stillwater, you’ve just argued for tyranny as liberty.

          I’m just having a little ironic fun, pointing out that you just reinforced the rhetorical difficulty here, and why I gave up at “liberal.” There was a conversation at my sub-blog that you can always tell a modern liberals because they never use the word “liberty” in any meaningful sense.

          What do I mean by “meaningful?” Exactly. And so it goes.Report

          • Avatar Stillwater says:

            I think you need to re-read what I wrote without your ideological filters set to 11. Our problems remain epistemological, no doubt.

            I’m sure you can find the argument I actually made in that comment if you wanted to.Report

          • Avatar Stillwater says:

            Also, you’re being incoherent here. You criticize me for having an incorrect conception of the word “liberal”, yet you claim that there is real difficulty in correctly defining that word. So: you think I’m wrong without any basis.

            Our problems remain epistemological.Report

            • Avatar Tom Van Dyke says:

              No, I wasn’t criticizing you, Stillwater, just having fun with the limitations of words. “Tyranny” is by its nature illiberal, so “tyranny of the majority” chokes liberal democracy in its crib rhetorically, and literally.Report

              • Avatar Stillwater says:

                Which is why “tyranny of the majority” is a useless phrase to use when talking about democracy, since the mechanism which justifies policy in a democracy is identified with tyranny. Even the initial vote to determine the rights and rules that the political process adheres to. The conclusion, then, is that democracy is fundamentally unjustified, and ultimately that any governance at all is unjustified.

                But that, as I mentioned in the first comment, is a strange conception of liberty (and hence, of liberalism): namely, that’s it’s restricted to freedom from governance. That’s anarchism, baby. And I don’t think you’re an anarchist.

                Are you?Report

              • Avatar Tom Van Dyke says:

                Freedom from governance? That’s your definition of liberty?

                That’s why these things never work with liberals.

                I say this tongue in cheek, Stillwater, but not completely. I do not hear modern [as opposed to classical] liberals speak of liberty in any way recognizable to a non-modern liberal.

                As for “tyranny of the majority,” it’s an OK rhetorical starting point for an argument. I’m not sure I want to detour the discussion into partisan specifics, but there are a number of issues—government initiatives—that can be argued against with the rhetoric of “tyranny of the majority.”

                As a more abstract one without getting into the current election issues, we all agree racial discrimination is bad. Illiberal. But is banning it liberal? Should the KKK or the HHH [Honky Haters of Harlem] be forced to take in members of other races?

                I believe I’m going to your point here that even such an obviously beneficient “tyranny of the majority” as banning racial discrimination is not liberal in a political sense.

                Again, just as an abstraction. Rachel Maddow played this one on Rand Paul.


                Using popular [and unmistakably nice] sentiments as a rhetorical weapon against the Big Bad Libertarian who dared speak honestly as if it were a intelligent discussion and not a partisan death match.

                My purpose here isn’t to argue the issue, Still, just to point out how even a slam dunk like banning racial discrimination doesn’t necessarily translate to “liberal.”Report

              • Avatar Stillwater says:

                Freedom from governance? That’s your definition of liberty?


                Tom, that’s the view I’m attributing to you until you define what you mean by the word “liberty”.

                I proposed a reductio on the concept of “tyranny of the majority” as a stand-alone concept: that if you take that concept seriously, and hold that tyranny of the majority (ie., democracy) is inconsistent with liberty, then no form of governance is justified at all. (I could flesh that argument out for you if you like!)

                But if so, then the person who argues that tyranny of the majority (ie., democracy) is inconsistent with liberty must understand liberty as being nothing other than freedom from governance.

                You accept that TotM (ie., democracy) is inconsistent with liberty (hopefully for more nuanced reasons than that “tyranny” is a word used on the phrase). Do you also believe that liberty = freedom from governance?Report

              • Avatar Tom Van Dyke says:

                “Freedom from governance? That’s your definition of liberty?” meant no.

                The Rachel Maddow-Ron Paul thing was much more promising. If you’re not interested, so be it.


              • Avatar Stillwater says:


                I read thru the Maddow-Paul linky, and I find it enlightening. About that Maddow-Paul dust-up – in which Paul was criticized for saying he wouldn’t have voted for the CRA of 1964 because it violated the rights of property owners – you wrote

                I believe I’m going to your point here that even such an obviously beneficient “tyranny of the majority” as banning racial discrimination is not liberal in a political sense.

                Now, I’m not going to challenge soundness of that view, but rather ask you why you think government intervention to prohibit racial discrimination in the private sector is not liberal in a “political” sense? If you agree with that claim, and limiting ourselves to only this issue, it’s because you agree that liberty is best understood as freedom from governance.Report

              • Avatar Tom Van Dyke says:

                Stillwater, TVD axed you to ax yrself [and mebbe even answer!]:

                As a more abstract one without getting into the current election issues, we all agree racial discrimination is bad. Illiberal. But is banning it liberal? Should the KKK or the HHH [Honky Haters of Harlem] be forced to take in members of other races?Report

              • Avatar Stillwater says:

                Hmmm. I ask you why you think that banning racial discrimination in the private sector isn’t liberal in the political sense, and you respond by asking me to ask myownself. That’s an interesting answer – unhelpful, counterproductive even – but not entirely unexpected.


              • Avatar Tom Van Dyke says:

                I missed the part where you said something. My fault.Report

              • Avatar Stillwater says:

                My purpose here isn’t to argue the issue, Still, just to point out how even a slam dunk like banning racial discrimination doesn’t necessarily translate to “liberal.”

                My example was that a subgroup engages in the practice of slavery, which I think is a slam dunk. You’re example is also a slam dunk, if a condition is met: the type of racial discrimination at issue is inconsistent with liberty. People can and probably will disagree about whether or not that condition is met for a specific type of racial discrimination, of course. But what they’re not disagreeing about is that if it’s met, governmental action is justified. (Or so it seems to me.)Report

              • Avatar Tom Van Dyke says:

                I’m not following you. Is banning murder the “tyranny of the majority?” Of course not. Is it “liberal?” Well, not by any useful definition. Therefore, your slavery analogy doesn’t fit.Report

              • Avatar Don Zeko says:

                It sounds to me like your saying that a “meaningful” definition of liberal could encompass a society with widespread slavery, or at least a rigid racial caste system.Report

              • Avatar Tom Van Dyke says:

                Thx for the help, Mr. Zeko. You settle this with Mr. Stillwater and get back to me. For the record, I’m personally opposed to slavery.Report

              • Avatar Don Zeko says:

                Well I’m glad that you aren’t pro-slavery, but that’s not the point of my comment. You keep being evasive about what you think Liberal means while dumping on Stillwater for his supposedly defective definition, but when you gesture at your own definition you come up with things that have obviously absurd implications: namely that a society with even incredibly severe and widespread oppression by private actors can still be considered liberal. So put forward at least a working definition or something before you go on about how Liberals don’t “talk meaningfully” about liberty.Report

              • Avatar Tom Van Dyke says:

                Don, I told you that’s why I gave up on a definition usable by both you and our libertarian friends here @ LoOG. But should a liberal want to try to attempt a definition of liberty that could please a libertarian, consider this a bleg.

                As I’m neither a liberal nor libertarian, I just sit back and watch a battle on this semi-monthly here @ LoOG.

                My only hint is that I see the family and the immediate community as the component molecules of “society,” of which I consider government the servant, not the ruler.

                namely that a society with even incredibly severe and widespread oppression by private actors can still be considered liberal.

                I dunno. The Maddow-Rand Paul thing: liberal or illiberal?Report

        • Avatar Jaybird says:

          I’d say that there’s quite a difference between “freedom from governance” and “freedom from meddling”.

          It’s just that I make little distinction between a thug putting a gun to your ribs and telling you that he’ll kill you and your dog if he catches you smoking marijuana and a duly-appointed governor signing a bill (voted upon by majority) into a law that sends the cops to your house to do the same.

          The fact that thugs might still put guns to your ribs in the absence of a police force doesn’t strike me as that much of a criticism of the overlap between the two.Report

          • Avatar Stillwater says:

            This comment is opaque to me.

            I mean, I accept that you don’t see a difference between a cop and a thug and all….Report

            • Avatar Jaybird says:

              I imagine that you might be able to appeal to the better nature of thugs.

              Edit: Just in case, as the above might be misinterpreted… The police have policy that they must follow, after all. Surely we don’t think that police should be able to use a whole lot of discretion when it comes to which laws they enforce in which parts of town. If the police find Person P breaking the law, it shouldn’t matter if Person P is black or white, a Police Officer, Mayor, or Vagrant, male or female, Christian, Muslim, Jew, or Atheist. The law is the law is the law.Report

              • Avatar Stillwater says:

                Still opaque, I think. Here’s what I’m getting from it:

                A society with no cops and thugs has more liberty than one with cops and thugs. Which seems to put you in the “liberty = freedom from governance” camp.

                That’s not surprising. You’re a libertarian, right? It is interesting that you’re going away from the minimal cops and courts baseline, tho, to something more extreme.Report

              • Avatar Jaybird says:

                Not exactly. I’d say that laws that are bad that are enforced by the government are tyrannous. Laws that are good that are enforced by the government are, duh, not tyrannous.

                Both, however, are “governance”. As such, “governance” does not contain any moral component whatsoever… and neither would the lack thereof.

                The “Liberal” portion is the interesting part. Liberal governance is good… Liberal anarchy would also be good.

                It’s neither the governance nor the anarchy that contains the moral component.

                Imagine, if you would, a society in which murder did not need to be banned… when you think about this society, how many of your thoughts are devoted to the form of government they have? (Precious few in mine, for the record… I spend most of my time thinking about what the culture would have to be like.)Report

              • Avatar Patrick Cahalan says:

                Wasn’t this part of the Firefly storyline?Report

              • Avatar Jaybird says:

                I believe they used the word “civilized”.Report

      • Avatar Burt Likko says:

        I agree that tyranny of the majority is an illiberal form of democracy. And a topic worth exploring.

        In framing the kick-off question for the symposium, I did deliberately leave “liberal democracy” undefined, although I have my own definition of that term which I proffered in my own post in which the opposite of “liberal” is “absolutist.” But there are other ways to approach the term and the subject and I think that for all the static some are throwing at the topic, leaving that flexibility out there has created value.

        So I’ll miss your post, Tom, and I wish you’d finish it.Report

        • Avatar Tom Van Dyke says:

          Burt, I was so inspired by your call to symposium I started writing immediately to get in on one of these tag-team things for a change. Then I realized I’d just finished the first few paragraphs of the first volume of my six-volume masterwork on liberal democracy.

          So to celebrate, I cracked a brew and put the ball game on. Since then, I can’t pick up the train of thought, so it just stands there, like Gulley Jimson and the feet.Report

          • Avatar Burt Likko says:

            A tall cool one is liquid drano for my writers’ block about 40% of the time. The other 60% of the time it becomes the catalyst for cracking open a second tall cool one; wash, rinse, repeat.Report

  5. I liked this, but wanted to point out that you’ve got a bit of a hanging sentence at the end there.Report

  6. Avatar Michael Drew says:

    This brings me to the idea that the culture of “Liberal Democracy” must be one where “Liberal” is the important part… if “Liberal” is there, then it doesn’t matter if there is a Democracy

    Does “brings me to” here mean “convinces me of”? I’m actually not entirely sure if you’re saying that in full voice here, or just throwing it out as an idea. Liberalism can be important to a person at the same time that the person thinks there is an inherent (or, say, with a justification apart from protecting liberty) imperative that governance be decided to some degree democratically as well. Independent values that may compete with each other where they meet can be held by the same person at the same time. That’s just being alive. You seem to be under the impression that the whole point of the democracy in liberal democracy is just the liberalism, and you’re right to point out that that’s just an unsatisfactorily indirect and undependable means to maintain liberal restraints on government. But the only reason (or so I thought) that we’re concerned with liberal democracy is because we do want liberalism and democracy… mixed in such a way that the essence of neither is lost, understanding that neither will be maximized, but knowing that we don’t desire that either is.

    What I’m not hearing in this symposium is much reckoning with why we’re concerned with the democracy part at all, culminating in this post which basically says, well, we’re not, at least not as an end or as an indispensable feature of the means that we choose to pursue whatever the end we’re saying is the end of liberal democracy.

    And no, I don’t have any post-worthy thoughts on that myself. I just have an intuition that it’s legitimate and right for people to desire that a significant degree of control over decision making affecting the public – in the state and elsewhere – be held by the public acting as a public body as expressed through individual preferences. If there isn’t agreement on that intuition, or if the view here is that on reflection it is not actually right and desirable that this be the case, but that, rather, democracy is simply valuable to the extent it furthers or sustains Liberalism (liberty), then I think we actually have a fairly fundamental schism (or maybe not much of one if that characterizes the view here at this point) about the value of democracy that no symposium is going to bridge, but that this one is valuable for having made clear.Report

  7. Avatar Kolohe says:

    maybe it’s better with small letters? ‘liberal democracy’?

    Myself, I use the phrase liberal democracy as shorthand for ‘a government with well developed institutions and procedures, where political pluralism reigns, and is correlated with a decent per capita GDP’. But #AGWWDIAPWPPRAICWADPCGDP makes an awkward hashtag, particularly on an iPhone.Report

  8. Avatar Kolohe says:

    It’s also my belief that a weak version of the ‘end of history’ hypothesis is correct.

    Liberal Democracy: like Old Milwaukee, it doesn’t get any better than this.Report

    • Avatar Jaybird says:

      That’s an essay I’d like to read.Report

    • Avatar greginak says:

      Liberal Democracy: Better then PBRReport

    • Avatar Burt Likko says:

      …my belief that a weak version of the ‘end of history’ hypothesis is correct.

      Can you flesh this out a bit? Like, in a guest post for the symposium? (Not that I’m pimping it or anything.)Report

      • Avatar Kolohe says:

        Thank you (plural) I’m flattered, but I don’t know if I have enough to work it out to a full post, and would be probably stealing ideas from other people that I can remember and so can’t attribute. (and also, I’ve never actually read Fukuyama)

        It’s just we’ve had this 6 – 10 thousand years of civilization, and now some 300 years of industrial society, and have tried all kinds of combinations of governmental and economic arrangements. Empirically, the one that’s been the winner is free markets supported by a system a political pluralism, rule of law, and some safety nets – in other words ‘liberal democracy’.

        Two caveats.
        1) Our empirical experience with ‘post-industrial’ society is not nearly as long, and things may need to change. But I don’t think so. (cue the cliche ‘worse form of government except for all others’)

        2) We are no longer dealing with ‘human’ societies, whether it be trans-human, artificial intelligence or whatever flavor of the singularity one would like. But by the same token that bounds the problem, you are no longer considering the best way to organize human societies if (when?) these developments take place.

        Now, this is not a call for complacency – the future has enemies, and all that. But it is a cause for cautious optimism, that we can get the rest of the world on this train.Report

  9. Avatar Koz says:

    “The absolute ruler may be a Nero, but he is sometimes Titus or Marcus Aurelius; the people is often Nero, and never Marcus Aurelius.”

    I don’t know who Antoine de Rivarol is, but most likely he never lived in America. In America, leavened through good nature and real aspirations, the American people can have (if they get the chance) the benevolence and good judgment of Marcus Aurelius. On the other hand, while it’s not accurate to accuse the tribunes of SWPL caste solidarity of being Nero, they do tend to be some of the most myopic and self-centered bastiges around.Report

  10. Avatar Liberty60 says:

    Am I reading this thread right, in that a bunch of liberals and libertarians are scratching their heads trying to figure out what “liberal” means?Report

    • Avatar Burt Likko says:

      I think Jaybird defined “liberalism,” at least for this essay, as “[a]n emphasis on freedom, individualism, and how no one is entitled to more standing under the law than anyone else.”Report

      • Avatar Tom Van Dyke says:

        Burt, true of the Roman Empire as well, no? “Liberal” is the last word I think of for the Roman Empire, but hey, let’s run it up the flagpole.Report

        • Avatar Jaybird says:

          Let’s get all relativistic and compare the Roman Empire to its contemporaries.

          Compared to the Huns, the Gaul, the Picts?

          I mean, it doesn’t seem fair to compare them with FDR’s America.Report

          • Avatar Maribou says:

            Compared to a lot of the tribes they wiped out, the Romans weren’t particularly liberal. However, oral cultures don’t tend to leave behind a lot of history books.Report

        • Avatar Burt Likko says:

          I think it’s far from the case that even de jure, everyone was equal before the law in the Roman Republic. Patricians were tried for crimes in different courts with different kinds of juries than were plebians, for instance. A client being bound by law to vote the way his patron had doesn’t strike me as congruent with freedom or individualism.

          I agree that Republican Rome was partially an individualistic culture, but like our own, there was also a competing cultural strain emphasizing loyalty to one’s gens and obedience to one’s paterfamilias, or the network of client-patron relationships of political and economic loyalty, could and often did create tensions.Report

          • Avatar Koz says:

            This is a great point. The cultural fabric of citizenship is at least as important nuts and bolts of democracy. In contemporary America, that fabric is politically represented by the Republican party, which is one reason why it’s so important to support the Republicans as they attempt to win political office.

            By supporting the Republicans, we bring to bear against society’s problems not just the capabilities of the Republican candidates but also the cultural fabric of citizenship they represent.

            The stocks of real, operational citizenship are depleted in America but they are still not completely empty. Let’s vote Republican and replenish them.Report

            • Avatar Burt Likko says:

              Err… This is a joke, right?Report

              • Avatar Jaybird says:

                That’s what I’ve been saying!Report

              • Avatar Patrick Cahalan says:

                How long can the long con go?Report

              • Avatar Koz says:

                Not really. In addition to the legal definition of citizens, as it relates to passports and the rest of it, there’s an important operational definition of citizenship as well. Citizens are the people living in a polity who have the means and intent to contribute to the polity as a whole beyond their narrow parochial interests. And in a republic, which America was and still aspires to be, the citizens are sovereign.

                In America, our stock of citizenship is depleted, ie, there are fewer Americans with the means and intent to contribute to America as a whole. But there still are some, and for those that are still around, it is the Republican party that represents them in our contemporary political culture.

                The problem is, the sclerosis of our current political establishment represents a de facto empowerment of that establishment against the interest of the citizens. Eg see below:


                It is by voting Republican and associating with the mainstream Right that we can hope to unwind the proliferation of entanglements created mostly as byproducts of lib political wins. Thereby giving the citizens the opportunity to meaningfully express their self-determination in America today.Report

              • Avatar Liberty60 says:

                Who are these Republicans “who have the means and intent to contribute to the polity as a whole”… and how exactly are they contributing?

                Beyond “their narrow parochial interests” I mean.Report

              • Avatar Koz says:

                People like Sarah Palin and Willard Romney. Not as political figures but before then when they were just civic-minded citizens (and for that matter not those two specifically but people like them). I’m sure people in their situations have opinions about this or that, but nonetheless their participation in public affairs is not about the advancement or defense of some parochial interest.

                I don’t think there is a particle of lower-case r republican legitimacy left anywhere in the contemporary Democratic party.Report

              • Avatar James Hanley says:

                Palin? Is that the punchline? You really gotta practice your delivery.Report

              • Avatar Koz says:

                James, you’re not nearly intelligent enough to get by without basic reading comprehension. You can try it any time now.Report

              • Avatar James Hanley says:

                Koz, please enlighten me as to what Palin’s particular contributions “to the polity as a whole” are. I’m admittedly totally ignorant about them, and unfortunately so is everyone else I’ve asked.Report

              • Avatar Koz says:

                Well James, this is where the reading comprehension comes in. Sarah Palin got into public affairs through the PTA of her school and the Wasilla’s mayors office. Ie, situations where she was attempting to benefit the polity as a whole, not represent one part of the polity at the expense of another.

                She reason she did this, the reason she was able to do this, is because Todd was supporting the family by fishing and working on oil rigs or whatever and Sarah herself had deep ties in the community as a mother five children as well as her known circle of friends and acquaintances. Therefore she had personal, social, and financial resources available to her that she was willing use for the benefit of the polity as a whole. None of this has anything to do with being governor of Alaska or anything after that. Truth be told, there’s not that many Sarah Palins left in America. But there are some, and they are overwhelmingly Republican.

                Therefore, as we vote Republican, we hope to accomplish many things but one that we should bear in mind is that voting Republican we empower them.Report

              • Avatar James Hanley says:

                Sarah Palin got into public affairs through the PTA of her school and the Wasilla’s mayors office.

                Okaaayyy, and you’re not aware of any Democrats, or let’s just go ahead and call them liberals, who are on their school’s PTA, or who are mayors?

                See, koz, your basic problem is you’re trying to claim it’s only Republicans who are real citizens in the sense of contributing to the polity, but then the examples you’re giving are ones that we can readily find an astonishingly large number of Democrats/liberals meeting just as readily as Ms. Palin. See, here’s one.

                If you want to exclude Dems/libs from your citizenship test, you’re going to need a better test, eh?Report

              • Avatar Koz says:

                “Okaaayyy, and you’re not aware of any Democrats, or let’s just go ahead and call them liberals, who are on their school’s PTA, or who are mayors?”

                No, I don’t. For the most or all of the libs I know, the focus of the energy they put into public affairs is all about advocating on behalf of one part of the polity at the expense of another. Specifically, attempting to control what comes out of the public sphere, either money, policy or something else. It’s never about how they are going to contribute to what goes in. For those who do serve on the PTA or the Boy Scouts, that’s an afterthought unrelated to their liberalism.

                Like Miss Edwards in your link. As a public sector employee, she’s worked for the highway department for thirty years or whatever. As a simple matter of accounting, an increase in her compensation comes at the expense of the county’s balance sheet. If she is in charge of allocating the county budget, it’s very possible that she will do a fair job. On the other hand, there will always be the danger of self-dealing, sometimes in subtle ways, sometimes in blatant ones.

                During one of the Wisconsin controversies, someone asked NJ Gov. Chris Christie if about public sector unionization. He said he didn’t mind it, as long as he knew that he would be sitting on the other side of the table from the unions, because he knew that he would not be tempted to roll over to union political pressure. In the main, though, it’s a risk we cannot afford. The reason that sub-federal finance is in such horrible shape is because political authorities have negotiated non-arms-length deals with various public employees to bloat headcount, wages, and benefits.

                But this is slightly beside the point. The point isn’t about those who fit somewhere in a patron-client model of public affairs, but those who are, operationally, citizens. That is to say, people who are among other things not dependent on government policy to maintain their station in life. Those are the people who can credibly act in the name of the polity as a whole. And overwhelmingly, those people are Republicans.Report

              • Avatar Jesse Ewiak says:

                Oh Koz, never change.Report

              • Avatar James Hanley says:

                For those who do serve on the PTA or the Boy Scouts, that’s an afterthought unrelated to their liberalism.

                I await your evidence with baited breath!Report

              • Avatar Mike Schilling says:

                For those who do serve on the PTA or the Boy Scouts, that’s an afterthought unrelated to their liberalism.

                It’s true. When I used to volunteer with the Little League, it was completely unrelated to politics. Oddly, it never occurred to me that that displayed bad faith.Report

              • Avatar James Hanley says:

                Citizens are the people living in a polity who have the means and intent to contribute to the polity as a whole beyond their narrow parochial interests

                In other words, liberals, conservatives, libertarians, religious folks, agnostics, atheists, rich, poor, middle class, men, women transgendered, gays, straights, young, old…

                Wait, who was that supposed to make me vote for?Report

            • Avatar Will Truman says:

              The Republicans have some work to do on presenting a cultural center that people want to join.

              Right now they’re* doing the equivalent of telling the Irish and Italian immigrants that they can’t become real Americans until they become good protestants.

              * – There’s that word again: “they”Report

            • Avatar Rod says:

              I just LOVE performance art.Report

          • Avatar Liberty60 says:

            There was also, in Roman culture, a strong understanding of the need for a public sphere, that created the ground rules and conditions under which the private interest could be operated. In other words, “You didn’t build that alone.”

            The Roman citizen was actually very comfortable with the concept of compulsory obligations to family and state.Report

            • Avatar Koz says:

              Of course. And it’s not like Rome is something that we need to reconstitute now, or even repudiate for that matter. The larger is point is simply this: the ability to make decisions on behalf of the polity goes hand-in-hand with contribution to the work required to implement these decisions.

              That’s the fundamental flaw of the quasi-patronage of modern industrial democracies, especially in Europe. The political class wants to control its polities, but the resources required to implement their policies are created by other people. Therefore they fall short, as we can currently see in the current Euro currency/debt crisis.

              Hopefully, through the election of Willard Romney and Paul Ryan to the American executive, we can prevent that from happening here.Report

    • Avatar Tom Van Dyke says:

      Yah, Lib60, better put than I managed to. Which is why I never finished that post…Report

  11. Avatar Jaybird says:

    Another thought I had involved expanding the topic of “stuff that shouldn’t be left up for a vote”.

    If we agree that whether people be allowed to publish books on certain topics shouldn’t be put up for a vote, that doesn’t make us less of a democracy, does it?

    I mean, we agree that there are spheres that should not be put up to votes, right?

    If we agreed on that, I would have wanted to discuss how big those spheres could reasonably get and still have us considered a “democracy”… or how small and still have us considered “liberal”, I suppose.

    As you can see from the above lines, I couldn’t do much with it… but it feels like *SOMETHING* important is there.Report

    • Avatar Will Truman says:

      If we agree that whether people be allowed to publish books on certain topics shouldn’t be put up for a vote, that doesn’t make us less of a democracy, does it?

      Well, I think it does make us less democratic. But in the sense that being less democratic is okay. Or maybe it’s a shift to the former rather than the latter word in the “liberal democracy” paradigm.Report

    • Avatar DensityDuck says:

      “we agree that there are spheres that should not be put up to votes”

      Isn’t making that agreement a form of voting, though?Report

    • Avatar James K says:

      I agree with Will, less voting means less democracy. The real question is, what is it proper to decide democratically?Report

  12. Avatar James Hanley says:

    Jaybird, I’m totally with you on the liberal being way more important than the democratic. I couldn’t quite get my thoughts organized for a post, but something long those lines was one of the ideas flitting through my head. Good on you for this post.Report

  13. Avatar Roger says:

    “What in the heck do we mean when we say “Liberal”? Do we mean what Locke meant? What they meant in the Enlightenment? Are we talking about Natural Rights? Liberty, Equality, Fraternity? For ease of argument, let’s go with “yeah, pretty much”. An emphasis on freedom, individualism, and how no one is entitled to more standing under the law than anyone else. All that stuff. Freedom from meddling… ”

    My guest post took a stab at defining liberty, illustrated the benefits of liberty, pointed out the necessary yet inevitable contradiction between democracy and liberty, and then gave a set of recommendations to get liberal democracies to become more liberal.

    The response was crickets. 

    Just saying I wish more of you wrestling with the topic had tried to tell me where you thought I was going right or wrong, hot or cold….Report

    • Avatar Jaybird says:

      Dude, you had awesome in-depth comments for your post.Report

      • Avatar Roger says:

        Yeah, from a handful of people, but I note that many of those confessing here to wrestling with the topic of liberty were not among those that weighed in. My take away is that I missed the mark. Like you said, liberty is a challenging topic.Report