Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Hayek Reader series

The "Hayek Reader" is my 6th blog in my blogger.com account. Since I cannot regularly update it with new materials (my last posting there was August 2008), I'd rather close it. Hence, I will transfer my old postings there in this blog before deleting that one.

These essays are my personal reflections on certain chapters of Friedrich Hayek's book, "The Constitution of Liberty" (U. of Chicago Press, 1960).

Twelve (12) entries from that blog will follow in the succeeding postings here.

Below is a comment by Prof. Tibon Machan in my introductory posting in my blog.

November 6, 2005

True Liberal Democracy

Tibor R. Machan

When one objects to government’s meddling in people’s lives, often one gets the response that, after all, so long as government’s decisions are reached democratically, there’s nothing wrong with such meddling. This assumes that democracy is a benign way to arrive at policies that go contrary to what individuals want, even violate their unalienable rights. Why would such an assumption be accepted with little resistance?

One reason is that many people focus just on those democracies that occur in various voluntary associations—clubs, unions, corporations, and so forth. In such groups democracy functions well and is in fact unobjectionable because those taking part in the decision-making joined up voluntarily and have what economists call “the exit option.” You can leave the Rotary or Kiwanis Club, or an apartment house or gated community, if you really don’t like what the majority does. Your participation is up to you. So when this kind of group reaches decisions democratically, the decisions are accepted from the start—the rule is, “Anyone who joins us must accept how we reach decisions.”

Being a citizen of a country is both something similar and quite different. Most citizens do not join a country but are born into it, although quite a few do. So it is only just that the most minimal requirements are imposed on them. The American Founders spelled these out—respect the unalienable rights of all and that’s all you need to be a bona fide citizen of a free country. The only obligations you have are negative—do not violate other people’s rights.

Now this principle applies to everyone and so it also blocks democratic means for meddling with people who refuse to comply with the wishes of majorities. Freedom from coercion means also freedom from the coercion of the majority, not just a king or tsar or emperor. And this makes very good moral sense—why would it be OK for the majority to intrude on some when it is not OK for just one or a few to do so?

In recent mainstream public policy discussions these points have been raised in connection with the work of the journalist Fareed Zakaria, editor of the international edition of Newsweek, who wrote The Future of Freedom: Illiberal Democracy at Home and Abroad (2003). While Zakaria’s thesis isn’t so radical as that of the American Founders, he does make a very good case against bloated, unrestrained democracies. After all, Hitler’s reign came about democratically and look at Hamas, the extremist group which won the Palestinian Authority's general elections in January. Both of these are cases illustrating that mere democracy isn’t enough for a country to be governed justly.

But then how exactly should democracy function in a free country? As noted already, in voluntary groups, where members can join or leave of their own free will, democratic means can be nearly unlimited. (I recall once when I gave a talk at a Kiwanis Club, there was a ritual of the master of ceremonies arbitrarily fining people various sums of money. He was authorized to do this in the bylaws, of course, and no one objected.) But in a country which most people do not join but are born into, democracy must be limited to decisions about policies that do not involve the violation of our unalienable individual rights. Would this not make democracy completely ineffectual and moot?

No, because there are decisions to be reached democratically that have to do with the administration of a system of laws aimed to secure our basic rights—e.g., who will sit as a judge, who will build the court house, who will appoint the generals, etc., etc. These are decisions that intrude on no one’s rights—and there are many others. In general terms, selection of the administrators of a just system can occur democratically without the violation of anyone’s rights.

But this is a properly limited scope for democracy. This is the proper understanding of liberal democracy, as well. Such a regime operates without depriving people of their liberties, unlike the democratic procedures with which most of us are familiar these days. It is but a defensive system, never an aggressive one.

The revolutionary idea of the American Founders and those political theorist who taught them wasn’t just that monarchs may not violate our rights. It also applied to majorities. They, too, must respect our basic rights. That is what limited government means—limited to applying measures that are just and peaceful.

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