Saturday, August 1, 2015

Reflections on Bundles of Rights and Electoral vs. Liberal Democracy

So, that being said, what does it mean for the working of democracy and failures of democracy? Well, in some ways, it is simply a different vocabulary for many of the comments I have made elsewhere in my own posts.

The authors say, electoral democracy is a compromise between elites and the general public whereby the elite will concede popular elections and majority rule in exchange for having its property rights respected.  But the bargain does nothing to protect the interests of despised minorities, who are often treated worse by the general public than by the elite.  Or as I would say, the capital flaw of democracy is not its tendency to punch up (disrespect property rights), but to kick down (ignore civil rights).  The authors say that what drives elites to give up their preferred option of right-wing autocracy is the threat of dictatorship of the proletariat, i.e., violent revolution.  They imply without saying that such revolution ceases to be a threat once electoral democracy is offered.  I have said the the danger lies on the right unless a formal democracy masks a cozy little oligarchy.  That is not exactly the same thing, except perhaps for the point that the threat of violent revolution from the left is one made to oligarchies, including oligarchies with the outward form of democracy, but not to democracies (liberal or illiberal).

The authors also offer yet another definition of anti-liberal -- anti-civil rights, in the sense of opposing "the rule of law, non-discrimination, and equality in the distribution of public goods."  How far is that from my definition of anti-liberal as opposing any attempt to enlarge the circle of people who morally matter?

The authors are writing about the formation of democracy rather than its failures, but how often are the failures of democracy about the breakdown in the bargain between the elite and the general public?  Certainly many a democracy has come to ruin when a left-wing leader, from the Gracchi brothers to Salvador Allende, abandoned the agreement to respect property rights and the elite in turn abandoned the agreement to respect majority rule.  In those cases, the elite has usually won.  On the other hand, as we have seen in Corcyra, democracy can come to an end when the elite abandons the agreement to respect majority rule and the public in turn abandoned the agreement to respect property rights.  The result was violent revolution -- a true dictatorship of the proletariat.*  Other failures are brought about by exaggerated fears on the part of the elite that its property rights might be violated. The US is an obvious example -- slave holders unjustifiably feared that Lincoln would take their slaves by force, leading to secession, civil war, and ultimately the outcome they most feared.  (It is also a case of civil rights and property rights being in irreconcilable opposition to each other).

But here again perhaps I am unfairly rigging the terms of the debate.  I define the elite desire to protect their property as right wing, which seems appropriate.  If I counter this by defining the general public's desire for majority rule as left-wing, I have once again placed the danger on the right almost by definition (except in cases where a formal democracy masks an actual oligarchy) because it is necessarily the elite, fearing for their property, that revokes majority rule, regardless of who started the whole conflict or what provocations took place.

But I really got started to introduce another thought.  The authors call a regime that respects political rights/majority rule but not property rights or civil rights a dictatorship of the proletariat.  That is perhaps a fair designation in the context of an actual or threatened revolution.  But a party competing in a democratic context that emphasizes only political rights and majority rule to the exclusion of property rights or civil rights might be considered a populist party.  It does not seek revolution, only a strengthening in the democratic context of the majority against either the elite or minorities.

A party that simply emphasizes political rights/majority rule without actually opposing property rights or civil rights might be described as advocating pure populism or naive populism (unaware how it might be hurting others) or even benign populism.  A party that emphasizes political rights/ majority rule at the expense of property rights could be described as left-wing populist.  (It punches up).  William Jennings Bryan was a left-wing populist. A party that emphasizes political rights/majority rule at the expense of civil rights could be described as right-wing populist.  (It kicks down).  The Ku Klux Klan was right-wing populist.  A party that emphasizes political rights/majority rule at the expense both property rights and civil rights could also be described as pure populist, but in a nasty sort of way.

And a party that specifically fears minorities being co-opted by elites into a sort of liberal autocracy?  I suppose that would depend on their emphasis and whether they direct their anger mostly at the elites or minorities.  (One certainly hears this viewpoint in various forms on the subject of illegal immigration).  I have already suggested the need to consider how to classify a group that does not seek to overthrow democracy, but only to make it narrower and less inclusive, i.e., to exclude civil rights from the bundle.  Apparently such a group seeks to go from liberal democracy to electoral democracy.  Should that be counted as a failure of democracy?  And if so, am I simply showing a liberal bias in failing to consider how far a democracy may go in tampering with property rights before that, too, may be considered a failure?

And what of classical fascism?  It, too, was a species of right-wing populism, but not the same majoritarian, anti-civil rights populism as the Klan, Hitler's scapegoating of the Jews notwithstanding.  Rather, it played on the fears of a middle class about the rising of the working class below them, a category not even discussed in the quoted articles.  Another thing to look out for.

Next up: Populism and Bernie Sanders.

*Ironically, it also meant a rare case in ancient times of something like real respect for civil rights.  Both sides offered to free any slave who took their side.  Most sided with the democratic party.  So for a time one saw a Greek city state without slaves (presumably they imported more when things settled down).  Could that be an actual case of a government respecting political and civil rights but not property rights?  If so, it was no utopia; it was a savage civil war that ended with the oligarchic party being massacred.

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