May 29, 2008

Is Freedom Antidemocratic?

By: James Poulos

That’s a heavily rhetorical question that I might not live up to in this post, but I’ll try anyway for the purposes of casting a sharp, counterintuitive argument in the direction of everyone’s favorite punching bag, Michael Gerson. I’m inspired to do so by Kara Hopkins’ @TAC on Gerson’s latest round of name-calling:

Thus a new designation—“rogue democracy”—and another nifty axis: “Along with China and Russia, South Africa makes the United Nations impotent. Along with Saudi Arabia and Sudan, it undermines the global human rights movements.” Try that on for size. Democracy isn’t enough anymore; any nation that doesn’t concede American global hegemony and adopt universal values as we define them is on notice. And we all know how that story turns out. We don’t do “quiet diplomacy with dictators.”

But why should South Africa stand in as our surrogate bully? Much as we may dislike Mbeki’s deference to Mugabe, it’s scarcely illogical. And “apparent indifference to all rights but their own” is a reasonable posture for an emerging nation. Indeed, it wouldn’t be a bad idea for a more established one that seems to have trouble defining its boundaries.

Well. A realist might argue, “Who cares if South Africa’s a democracy if its leadership orients its policy so as to obstruct and challenge our national interest?” And a neocon might reply, “We care, because when a democracy challenges the national interest of another democracy it raises important questions about why — and in order for the ideology of spreading freedom to be authoritative and legitimate, it must be shown that ‘rogue’ democracies are in some clear way pathological regimes.” On the face of it, this is true enough; but the ideology of freedom itself has some pathologies to it (being, y’know, an ideology), and it’s to one of them in particular that I want to turn.

Kara’s broadside at Gerson caused me to think seriously about what really I thought we ought to do about South Africa and Zimbabwe. In an earlier time, the answer would be assemble the Great White Powers and set up some kind of UN-mandated condominium. But Europe, for understandable-enough reasons, has no desire to get back into that business. And America — alone, at least — was never cut out for that kind of work to begin with. In the ’90s, the answer would be apply pressure through international legal regimes and sanctions if necessary. The track record of this approach, however, is spotty at best: consider Iraq. So what tools does the US have to do something constructive, practical, worthwhile, and legitimate when regimes, including democratic regimes, embark on sustained policies that frustrate our interests and flagrantly affront our passions? As high as my threshold for tolerating distant suffering, I agree with the non-isolationists that surely there must be something.

Enter Liberty holding aloft the Lamp of Reason. Radio Free Europe remains a brilliant example of the something that must be done. In its more naive early days, the liberal intellectual tradition was full of smart thinkers sure that what Benjamin Constant called lumieres — enlightened, educated public opinions — would spread freely and inevitably over the world and work local, organic, peaceful political changes. This idea became gradually discredited, but I think it’s due for a renovation: it’s something America does well, doesn’t cost much, and comes naturally to us. It’s not perfect, but it is something.

Just one catch. Education in liberty is sort of a chicken and egg problem. Training in the philosophy of liberty points toward a political order of democratic freedom shared among equal citizens, but its point of departure is the small, exclusive classroom of handpicked smart kids. Education in liberty is — not democratic! Indeed, as Socrates knew, taught training in the arts and sciences of freedom is firmly antidemocratic, even if it’s most successful within a democracy. (I know I need to say more about what Socrates meant by ‘freedom’, but I don’t have the space here and now.) The reason why this is so is that the philosophy of liberty is philosophy, and philosophy proceeds according to elitist, antidemocratic principles, just like the military. Indeed, the aim of philosophy is to show the most spirited and excellent that, to truly become who they are, they must practice philosophy (Cf. Leon Craig’s The War Lover.)

How do we escape this paradox? Or, better, how is it, then, that liberty has spread over what are still very large parts of the globe? The answer, as Tocqueville shows us, is contained in the incredibly unique experience of the Americans. The Americans, he explains, never learned liberty — they became conscious of it as a result of having practiced it. They were ‘born’ in the ‘cradle’ of liberty, liberty featured in their collective unconscious, liberty was present at the creation. The Americans developed the practice of freedom without having to rely, as did the Europeans, on the conscious exercise of philosophy and reason.

Tocqueville leads us to some unsavory — or at least sobering — conclusions about education in liberty. Europe’s experience with the philosophy of liberty unfolded into centuries of conflict and ideology; Europeans were prisoners of a style of thought in which political actors tried repeatedly, a la Rousseau, to force real life to conform to abstract ideas. Americans — and only Americans — were able to escape that trap. Tocqueville causes us to ponder whether any other people in the world can develop free institutions and free societies without being educated into liberty — a harrowing, messy, and by no means guaranteed process that has failed time and again even in the West. If peoples around the world can be so educated, even if we have some kind of duty or interest in so educating them, we are led to the uncomfortable recognition that the education in question starts as an antidemocratic education. Liberty begins in contrast to equality. ‘Rogue democracies’ — popular despotic regimes — look on the beginnings of an education for liberty within their territory as the beginnings of an insurrection, and so it is.

In that fashion, Gersonism places liberty above equality — and so it should, I’d argue. But the tragic irony is that in every other fashion Gersonism worships equality at the expense of liberty. For Gerson, the solidarity of suffering, shared equally among all human beings, is a natural and divine commandment that militates against our freedom of action and thought at every turn. When people hurt, you have to move. Or rather ‘we’, the concentrated power of the State which politics allows us to leverage so as to disperse its benefits more widely. The tension in Gersonism between liberty and equality is profound, and it causes Gerson to fluctuate between paeans to freedom and paeans to solidarity. This sort of intellectual struggle is worthy of, and probably necessary to, an excellent spirit. But when we attempt to implement it as policy, we risk disaster. The big question facing American policymakers over the next twenty-five years is to what extent, as a practical matter, we have a choice.

(Image courtesy Flickrer gadl.)