Tuesday, March 07, 2006

What is Freedom?

==Various Takes on Freedom==

The whole issue of "freedom" boils down much deeper than the surface levels where it is usually discussed. Let me try to explain.

For 2,000 years the enemies of democracy, led by that infamous so-called “philosopher” Plato, have tried to undermine the Periclean experiment by couching the debate in terms that work to the detriment of freedom. In order to do this, they pulled many tricks. Foremost, they emphasized and concentrated on the LEAST important and least honorable aspect of democracy -- majority rule -- while downgrading the most important aspect (the one emphasized by Pericles) which is open and knowing reciprocal accountability.

As a matter of fact, majority rule has always been distrusted, even by the greatest innovators and thinkers of the democratic enlightenment! Read the Federalist Papers and you will find that the founders worried deeply about capricious mob passions -- of the same kind that helped to ruin Athenian democracy after Pericles was gone. According to the reasoning of Locke, the people must own ultimate sovereignty. But true freedom depends on something far more fundamental than “the people.”

It depends upon people. Individual people, taken one at a time. Empowered one at a time.

Think about it. You may live your entire life as a citizen of the republic and NEVER ONCE vote for a single candidate who wins election to high office. And yet, you remain an empowered citizen, if you are surrounded by tools that help you to hold everyone -- from neighbors to officers of the state -- accountable. Especially should any of them try to abuse you.

Yes, the government that is elected by the majority may thereupon pass many laws that you dislike, and you must obey them. But your ability to keep fighting and arguing and filing suit and petitioning against those laws -- that ability is every bit as crucial to a democratic and free civilization as majority rule is. Crucial not only to you, but to your neighbors, who know (in their guts) that someday the situation may be reversed. Therefore it is in their interest to protect your right to complain.

To KNOWINGLY complain. Because, as I said, not everything about freedom boils down to majority rule. Redress in the courts may happen, even if you are deeply unpopular and all alone. Moreover, there is always the possibility of slowly, persistently, speaking out until your neighbors change their minds. (Ask the suffragettes about this.)

Fundamentally, freedom is about an individual -- every individual person -- feeling empowered to know what is needed, in order to worry. And then feeling empowered to speak knowledgeably about those worries, applying accountability upon even the mighty. It is the empowerment that allows each of us to START down the road of persuading our neighbors to change their minds, and eventually to form new majorities, that vote in new directions, for new leaders.

The neocons used this process well, gradually hauling their movement back from the political wilderness after calamities in 1964 and 1974. They took pride in that fact.

And yet now, expressing a towering hypocrisy that is rooted all-too deeply in human nature, they seek to demolish the methodology that was available to them, when they were in the minority.

Think about it. Those who are trying to destroy democracy have very little fear of majority rule. History shows countless ways to subvert and suborn it, ways that Machiavelli described in The Prince and that Alcibiades and other demagogues used in wounded Athens.

On the other hand, reciprocal accountability is the part of Freedom that is most despised, undermined and feared by our new would-be masters. Indeed, it has little or nothing to do with liberal-vs conservative or right-vs-left. (Want irony? The neo-right is today replicating many of the techniques once employed by revolutionary communist parties of the past, in Russia, China and Cuba. Proving that both the left and right can nurture monsters.)

Plato hated Reciprocal Accountability and went to great lengths to distract from its lesson, preaching for rule by an elite of “philosopher kings” who may (according to Plato) lie and evade all accountability, in the same fashion that was preached-for by BOTH Lenin and Leo Strauss, father of today’s neoconservative movement.

This trend manifests, within the present administration, in countless ways, such as its use of the “freedom” as a mantra -- debasing the word into little more than a verbal icon representing “our side” and “people like us” -- even as it dismantles every institution for has made freedom a reified and palpable tool of human life. All of the processes of citizen-empowered accountability, ranging from freedom of information to balance of powers, to press access, to secrecy policy, have been relentlessly suppressed -- doing it purportedly for the public good.

Or take the administration’s relentless insistence that its narrow victories at the polls - (under highly questionable circumstances) - nevertheless translate into utter and pure political mandate, on a winner-takes-all basis. Mandate to rule without accountability to a people who do not need information as much as they need protection during time of war.

(What war? Oh, but that’s another topic.)

A people who are allowed to vote, ineffectually, but who are better off not knowing.

==On Gerrymandering and Freedom==

Indeed, many aspects of freedom are under discussion in the news.

Of special note is an article that was recently published in the Wall Street Journal, having to do with a topic that I have weighed-in upon at great length, in my article, American Democracy: More Fragile Than We Think.

See: The Gerrymander Moment: Democrats discover this incumbent protection racket," in the Wall Street Journal.

One thing about this article is especially encouraging to me. At last someone else points out the aspect of this dismal plot that is most Constitutionally relevant. The aspect that most undermines the Founders’ intentions.

”Armed with these tools, incumbent politicians can design House districts that more or less guarantee their re-election short of some political tsunami. As a result, most races for the House--the body our Founders designed to most reflect changes in public opinion--are over long before the first vote is even cast. This is bad for democracy, and if liberals have suddenly figured this out we're glad to see it, whatever their partisan motives. “

Of course, the nation could be saved from this monstrous demolition of our right to legislative representation, at a stroke. If only the Supremes choose to act in service to the people and the Constitution. (Don’t bet on it!)

But even if this miracle happens, there will be much to discuss. For example, I do not like “impartial” commissions as a solution. A godawful bureaucracy in every state, rife with influence peddling, would only reduce the horror of gerrymandering to tolerable levels, at great cost. There are better options. In my article I offer an alternative that could solve the problem in a single sentence!

See more on Politics for the 21st Century.

and The Myth of Majority Rule.

==And Finally==

If some of you would like to see my ideas influencing a movement to reform the Libertarian movement go see: Libertarianism: Seeking a New Path.

These ruminations are actually far more general than you might expect, and not very specifically aimed at a libertarian audience. (The Reform LP group asked for a modified version for their site.) Here you'll find my best take on an alternative to the left right political axis, trying to overcome the faults of that egregious sin-against-thinking. In any event, it is encouraging to see a movement by modernist-pragmatists to shift the dogmatic romanticism of those currently controlling libertarianism. For such people to be anti-modernist is the worst hypocrisy imaginable.


Anonymous said...

The parallels between the NeoCons and Lenin are NOT accidental. Many of the NeoCons were Trotskyites in the 1960's. They went from totalitarian socialists to totalitarian fascists without blinking an eye.
(The difference between a Trotskyite and a Stalinist is that the man the Trotskyites admire never had the chance to be a mass murderer.)

reason said...

I'm interested in your opinions of the role of mandarins (of various sorts) in a democracy. In most democracies the mandarins are loyal to their role (mostly defined by statute) but in America many are elected officials, or appointed (by simply majority) by elected officials. Think of judges or electoral returning officers etc.

Now I'm not American (and so have the advantage of not being committed to Founding Father idolatory), and I don't think the American idea is a good idea. Of course there are problems with the other way of working - ever see "Yes, Minister" - but it has one big thing going for it. There are professionals to keep things running, while the Amateurs who decide the strategy, change over.

I don't think any system is perfect, but democratic systems that work are made of a lot more than majority rule as you point out.

And I think I should point out once more that often forgotten but very important theorem - "the paradox of voting". Even if every individual has fully rational and transitive preferences (i.e. A is preferred to B and B is preferred to C implies A is preferred to C) there is no guarantee that majority preferences are also rational and transitive. This is why I am against single issue referendums. I prefer accountability - vote for somebody to do the job, let him do the job and throw him out if he doesn't.

reason said...

By the way I think your piece is wrongly named. You talk about democracy but your title says freedom.

There is a lot to be said about freedom. Libertarians often like to talk about it as if it is an absolute concept - but unless they live in and own their own universe it definitely isn't. Some restrictions are essential in order to maximise freedom (for others at least). It is a complex issue, but it is not what you discussed actually.

It does of course correlate with democracy not just being majority rule. Things like protecting minorities, individual rights and rule of law (especially constitutional law and the need to supermajorities for constitutional change) are all part of the solution.

Big C said...

"There is a lot to be said about freedom. Libertarians often like to talk about it as if it is an absolute concept - but unless they live in and own their own universe it definitely isn't. Some restrictions are essential in order to maximise freedom (for others at least). It is a complex issue, but it is not what you discussed actually."

Actually I'd disagree. David's whole point about reciprocal accountability is that it is the key aspect of freedom. Perfecting reciprocal accountability would ensure maximum freedom for all, rather than just the powerful. The "essential restrictions" you mention are simply that anyone else can hold you accountable for your actions.

My reading of his post was that he is arguing against the presentation of democracy and majority rule as the core tenet of freedom, when reciprocal accountability is much more important. In that regard, I agree with him.

Anonymous said...

This sounds an awful lot like the argument that Fareed Zakaria makes in The Future of Freedom (a book that I can't recommend ENOUGH)- that the most important symbol of liberalism isn't the mass vote, but the impartial judge. Accountability and rule-of-law are more significant than the ability to vote, since the electoral process is meaningless without the former. Revolutions that have focused on the latter have often been spectacular failures (and have often regressed to dictatorship), whereas many countries with benign or liberal autocrats (Taiwan, Singapore, South Korea, Spain, Turkey) have managed to transition to democratic systems or near-democratic systems.

Anonymous said...

re: Perfecting reciprocal accountability...

I wonder whether it might be a good idea to introduce some kind of scoring system for lawyers. Just to make sure that all the lawyers in the courtroom are "on the same level". That way one party doesn't end up with a pro-deo-just-out-of-law-school-newbie while the other party gets some fancy high-priced super lawyer.

David Brin said...


reason: You seem to be operating under an assumption that the US does not have a functioning Civil Service. In fact, the corps of professional public servants is vast, ranging from the diplomatic community and staff at federal agencies to the intelligence services, to the highly educated and skilled US Officer Corps. As in Britain, these officials are supposedly protected from undue political interference. Election-winning politicians may appoint the upper echelons in every department or agency, but the actual functions and services are delivered by professionals who earn their position by experience and merit.

Hence, the give-and-take between politician and civil servant that is satirized in “Yes, Minister” also takes place here. With the implicit “contract” that each will try to respect the value provided by the other. One in steering the agency toward execution of the peoples’ agenda, the other in seeing to it that this agenda will be pursued with adult responsibility and due attention to law.

Moreover, here we see "mandate" moderated by "consensus." An administration may enter office with a political axe to grind. But it is supposed to grind it by pushing through legislation that actually changes the law. It is not supposed to subvert laws that are on the books by bullying civil servants into violating those laws.

This is where we have entered a new era, in the United States of America. Because, unlike any previous administration for a human lifetime. the GW Bush administration has attempted to bypass and utterly throttle this arrangement. They have done this by appointing purely political operatives, without a scintilla of relevant experience, into every political slot at nearly every department.

A recent example was the Young Republican campaign aide who was placed above NASA scientists, editing their reports and commanding them to remain silent on topics of their own research. Another is the appointment of a profoundly and deliberately abrasive John R. Bolton as America’s UN ambassador, clearly not a choice aimed at accomplishing the mission of that office - diplomacy. Similarly, anti-environmental activists were appointed to supervise and manage - and thwart action - at the EPA. And we all know what happened at FEMA.

Vastly worse has been the relentless effort to purge, chivvy, harrass and cow the skilled professionals in both the intelligence community and the US military Officer Corps. So blatant has this been, that many of those officers are starting to lift their heands from a tradition of subdued-but-heartfelt conservatism, enough to realize that, at least, Bill Clinton respected them enough to ask their advice, and let them do their jobs.

But what’s happening right now is not the conservatism of Eisenhower or Reagan. It is a mutant that lays claim to conservative loyalties, while betraying every conservative principle. Its aim, rather, is erosion of the very Constitution they are sworn to defend.

This horrific trend is one reason why I am pushing for one major piece of legislation, above all others. One creating the office (and Agency) of the Inspector General of the United States.

In a law that would fit on a single page, every IG in every department - now either a bullied victim or a lickspittle lackey - would instantly report to a civil servant outside of the administration’s direct control. (See:

I can think of no act of Congress that would have more instant effect at restoring hope for our government and way of life.

BigC: I agree that libertarians understand Reciprocal Accountability in theory. That is why I allow myself at times to be called a “libertarian.” But I am a heretic in that movement, because I actually believe in it, instead of using the superficial doctrines of liberty as mantras, around which to build an indignation addiction of focused ideological hatred. The irony - that standard libertarians who believe in rational sapience, are in effect the least sapient political players, could not be more tragic.

Nicq, good comment. My wife’s favorite commentators are Zakaria and John Stewart.

Anonymous said...

In Canada we have a Prime Minister being accused by our Ethics Commissioner, who is appointed and reports to Parliament, of unethical behaviour when days after the last election, he persuaded an elected representative of the other party to switch sides and serve in his cabinet. David, I believe our Ethics Commissioner functions somewhat like your proposed IGUS. You might bolster your arguement by pointing with it as an example.

Woozle said...

In response to this:


I have edited and revised this:


[ http://tinyurl.com/zmzth ] if the above is uncopyable. (I'm avoiding href links for the sake of DB's buggy browser.)

See mainly the "Brainstorming" section; I've come up with rather more than 3 dimensions, but maybe it can be pruned down one way or another. Or maybe not. Anyway, hope it's useful.

David Brin said...

Good stab at this, woozle!

Super Team! said...

I saw this review of a new book, "An Army of Davids" [Sorry, I don't think the title alludes to you directly] that seems to put forward a lot of the same ideas you do. The age of amateurs. The useless left-right political labels. The problems with the media. I haven't read it yet, but I thought this might be something the readers of this site might find interesting. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/arianna-huffington/reynolds-rap-an-army-of_b_17003.html

Big C said...

"BigC: I agree that libertarians understand Reciprocal Accountability in theory. That is why I allow myself at times to be called a “libertarian.” But I am a heretic in that movement, because I actually believe in it, instead of using the superficial doctrines of liberty as mantras, around which to build an indignation addiction of focused ideological hatred. The irony - that standard libertarians who believe in rational sapience, are in effect the least sapient political players, could not be more tragic."

No argument from me. Actually I was disagreeing with reason's assertion that, "It [Freedom] is a complex issue, but it is not what you [David] discussed actually." I think your original post's focus on reciprocal accountability is an essential aspect of freedom. I think I over-quoted reason's post, and thus the context I wanted to convey wasn't clear.

reason said...

Big C,
I accept your point, except for one word the as in "the key aspect of freedom". I think it should be a. There are plenty of libertarians who are fairly dismissive of democracy, and I think they are wrong, partly for the reasons David outlines. But I don't think reciprocal accountability is sufficient to ensure "maximum freedom" at all. Freedom has many aspects, some of which depend on wealth and resources, for instance.

I must admit I do not have your long perspective of American process. But the civil service recently has definitely been subject to enormous political pressures, included purges. The problem is that the system allows this to happen.

I also know that offices such as district attorney are often diretly elected in the US whereas in other countries they are mostly based on merit and/or seniority appointments from professional services.

Maybe historically this has not been a problem in the US, but the institutional arrangements have been shown to be subvertable.

I recently read the Jane Jacobs book "Systems of Survival" and while not directly applicable to the current crisis, it does look at systems of loyalty and morality necessary for running affective generally non-corrupt administrations (in the functional sense not the US political sense). She I think would think that a pillar of society is being corrupted at the moment.

Big C said...

"I accept your point, except for one word the as in "the key aspect of freedom". I think it should be a."

Agreed. I don't really have anything else to add, as I pretty much accept the points both you and David raised. Sorry everyone, for the gratuitous "me too" post. :)

Anonymous said...

You know the "free state" initiative, which would have libertarians move en masse to an underpopulated state, register to vote, and essentially take it over?

SF Chronicle columnist Jon Carrol suggests that liberals do something similar. Drive your RV to South Dakota, rent a spot in a RV park, stay long enough to become a legal resident (all it takes is a few weeks), and then register to vote . . . which you can do absentee.


reason said...

Move all the libertarians to Alaska?
What an interesting idea. They would probably do OK there, at least until they grow old.

Anonymous said...

The federal executive branch, by its Constitution-ignoring example, has probably encouraged the legislators in Missouri who are trying to pass a resolution making Christianity the state religion.