April 6, 2012 columns

Why Politics Can’t Make Us Better

Powell discusses different conceptions of what it means to be free, arguing against a “rule of the mob.”

If politics makes us worse, why would we ever want more politics? The libertarian answer is that we don’t. By limiting the sphere of politics—by restricting the range of decisions made through the political process—we create not only a healthier and wealthier world, but also a more civil one.

But not everyone sees it this way. Some perceive the spread of political decision making as a way to further the reach of “we.” In their minds, we become more free, not less free, when as a community we decide how we should live our lives. Individual decisions, especially those made in a market context, get framed not as autonomous choices, but as coerced, undesired outcomes of giving “them” (the rich, the corporations, and so on) too much power.

This gets things backwards, however. Libertarians, too, are concerned about “we” vs. “them,” but the “them” isn’t a market process. It’s politics. Both groups, libertarians and statists, want—rhetorically at least—to internalize decision making. Both groups seek to give citizens more choice over the path of their lives and therefore increase their freedom. The difference hinges on what it means to be free.

Benjamin Constant framed these differing conceptions as “ancient” and “modern.” He defined the modern conception of liberty as

the right to be subjected only to the laws, and to be neither arrested, detained, put to death or maltreated in any way by the arbitrary will of one or more individuals. It is the right of everyone to express their opinion, choose a profession and practice it, to dispose of property, and even to abuse it; to come and go without permission, and without having to account for their motives or undertakings. It is everyone’s right to associate with other individuals, either to discuss their interests, or to profess the religion which they and their associates prefer, or even simply to occupy their days or hours in a way which is most compatible with their inclinations or whims. Finally it is everyone’s right to exercise some influence on the administration of the government, either by electing all or particular officials, or through representations, petitions, demands to which the authorities are more or less compelled to pay heed.

Ancient liberty, on the other hand

consisted in exercising collectively, but directly, several parts of the complete sovereignty; in deliberating, in the public square, over war and peace; in forming alliances with foreign governments; in voting laws, in pronouncing judgments; in examining the accounts, the acts, the stewardship of the magistrates; in calling them to appear in front of the assembled people, in accusing, condemning or absolving them.

By giving people more of a say in political decisions while at the same time taking a very broad view of what decisions can legitimately be made politically, we enhance meaningful autonomy.

Which means those who embrace the ancients’ liberty argue—contrary to my claim in yesterday’s post—that politics makes us better.

Constant had a ready reply:

But if this was what the ancients called liberty, they admitted as compatible with this collective freedom the complete subjection of the individual to the authority of the community. You find among them almost none of the enjoyments which we have just seen form part of the liberty of the moderns. All private actions were submitted to a severe surveillance. No importance was given to individual independence, neither in relation to opinions, nor to labor, nor, above all, to religion. The right to choose one’s own religious affiliation, a right which we regard as one of the most precious, would have seemed to the ancients a crime and a sacrilege. In the domains which seem to us the most useful, the authority of the social body interposed itself and obstructed the will of individuals.

Things needn’t be so bad in modern democracies, of course. We can have religious freedom and big government. But Constant is right that liberty defined as political participation is a cramped view of freedom. Giving over more of our lives to the political process means placing more of our lives at the mercy of the whims of the electorate. It means seeing democracy as an end in itself and not merely as the best, most fair way to make those decisions that rightfully belong within the political sphere.

Ancient liberty is the rule of the mob. It’s just that the mob lets you have your say before it tells you what to do.