Sunday, October 14, 2007

In his "Think Again" blog, Stanley Fish relayed some of his responses to 10 questions posed by a BBC interviewer for a series titled "Why Democracy"? As usual, Professor Fish was interesting and inconsistent.

Beginning with his definition of democracy, Fish says:

I tend to resist romantic definitions that feature phrases like “noble ideal” and opt instead for something more analytic: democracy is a form of government that is not attached to any pre-given political or ideological ends, but allows ends to be chosen by the majority vote of free citizens.

Shortly afterward, riffing on democracy's potential for undermining itself, Fish notes:

It is always possible that those who gain control of the legislative process will pass laws that erode or even repeal the rights – of property, free expression and free movement – that distinguish democracies from theocracies and monarchies.

And with regard to terrorism:

The danger is not so much that terrorists will defeat democracies by force as it is that, in resisting terrorists, democracies will forgo the procedural safeguards (against warrantless detention, censorship and secret surveillance) that make a democracy what it is.

Laudable warnings -- but how do they square with Fish's limited definition of democracy? Technically, democracy is defined by the vote. But it cannot survive long without a legal and constitutional architecture that distributes rather than concentrates power. Otherwise, the vote will be undermined, as in Russia today.

Fish's limited definition of democracy precludes his engaging the deepest questions regarding democracy’s potential for continuing to improve the human condition. For example, he writes off the question, "can democracy solve climate change?" as a "category mistake":

Solving the problems of climate change, if it can be done, will be a matter of advances in technology and alterations in personal and corporate behavior in response to state directives and regulations. No political system is either naturally suited to the task or barred by definition from performing it. Politics and technology are independent variables.

If Fish thinks that "alterations in personal and corporate behavior in response to state directives and regulations" happen in a vacuum, he should take a look at environmental regulation in China today -- where the central government mandates, and the nation's factories ignore with the collusion of local governments. Or look at the sewage pits that the Soviet Union and eastern Europe were revealed to be after communism collapsed.

Far from being 'independent variables," politics and technology are interdependent. That's not to say that authoritarian and even totalitarian societies make zero technological progress. But over time, they've been outperformed by freer societies -- by democracies in the period that democracy has existed. Fish may dislike Frances Fukuyama's 'teleological' argument (In The End of History and the Last Man) that human society as a whole is moving inexorably toward democracy. But Fukuyama's argument is evolutionary -- that sheer competitive pressure in the economic sphere drives countries toward democracy, because only democracy creates the conditions of free inquiry and a rule of law protecting economic rewards for those who innovate in the practical sphere. Authoritarian societies can ride piggyback in today's global economy and make economic progress for a while. But over time, they will either regress or democratize.

The question of whether democracy can cope with climate change, far from being a category mistake, cuts to the heart of democracy's (and humanity's) ability to adapt and thrive. Because democracy is founded on persuasion and a contest of wills, there's something counterintuitive about its often-proven ability to effectively cope with problems that demand a mobilization of will and resources. When fascism was on the rise, and again in the cold war, many 'tough-minded' observers felt that democracy could not compete effectively with societies marching under a totalitarian banner. They were wrong.

My own feeling is that democracy alone can cope with the toughest challenges facing humanity -- but only if democracies do not destroy their own workings in the ways outlined by Professor Fish, e.g. -- by voting away the people's empowerment through the erosion of civil liberties -- and also by allowing the destruction of checks and balances on the distribution of power.

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