Friday, October 22, 2010

Hertzberg's left, Sullivan's right: busy getting dizzy

A blog-a-log started by Hendrik Hertzberg and picked up by Andrew Sullivan and his readers about the priority of values held by liberals and conservatives is going off into the ozone, I fear.

In response to a Daily Dish reader (DDR) who asserts that property rights are more fundamental than the right to vote, Hertzberg argues:
But voting, like property rights, is mainly instrumental. Voting is generally a good thing not because elected governments always make wiser policy decisions than absolute monarchs, but because experience shows that countries that elect their governments are more apt to have freedom of thought, conscience, and speech than countries that don’t. I’d rather live under a hereditary monarch who tolerates those freedoms than an elected president who doesn’t.
I'm not sure that the various goods under discussion can be placed hierarchically.  With that caveat, I"m not sure that preservation of "thought, conscience and speech" is the primary good of democracy. In my view, democracy is essential because it holds governments accountable, and gives the people the power to throw the bums out, and so allows for course corrections when government policy is leading to disaster or when it allows those in power to steal all the wealth.  An elected president who curtails freedoms, but nonetheless allows for an unrigged election -- if such a thing has ever existed -- would be preferable in my view to an enlightened despot who hands absolute power to an inheritor of unknown disposition.
Of course, there's no real choice in a democracy without freedom of thought, conscience and speech -- though dictators have on occasion been forced to allow free elections. But then, no real freedom of thought is possible without basic property rights-- if those who don't like what you say have the power to confiscate all you own, they will use it. Putin's "managed democracy" demonstrates pretty clearly that when those in power can confiscate property at will and suppress dissent, they will render all true opposition impotent. So I honestly don't see much meaning in Hertzberg's concluding two questions:
The question I would ask is this one: In what possible viable world view could the “right to vote” be valued more favorably than the right to think, believe, and speak as one wishes?

And this: In what possible viable world view could “property rights and the freedom of enterprise” be valued more favorably than liberty of thought, belief, and speech?
Further question: has there ever been a nonconstitutional monarch who truly upheld freedom of thought -- or, for that matter, property rights?  In reality, all these goods --  accountability of the sovereign (which implies some measure of democracy), freedom of thought, property rights -- have existed in various combinations and proportions.

UPDATE: Response to Hendrik Hertzberg's response, here.

1 comment:

  1. Tariq Aziz is due to be hanged soon in Iraq, which at one level is not at all surprising, given his closeness to Saddam's regime. At another level his imminent demise is mind-boggling for us in the mostly democratic west.

    When Saddam needed to invade Iran in 1980, afraid as he was of the revolutionary Shiite fervor in Iran making it across the border to Iraq, a pretext was needed, and it was provided by Aziz. Saddam claimed that Iranian agents attempted to assassinate Aziz (who, conveniently, is a Christian, not a Sunni), and thus the war was on.

    Hence, over two generations, Aziz will have gone from statesman, (alleged) attempted harm to whom justified a ruinous, decade-long war, to executed criminal, enemy-of-the-state.

    If you've read Alan Palmer's Decline and Fall of the Ottoman Empire, Aziz's fate is no surprise. If you haven't read that book, here's a synopsis of the history of the Ottomans: Sultan/Grand Vizier takes power, the winds of fate turn against him, and he is executed. Next sultan/vizier takes power, falls out of favor, is executed. Then the next one, once again ill fortune, executed. Etc. Aziz is the latest in a long line to face fickle cruel Arab statesman fate.

    Compare that, though, with the fate of Nixon, who left office in disgrace but, by virtue of pretty much hanging around and not making further trouble, was feted with a state funeral including all the bells and whistles. Much different final accomodation than the burlap bag that the body of Aziz will likely ride into the Euphrates River.

    I think the Nixon v. Aziz comparison points to much of the difference between democracies and dictatorships. In democracies, government officials exist to serve the interests of their constituents; no one individual is bigger than a government role. (At least they aren't supposed to be). In a dictatorship, to borrow a line from Andrew Lloyd Webber about the Pharaoh in Joseph: "For all intents and purposes he/Was Egypt with a capital E".

    Until he isn't Egypt anymore, which is highly disruptive. Obviously less so in a democracy.