No Minister

Liberal Democracy vs. Conservative Democracy

with 2 comments

Twenty years ago in the wake of the 9/11 attacks President GW Bush made a speech that amounted to a sea-change in how the US viewed dictators and authoritarian and totalitarian societies.

During the Cold War Leftist critics (excluding the Far Left, which operated in bad faith as they supported communism), noted that while America did everything it could to undermine and destroy communist authoritarian and totalitarian regimes, it was quite comfortable with non-communist ones.

That was entirely true, and entirely defensible given that places like Taiwan and South Korea – after years of being directly equated to their communist neighbours for a lack of freedom and authoritarian controls – would slowly graduate to being liberal democracies even before the Cold War ended, whereas communist shit holes would either collapse (Eastern Europe and the USSR), bastardise on the economic side while remaining authoritarian (“Communist” China) or remain as miserable places (Cuba, North Korea).

Still, the accusation of hypocrisy and double standards against the West and the USA in particular would stand. And then in 2003:

Sixty years of Western nations excusing and accommodating the lack of freedom in the Middle East did nothing to make us safe — because in the long run, stability cannot be purchased at the expense of liberty. As long as the Middle East remains a place where freedom does not flourish, it will remain a place of stagnation, resentment, and violence ready for export. 

Therefore, the United States has adopted a new policy, a forward strategy of freedom in the Middle East. This strategy requires the same persistence and energy and idealism we have shown before. And it will yield the same results. As in Europe, as in Asia, as in every region of the world, the advance of freedom leads to peace.

You would think that the Leftist critics who had argued as much for decades would have celebrated an American President, especially a Republican, uttering such an admission. But no! After a decade of claiming that Saddam Hussein was a US stooge (despite 95% of his weapons coming from the USSR) that the USA had deliberately left in power to stymie the democratic voice of the Iraqi people, the Left immediately grabbed Dick Cheney’s reasons for not overthrowing Saddam in 1991 – which they had condemned at the time as apologetics and immoral realpolitik – and made them their own.

Obviously Cheney did a 180 on all those arguments in 2003, but he’s simply another politician. What is the excuse of the “principled Left” for their 180’s on the same arguments?

As we now know, the mission to install “freedom”, let alone Liberal Democracy, in the Middle East, failed. Not just in Afghanistan from 2001 and Iraq in 2003, but in the countries that underwent the Arab Spring in the early 2010’s with a new American President, Barack Obama, looking on, with a second burst a decade later. China and Russia stand as non-Islamic examples of the same failure.

In his article, Escaping Liberal Democracy, Yoram Hazony thinks he knows the reason. Despite that arresting title this is no paean to totalitarianism or even authoritarianism. Instead he argues that the choice between such things and Liberal Democracy is a false choice and that the latter has failed to be a universal solution, despite all the crowing of its defenders about its universal applicability (“… the advance of freedom leads to peace…”)

Hazony starts with the three axioms on which Liberal Democracy is founded:

1. Availability and Sufficiency of Reason. Human individuals are capable of exercising reason, which “teaches all mankind who will but consult it.” By reasoning, they are able to discover universal truths that hold good across all human societies and in every historical time frame.

2. The Free and Equal Individual. Human individuals are by nature in a state of “perfect freedom” and “perfect equality.”

3. Obligation Arises from Choice. Human individuals have no obligations to political institutions until “by their own consent they make themselves members of some political society.”

Which all sound great – until they start to run into societies and cultures that are grounded in more than that; specifically religion, family, tribe, ethnicity and perhaps nationality. The response of Liberals has been to say that the West was also once like that and that Liberalism – starting with the Enlightenment (the name itself a propaganda triumph) and its “rationality” – steadily and painfully wore away all that boring, traditional, conservative, primitive stuff to produce the enlightened societies of the West today.

Harzony has little time for such self-congratulatory worship, even as he accepts that it is not a closed and complete system; there are still Liberals in who believe in religion for example. However:

Both in Europe and in America, the principles of liberalism have not brought a greater honor for God and Scripture, national cohesion, and the flourishing of the family and the congregation – but the opposite. Everywhere it has gone, the liberal system has brought about the dissolution of these traditional institutions. Nor is the reason for this hard to find. For liberalism is not “only a form of government designed to permit a broad sphere of individual freedom.” In fact, liberalism is not a form of government at all. It is a system of beliefs taken to be axiomatic. In other words, it is a system of dogmas. About what? About the nature of human beings, reason, and the sources of the moral obligations that bind us.

There are no grounds for the claim that liberalism is merely a system of “neutral” rules, a “procedural” system. Liberalism is a substantive belief system that provides an alternative foundation for our views concerning the nature of human beings, reason, and the sources of the moral obligations that bind us. This alternative foundation has not coexisted with earlier political tradition, rooted in the Bible, as we were told it would. It has rather cut this earlier tradition to ribbons.

Faced with these failures, he suggests a conservative – specifically an Anglo-American conservative – approach to democracy, based on five principles, which I’ve summarised here but which he explains in detail:

  1. Historical Empiricism. The authority of government derives from constitutional traditions known, through the long historical experience of a given nation, to offer stability, well-being, and freedom. These traditions are refined through trial and error over centuries, with repairs and improvements being introduced where necessary.
  2. Nationalism. Human beings form national collectives characterized by bonds of mutual loyalty and unique inherited traditions.The diversity of national experiences means that different nations will have different constitutional and religious traditions…This includes a conception of the nation as arising out of diverse tribes, its unity anchored in a common traditional language, law, and religion.
  3. Religion. The state upholds and honors God and the Bible, the congregation and the family, and the religious practices common to the nation. These are essential to the national heritage and indispensable for justice and public morals. At the same time, the state offers toleration to religious and social views that do not endanger the integrity and well-being of the nation as a whole.
  4. Limited Executive Power. The executive powers of government are vested in a strong, unitary chief executive by the traditional laws of the nation, which the chief executive neither determines nor adjudicates.
  5. Individual Freedoms. The security of the individual’s life and property is mandated by God as the basis for a society that is both peaceful and prosperous, and is to be protected against arbitrary actions of the state. 

I think he’s pushing shit up hill on number 3, although I would note that those atheists who boast of our increasingly secular Western societies have little to say about the rise in the West of old religions like Islam and indigenous spiritual practices – such as our own Karakia, now often uttered at the start of meetings – as well as types of worship that seem very much like religion, including those intersectional problems that arise in such matters:

In this case, LGBT had to yield to Islam at the “intersection of rights.” Ms. Zreika stood firm and the league relented. She is playing again and will not be forced to endorse actions her religion doesn’t approve of. By contrast, the Manly 7 are Christians, so no such tolerance will be shown to them.

For those who quail before the word “conservative” combined with “democracy”, Harzony points to the roots of Liberal Democracy and the arrogance of thinking those roots can be discarded:

What is meant by this term is a form of government that borrows certain principles from the earlier Anglo-American conservative tradition, including those limiting executive power and guaranteeing individual freedoms (Principles 4 and 5 above). But liberalism regards these principles as stand-alone entities, detachable from the broader conservative tradition out of which they arose. Liberals thus tend to have few, if any, qualms about discarding the national and religious foundations of traditional Anglo-American government (Principles 2 and 3) as unnecessary, if not simply contrary to universal reason.

Over the years I’ve occasionally argued with Old Leftists bemoaning the end of the cozy Labour-National New Zealand world circa 1935-1984, that perhaps their beloved Leftist institutions of Public Health, Public Education, Social Welfare, and our largely crime-free, loosely policed society, only survived because they were built upon a society of small-c, conservative people, with even Labour voters being conservative in their personal lives about many social things (…the sources of the moral obligations that bind us…)

Or as America’s second President once said of his nation:

We have no government armed with power capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion. . . . Our constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.

Written by Tom Hunter

August 6, 2022 at 10:26 am

2 Responses

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  1. Interesting… In Defence of Democracy: Professor Elizabeth Rata speaking at the ACT conference,

    Tom Hunter

    August 7, 2022 at 8:25 am

  2. This is a huge topic, Tom. Read your post yesterday, wanted to say something but had to look up a video I watched a while back, which then lead me to copy the entire book for future reference.

    The book that Jay Dyer went through in the linked video is called Game of Nations by Miles Copeland. It’s relevant to this post since you mentioned the Middle East, as it’s his memoirs (he was a spy) about the machinations in Egypt he was involved with. It starts with this quote from a lecture by Zakaria Mohieddin to the Egyptian War College in 1962:

    … differs from other games – poker, war, commerce – in several important respects. First, each player has his own aims, different from those of the others, which constitute ‘winning’; second, every player is forced by his own domestic circumstances to make moves in the Game which have nothing to do with winning and which, indeed, might impair chances of winning; third, in the Game of Nations there are no winners, only losers. The objective of each player is not so much to win as to avoid loss.

    The common objective of players in the Game of Nations is merely to keep the Game going. The alternative to the Game is war.

    After that diversion, all I can say is that political progress regards conservatism as incredibly annoying (the revolutionaries, for instance hate the idea that the working class doesn’t want to join into creating a Marxist Utopia); and also backward – something that popped out from Bryce Edwards when he was talking to Ani O’Brian on The Platform a while back. Conservatism stands in the way of “progress” and therefore, revolution and Utopia.

    Actually, going back through your post, I think there is this “myth” around what the US was doing in comparison to what it, as the world’s policeman, was actually doing underneath that. Makes for a huge mess in trying to decipher what the hell is going on. The book I reference seems to give a whole lot of potential insight into a more secret world.

    Lucia Maria

    August 7, 2022 at 11:54 am

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