Some years ago I began to notice that, during question periods following public speeches, otherwise rational human beings who were clearly arguing for opposing points of view were increasingly inclined to cite "democracy" in defence of their positions. This was disturbing because it was obvious that this venerable word was only being introduced to shut off debate prematurely. The clear intention was to make it impossible for opponents to reject a claim without also rejecting democracy--a grievous heresy nowadays.
So there it was. Before my very eyes "democracy" was becoming a word of ill-repute--a term picked up and used vigorously for the advantages of the moment, then dropped without further consideration. I soon began to wonder how this cheapening of the word might be linked to the cheapening of the underlying concept, and how this in turn might be connected to another question--namely, why do we Westerners, who have historically celebrated a self-reliant individualism within our local communities and just as defiantly deplored state collectivism, now celebrate both of these things in a new and paradoxical form of democracy that someone has aptly described as "libertarian socialism"? This is a very recent conception of democracy, barely a half century old, under which individuals have come to believe that they have all the rights and states have all the duties.
What has struck this writer is that, despite its inherent contradictions, this arguably anti-democratic form has not only become widely accepted as normal, but the radicals who have worked so hard to bring this acceptance about did so in something best described as the "language of democracy." This language has four key terms: "freedom," "equality," "rights," and "choice"--which become insidious whenever they are emptied of all traditional content and limitation. (1) Once pried loose from their history, so to speak, these four words easily become serviceable for political radicals who use them to form a kind of camouflage or code that must be deciphered carefully before we have any hope of under-standing what is being attempted, as distinct from what is being expressed.
The contradictions inherent in the term "libertarian socialism" alone tell us that we are living vulnerably in an intellectually confused time, for a people undisturbed by the manifest incoherence of its own political philosophy is obviously ripe for manipulation. For example, it no longer makes sense to use the terms "democracy" and "freedom" interchangeably, as we have always done. When people felt strong in their communities, were more fiercely independent, and even longed to be free of overbearing government, the two words seemed the same because people thought it natural to use the former to acquire and defend the latter. But the words are used quite differently now. Although ostensibly a free people, we tend to use the word "democracy" for the opposite reason: to demand increased government services, security, and regulation as a right. But this ultimately turns democracy against freedom because every tax, service, and regulation constitutes some kind of limit on our personal action and responsibility. For this reason it is time to separate the terms and determine their true nature.
Once we do this, what becomes immediately apparent is that democratic instruments turn into value-neutral tools used to decide the distribution of policy and power. Just as a shovel can be used to dig a foundation for a house, or to beat someone to death, the tools, and especially the language, of democracy can be used to create a virtuous, free, and good society or an oppressive and very bad one. In quiet moments I worry that we North Americans have been flirting with the latter category for some time, and that the refinement and vigour of any society have little to do with democracy, or with the act of digging, and everything to do with the underlying moral and political culture, or what is dug. This is merely to restate a warning from the powerfully insightful thinker Irving Babbitt, who, early in the last century in his book Democracy and Leadership, warned that civilization can only be created by an act of the will, but if we decide to let it drift, the direction is inevitably downward.
When it comes to directing civilization, there are only two mutually incompatible methods available. You must use either unbounded state power or the voluntary authority of civil society working in cooperation with strictly limited, constitutional government. In other words, you can shape a country by using unaccountable force as deployed through the agencies of the state or by using the myriad indirect moral and social forces that are to be found naturally in the various spontaneous groupings of civil society. But you cannot successfully use both, because unlimited government and the autonomous institutions of civil society rest on opposing principles. The unlimited state must control, but civil society must be free to self-regulate and accordingly may easily undermine the power and control of the state at any time. That is why all centralizing states, although they may pay lip-service to the grandeur of a free society, inevitably engage it in a struggle for control.
Nevertheless, even though these two options are so clearly different in character and consequence, they are very easily confused. The real-world meaning of the difference between them hits home most deeply when we learn that in the dreadful twentieth century nearly three times as many citizens were killed by their own governments as the number of military deaths in all of that century's terrible wars. This is simply astonishing, and it tells us that, although governments may routinely nourish and protect their citizens, they may just as routinely kill them for what outsiders consider very flimsy reasons.
Social groups, however, present no such mortal danger. They must rely on persuasion and on moral reward and stigma to get their way. The state may order you to pay unreasonable taxes, jail you for activism, or hang you for crimes. But it is simply unimaginable for any agency of civil society even to hint at such actions. Access to coercive legal power is the decisive factor, and today neither the church, the family, nor any other voluntarily formed organization of civil society has such access.
Still, it is generally known that, even though our parents, teachers, minister, boss, team captain, and so on, cannot jail us if we disobey them, we nevertheless may find ourselves in painful moral or social handcuffs for doing so. This sort of omnipresent authority, to which most of us happily subscribe as members of particular communities, is held over us in varying degrees most of our lives. We may be compelled by external force to obey raw power; but we compel ourselves by an inner impulse or law to obey authority. Coercive law and the intrinsic moral authority of society are very different. The first is a force we cannot resist and keep our freedom, the second a force to which we give on-going assent or refusal and then live with the consequences.
In the past, the difference between power and persuasion was obvious to everyone. But in our modern embrace of indiscriminate liberty this distinction has been lost, with...