OLD HICKORY'S DIARY
Representation, Liberty and Politics.
Babes In Arms, the editorial in The Times, (p15), 1 August 2000, forecasts a drop in women members of parliament following the next election. If this occurs, it will be the first fall in twenty years. At 122 MPs, women are 18.4% of the House of Commons. The editorial says that this does not reflect well on Britain. China, Laos, Mozambique and South Africa all have a higher proportion of women in their ruling chamber. Sweden has 43%, while Norway, the Netherlands, and Finland all have 36%. Germany has 31%. The editorial disagrees with the outgoing speaker of the House of Commons that the times the House meets do not need to be reformed to suit women. It thinks it is worthwhile to reform the House to achieve what it calls "greater representation".
But in what sense is representation being thought of here? Burke's idea was that, by the division of labour, the MP is an expert and should serve the public by offering his opinion rather than by conforming to what those he governs might think. This contrasted sharply with the common idea of the eighteenth century of delegative democracy which held that MPs ought to conform to what the electorate thinks. Paine championed this meme against Burke, but the originality lay in Burke rejecting it as inept more than twenty years earlier. Paine's was one of fifty-four replies to Reflections On the Revolution in France (1790) by Burke, the leader of Whig or liberal thought up till that time. Of late it has been said that Dick West has revived delegative democracy by following opinion polls during the Clinton administration in the USA, and Philip Gould thinks that Blair ought to do the same in the UK. However, neither of those rival memes of democracy is going to achieve equality, nor are they as free as their adherents tend to think.
The basic idea of free government is oxymoronic. To be governed is to be proactively coerced into doing what we do not choose to do. This does not mean that all governments are the same, but it is clear enough that to be governed at all means that social liberty will be scotched ipso facto. Before coming back to discuss this meme – the myth of democracy – we will take a detour on liberty or freedom.
It is not only that the state is defensive or reactively coercive in defence of social liberty, it also governs. To govern is to be proactive. The state does control the monopoly of the law and the policing services that will be needed for the defensive roles against those who are inclined towards victimising others. Here we should bear in mind the distinction that Libertarian Alliance member Jan Lester and I worked out on the LA discussion group in May/June 2000. Social liberty is between people rather than of the person. It is not just bodily or personal liberty.
I wanted to reserve the term liberty for social liberty and freedom for what Jan called bodily liberty, or licence. I was attempting to get away from Hobbes and current common sense on this, that holds that one man's liberty can be at the expense of another's. For clearly, if one man initiates wanton violence against another, overall liberty no longer exists between them. It is quite clear that in such a case what I call here ‘social liberty', and what I then called liberty as distinct from mere freedom, is lost. The aim of libertarianism is social liberty. It is not for license or for the complete disregard of others. It is individualism but it is also a social philosophy.. Liberty would be best achieved by a complete respect for others by one and all, but because a minority will not behave, we have reason enough for a police force to be needed for the defence of social liberty. Police will be needed as long as liberty is under threat from this minority. This can be done liberally by a reactive minimal state, or by the privatisation of the reactive policing and law needed to defend social liberty. A government is not likely to confine itself to the role of a liberal minimal state and this is why anarchists will push on to institutionalise liberty once they get that far. The defence of social liberty may be privatised or depoliticised.
A few romantics have thought that the LA, which is an alliance between minimal statists and anarchists, will split into hostile groups once the minimal state arrives. But the question will arise of whether we do have a state at all when, and if, the minimal state is fully achieved. If it is totally reactive and defensive of social liberty then it might not even tax people but instead call for voluntary contributions. And if it stops taxation then it might not even be a state at all. But this new institution might still run the risk of drifting back into its bad old ways if not solidified by safeguards for the liberal ideal.
In practice, a state is going to be proactively coercive. It is going to tax and to proactively govern. Democracy is about rule. In that it seeks to be the people ruling themselves it appears quite absurd. Even without the logistics of mass populations that the eighteenth century revivers of democracy faced, the very concept of self-government seems to be confused. With large populations, clearly all cannot have a say in what the whole does, for only so many can speak at one time. With a small population of 20 or fewer, people would still find that they have created a body that governs them coercively as a body politic. Their original consent to this coercion will no more maintain their freedom than would a decision to sell themselves into slavery. You will have to conform to what the majority decides, whether you are in the voting majority or not. I have said above that delegative democracy is absurd and that democracy itself is also absurd in its idea of self-government. To be governed is to be governed by an alien body politic. But delegative democracy is nearer to the ideal of democracy and following the opinion polls in the manner of West and Gould is, to an extent, giving up on government.
Burke's representative meme is more like practical politics if a little further from the democratic ideal. It openly endorses government. That gives it coherence. Here we are governed by people who claim to know better than those they rule and politics is seen as part of the division of labour. The political representatives claim superiority rather than equality and this claim seems to be intrinsic to the very idea of government. What makes democracy absurd is that it attempts to gainsay this inequality. But this sort of representation relates not one whit to the modern notion or misunderstanding of "representation", which is an idea that no one seems to have worked out; "as it is obvious". This modern reading of representation is more democratic in that it also tends to deny the superiority of the ruling class. But we cannot have both equality and government. It also clearly involves a regulation of society to fit a reflection of society as a whole. But this amounts to governing. Hence the modern idea is for government by a class of equals. But why then should they have the right to govern us? The idea is absurd and incoherent in that it tries to urge and also basically gainsay the need for government. This is currently held as fair owing only to a misreading of what representation really means in politics.
It haply simply misreads the Burkean jargon. But The Times editorial has clearly endorsed this daft idea. "The New Terror" in the Spectator (p13f), 29 July reports that the fad of this sort of representation has gone further than anywhere else in the UK in the province of Northern Ireland. And many Politically Correct followers of Ken Livingstone in London and similar politicians elsewhere will be keen to regulate all sorts of firms with this representation ideal in view.
"Colin Powell attacks own party on race" reports Toby Harnden in the Daily Telegraph (p.1 ) 2 August. The Times of the same day (p15) reports that he gave almost exactly the same speech in 1996 and then received a stony silence in response. This time he was masochistically applauded. It followed this same misreading of political representation in that it was keen on regulating society to see to it that organisations reflected the make-up of the populations. He made an attack on the Republican Party for neglecting the blacks in USA. He noticed that his party had certain members who never can accept measures taken to aid blacks. "Some in our Party miss no opportunity to roundly condemn affirmative action that helped a few black kids to get an education," said Powell. The Times reported that he also said, "The Party of Lincoln has not always carried the mantle of Lincoln". The Telegraph also reported that another black Republican, Ward Connerly, was amongst those Powell was out to attack, for he did not miss this opportunity to attack affirmative action as a corrupt privilege that he held would sap the self esteem of blacks.
© Libertarian Alliance 2001