Tag: liberalism

Liberalism and the French Revolution

Twenty-five years ago today I stood on the Champs-Elysees and watched a parade celebrating the bicentennial of the French Revolution, capped off with Jessye Norman singing “La Marseillaise.”

Of course, the French Revolution is controversial, especially among my conservative friends. How should libertarians see it? Three years ago I discussed that topic at FreedomFest and on the Britannica Blog. Here’s some of what I wrote then:

The Chinese premier Zhou Enlai is famously (but apparently inaccurately) quoted as saying, “It is too soon to tell.” I like to draw on the wisdom of another deep thinker of the mid 20thcentury, Henny Youngman, who when asked “How’s your wife?” answered, “Compared to what?” Compared to the American Revolution, the French Revolution is very disappointing to libertarians. Compared to the Russian Revolution, it looks pretty good. And it also looks good, at least in the long view, compared to the ancien regime that preceded it.

Conservatives typically follow Edmund Burke‘s critical view in his Reflections on the Revolution in France. They may even quote John Adams: ”Helvetius and Rousseau preached to the French nation liberty, till they made them the most mechanical slaves; equality, till they destroyed all equity; humanity, till they became weasels and African panthers; and fraternity, till they cut one another’s throats like Roman gladiators.”

But there’s another view. And visitors to Mount Vernon, the home of George Washington, get a glimpse of it when they see a key hanging in a place of honor. It’s one of the keys to the Bastille, sent to Washington by Lafayette by way of Thomas Paine. They understood, as the great historian A.V. Dicey put it, that “The Bastille was the outward visible sign of lawless power.” And thus keys to the Bastille were symbols of liberation from tyranny….

Liberals and libertarians admired the fundamental values [the French Revolution] represented. Ludwig von Mises and F. A. Hayek both hailed “the ideas of 1789” and contrasted them with “the ideas of 1914” — that is, liberty versus state-directed organization.

Authoritarian Governments Use Old Smears to Tear Down Their Opponents

Anne Applebaum reports on how old smears are still used to support illiberal ideas and authoritarian government:

Halfway through an otherwise coherent conversation with a Georgian lawyer here — the topics included judges, the court system, the police — I was startled by a comment he made about his country’s former government, led by then-president Mikheil Saakashvili. “They were LGBT,” he said, conspiratorially.

What did that mean, I asked, surprised. Were they for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights? For gay marriage? Were they actually gay? He couldn’t really define it, though the conversation meandered in that direction for a few more minutes, also touching on the subject of the former president’s alleged marital infidelity, his promotion of female politicians, his lack of respect for the church.

Afterward, I worked it out. The lawyer meant to say that Saakashvili — who drove his country hard in the direction of Europe, pulled Georgia as close to NATO as possible and used rough tactics to fight the ­post-Soviet mafia that dominated his country — was “too Western.” Not conservative enough. Not traditional enough. Too much of a modernizer, a reformer, a European. In the past, such a critic might have called Saakashvili a “rootless cosmopolitan.” But today the insulting code word for that sort of person in the former Soviet space — regardless of what he or she thinks about homosexuals — is LGBT.

None of this is new, as Applebaum notes. We’ve seen it recently in Venezuela. In 2012, as soon as Henrique Capriles won a primary to become the candidate of the democratic opposition against Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chavez, the Wall Street Journal reported that he

was vilified in a campaign in Venezuela’s state-run media, which insinuated he was, among other things, a homosexual and a Zionist agent.

Homosexual and Jewish, I thought. When they attack him for being rich, they’ll have the trifecta of populist prejudices.

And sure enough, they did. Chavez himself declared:

The bourgeoisie have their candidate – the candidate of the anti-fatherland, of capitalism, of the Yankees. We are going to thrash that bourgeoisie.

Chavez, of course, also threw in “the candidate of the Yankees,” that is, the Americans. German democrats used to say that “anti-semitism is the socialism of fools.” Now in many countries we could say that anti-Americanism is the new anti-semitism. They’re often found in tandem.

The authoritarian government of Malaysia calls its chief opponent, Anwar Ibrahim, a homosexual and a gay propagandist, and has even prosecuted and jailed him on trumped-up sodomy charges.

All of these epithets – homosexual, Jewish, bourgeoisie, and more recently, “American” – have been staples of illiberal rhetoric for centuries. Liberals – advocates of democracy, free speech, religious freedom, and market freedoms – have been tarred as “cosmopolitan” and somehow alien to the people, the Volk, the faithful, the fatherland, the heartland.

Authoritarians such as Putin and Chavez’s successor Nicolas Maduro also like to denounce their opponents as “fascists,” even though they themselves fit most of the textbook definition of fascism – nationalism, anti-liberalism, a charismatic leader as the embodiment of the nation, and an economy controlled indirectly by the state, typically through nominally private owners

Liberals should denounce these sorts of vile and illiberal attacks, whether they stem from the American far right or far left, Vladimir Putin, the ruling party in Malaysia, or the Venezuelan socialists. 

The Kids Are All Right

Is libertarianism a worldwide trend among young people? There are poll reports from the United States, Great Britain, and Turkey this week that point in that direction.

The College Republican National Committee put out a report finding that young voters are very much against excessive government spending (though they do support higher taxes on the wealthy) and are strongly in favor of gay marriage. They want to reform entitlements but see the Republican party as “closed-minded, racist, rigid, old-fashioned.”

Meanwhile, the Economist, in an editorial titled “The strange rebirth of liberal England” (in an allusion to a famous history book), writes, “Young Britons have turned strikingly liberal, in a classical sense….The young want Leviathan to butt out of their pay cheques as well as their bedrooms.” An accompanying article declares, “Britain’s youth are not just more liberal than their elders. They are also more liberal than any previous generation”:

Young Britons are classical liberals: as well as prizing social freedom, they believe in low taxes, limited welfare and personal responsibility. In America they would be called libertarians.

More than two-thirds of people born before 1939 consider the welfare state “one of Britain’s proudest achievements”. Less than one-third of those born after 1979 say the same. According to [the long-running British Social Attitudes survey], members of Generation Y are not just half as likely as older people to consider it the state’s responsibility to cover the costs of residential care in old age. They are also more likely to take such a hard-hearted view than were members of the famously jaded Generation X (born between 1966 and 1979) at the same stage of life.

“Every successive generation is less collectivist than the last,” says Ben Page of Ipsos MORI, a pollster.

And finally comes this headline from the Hurriyet Daily News in Istanbul: 

Protesters are young, libertarian and furious at Turkish PM, says survey

An online survey of 3000 protesters conducted by two academics found, among other things:

A majority of the protesters who completed the survey, 81.2 percent, defined themselves as “libertarian.” A total of 64.5 percent of the respondents defined themselves as “secular.”

Maybe this really is the libertarian momentStudents for Liberty attracted 1,400 attendees to its February national conference, and another 365 to a European conference in March. Now, as the Economist says, if only the young people will vote – and the parties will offer them candidates.

Obama’s Andrew Shepherd Moment?

Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen today laments what he calls the “cratering of liberalism.” Cohen remembers that the “liberal agenda once included confiscating handguns and abolishing the right to own one.” Yes, agreed, we should remember that. Liberals would really like Obama to channel Michael Douglas, who played a liberal commander-in-chief in the Rob Reiner/Aaron Sorkin film, The American President (excerpt below). Should we do this in the inaugural address or the state of the union? That’s probably the debate among Obama’s speechwriters. 

Libertarians, Conservatives, and the Social Issues

Like Walter Olson, I was struck yesterday by Tim Carney’s admonition that “Libertarians need to reassess their allegiances on social matters” in light of government infringements on religious liberty. Walter did a good job of demonstrating that libertarians, even those who are not themselves religious, have been “on the front lines” in defending religious liberty in such cases as Catholic hospitals’ objections to paying for birth control and the wedding photographer in New Mexico who didn’t want to photograph a gay wedding. Libertarians don’t have to be conservatives to object to “liberal” infringements on personal and religious freedoms.

But there’s another problem with what Carney wrote. I’m not quite sure what “Libertarians need to reassess their allegiances on social matters” means. But perhaps he means that libertarians should stop thinking of themselves as “fiscally conservative and socially liberal” and recognize that a lot of infringements on freedom come from the left. In my experience libertarians are well aware that in matters from taxes to gun ownership to Catholic hospitals, liberals don’t live up to the ideal of true liberalism.

But what about conservatives? Are conservatives really the defenders of freedom? Carney seems to want us to think so, and to line up with conservatives “on social matters.” But the real record of conservatives on personal and social freedom is not very good. Consider:

  • Conservatives, like National Review, supported state-imposed racial segregation in the 1950s and 1960s. (I won’t go back and claim that “conservatives” supported slavery or other pre-modern violations of freedom.)
  • Conservatives opposed legal and social equality for women.
  • Conservatives supported laws banning homosexual acts among consenting adults.
  • Conservatives still oppose equal marriage rights for gay couples.
  • Conservatives (and plenty of liberals) support the policy of drug prohibition, which results in nearly a million arrests a year for marijuana use.
  • Conservatives support state-imposed prayers and other endorsements of religion in public schools.
Conservatives have a bad record on social freedom. It is, in a word, illiberal. Carney may be right that,
This is how the culture war generally plays out these days: The Left uses government to force religious people and cultural conservatives to violate their consciences, and then cries “theocracy” when conservatives object.
But conservatives earned the skepticism of liberals and libertarians on social issues over long decades during which they supported far greater intrusions on personal freedom than the ones Carney is writing about—which are nevertheless illiberal and should be opposed by all who adhere to the principles of freedom.

Intervention in Libya and Syria Isn’t Humanitarian or Liberal

Proponents of foreign military intervention in Libya argued that giving air support to rebels there would spread liberalism and save Libyan lives. But the success of that revolution has thus far delivered political chaos destructive to both ends. That result is worth noting as backers of the Libya intervention offer it as a model for aiding Syrian rebels in the name of similar goals.

Advocates of both interventions underestimate coercion’s contribution to political order. Autocratic rule in these countries is partially a consequence of state weakness—the absence of strong liberal norms, government institutions, and nationalism. By helping to remove the levers of coercion in places like Libya and Syria, we risk producing anarchy—continual civil war or long-lived violent disorder. Either outcome would likely worsen suffering through widespread murder, a collapse of sanitation and health services, and stunted economic growth conducive to well-being. And the most promising paths to new of forms of unity and order in these states are illiberal: religious rule, war, or new autocrats. The humanitarian and liberal cases for these interventions are unconvincing.

Aside from Qaddafi’s fall, U.S. leaders gave three primary rationales for military intervention Libya (I repeatedly criticized them last spring). One was to show other dictators that the international community would not tolerate the violent suppression of dissenters. That reverse domino theory has obviously failed. If Qaddafi’s fate taught neighboring leaders like Bashar al-Assad anything, it is to brutally nip opposition movements in the bud before they coalesce, attract foreign arms and air support, and kill you, or, if you’re lucky, ship you off to the Hague.

The second rationale was the establishment of liberal democracy. But Libya, like Syria, lacks the traditional building blocks of liberal democracy. And history suggests that foreign military intervention impedes democratization. Whether or not it manages to hold elections, Libya seems unlikely to become a truly liberal state any time soon. As with Syria, any path to that outcome is likely to be long and bloody.

Meanwhile, Libya’s revolution has destabilized Mali. Qaddafi’s fall pushed hundreds of Tuareg tribesmen that fought on his side back to their native Mali, where they promptly reignited an old insurgency. Malian military officers, citing their government’s insufficient vigor against the rebels, mounted a coup, overthrowing democracy that had lasted over twenty years. Thus far, the military intervention in Libya has reduced the number of democracies by one.

The most widely cited rationale for helping Libya’s rebels was to save civilians from the regime. Along with many commentators, President Obama and his aides insisted that Qaddafi promised to slaughter civilians in towns that his forces were poised to retake last March. Thus, intervention saved hundreds of thousands of lives. A minor problem with this claim is that Qaddafi’s speeches actually threatened rebel fighters, not civilians, and he explicitly exempted those rebels that put down arms. More importantly, if Qaddafi intended to massacre civilians, his forces had ample opportunity to do it. They did commit war crimes, using force indiscriminately and executing and torturing prisoners. But the sort of wholesale slaughter that the Obama administration warned of did not occur—maybe because the regime’s forces lacked the organization needed for systematic slaughter.

The limited nature of the regime’s brutality does not itself invalidate humanitarian concerns. It might be worthwhile to stop even a historically mild suppression of rebellion if the cost of doing so is low enough. The trouble with the humanitarian argument for intervention in Libya is instead that the intervention and the chaos it produced may ultimately cause more suffering than the atrocities it prevented. Libya’s rebel leaders have thus far failed to resurrect central authority. Hundreds of militias police cities and occasionally battle. There are many credible reports that militias have unlawfully detained thousands of regime supporters, executed others, driven mistrusted communities from their homes, and engaged in widespread torture.

The looting of Libya’s weapons stockpiles is also likely to contribute to Libya’s misery, in part by arming the militias that obstruct central authority. The weapons depots reportedly included thousands of man-portable air-defense systems (MANPADS), some of which may still work. It is worth noting that the widely-reported claim that Libya lost 20,000 MANPADS appears exaggerated. That figure comes from Senate testimony last spring by the head of Africa Command, who did not substantiate it (my two requests to Africa’s Command PR people for information on this claim were ignored). A State Department official recently gave the same figure before essentially admitting that we have no idea what the right figure is.

No one can say with certainty whether Libya’s anarchy will produce more suffering than a Qaddafi victory would have. But that argument is plausible. Autocracies tend to serve human well-being better than chaos. That does not make it inherently immoral to help overthrow despots. It simply suggests that such interventions, whether or not they are moral or wise, do not deserve the adjective “humanitarian.”

The same goes for Syria. One need not support its brutal rulers to agree that their fall, like Gaddafi’s, is likely to produce extended illiberal chaos or another set of autocrats. I don’t know what the right U.S. policy is toward the crisis in Syria. But I doubt any policy exists that can avoid sacrificing one of our hopes for another.

Cross-posted from the Skeptics at the National Interest.

Democracy in Tunisia?

In the wake of President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali’s abdication in Tunisia on Friday, both President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton stressed the need for quick elections in a country that has never known democracy, freedom of the press, or the rule of law:

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton …  reacted Friday to Ben Ali’s departure with a statement condemning government violence against protesters and calling for free elections.

“We look to the Tunisian government to build a stronger foundation for Tunisia’s future with economic, social and political reforms,” she said… .

President Obama condemned the use of violence against the protesters and urged the government to hold elections that “reflect the true will and aspirations” of Tunisians.

I’m reminded of Fareed Zakaria’s concerns about the blithe promotion of elections in his article “The Rise of Illiberal Democracy” (pdf; later expanded into a book, The Future of Freedom: Illiberal Democracy at Home and Abroad):

…for almost a century in the West, democracy has meant liberal democracy—a political system marked not only by free and fair elections, but also by the rule of law, a separation of powers, and the protection of basic liberties of speech, assembly, religion, and property. In fact, this latter bundle of freedoms—what might be termed constitutional liberalism—is theoretically different and historically distinct from democracy. As the political scientist Philippe Schmitter has pointed out, “Liberalism, either as a conception of political liberty, or as a doctrine about economic policy, may have coincided with the rise of democracy. But it has never been immutably or unambiguously linked to its practice.” Today the two strands of liberal democracy, interwoven in the Western political fabric, are coming apart in the rest of the world. Democracy is flourishing; constitutional liberalism is not….

Constitutional liberalism, on the other hand, is not about the procedures for selecting government, but rather government’s goals. It refers to the tradition, deep in Western history, that seeks to protect an individual’s autonomy and dignity against coercion, whatever the source—state, church, or society. The term marries two closely connected ideas. It is liberal because it draws on the philosophical strain, beginning with the Greeks, that emphasizes individual liberty. It is constitutional because it rests on the tradition, beginning with the Romans, of the rule of law….

Since 1945 Western governments have, for the most part, embodied both democracy and constitutional liberalism. Thus it is difficult to imagine the two apart, in the form of either illiberal democracy or liberal autocracy. In fact both have existed in the past and persist in the present. Until the twentieth century, most countries in Western Europe were liberal autocracies or, at best, semi-democracies. The franchise was tightly restricted, and elected legislatures had little power…. Only in the late 1940s did most Western countries become full-fledged democracies, with universal adult suffrage. But one hundred years earlier, by the late 1840s, most of them had adopted important aspects of constitutional liberalism—the rule of law, private property rights, and increasingly, separated powers and free speech and assembly. For much of modern history, what characterized governments in Europe and North America, and differentiated them from those around the world, was not democracy but constitutional liberalism. The “Western model” is best symbolized not by the mass plebiscite but the impartial judge….

It is odd that the United States is so often the advocate of elections and plebiscitary democracy abroad. What is distinctive about the American system is not how democratic it is but rather how undemocratic it is, placing as it does multiple constraints on electoral majorities….

While it is easy to impose elections on a country, it is more difficult to push constitutional liberalism on a society. The process of genuine liberalization and democratization is gradual and long-term, in which an election is only one step. Without appropriate preparation, it might even be a false step….

Today, in the face of a spreading virus of illiberalism, the most useful role that the international community, and most importantly the United States, can play is—instead of searching for new lands to democratize and new places to hold elections—to consolidate democracy where it has taken root and to encourage the gradual development of constitutional liberalism across the globe. Democracy without constitutional liberalism is not simply inadequate, but dangerous, bringing with it the erosion of liberty, the abuse of power, ethnic divisions, and even war.

Let’s hope that the new leaders and the newly active citizens of Tunisia focus on developing freedom of the press, civil liberties, the rule of law, and constitutional limits on the power of government–including economic policies (pdf) more conducive to growth and progress–even as they move toward holding elections.