Tuesday, September 21, 2021

freedom or democracy

From the beginning of the 19th century to the early years of the 20th century democracy gradually established itself in the West. And something very interesting happened them. Democratically elected governments started to take away people’s freedoms.

Of course governments have always to some extent been in the business of social control, but democratic governments have gradually extended that social control to cover almost every aspect of life. Democratic governments are in the business of micro-managing our lives.

The depressing thing is that this happened because public opinion on the whole supported outrageous infringements on people’s freedoms.

It amuses me that social conservatives look back to the 1950s as a golden age of freedom. It wasn’t. It was an era of rigid forced social conformity. Personal freedom was strictly limited.

In fact of course that’s exactly why social conservatives are nostalgic for the 50s. They like the fact that the people of whom they disapproved had no freedoms. For social conservatives freedom means the freedom to conform rigidly to socially conservative norms.

All of these losses of freedom were justified on the grounds that it was for our own good. Things like gambling, prostitution, drinking alcohol, taking drugs, pornography, etc were wicked so they had to be either rigidly controlled by the government or banned by the government.

That’s still the social conservative argument, and the argument of social and moral reformers as well. The problem is that whether these things were desirable or undesirable government attempts to control these social problems always made matters worse. And of course they took away our basic human dignity, our right to decide how to live our own lives.

The results were invariably disastrous. All Prohibition achieved was to allow organised crime to grow to a scale that no-one had ever believed possible, and to allow the police, courts and government to become thoroughly corrupt. In every single case the attempts at government social control failed, organised crime grew more powerful and the police got more corrupt.

In a democratic society most of us accept that the government should treat us the way Nanny would treat naughty five-year-olds. We accept the principle that if we disobey Nanny we should get a belting. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that we like the idea of Nanny giving other naughty children a belting but we’re not quite so enthusiastic about it when it’s our turn for a belting. But we still accept the idea that Nanny should be able to punish us if we’re disobedient, for our own good.

Today of course this democratic totalitarian mindset is as strong as ever, but it’s being applied in a manner that horrifies social conservatives who are regularly getting beaten by Nanny for being transphobic or racist.

Social problems will always exist. It’s tempting to think that they can be eliminated if only the government could pass enough laws and if only the courts could impose harsh enough sentences but they can’t be eliminated. But democratic societies are committed to the utopian belief that all social ills can be eliminated by passing laws.

Perhaps we need to realise that you can have freedom or you have democracy, but you cannot have both.

1 comment:

  1. When we think of democracy, we think of government by representative assemblies elected by universal adult suffrage. This was a twentieth century deal. Representative assemblies go back to the middle ages, but universal adult suffrage was first attempted in France in 1792, and not really widely instituted until the opening decades of the twentieth century. I think these institutions were dead letter in the twenty-first century, but that is another argument.

    And control by government and non-government institutions over the personal lives of their subjects was markedly greater in the twentieth and twenty-first century than in other periods, though it is worth noting that the worst offenders in the twentieth century were not noted for conducting free and fair elections.

    But what else happened in the 1790s and the opening decades of the twentieth century? Universal adult suffrage happened. So did universal adult male conscription. The French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars were between 1792 and 1815, the two world wars between 1914 and 1945.

    Both universal adult suffrage and massive institutional control over personal lives had the same parent, massive wars.

    Hey if they could have done the conscription without the elections where all adults could participate, I'm sure they would have been happy to arrange that. In some places they did.