« University Governance--Posner's Reply to Comments | Main | Economic and Political Freedom: Does One Lead to the Other? BECKER »



Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.


Wow, lots of talking about me...

You've hit on the number one argument against direct democracy, in fact, nearly all arguments against direct democracy are some form of "The people will do horrible things!" I do not agree that this is true.

You are also correct to point out that were I alive in 1787, I would have been an anti-federalist. I do not apply this label to myself generally because of the pro-slavery, social conservative slant of nearly everyone who traditionally supported it. I think Scalia and Rehnquist are boorish and hateful.

The answer to your question is, yes, I am prepared to sacrifice any and all issues to the altar of democratic rule. This is not to say that I would support an instantaneous delegation of all legislative power to the current social majority. I believe there are pre-requisites to effective populism.

1) People must be more involved in political thought than the masses are today. Democracy does not work for anyone without a forum for real discourse.

2) Our society must be rendered less violent. Direct Democracy does not work when everyone has a gun.

Jurgen Habermas' work in the discourse ethics field (reformulating Kant to apply categorical imperatives by universal consent) is interesting and relevant to this.

It may be true that there is not a democratic majority that I could join on the social issues you mention. It is also true that a majority of the population is NOT involved in the debate beyond passive self-identification with their favorite pundit. It is not clear to me that people would be against gay marriage rights if they had to defend their position (in good faith) in a forum which included homosexuals.

But I think it is unfair to ask "would a direct democracy be perfect in its delineation and enforcement of fundamental rights." The appropriate question is, would it be better than the increasingly unrepresentative republic we are living under now?

One practical limit on direct democracy is that people will naturally specialize in areas where they are interested or talented. There is no reason to require 300 million people to agree on the color of the new town bank building. There is reason to want as many inputs as possible on issues like infrastructure maintenance. This sort of thing is at least technologically possible now with developments in computer technology.


"The answer to your question is, yes, I am prepared to sacrifice any and all issues to the altar of democratic rule."

Then let it be. I'm not so sure you'd like the results, however. Establishment of religion, regulation of abortion and sexual relations, no gay marriage, no more Ward Churchills in the academy, juvenile death penalty reinstated, no welfare for illegals, etc.

The people you claim to represent are decidedly to the right of the law as determined by our judicial elite on almost every issue. I'm not so sure that excludes the question of property rights, either. Your populist radicalism is a certain path to marginalize some of your most treasured political beliefs--beliefs which are only sustained because of the anti-democratic character of our government.


Palooka -

To be fair, Corey qualified his argument with Free Speech. Some, not all, of the examples would diminish the effect of majority rule. Second, while some losses to the "Democratic" cause would be felt by pure democracy, they would not result in absolutes. Abortion may be regulated, but not to the extent that some states desire (complete prohibition). There may be no gay marriage, but there also may be civil unions (another policy which some states reject today). Both sides would take a loss for compromise.


You shouldn't infer anything about my beliefs on those policy issues, btw. If you are wondering, though, I think where the Constitution is silent, those matters should be left to the people's representatives. Sometimes I don't like the results and sometimes I do, but I think the legislature is a more legitimate and effective govering body than the judiciary, and unless our legal traditions or the Constitution implicate something different, that is where power should remain.

I'm willing to take your statements at face value, but I will once again express my shock at your willingness to relinquish the most substantive power the progressive idealogy possesses--influence over national policy via the judiciary.

Your preoccupation with democracy would be more appropriate if we were leaving in the Lochner Era. But we're not. I am not sure why you would think a democratic solution would be any kinder to your radical eqalitarianism than the current system.



"To be fair, Corey qualified his argument with Free Speech."

If he made such an exception for free speech, then I missed it. But making such an exception demonstrates the obvious--Corey is anti-majoritarian, anti-democratic when it aligns with his beliefs about what is good. And how is that any different than what he is criticizing Posner for?

"Abortion may be regulated, but not to the extent that some states desire (complete prohibition). There may be no gay marriage, but there also may be civil unions (another policy which some states reject today). Both sides would take a loss for compromise."

Thank you. It's nice to see liberals making cogent arguments FOR democracy and against the imperial judiciary. Though I suspect it is fleeting, once you realize democracy isn't good for "the cause." Give the people what's good for them, even if they don't want it!


"willingness to relinquish the most substantive power the progressive idealogy possesses--influence over national policy via the judiciary."

Why be shocked, if I endorsed that power, you would correctly accuse me of paternalism and inconsistency.

We both agree that the legislature is the "best" branch, but if its democratic nature is the reason, why depend on the process of representation at all vs. direct voting? The only possible answer is that one wishes to give the representatives the power to vote against popular will, that is, to be undemocratic when necessary to "save us from ourselves."

If congress does nothing but collect and vote the will of the people, then it could be replaced by a machine. Of course we know that is not all they do. Representation can be just as paternalistic as the exercise of judicial power.

The People are the most likely to behave in a radically egalitarian way because they have the least individual power. Singular people will always attempt to gain comparative advantages over each other, but absent the ability to assert rights as to the rest of the world based on collections of property, the only lasting way to concentrate power in an effectively populist system is by agreeing with each other.

Jay Cline

The problem with utopian systems like "anarcho-syndicalists" is they are static systems that suffer from inadequate methodologies to manage change. Communism, libertarianism, anarcho-syndicalists etc are fine on paper; who wouldn't want to live in a perfect society.
But communism, for example, failed for two reasons. First, because it fundamentally misunderstood greed. To Marx, the problem was the greed of the bourgeoisie. But he, and everyone who followed (or at least believed - many who followed Marx were political opportunists, not believers) fantasized that the proletariat would somehow be free from greed. They must be, right? They were the 'have nots'. Had they been greedy, they would have become the 'haves', no? That is why in every attempt to implement communism, the dictatorship of the proletariat comes up short in its anticipated altrusim.

Second, in portraying communism as the apex of political evolution, Marx saw no need to consider how communism would evolve, how it would handle change. The world doesn't stop spinning, population doesn't stop growing, just because someone prints up a manifesto.

Corey's notion of his kind of democracy sounds like a great place. Small communities doing as they please, uniting in times of trouble for mutual defense, otherwise leaving well enough alone. Unfortunately, a horse can only run an effective race with blinders on.

First, these independent communities need to be close enough to make mutual defense viable. But get too close, and internal friction between the communities for scarce resources will bring the communities at war with each other.

Second, every generation or so, the communities will need to relocate, readjust, or as we said in the military, Dress, Right! And I don't believe Corey wants a militaristic society, like the Spartans. Assuming these utopian communities are successful, and assuming we don't have some forced planned parenthood program like the Chinese, the communities are going to grow, requiring more space. No problem. Put everything on wheels; vast fields of trailer parks!

Third, the threats to the system will come from without and within. Unless we start fantasizing that this system of small villages is globalized, there will be a need for mutual defense. Now unless we locate this system deep in the Swiss Alps, where there are natural fortifications, this country will be hard pressed to prevent better organized (but obviously less noble!) countries from rolling over them.

But even in a globalized setting, we are ignoring greed, aren't we? One community gets jealous because a neighboring village prospers from some natural economic advantage, say a river just ripe for hydroelectric power. So this disgruntled village, angry that Corey's village won't share such obviously communal property, stirs up bad feelings with Corey's other disadvantaged neighbors and this alliance calls forth the mutual defense agreement and they attack Corey's village. The long and short of it, we get a bloody war that ends when this plebeian populist system evolves into an oligarchy of a few powerful cities. It happens all the time.

Fourth, Corey's vision of democracy only localizes the problems. How does democracy work WITHIN the confines of the community? Does Corey envision this anarcho-syndicalist democracy continue down to the elemental level where each person is separated from the rest of their civilization to the extent that they come together only in times of need, sort of a Gordon R. Dickson "Dorsai!"? So where are the collective efforts? And how are they managed?

I'm sorry, but utopian fantasies may be heaven or hell, but it has no place on earth. Besides, it is interesting to note that the few examples Corey provides never survived more than a few years.

Jay Cline

Can someone tell me how to get paragraphs without double spacing? I use the HTML P for paragraphs, like on other sites, but this site is double spacing my paragraphs (when I leave them out and attempt to let the Enter key break my paragraphs, I get no paragraphs)hmmm let's try something

Jay Cline

Ah! Enter key is not ignored, if the HTML P is there, only when it isn't.never mind


One of the advantages of decentralizing constitutional restrictions and putting those debates at the state constitutional level is that it allows localized control over the optimal level of minority rights protections. Jurisdictions compete for citizens and businesses to produce the optimal level of such rights.

In the US, democracy has resulted in many states having much stronger property rights protections at the state constitutional level than at the federal level. So, this idea that the people would want fewer property rights protections is not born out by the evidence. In the long run, it produces much greater opportunities for rich and poor alike, as well as much greater opportunities for social mobility through hard work.

Another advantage of decentralizing the debate on property rights is that it allows localities to define for themselves what constitutes property and where the lines should be drawn for the definition of property. Different economic conditions and cultural/religious beliefs call for different approaches to what private property is.

One drawback to this approach is if the state (or federal) judiciary is chronically biased. 100 years ago, the judiciary tended to be biased towards property/economic liberty (Lochner era). These days, the money that flows to the lawyer class through inefficiently high regulations and laws often biases state court systems against the will of the people in codifying property rights.


I'm in a bit of a quandry and have a concern regarding these woderful terms; "Economic Freedom", "Economic Liberty", "Political Liberty", "Political Freedom" that seem to be tossed about like so many tennis balls. That concern is, what do we actually mean? What do they truly entail? This concern is definitional in nature, both in its connotational and denotational senses. Being that as it may, I will return to this concern temporarily.

As for Judge Posner's historical analysis of the relationship between political systems and economic systems; I'm in general and principal agreement. What I'm not in agreement with, is the idea that liberalization of an economic system gives rise to greater democratic tendencies. On closer inspection, I think we will find that a liberalized approach to the economic functioning will give rise more often than not, to the development of Aristocracies, Meritocracies, Plutocracies and the like. Not Democracies.

So, returning to my original quandry, when we speak of Freedom and Liberty, we need to ask ourselves, Freedom/Liberty from whom? and Liberty/Freedom to whom? These questions are just a variation on the basic questions of "Freedom From" and "Freedom to" This will help us set up an actual and coherent definiton and understanding of Liberty and Freedom be it economic or political.


Has anyone proposed that Palooka and Corey get their own blog where they can debate each other ad nauseam without even trying to attempt to stay within the boundaries of the topic?


To follow up on Hatfield's comment, the term "economic liberty" should mean a lot more than just judicial enforcement of contracts and of property rights. It is interesting that those are the two things on which Judge Posner seems to concentrate. A society could strictly enforce the "contract" and "property" rights of slaveholders and be far from free.

Economic liberty, to me, implies the ability of each individual to participate meaningfully in the market economy. Thus, economic liberty presupposes a certain amount of personal liberty (for instance, no slavery or servitude). It also presupposes the educational opportunity necessary to participate in the market, anti-discrimination principles, and fair labor standards. If capitalism leads to a society of sweatshops and sharecroppers, the people are hardly free. They are enslaved, by contract and pre-existing property ownership, to the oligarchs and plutocrats.

Not to defend Putin, but I think that was his point in rebuffing Bush during their recent meeting. Nearly everyone these days believes in the market and wants it to succeed. But if a handful of corrupt individuals are controlling the market, the populace is not truly free. This is one problem, of many, in Russia today.

Daniel Chapman

That seems about right.


"Has anyone proposed that Palooka and Corey get their own blog where they can debate each other ad nauseam without even trying to attempt to stay within the boundaries of the topic?"

I propose that your allegation that I was off topic is:

1) itself off-topic, and

2) inaccurate (given that I was talking about the relation between democracy and property rights, which happens to be the title of Posner's post.)

I apologise if I am blocking your access to the Temple of Posner, what was it that you were hoping to say?


One sentence in Posner's original post, "The reason is that most people in any society have no taste for the risks and violence of war," seems to be the one deserving the most critical examination.

If this is true, spreading democracy can be construed as a national security issue: it is in our self interest. If not, the claim that the US actions in foreign nations are purely for economic profit (blood-for-oil argumentation) gain significant credibility.


Vinay -

The idea you suggest appears similar to that posed by Chis Wonnell on the Right Coast Blog. Commenting on Bush's speech:

"On the other hand, there's a tension, almost a contradiction, in the Bush message. He says, quite rightly, that democratic countries, being accountable to ordinary citizens, tend to be more peaceful. But this applies to the United States as well as to the countries we might want to democratize. A democratic America won't be enthusiastic for endless humanitarian military interventions, so the risk is that we will soon vote in a real dove who will put an emphatic end to such adventurism. The predictable result of such a course would be more aggression by the wicked."


Sorry about that:

Right Coast Blog



I dispute the notion that democracies are less likely to indulge in war.

Consider the 200 years prior to World War-II. Britain was the pre-eminent democracy in the world for most of that time (only losing its position to the United States at the very end). In that period, Britian fought more wars than just about any other country. Only the Napoleonic wars and WW-II can be said to be forced on Britain. [ Some would put WW-I in that category, but not me]. The war of 1812, the Crimean War, the Boer war, a dozen-plus wars in India, wars in Afghanistan and Nepal, wars in modern day Zimbabwe, in Sudan, in the Middle East, in the far-East, in China etc.

Even after WW-II, it took violence to get Britain to leave some of its colonies. Not India, although if Churchill had been in power, it would have required violence. But in Kenya, Malaysia, probably even in Palestine (there are those who claim Britain would not have given up the league of nations mandate without pressure from the Irgun].

In this period, Britain had a fairly representative army. The aristocrats fought and did as officers, the regular folk as soldiers. It seems clear here that a set of philosophies (imperialist expansion, maintaining the balance of power) drove a large war force.

Similarly, in US history, there are only a few clear cut cases of the US going to war just because of a foreign attack (Revolutionary war, Barbary Pirates, WW-II, Afghanistan). I do not think WW-1 belongs in this category, although the war of 1812 may. Many of the wars of thje 19th/early 20th century are particularly notable as not being defensive wars: the wars with the Indian tribes (some may be retaliation, but they were accompanied by US expansion into tribe territory), Mexican war, Spainish American war, gunboat diplomacy in China. You can defend Korea and Gulf War-I as defensive wars, it is less plausible to defend Vietnam as a purely defensive war since it rested on a theory (domino effect that did not seem to hold). And it would be extremely hard to claim that military interventions in Grenada, Haiti, Lebanon, Panama, Bosnia, Kosovo and Gulf War-II were defensive. Understand that there may have been reasons (foreign policy driven, danger to Americans in that country, humanitarian reaspons) for each war, but the defensive claim is really hard to justify unless you use a degenerate case ("well, you know, X's actions cause instability in part Y, or X could threaten us in the future).

There are also wars by proxy. Most European powers, including Great Britain indulged in them during the colonial period and the US and the Soviet Union did so during the Cold War period.


Also noteworthy were the warlike tensions between India and Pakistan when both countries were democracies, leading to the nuclear arms race that resulted in the spread of nuclear technology to Libya and Iran. Apparently, the United States today believes that an autocratic Pakistan is more stable and trustworthy than the democratic one was.

Would it be more accurate to say that democracies, in general, do not engage in war for the "wrong" reasons -- that is, megalomania or a thirst for conquest? The recent U.S. military actions in Kosovo, Panama, and Gulf Wars I and II, while not "defensive" in that there was no real threat to U.S. security, were intended to oust corrupt governments or restrain murderous regimes. While there were good arguments on both sides regarding whether these wars were proper uses of American military power, they were not "unjust" in the larger sense.


Would it be more accurate to say that democracies, in general, do not engage in war for the "wrong" reasons -- that is, megalomania or a thirst for conquest?

I don't know if I agree with that. The history of British imperial expansion would certainly seem to be at odds with that idea. It wasn't precise lymegalomania or a thirst for conquest that drove Britain, but it was a philosophy motivated by British mercantilists and a desire to preserve British power. Yes, there were nobler goals, the so-called White Man's burden (a form of megalomania, maybe :-), but they were not the primary motivator. India was first largely conquered by the mercantilists of the East India company, not by Kiplingesque do-gooders. Many other English wars in Europe were fought out of an attempt to preseve the balance of war in Europe (and ensuring that no European power could become powerful enough to challenge Britain).

Similarly, the expansion of the United States into the West, the numerous wars with Indian tribes, the Mexican war etc. do not fit the model of generally "just" wars. The wars were enormously beneficial to the United States, giving it more territories and natural resources and more power, but the fact that expansion benefited a country does not make a war "just" in the sense that Bosnia might have been just. Self-Interest, a philosophy (manifest destiny) were the major motivator.

Many other European democratic countries also indulged in colonial expansion (France, Belgium) and they did a much worse job of building civil societies than the English. Germany, one of the least democratic European powers, had the smallest colonies (largely because they were late to the colonial game). [ Of course, non democratic countries such as Russia, Turkey and Japan participated at this game too]

Recently wars for old-fashioned imperial reasons have fallen a bit out of favor. It may be because they're politically incorrect, but I think the major reason simply is that they cannot be made to pay easily any more. Great Britain is finding itself fiscally and militarily challenged by a set of small to medium deployments and can only just field a small contingent in Iraq, the Falklands, the Balkans and the Afghanistan. The same Great Britain that once held India, Pakistan, Bangladesh as just part if its holdings would he hard-pressed to occupy Bombay these days and did not even consider an attempt to hang on to Hong Kong militarily. In short, modern democracies have a distate for old-style imperial wars simply because they seem to be far more trouble than they're worth.


No, democracies go to war for mostly the same reasons as other types of governments.

David, even admitting for the sake of argument that the two Gulf Wars were in part motivated by humanitarian concerns, and not just sold to the public on those grounds, it is nonetheless true that they were also motivated by strategic concerns, namely, protection and expansion of American interests in the gulf region. How is that different, exactly, from the adventures of the British Empire in the 19th Century?

One can point to any number of examples, but those are only case studies. I think it is notable, however, that I cannot think of a long standing Democracy that has not started a war to expand its own interests abroad.

I think the more cogent point surrounds Posner's argument about citizen-deterrence. The argument goes that, in a democracy, the voters internalize the costs of war and so are more likely to take those costs into account when considering a peaceful settlement with the opposing country. If both countries are democracies: voila, peace.

But in most democracies, voters don't all internalize the costs of war. Unless the war is on a very grand scale, volunteer armies do the job, and they come mostly from the poorer classes. I do not mean to play the happy syndicalist here -- what's important to my argument isn't that they are poor (although the fact that the poor are forced into fighting wars started by those who were rich enough never to have to serve is indeed morally repugnant) but that they are a minority of the population, the soldiers.

If a majority stands to gain monetarily from the war, without having to internalize the costs, you can see a democracy going to war in the same fashion as an oligarchic or monarchic nation. Britain, in the 19th Century, was pretty much a democracy, and we are too. I think people get wrapped up in the WWII, morally distinct type of war example. But if you look through history, it is rare that one side of a conflict can truly claim a moral high ground. Usually both sides fight for their own interests, when they perceive an advantage for doing so.

Democracies are great, and true globalization (though it has its downsides for sure) may reduce the kinds of advantages available to a country who makes war on other countries. But spreading democracy by war does not produce peace. That is a non-sequitor, and ought to be pointed out whenever possible.


erg, you beat me by two minutes.


Many are making many interesting comments about the nature of war and democracy. I think they're missing a point, though. It isn't just that a democracy is less likely to go to war for "evil" reasons. It is that there are few (are there any?) examples of a democracy attacking ANOTHER democracy. As a democracy, then, it would seem natural to secure ourselves by expanding democracy abroad. This does not necesssarily mean that countries with non-democratic systems are safer, indeed they are arguably less safe as democracy expands.


Well the Megarian episode is one such example. I think you will find that where governments see strategic advantages to war, they make war, regardless of the form of government that opposes them. I hate to repeat myself, but if you would read the post above, it outlines a few problems with the "no democracy could make war on another democracy" argument, namely that the average citizen of a democracy doesn't necessarily internalize the costs of war, especially where the democracy in question utilizes a volunteer army comprised mostly of poor people.

The comments to this entry are closed.

Become a Fan

May 2014

Sun Mon Tue Wed Thu Fri Sat
        1 2 3
4 5 6 7 8 9 10
11 12 13 14 15 16 17
18 19 20 21 22 23 24
25 26 27 28 29 30 31