02 March 2014

Freedom VS democracy

[I wrote this some years ago, I don't remember exactly when. It was lost in the drafts folder.]

Some people condemn all government as authoritarian.  They take the government we have today as an example of "democracy" and condemn democracy as just another form of government control over people's lives.  But the word "government" doesn't mean "authoritarian control".  Democracy is a form of government.  And democracy isn't about legislatures interfering into private peoples lives.  Democracy is about private people acting as legislatures. 

The United States of America has corrupted the word democracy.
The USA is not, and never has been, a democracy.  It was never intended to be.

What we have is a republic.
Under a republic people or localities designate representatives, and those representatives make rules and jointly form the government.  People vote for congress members by county or city (more or less), states elect senators, and party electors vote for presidents. A citizens participation consists of about 20 minutes every four years or so.  Congress makes all the laws.  The president designates people to run government agencies.

Democracy is government of and by the citizens themselves.  In a true democracy, instead of passing legislative and executive responsibilities to someone else, the responsible citizen participates in the process.
 In the state of California we have a partial democracy.  Any citizen can propose a new law.  They can go out and try to collect signatures, and the people they stop take a moment to read the proposal, and then sign it (or not).  If the citizen gets enough support it appears on the ballot, and everyone has one vote.  If it passes it is as legally binding as a law written by the legislature.  That's an example of democracy. 
In a large scale democracy the function of government officials is just to file paperwork, run elections, implement what the people decide.  In a true democracy the people who work in government have no power.  They are bureaucrats, not decision makers.  The decision makers are the citizens themselves.  In a democracy people have both a right and a responsibility to participate in the process of deciding how society and the economy will be.

Many people are very concerned about government abuses or authoritarianism.  People hate being told what to do - even when it really is what's best for them.  People want the freedom to not wear a seatbelt and become disfigured or die in a car crash.  Personally, I find this more than a little immature.  It reminds me of the rebellious teenager who goes against what their parents say just because they said it - ignoring that the parents probably learned the hard way the lesson by doing the same thing themselves.  Maybe that is something most people have to go through; but one would hope we all grow out of it...  But I digress.
Some say democracy is a "tyranny of the majority" and that no one should ever be coerced to do anything.  They suggest that all group projects (i.e. everything which is "society") be done on a unanimous consensus basis.
But remembering that democracy does not have to have an authoritarian ruler or hierarchy, there is no reason to assume people are being "forced" to do anything.

Consider this example:
Four students are assigned to be in a group together, and complete a joint project which will be a significant portion of their grade.  The teacher allows them to decide on the topic themselves, but they must all contribute to one narrowly focused paper.  Chances are not all 4 will agree on what to do it on.
Maybe two people agree, but two others have different ideas.  Each person argues their case, and in the end, if no one has changed their minds, it goes to a vote and the idea with 2 supporters gets done.  The other 2 go along with it - not because they were forced to (nor any threat of force) but simply because they need to work with other people to accomplish their own goals. Sometimes working with other people means not getting your way. 
That is democracy.

In this example their is no hierarchy.  No one has any more power than anyone else.  There is no tyranny, no authority, no coercion. If one person was absolutely not ok with the chosen project, no one is stopping them from dropping the class.
Having 100% consensus 100% of the time, even in a group of 4 like-minded people is perhaps a noble goal, but is totally unrealistic.  Having 100% consensus on a national (or even neighborhood) level is simply a joke.  But the fact that a rule is made that not everyone agrees with does not imply some outside authority or threat of force.
In any free country, citizens are allowed to leave anytime they like.  Although it isn't an explicit "right", anyone can immigrate to another country if they prefer the rules somewhere else.. 
In a commune, where a number of adults all live in one shared space, if one person refuses to do any chores, doesn't contribute to rent or food costs, makes noise while everyone is sleeping, and generally ignores the rules everyone else collectively agreed to, I doubt anyone would argue the group is overstepping its bounds in asking that individual to leave the shared space.
Following the rules that the people collectively decide on is a reasonable condition of living in a country and enjoying its benefits just as surely as it would be in any commune. 
Because of this, simply staying is giving implicit consent.

Freedom is an extremely popular idea.
Conservatives argue for economic freedom.  Liberals argue for social freedom.  Libertarians argue for freedom of both, so long as one person's  doesn't infringe upon another, and private property and national boundaries are respected.  The constitution guarantees freedom of speech, religion, the press, and to assemble.  Anarchists argue for complete freedom for everyone, all the time.

Freedom is contrasted with a monarchy handing down proclamations, fascism (and the implicit connection with nazi's),  brutal and oppressive dictatorships, government abusing power and taking advantage of people.

Whenever an idea becomes so obvious to a people that it is taken for granted by all sides, when a philosophy or theory becomes an axiom, its a good idea to take a step back and question it.  The idea of freedom, of self-determination, of autonomy, has not always been seen as the most valuable or basic of human rights.  We have gotten to a point where the only thing debated is how best to achieve it, instead of asking why it is even the goal.

Why is freedom inherently valuable? - even beyond extent of improving human condition or increasing individual happiness.  If it "just is" then it is no more than dogma, an axiom based on faith.

In context of a repressive dictatorship, relative freedom has value - because it can improve the state of human happiness and equality. 
But beyond that, it becomes a religious conviction, which is repeated until it is accepted.

The insistence on freedom, whether it comes from an anarchist, a libertarian, or a conservative, is for the most part a straw man, a red herring - it is a retort to an argument which nobody was making in the first place.
Even within the most repressive dictatorship, (outside of war, prison and slavery), people are - and have always been - free to live their lives as they choose.
Citizens are allowed to choose where they live, who they associate with, what they do for a living, when to eat dinner, what to eat for dinner, who to marry (family may have a say, but that's a whole separate issue).  For the most part - outside of religion's influence on government - governments make no attempt to control those actions which affect no one but the actor himself, or other consenting adults who choose to associate with them.
What governments do regulate is all the actions which affect other people involuntarily.
If someone wants to go out into the wilderness and be totally self-sufficient, no one is stopping them.
The reality is humans are a fragile and social specie, and almost no one would be capable of doing that if they wanted to, and almost no one wants to.
The reality is that, since we live in society, the vast majority of our choices DO affect others around us.

Consider the statement: "I think its great that there are many choices of high mileage cars for sale.  Personally I drive the most efficient car I could get, and it saves me a lot of money.  But what's even greater is that everyone has the choice to drive whatever they want, even if its a big SUV".
Obviously there is the environmental impact.  There is also the fact that the SUV will do much more damage to a victim should the driver accidentally crash.  And since gasoline is a supply and demand commodity, the fact that one person wastes gas by driving a bigger car than they need means that the price is driven up just a little more.  Whether its breathing clean air, being able to afford gas, or being able to travel safely in the streets, one person's decision does not just affect themselves, it affects everyone.

In a global economy, each and every economic decision which any person makes ultimately affects everyone else.  And while that affect is very small when it is just one person out of 6 billion, an entire nation of people acting selfish together can really add up. 
Enter the tragedy of the commons.

To a large extent "freedom" is an illusion anyway.  Those who can afford access to distributing mass media have spent the past century refining ways to manipulate people.  Psychology is employed in advertising and in politics, and we are indoctrinated from the time we can talk in regards to what we should value and desire. 
The very ideal of freedom and self-determination itself is the best example of this: we are bombarded with it from all angles, the rugged self-made individualist American Dream on one side, and the rebellious non-conformist activist on the other - supposedly at odds with each other, but both playing into the ideal of 'individual freedom' which, ironically, was invented by and supports the one thing they both can agree to hate:  the government.

Democracy, of course, requires a certain degree of cohesiveness among citizens, and a willingness to make (small) individual sacrifices for the overall good, knowing that oneself is a part of everyone, and everyone does better when everyone does better.  It is a bit like a union - if you cross the picket line you may get your individual check, which is good for you - but if you sacrifice that extra pay for yourself now, everyone ends up with the health plan and vacation time (and "everyone" includes you).  The citizen cuts back on luxuries when their nation is attacked, and pays taxes willingly.  The individualist buys the SUV and crosses the picket line.
Problem is, once that one person crosses the line, the workers collective loses power.  That power is taken back by the company.
Citizens vote.  Consumers don't waste their time.  As citizens become more and more focused on themselves, they lose unity with other citizens, and in doing so give up their power.  Which leaves a vacuum which politicians and the wealthy move into without resistance.

Nothing undermines democracy more than a populace who feels morally entitled to self-determination and believes deeply in individualism, and nothing supports government abuse of power more than the undermining of democracy. 
The irony is that the ideas of freedom, self-determination, and lack of authority came largely from government itself, as a method of limiting democracy - thereby giving itself more power.  The irony is that the groups most antagonistic to government - anarchists and libertarians - are those most enamored with the very concepts which prevent government from being effectively run by the people, leaving a void which the elite class fills.

Regardless of what one believes in theory, this is the reality of what has happened in this country over the past century.
It was a deliberate push by both corporations and government to change the psychology of Americans from being citizens (which are a part of something larger than themselves) to consumers (who are beholden only to "I, me, mine") and it had the intended effect.
Today people have a rearrangement of priorities: lots and lots of material goods, comforts, and conveniences, and they are loath to give any up. 
They do not feel they should have to make any individual sacrifices to the greater good.  In fact, that concept (rightfully accused of being "socialism") is equated with communism (where the government owns literally everything, and makes all macroeconomic decisions), fascism (which promotes total devotion to a monoculture and essentially worship of one's own country) and even evil.

Another axiom is that production of wealth is inherently good. 
Consider an extreme example -a sort of monarchy in which the king gets benefit of 100% of wealth creation.  Every time any citizen goes to work, they get compensated enough to afford basic necessities, but the rest all goes to one man.  If GDP goes up, whether by the invention of new technology or by people working harder or longer hours or by a decrease in waste and increase in efficiency, all the additional wealth that is generated goes to the king, and the king alone. 
In this example while it might look good on paper to do something which "supports the economy", in reality this doesn't help anyone.  Hundreds of millions of citizens get literally no benefit at all.  But really neither does the king, since he already has more than enough wealth as it is.  In this extreme scenario there is nothing particularly good about increasing economic activity or wealth generation.

 Now consider a slightly less extreme example: a small aristocracy.  Instead of going to one man, all increases in wealth go to a small subset of the population, which stays almost entirely along family lines from one generation to the next.
This less extreme example is... exactly what has happened in reality over the last 3 decades or so in America.  There has been no real income increase for the working or middle classes after adjusting for inflation - while the highest fraction of a percent of the population's wealth has skyrocketed to absolutely unprecedented levels.
Increasing GDP is useless in terms of impact on average person.  What we all too easily seem to forget in that the purpose of the economy is to support people, not the other way around.

Consider the sort of sacrifices the average person is supposed to accept on the grounds that its good for business: outsourcing, mergers, union busting, tax cuts on investment income, tax payer funded corporate subsidies - things which directly support the upper class while hurting everyone else.  Notice that no business suggests cutting off stock holders or paying all executives a no more than what the average employee makes as a method of "remaining competitive in the global marketplace".
Giving all the money to the king does not create more jobs.  If that newly generated wealth were spread around evenly, people could work less hours for the same pay.  If people with jobs worked less hours, then to maintain productivity, companies would need to hire more people.  Instant job creation, nobody has to spend anything, everybody wins.  The super wealthy fail to get super-duper wealthy, but that's really ok, because once you have 10 million dollars, another billion or two does not appreciably increase quality of life anyway. 

The idea of the free market taking the place of government in terms of making the economic and production decisions of a society is that it naturally matches the desires of the people, and that a more accurate and fair valuation of the value of goods and services will be settled upon by the "invisible hand" of many peoples individual, independent, and self-interested negotiations.
In theory, this is better than democracy, with its potential to become a "tyranny of the masses"
This is summed up with the phrase "vote with your dollar".
Another way to say that would be "money is power".
And unlike the democratic principal of one person / one vote, the more money you have, the more influence you have over the direction the invisible hand takes.
And this takes us again back to the aristocracy - rule by a wealthy and powerful elite - the opposite of democracy, and the opposite of what any of us outside that elite actually wants.

Yet another common idea is that rational self-interest will tend to increase productivity, as people search for ways to be more efficient or ways to get investment returns, which ultimately make society work like a machine and benefits everyone.

Tax rates should be low (or non-existent) because people will work harder if they can keep what they earn, and it shouldn't be progressive because then the wealthy will stop working altogether.  People can be as selfish as they like - in fact, can be encouraged to be selfish - because in the long run the effect they have on the economy will improve it in general.  Wealth will be created, re-invested, and that will help to create jobs.

In the real world:

-people already work far harder than there is any real need to.  Productivity per worker has increased by the hundreds over the past century with the advent of assembly lines, gas and electric powered machines, robots and computers.  Yet we still work 40 or more hours per week.  Instead of using that efficiency to allow for more leisure time (which would actually increase human happiness) it has gone to generating ever more wealth (which, as has been established, has gone primarily not to the workers themselves, but to the upper class who don't actually work)

-The only people who high top tax brackets might encourage to work less are the very people who do the least work.  One of the primary definitions of rich is "anyone who makes enough income from investments that they do not need to work".  Collecting stock dividends, capital gains, interest, or rent, is not working, and it is not contributing to society.  It is leaching from it.

-Investors can not take credit for economic production.
It's as if one person hoards all the hammers in town, and rents them out to people, then wants credit for the houses other people built with them. If they weren't hoarding the hammers, the hammers would still exist. If they were distributed equitably, no one would need to rent them; therefor building would be cheaper, and more would get built.
In this way the fact that someone is hoarding and charging interest actually depresses economic activity, because those hoarding the cash skim a little off the top of every financial transaction thereby increasing its cost.

Just like we tend to assume freedom and democracy go hand in hand when in fact they are in some ways at odds, capitalism and the free market are generally assumed to be interchangeable as well.
It ain't necessarily so.

A free market - ideally - works much like, well, a market...

[I stopped writing here. I'm posting it as is, as where it was headed happens to be the focus of my next series of posts.]

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