Sunday, August 17, 2003

Notes on Popper - Personal vs. Institutional Government
The Open Society and its Enemies - Volume Two: Hegel and Marx" - Chapter 17: The Legal and the Social System

The importance of restraining the power of government, and the dangers of interventionism. Those who advocate that "government must do" this, that or the other ought to weigh more carefully the potential benefits of government action against the dangers of assigning the rulers so much power that they can ignore the wishes of those they rule (1). The need for the old question "Who should rule" (as advocated by Plato, Hegel, Marx and others in this tradition) to be superceded by the question "How should the rulers be tamed?" This seems to get to the heart of Zakaria's distinction between freedom and "illiberal democracy."

The importance of distinguishing between institutional government, characterized by laws that restrain what men may do to each other, or the state may do to its' subjects, and personalized, discretionary rule, as fostered by mandates empowering the ruling classes to take certain actions, based on their own judgement. The former is impersonal, but predictable, and in principle, its' decision making procedures are understandable by any citizen. The latter is opaque, more easily abused, and fosters insecurity and irrationality, weakening the fiber of society.

Popper in the Context of the Developing World
In most of Africa, the notion that an impartial body of laws should reign supreme, rather than the will of either a few or a great number of men, is almost nowhere to be found. Not only are such notions uncommon, but the average person, even amongst the "educated" classes, is actively hostile to them. All that matters is whether an act or a policy furthers one's group or personal self-interest. The equivalent of the American regard for the constitution (2), or the British regard for ancient customs and liberties, is everywhere non-existent. Judicial independence is nothing but a fiction.

Latin America and (in particular) the Middle East are not much better in this regard. The former has at least paid lip service to democratic government, even if in practice the only choice most voters have had has been between which set of oligarchs should get the chance to plunder the nation's resources. The voice of "the masses" has been very much an active vehicle for the perpetuation of illiberal rule, as the examples of Peron, Allende, and Chavez make clear. Middle Eastern governments (with the exception of Egypt) don't even pretend to respect either the rule of law or the democratic will of the people, and it isn't even clear that any of them would be better governed if they did.

The Indian Exception
If India has escaped the worst of the ailments that have befallen former colonies that are "democratic" in little more than form - and it too has had its' share of failings where liberty is concerned - there are historically explicable reasons for this. The most important thing to note is the sheer length of British rule, which served to stamp something of the culture of rule by laws on the Indian population. Britain exercized sovereignty over India for well over 100 years, and the depth of its' engagement with the Indian subcontinent was unparalled amongst its' non-dominion holdings.

One consequence of this engagement was the creation of an Indian civil service, as well as a native judiciary that came into being under judges seconded from Britain itself. Thanks in large part to the initiatives set in motion by Thomas Macaulay, this western-educated class of Indians, who had imbibed the norms of British administrative and political practice, both through schooling and through the example set by their colonial overlords, were able to preserve something of the spirit of constitutional government even after the departure of the British in 1947.

A Heretical Suggestion
Given the historical evidence we have to go on, drawn chiefly from the experience of Western Europe, America and the English-speaking dominions, would it really be such a bad idea to initially restrict the franchise in most African countries to the literate and the taxpaying? What benefit is there in giving the penniless and the illiterate the right to vote, when they either have no stake in the system or are utterly uninformed as to the workings of constitutional government? To insist on a universal franchise right from the outset is a recipe for either

  1. a Hugo-Chavez style populism, in which plebiscites and decrees replace the rule of law,
  2. the overthrow of democracy by some sort of marxist "dictatorship of the proletariat"
  3. the institutionalization of large-scale corruption and vote-buying as a way of life, as seen in countries like Nigeria and Pakistan.

Who is willing to argue that the England of 1832, in which perhaps 3 percent of the populace had the right to vote, was not a freer place than the Nigeria or the Ghana of today, with their votes for all, regardless of station or qualification? We must be careful not to fetishize democracy as an end in its' own right, but rather keep in mind its' function as a means to a greater goal.

(1) This leaves aside the likelihood that government action might not only be ineffective, but might even do more harm than good, even without the problem of the abuse of power, as often turns out to be the case in the real world.

(2) It is easy to overstate the extent to which this holds true, as the calls by many on the American left for the abolition of the electoral college , and its' replacement by a system of direct democracy, or by those on the right for the recognition of the importance of religion in political life, clearly suggest. Nevertheless, what matters is that the notion of the constitution as an almost sacred document, imbued with greater authority than any passing collection of politicians, is held by the majority of the opinon-makers in politial life, even if not by the majority of the people as a whole.