Congratulations Toby Evans, whoever and wherever you are

Strange things happen when you check the links on your site. Proceeding from a nice statement of classical liberal principles to the Mont Pelerin Society we find The Winners of the 2010 Hayek Essay Contest.

And the winner is…Toby Evans of Australia.

Whoever he is, you can probably meet him at the Mont Pelerin Conference in Sydney next month because part of the prize is a ticket to the event. This year the international guests will include Peter Boettke of  The Austrian Economists, now Coordination Problem and Terence Kealey ($4 well spent). 

Getting back to the statement of liberal principles, this came from a Mont Pelerin paper on “Public Opinion and Liberal Principles” which is relevant to the recent Troppo post on attempts to manipulate public opinion by media games.
The speaker was not a professional moralist although some of his colleagues considered that he tended to do his philosophy with a tone of  “high moral seriousness”.
On he dangers of public opinion, he noted that it can be very powerful and hence liberals (wary of concentrations of power and their danger) should treat it with a degree of suspicion: “Owing to its anonymity, public opinion is an irresponsible form of power, and therefore particularly dangerous from the liberal point of view.”

On the liberal theory of free discussion, he suggested that freedom of thought and discussion are ultimate liberal values that are not in need of further defence or justification. However he noted that they can be given additional support on account of the way they contribute to the search for truth and the elimination of error by critical public discussion.

He ended with some random thoughts on the use and abuse of public opinion.
 
“It may sometimes assume the role of an enlightened arbiter of justice. Unfortunately it can be managed. These dangers can be counteracted only by strengthening the liberal tradition. Public opinion should be distinguished from the publicity of free and critical discussion which is (or should be) the rule in science, and which includes the discussion of moral and other issues. Public opinion is influenced by, but is not the result of, nor under the control of, discussions of this kind. Their beneficial influence will be the greater the more honestly, simply, and clearly, these discussions are conducted.”
 
Getting back to the liberal principles (again) I like the statement because it includes a reference to the moral framework of society which is something that has not been treated very well because most of the professional moralists are either boring wowsers (the preachers) or have nothing to say that  illuminates practical matters (the moral philosophers).

 (1) The state is a necessary evil and its powers should be kept to the minimum that is necessary.

(2) A democracy is a state where the government can be changed without bloodshed.
(3) Democracy cannot confer benefits on people. “Democracy provides no more than a framework within which the citizens may act in a more or less organised and coherent way”.
(4) Democracy does not mean that the majority is right.
(5) Institutions need to be tempered and supported by traditions.
(6) There is no Liberal Utopia. There are always problems, conflicts of interests, choices to be made between the lesser of evils.
(7) Liberalism is evolutionary rather than revolutionary. It is about modifying or changing institutions and traditions rather than wholesale replacement of the existing order. The exception to this is when a tyranny is in place, that is a government that can only be changed by violence and bloodshed.
(8) The importance of the moral framework.
“Among the traditions that we must count as the most important is what we may call the ‘moral framework’ (corresponding to the institutional ‘legal framework’) of a society. This incorporates the society’s traditional sense of justice or fairness, or the degree of moral sensitivity that it has reached… Nothing is more dangerous than the destruction of this traditional framework. (Its destruction was consciously aimed at by Nazism).”
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Nicholas Gruen
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Nicholas Gruen(@nicholas-gruen)
11 years ago

Why is government a necessary evil? It’s like saying that electricity is a necessary evil. It’s not evil. It’s an instrument which is one of the most important foundations of human wellbeing. It can also be abused.

You can say that individual liberty is a necessary evil. Anything’s a necessary evil, unless, I guess it’s not necessary. But pretty much anything is capable of generating evil results.

And I’m not sure one can be so gung ho about revolution against tyranny. It didn’t work that well in Iran. It might well be the case that it’s more likely to make things worse rather than better, although there are a few exceptions. Contrariwise there have been lots of revolutions against tyrannies that have ended in tears.

Otherwise, the list seems OK.

FDB
FDB
11 years ago

I find the erratic formatting really distracting. Who wrote what?

Mike Pepperday
Mike Pepperday
11 years ago

“A” democracy is not a place where government can change without bloodshed. Khrushchev was replaced without bloodshed. We shouldn’t cloth ourselves in the golden raiment of “democracy” and then define it down to meaninglessness.

The “-ocracy” ending signifies either a form of rule, as in theocracy, or a class of people, as in aristocracy. (In the case of bureaucracy it is both.) Democracy is a form of rule: rule by the people.

Thus a democracy is a democratic state, i.e., a state ruled by the people. It is also the term we use to distinguish a few dozen of the world’s states from the rest but that is not what we are talking about here. We are talking about the concept.

A perfect democracy would be polity (not actually necessarily a state) where every person affected by a rule had an equal say in making the rule. If the say is unequal then the democracy is imperfect and tending to oligarchy. (Which, of course is the reality.) One might imagine that libertarians would be in favour of everyone having control over that which affects them but they seldom are.

Democracy necessarily requires majority decisions. I doubt that item (4) has meaning.

Democracy is an ideal and as a form of rule, it is a relative term. The states we refer to as democracies are called “representative democracies” which is an oxymoron since representatives, not the people, rule. If we stretch a point we may hold that the people rule to the extent that they have their pollies by the short and curlies.

It is a pallid, apologetic sort of democracy. More democracy ? more rule by the people ? would be if the people had some control over the rules, not just the rulers.

Tel
Tel
11 years ago

It’s like saying that electricity is a necessary evil. It’s not evil. It’s an instrument which is one of the most important foundations of human wellbeing.

Electricity is silent death, no warning beforehand, no apology afterward. Kills something approx 1 person per million per year, and that’s in first world nations with government safety regulations as long as your arm and a huge array of protection gadgets. Slightly more dangerous if your house is old, or if you go poking around your roof with an aluminium pole, or if you happen to be on tour of duty in Iraq.

Admittedly, on a statistical basis, ladders are vastly more evil than electricity.

As a general rule, if you want physical power in a useful form, you are going to need concentrated power: high voltage, high temperature, high velocity, high pressure, or something along those lines. Power in a concentrated form is intrinsically dangerous, so survival necessitates taking precautions when handling the stuff.

Dave
Dave
11 years ago

Electricity is inanimate, it has no intent. What you are describing is danger, not evil.

There is always a danger of too much government, just as there is a danger of too little.

If “government is a necessary evil” really just comes down to “danger is a necessary evil”, then the phrase is just tendentious and empty.

Mike Pepperday
Mike Pepperday
11 years ago

Rafe

Item (4) may be grammatically correct but if democracy is rule by the people and if rule by the people means the people make the rules, then that must mean the majority makes the rules. Liberals (and others) go on about tyranny by the majority but what is the evidence?

Contra (6) there is surely a liberal utopia: it is where every citizen has an equal say in making the rules that affect him or her. You can’t get more liberal than that. It is also the democratic utopia.

If the majority is not right then, certainly, the minority should rule. That sounds pretty drastic though, and would need evidence that majority are more often wrong than the minority. Given the horrific performances of ruling minorities it would be impossible to show. So rule by majority it will have to be.

Should this be feared? Does the majority make rules that are not right? There have been thousands of free and fair referendums around the world over the last century. Which ones made a decision that was not right? “Not right” we may take to mean (in best liberal tradition) a rule which imposed on a minority. Are there any? At a state or national level, is there even a single one?

Toqueville said it and Mill said it but they’re wrong: tyranny by the majority is just a myth. It is just an excuse by those who, as Orwell would say, want to be more liberal than others.

conrad
conrad
11 years ago

“Liberals (and others) go on about tyranny by the majority but what is the evidence?”

That’s not very hard to find in many countries (e.g., Sri Lanka being a recent example — go and ask a Tamil what they think of the democratic process and the majority. Less extreme examples can be found in our region, such as in Malaysia where the majority Malays have been thinking of ways to oppress the minority Indians and Chinese for decades). Even in Australia, where hopefully we have a less corrupt democracy, things like the NT intervention, which seems to have been primarily designed to impress people that arn’t the ones whom it was inflicted upon, comes to mind.

Tel
Tel
11 years ago

I suspect your typical union appointed OH&S officer would not take kindly to the claim that “danger is a necessary evil”. Craig Allen, and the people he represents, insist that someone always gets the blame.

http://www.abc.net.au/news/stories/2010/09/18/3015513.htm

Unions say employers have the ultimate responsibility to keep workers safe, not governments.

Relating this to Mike’s “liberal utopia”: governments introduce large scale market interventions by pushing tax money and manipulating the industry, unions get to introduce OH&S regulations (with help from government) — both of these groups have considerable control over events in their industry. However, neither group wants to take suitable responsibility as reflects their positions of power, the responsibility is entirely dumped onto employers.

Is that part of “liberal utopia”, to encourage power to make decisions isolated from any consequences of those decisions?

Electricity is inanimate, it has no intent.

I’m quite sure that intent to kill is rare amongst employers. However, dead is dead, so is it more important to get intent right or to get outcomes right? I guess the answer depends on whether you are an employer or not. Personally I agree that some danger is forever unavoidable, but this is certainly not in agreement with current OH&S.

—————-

Are there any? At a state or national level, is there even a single one?

I guess there might have been some reason why the Americans whacked the 14th amendment into their federal constitution.

There are a small handful of bits in our Australian federal constitution such as a guarantee of trial before a jury of one’s peers… the inclusion of these suggests that someone long ago was worried that government might be tempted to skirt around such fundamental democratic protections. Probably would never happen, but safety first as they say.

Mike Pepperday
Mike Pepperday
11 years ago

Conrad ?

There are plenty of cases where the government oppressed some minority: the oppression of Catholics in Northern Ireland, the behaviour of all the Australian governments toward Aborigines. This sort of thing is actually normal in representative “democracies” ? as your example of the NT intervention indicates. But can you show an instance where the people actually voted to oppress? In this country, in 1967, after a century and a half of government outrages against Aborigines, the people did get to vote and 91 per cent said to set them free. So much for tyranny by the majority.

Since the mid 19th century there have been thousands of referendums. You’d think, if there were evidence of majority oppression, someone would have noticed. It’s just a myth.

Tel ?

I don’t see the relevance of your OHS example. The topic is whether the majority is right.

The liberal utopia would be if everyone is maximally free. Rules inhibit freedom so it follows that for maximum freedom each person must have an equal say in making the rules. (Doesn’t it? Is there an error in this logic?) But that is also the democratic utopia. Perfect liberality is given by perfect democracy. The nearest approximation in practice to this utopia would be to hold a referendum on the introduction of every law.

Yes indeed, someone is always worried about democracy. It worried King John in 1215 but nowadays it’s the middle class fear of the horrible hordes of hoi polloi. It’s just a myth.

conrad
conrad
11 years ago

“But can you show an instance where the people actually voted to oppress?”

Mike, I’m not sure that you need to vote to oppress people — you can be complicit in it. Now, it’s hard to label each example or even each individual who votes as a participant, but in some cases, it seems rather likely, and I doubt that matters for the losing group. For example, things like the Australian example I gave were basically sprung upon people (and Mal Brough got the chop at the next election), so it probably doesn’t count, but in Malaysia and other similar places, you had governments getting in many times based on the same rhetoric, so it’s clear people supported it and agreed with it. Although my Malaysian history is very fuzzy, apart from corruption, I believe the UMO has been voted in many times based on policies that are obviously racially motivated and oppressive, and these policies were definitely part of the reason people voted for them. Given this, I would say the majority were and are complicit (although support for this is finally changing).

It seems to me that this is one of the failings of democracies — where you have a small number of ethnic groups and people vote in large part based on that rather than other policies, which allows the party with the biggest number of supporters to do essentially anything. If this is the case, and it gets exploited, like it did in Malaysia, I would count that as tyranny of the masses (certainly people are happy to vote for it).

I also guess it depends where you want to draw the line. If you go back to Australian history, then you find that the native inhabitants were treated poorly even though the rest of the citizens had a democracy. Now perhaps that wasn’t in the foreground of most people’s thoughts (as it was in Malaysia), but it’s still not clear to me that excludes people being complicit in the actions. This is because the problem of people having to vote for something in particular for it to be oppressive is obviously that people don’t get to vote for most things, so they can’t actually say “this policy sucks but I’m happy with the rest”, it’s often a choice between bad or worse (as the most recent election shows!). An alternative way to measure tyranny would be to look at people’s attitudes. If there exists some survey looking at people’s attitudes about Aboriginies in, say, 1950, and people were happy with treating them poorly, I think that’s enough evidence to see it as tyranny of the masses, even without people voting for it.

Mike Pepperday
Mike Pepperday
11 years ago

So Conrad, you can’t show an instance where the people actually voted to oppress. How do you reconcile alleged tyranny by the majority with this voting record?

You explain how the majority supported oppression in Malaysia. You don’t have to cast about for examples and describe them; it happens all the time. I gave two solid examples: Northern Ireland and the treatment of Aboriginals here. Add the oppression of American Negroes. There’s no discussion; examples of oppression of minorities by elected governments with apparent popular support are legion.

There is just one little problem: it’s your opinion that the majority supported it. Since there was no referendum, we don’t actually know, do we? Of course, it’s not only your opinion for almost everyone will agree with you. But that would be in the nature of robust myth.

In 1951 the majority of Australians supported banning the Communist Party. No question: polls proved it: 75% in favour. If the High Court had not intervened you would have been able to add it to the examples. The people voted for parliament, the parliament banned the Commos and that would have been that. It would have gone down in history as oppression of a minority with majority support. You mention the majority being “complicit.” The 75% is unambiguous and they went on electing that government for another two decades. No example of a complicit tyrannical majority could be clearer.

Except that in this instance there was a referendum and whoops – the allegedly tyrannical majority turned out to be liberal. The properly elected “democratic” government wanted to oppress a minority and when the court said the people would have to decide, the people repudiated their government.

Evidently, tyranny by a government is not tyranny by the majority. If the people did not make the law, the people evidently did not tyrannise. It is always so clear (not only to you but to most political philosophers) that the majority want to lynch the minority yet if they are actually asked, it turns out they don’t want to; they vote against it. You know, it would suffice for my argument if it were the case that referendums were less oppressive than parliaments. But “less” is hardly the adequate word for zero. The tyranny of the majority is a total myth.

“It seems to me that this is one of the failings of democracies … … which allows the party with the biggest number of supporters to do essentially anything.”

Quite. But you mean the failings of “representative democracy.” Yes, they do essentially anything. No sooner elected than they are “getting tough on crime” or branding refugees as illegals ? whatever. It is boringly standard. But let the people rule and it doesn’t happen.

You mention surveying attitudes but democracy is not opinions. It is a form of rule. When the people rule, when people actually decide ? not offer an opinion, but decide ? on what the law shall be, not only is freedom maximised for the rulers themselves (by definition) but the evidence is that freedom for minorities is far, far safer than when they are at the mercy of an elected assembly.

conrad
conrad
11 years ago

“So Conrad, you can’t show an instance where the people actually voted to oppress.”

As noted Mike, this isn’t very surprising, since in most democratic systems people vote for parties, not particular bits of legislation, so we just don’t get to vote on most things.

It seems to me that your argument relies on the observation that in a small number of cases, the way people have voted has not been predicted by common beliefs about people’s attitudes. I’m willing to admit that. However, I’m not willing to admit that this would always be the case, since you simply can’t test all cases of oppressive legislation and whether people would vote for them if they could. Do you think that people would have voted to give Aboriginies the vote in, say, 1920 instead of waiting until 1967. I don’t know and we’ll never know, but I suspect not. Either that or our governments are very slow, waiting 47 years to pass some legislation even though people thought it was a good idea in 1920. So there are simply cases where the best we can do is to try and predict what the masses really wanted, and these are the vast majority of cases. In this respect, I would find hard to believe that government after government would introduce or keep oppressive legislation when there is popular support against it (it would be very easy to win elections if that wasn’t true — you could just get rid of all the oppressive legislation created).

It’s easy to find legislation where people have voted incidentally, I was just thinking of more important examples, and why I don’t think that things can be boiled down to a simple vote. For example, if I just look at places which have functioning governments, are not too corrupt, are democratic states where people don’t vote on either religious or ethnic lines, allow people to vote on anything that they happen to want to easily (unlike Australia), and where votes happened in the last year or two, then California rejected gay marriage and Switzerland decided to ban minarets, both by popular vote. Maybe neither of those exceptionally serious, but they are certainly cases of the masses stopping others pursuing things which cause essentially no externalities on them.

Gummo Trotsky
11 years ago

Can we at least dispense with a popular Australian urban myth here? In the 1967 referendum, the issue wasn’t whether Aborigines should be given the vote, it was whether the Commonwealth should be able to make legislation regarding Aborigines.

Mike Pepperday
Mike Pepperday
11 years ago

“It seems to me that your argument relies on the observation that in a small number of cases..”

It is not a small number. They have numerous referendums in the US states every election. Switzerland has had over 500 national referendums since mid 19C and the 26 cantons also have them all the time. In several cantons every new law must go to referendum and in all Swiss jurisdictions every new law is subject to referendum if sufficient signatures are collected. In the US referendums are subject to court ruling on constitutionality so it’s doubtful that the people are really ruling since they don’t have the final say. In Switzerland the constitutional court is not allowed to say anything about referendum law (or about law passed by federal parliament). There are thousands of referendums. If the people cocked it up with one hundredth the frequency of the elected representatives you’d have dozens of incidents to draw on. But they don’t.

You’re not willing to admit… find it hard to believe…? Well, I can’t show that in every hypothetical case a popular referendum would have been liberal. But isn’t it amazing that actual cases of majority oppression are so vanishingly rare? You have your beliefs but they are not supported by any evidence.

“It’s easy to find legislation where people have voted incidentally, I was just thinking of more important examples…”

I shouldn’t think the people ever vote incidentally (I’m not sure what that means) and I’d say it is pretty much only important things that make it to referendum. Or at least they are hot issues at the time.

“…I don’t think that things can be boiled down to a simple vote.”

Why not? Where are the bad effects? We’re is deep trouble if they can’t be so boiled down because that is what legislatures do. They boil it down and vote yes or no. When there is a referendum on a law the people constitute a further parliamentary chamber.

People with power have been saying what a ghastly thing democracy is for a millennium. Every step was going to be the end of the world. All it ever did was lead to better government.

GT – You may be technically right but it is not germane. Everyone thought 1967 was for Aborigines to be citizens ? and it was.

conrad
conrad
11 years ago

Mike, I actually looked up many of the Californian and Swiss referendums before posting my previous comment. Almost all are not relevant (they’re things to do with tax laws etc.), and the main other one that I could find that was relevant was the Californian gay teachers bill (which was rejected, but not by a huge amount in one of the most liberal places in the US). It would be good to see the type of laws many of the other states (or countries) would pass if they had this type of system, but we won’t because they don’t have such laws.

“But isn’t it amazing that actual cases of majority oppression are so vanishingly rare?”

No, because in most people places simply don’t get a chance to a vote on most things, and therefore the evidence you want is essentially impossible to find, so it’s political systems that allow this type of vote easily that are hard to find. How many thousands of laws has Australia passed, and how many did we have a referendum on?

This is clearly different to saying the majority are not oppressive in some situations. It also means that, for example, that my belief that the majority are generally less oppressive than the governments that they vote in, which is also your belief, is untestable according to the evidence you want. Also I think the tyranny argument is usually interpreted as evidence for the need for things like a bill of rights etc., not the need for a non-democratic state.

Mike Pepperday
Mike Pepperday
11 years ago

Yes, there has not been a huge number of Swiss referendums that would potentially directly oppress a minority. Yet those that could have, did not. All law imposes restrictions and tax laws in particular often affect the population differentially. (If anything the discrimination is reversed. In the early 90s they voted to put freight traffic onto rail “so that Uncle Franz could sleep at night” i.e., to quieten the rural motor ways. The tax cost, for rail tunnels, was enormous.)

Years ago I took a long look at the Swiss government; I think I went through all the national referendums. For some of the early ones the records on line were too brief to convey the meaning though for relatively recent ones there was usually a paragraph of explanation. The only discrimination against a minority I know of was a referendum which outlawed the bleeding of a slaughtered animal before it had been killed. It seems historians agree that it was discriminatory ? the Swiss version of a pogrom. That would have been late 19C.

What got me curious was the discovery that the majority of Swiss political scientists hated the system with a passion, a passion that showed through in academic papers. The referendum system was out of date, prevented innovation and caused bad government. The substance? I could find none. Whole articles based around some tenuous supporting instance or none at all, just assertions of the sky about to fall in. Of course, there were responses but I don’t think anyone changed their mind.

As far as I can see, the Swiss system indicates that where there is time for public discussion and the media is not too wildly biased, the supplementing of parliament by referendums yields better outcomes in all areas: tax, environment, foreign policy, defence, immigration, transport… You only have to compare Switzerland with Austria: same language, same landlocked highland culture. In the US the desperation of the people to have some control over Big Money has led to all sorts of loopiness but even there, better to have it than not.

With Switzerland I wasn’t looking for discrimination in particular but I know that there have been a few national votes on immigration matters, and many where xenophobia would show up (every single foreign treaty must go to referendum). It is often the case that, as in Australia before our 1967 vote, the middle class commentariat worries endlessly that the vote would go the “wrong” way ? either tyranny by the majority or that the Germans and French will vote in opposite ways (which I suppose would also be tyranny by the majority). The worry that Catholics and Protestants would split has faded (healed by referendums?). I doubt that their dire hand-wringing helps their cause and despite the outcomes they never seem to change their mind.

The majority of those hand-wringers are not libertarian (quite the contrary) yet the libertarians agree with them. It conflicts with their shouted aspiration of maximum individual rights but their fear is that if everybody ? ordinary people ? had an equal say on society’s rules, individual freedom would be diminished. How do they justify this restriction (tyranny) of ordinary people? They offer “constitutional guarantees.” Who gets to write these guarantees? Wise libertarians presumably ? certainly not the people.

You can put this to the test: find a confessed libertarian and see if you can get him (virtually certain to be male) to agree to regulated shopping hours. Impossible. He will not be impressed if popular referendums voted to regulate shopping hours. The net of it is: I want to be free to go shopping, or to open my shop, whenever I want. I want a constitutional guarantee of my right to shop. My definition of freedom must prevail.

The sad thing is that this short-sighted libertarianism is not only unjust but the fears are not supported by the evidence. If the libertarian were true to his professed ideology he would endorse democracy, not play it down, and the outcome would be more liberty.

conrad
conrad
11 years ago

Mike, I agree with you that it’s essentially impossible to legislate for most of these problems, which means the solutions must come from elsewhere (if you want a chuckle, then have a look at the Chinese Communist Party manifesto — it says how much they love ethnic minority groups, which must be a surprise to some minority groups in China!). When I get some time, I will look at some of the Swiss literature, as it sounds quite interesting.

My perspective is really from a minority rights points of view, not a libertarian one. Thus whilst the tyranny of the majority may have been raised in other circles first, I think it’s a generally interesting question in terms of the extent the majority really does oppress minorities and what might be done about it in cases where it does (even if via elected governments).

Unfortunately, I don’t think I know any libertarians, and most of those in the Aus blogosphere seem to be war-mongering Republican sympathisers in disguise, so I can’t do your test, although I’m sure your prediction is correct so I don’t think I need to (indeed, I think worrying about libertarians is a bit like worrying about Marxists — they’re a small but noisy group, but essentially harmless since no-one is going to listen to them anyway).

Mike Pepperday
Mike Pepperday
11 years ago

My reference to libertarianism was to loop back (once again) to Rafe’s post that started this thread.

Libertarians see tax as an imposition on minority rights.

No one listens to them?! From financial deregulation to “realist” foreign policy to the Tea Party, they’ve shaped the world! (As the Marxists did in their day.)

Tel
Tel
11 years ago

The topic is whether the majority is right.

I was responding to points such as:

On he dangers of public opinion, he noted that it can be very powerful and hence liberals (wary of concentrations of power and their danger) should treat it with a degree of suspicion: “Owing to its anonymity, public opinion is an irresponsible form of power, and therefore particularly dangerous from the liberal point of view.”

Continuing on from the above discussion #1, #6, #7 about the distinction between the very abstract and difficult to quantify concept of “evil” and the more practical everyday concept of “danger”… of course danger is part of our everyday lives and always has been, but from a goal-seeking point of view we seek to minimise danger based on a cost/benefit judgement. The OH&S system happens to be a legal and intellectual framework for systematically handling the concept of people living with danger and in particular assigning responsibility for outcomes. It’s not perfect but it has been accepted by a wide span of industry bodies, it seems inconsistent to claim that similar philosophy magically fails to apply to other forms of danger.

The issue of whether the majority is right is a related concept, in as much as supposing a majority decision can never be a wrong decision — there can be no danger. To counter this I’m going to bring up the example of torturing prisoners, and in particular the recent US approach to the convenient euphemism “enhanced interrogation”. I for one don’t accept the “few bad apples” theory, and it seems blatent that the Bush regime was pro-torture and fostered a pro-torture environment. Ultimately abuses such as Abu Ghraib were the consequence (and perpetrated by government employees during their work duties). Admittedly, there was no actual referendum on the issue of torture but the regime in question was voted back to power, and the overall level of outrage was minimal (amongst the mainstream). As Conrad points out, being complicit in abuse of power is the practical limit of democracy that most people are allowed in the world as it stands. Besides, the following regime (Obama) has been astoundingly soft on chasing up those who encouraged torture, and attempts to improve the situation has been relegated to an afterthought. The complicit attitude from both of the major parties can only imply there really is significant popular support for such behaviour.

You can put this to the test: find a confessed libertarian and see if you can get him (virtually certain to be male) to agree to regulated shopping hours. Impossible. He will not be impressed if popular referendums voted to regulate shopping hours.

Hmmm, last I checked Australian shopping hours have been almost completely deregulated by not one but many democratically elected governments (in incremental steps, admittedly). Was there ever a referendum on this? Are you claiming that the will of the people is being repeatedly denied by successive governments?

I guess that would be the nature of a robust myth and all…

Michael Sutcliffe
Michael Sutcliffe
11 years ago

Wow, Mike, you still scared of libertarians?! You’re funny.

The comparison of the US and Switzerland is very interesting in terms of their approach to liberty. As you point out, the US has individual rights overtly protected and this ends up extending into the public arena. Switzerland has a culture of liberty – in terms of what you do on your own property, who you associate with, how you conduct your business – but maintains social cohesion through strong conservatism in their public life.

Hence the US will probably end up with a mosque built near Ground Zero despite strong public outcry, but Switzerland has banned minarets.

The difference is cultural. They’re both valid approaches to a free and open society with corresponding advantages and disadvantages.

Mike Pepperday
Mike Pepperday
11 years ago

Tel ?

“…the regime in question was voted back to power…”

Certainly. This is inevitable when we vote for rulers, not rules. Not only are we limited to a choice from just two baskets of policies (bad and worse) but we’re mainly voting for personalities, not policies. A huge proportion of the people vote the same every election. As in most sports, they simply support one team and revile the other. Policies barely come into it.

You go on about the evil some elected govt did. Once more: this is not at issue. You are right! (Though your example is not nearly as persuasive regarding majority support as Australia’s historic treatment of Aborigines or the attempt to ban the Commos.) My point is that these outrages are perpetrated by elected governments. They would not occur if the people ruled.

It is an important point: we go around thinking the majority supports evil but they actually don’t and they prove it whenever they are actually required to decide. If the we voted on “boat people” laws they’d be fairer. If we’d voted on the NT “intervention” it would have looked very different. You don’t believe it? You have plenty of company. The far right and far left agree on one thing: that the people are not to be trusted. Their evidence? Zero. That’s the problem.

Yes, WA had a referendum. Two questions in 2005 on extending normal trading hours to 9 pm and on allowing Sunday trading. Both voted down. See:

http://www.waec.wa.gov.au/elections/state_referendums/referendum_results/2005_Retail_Trading_Hours_Referendum/

MS ?

Ad hominem is not cogent. But I wondered how you came to that conclusion and I glanced back through what I had written. I see nothing to support it.

I imagine anyone would agree with your assertion re Switzerland and the US. The trouble is, it doesn’t really say anything. Public conservatism and cohesion are much the same thing, each propping up the other. WHY is Switzerland more publicly conservative?

The difference is cultural? No doubt. Again, it explains nothing. Mind you, you have heaps of company. I have heard many people who should know better “explain” politics in the Pacific Islands with that word. I have noticed it in reference to Russia too. It’s the all-purpose answer. How to explain the 20C German invasions of Europe? It’s their culture!

Tel
Tel
11 years ago

It is an important point: we go around thinking the majority supports evil but they actually don’t and they prove it whenever they are actually required to decide.

Well patience and Americans have furnished me with a counter example. Of course I’m talking about pot growers in California and the majority deciding it is appropriate for them to tell some minority of citizens which plants they should be entitled to consume for their own good — even when the evidence is that huge numbers of people do it anyway, and will continue to do it regardless.

I call that evil, despite that the majority of Californians may happen to think… and of course if you define good and evil in terms of what the majority happen to think right now then the above statement turns into a useless tautology.

Peter Patton
Peter Patton
11 years ago

Mike P

Aborigines became Australian citizens on exactly the same day as all other Australians, in 1948. Far for “liberating”, the 1967 Referendum changed the Constitution to explicitly empower the Commonwealth to pass Aborigine-specific legislation; ie racist legislation.

Peter Patton
Peter Patton
11 years ago

Oh, and to make it legal for the Commonwealth to include Aborigines in the census count. In reality, it was nothing more than another step away from federalism.