My readers – rapidly dwindling as they struggle to make sense of the bizarre, unhinged extremism that is the bread and butter of Unqualified Reservations – ask: how can we return to sanity? If democracy is nonsense, the modern equivalent of the Holy Trinity, a metaphysical cathedral so baroque and absurd it befuddles its own ministers (Larison is good today), what is sense? Is there any reed, any reed at all, for us to cling to?
Here is my red pill for today: a government is an organization of men (and women). It is a group of individuals acting together to achieve a common purpose. Like any group or individual, its actions may be good or bad. Each of us has our own definition of “good” and “evil.” We can use that moral sense to judge the actions of governments, just as we judge any group or individual.
A good person is a person who does good things. A good corporation is a corporation that does good things. A good government is a government that does good things. An evil government is a government that does evil things. Etc, etc, etc.
A government is not a mystic trust of God. It is not a repository of our hopes and fears. It is not “the community.” It is not “the country.” It is not “the people.”
There is no such thing as “self-government.” Government is an organization that acts. So is Starbucks. Starbucks is not a democracy. It does not even pretend to be a democracy. It reports to its CEO, who reports to its board, who reports to its shareholders. But if Starbucks were organized exactly in the same way as the US Federal Government, if it had elections every four years in which all its customers voted, would you describe your Starbucks experience as “self-coffee”? (And if you think their espresso is over-extracted now…)
Because governments are sovereign by definition and there is no external constraint on their actions, the problem of designing an effective government, one whose actions its customers consider “good,” is a very hard problem. Many writers much smarter than me have attacked this problem. Most of them have failed. Perhaps all of them have failed.
But this problem is not a moral problem. It is an engineering problem. The “moral” aspect of government begins and ends with your definition of “good.”
And specifically, “good” government is only meaningful to the actual customers of that specific government. I may feel Starbucks over-extracts its espresso, but if I get my espresso at Peet’s, there is no reason for my opinion to matter. Similarly, what San Franciscans consider “good” government is not relevant to the municipal administration of Kandahar.
Therefore, the question of whether (a) liberal democracy, or (b) divine-right monarchy, or (c) people’s democracy, or (d) formalism, or (e) some other design, is the most effective way to constitute a government whose customers will consider it “good,” is not a moral or spiritual question. It is a factual and empirical question. Its answer may even – gasp – be different for different groups of people.
Moreover, when answering this question, we have to take into account the fact that liberal democracy is the design of government we live under. Of course we think the answer is (a). If we didn’t think the answer was (a), the Fourth Republic would not survive for a millisecond. So it taught us to believe the answer is (a).
But is the answer (a)? Obviously, I don’t think so. But I could be wrong. My point is not that, since everyone thinks the answer is (a), the answer must be (d). My point is that answering the question reasonably and independently, without reference to what the Fourth Republic wants us to think, is a serious and difficult task.
It is very easy, for example, for us to conclude that the answer is not (c). But this is because we don’t live in a people’s democracy. Victor Klemperer, who was a better man than any of us, wound up serving as a deputy in the East German parliament. If you think it’s easy to question received assumptions, try the last volume of his diaries. He constantly oscillates between doubt and belief. Sanity is not easy.
Unless, of course, you take my red pill. (Also, please feel free to sell all your possessions, shave your head, and join my fast-growing army of fanatical, orange-robed disciples.)