28 November 2007

Ingredients of Modernity

Looking at modern Western society, and comparing with the past, there are about five things we have which clearly distinguish us from past societies.

We have:
  1. Prosperity
  2. Individual Freedom
  3. Democracy
  4. Political Stability
  5. Secularism
Following Mencius Moldbug, I have been wondering, particularly, what the relationship Democracy has to Freedom and Prosperity. Is it synergistic with them, as normally assumed, or parasitic on them, as MM claims?

I've thrown the last two into the mix in case they are important. Much of Europe has been politically unstable within the last 70 years or so, but possibly that is long enough. The fifth ingredient is really the weakened influence of religion, or at least of Christianity; I'm not sure that secularism is exactly the right word for what I mean.

I'm prepared to accept without discussion the dependence of prosperity on freedom. The freedom to do business freely means the freedom to associate, to communicate, to hold private property, and so on - those freedoms can only be taken away at the cost of stifling economic development. This podcast went into detail, but the basic idea is simple enough.

I think it is at least equally obvious that prosperity depends on political stability. Revolutions are just so damned destructive.

So how does Democracy fit in? The pro-democracy argument is that democracy is the buffer that allows freedom and political stability to coexist; that a non-democratic state will generally be forced to curtail freedom in order to preserve stability.

Anti-democrats can argue that democracy is frequently corrosive of political stability, freedom, or both. But that argument is not sufficient. It may be that democracy does not guarantee either freedom or stability, and yet it may nevertheless be the case that the conjunction of freedom and stability depends on democracy.

Are there historical non-democratic states that were both free and stable? Some past European monarchies might be claimed to fit. For that matter, Victorian Britain was not democratic in the modern sense, due to property qualifications. Were these free enough to count? If attempting to change the government is an essential freedom, then no non-democracy can be considered free, but even without begging the question that way, it is still debatable.

And perhaps it is not freedom that is incompatible with stable non-democracy, but freedom plus prosperity. If the poor are poor enough, they have no power which needs to be recognised by the system. Once a modern economy gets going, they have sufficient resources to demand a share in power.

That actually sounds very plausible to me. But perhaps there is some alternative to democracy that can square the circle between a proletariat unconstrained by either poverty or lack of personal freedom, and a government that excludes them from power.

The best answer that MM has come with is the machine gun.

Perhaps the great tragedy of democracy is that mob power became identified with political power at exactly the last point in history at which mobs were militarily relevant. In the age of the machine gun, the military is at all time sovereign whether it likes it or not. As long as it acts in a unified and disciplined way, it can do whatever it wants. As the experience of China shows, it's by no means always a mistake to fire into a mob. If the sovereigns of the Concert of Europe had realized that technology was on their side, the murderous degringolade of the 20th century might never have happened.

It might be the kool-aid, but somehow I'm just not able to find that convincing. Surely it can't be that simple? I suppose the standard objection is that at some point the army will refuse to fire.


I haven't changed my mind since July: While I accept many of the criticisms of the anti-democrats, and the proposition that democratic states preserve freedom only by restraining democracy, the costs of defending a rationally-run state seem prohibitive.

In other words, I don't really like democracy; I think it's basically a trick, but it's a necessary trick. Giving the mob enough power to pacify it is less damaging than forcing it to accept not having power.

This conclusion is significant for developing countries. I think they need individual freedom, they need political stability, they need prosperity, and, in the long run, they will need democracy in order to make the new forces created by prosperity and freedom balance. Starting with democracy is the wrong way round, as without freedom and prosperity it will be only nominal.

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