Tuesday, April 25, 2006

"The People" and Their Frailties

The King of Nepal, Gyanendra, has advanced the degree to which he is willing to surrender to demonstrators who have been facing down shootings by the security forces in street demonstrations for weeks. He has agreed to reinstate the Nepalese Parliament, after earlier making an offer to name a new prime minister that was summarily rejected. The demonstrators are apparently now demanding that he leave the country. The King appears to be making some of Louis XVI’s mistakes, recognizing too late the depths of the anger at his absolute power and making offers that once would’ve been sufficient but not anymore, with the public having now moved the goalposts in their ire. One hopes that it ends better for His Majesty now than for His Majesty back then.

Nepal has an absolute monarchy because the King seized power in the midst of a ruthless communist rebellion. The BBC story alluded to above has several quotes that are disconcerting for anyone hoping that Nepal will come out the better for having chased him out. An English teacher named Bikash Sharma indicates that ‘[a’ constituent assembly is needed so that we can have the people's mandate. The king must be replaced by the people's man." Another protester, Gyanendra Bhattarai (no relation to the king, presumably) says that "[t]he politicians should not fight among each other as they have in the past and try and pursue personal agendas."

Ah, but the whole reason we have politics is precisely because “the people” that “the politicians” represent disagree and have different interests, and to satisfy the interests of some of “the people” is to damage the interests of others. Many of history’s greatest tragedies have been brought about once some people started agitating in the name of “the people.” Most of those so eager to build a government to affirmatively serve “the people” are not much aware of the function politics has of reconciling conflicting interests, and are most liable to be taken in by those claiming to speak for “the people” against whatever “special interests” are blocking them. If one supposes that there is a single, obvious “public interest,” and yet public policy does not seem consistent with the needs of “the people,” one is naturally tempted to agree with the Maximum Leader when he says that some sinister group – Masons, Jews, “neoconservatives,” corporations, kulaks, anything will do – is frustrating the public will.

It is a testament to the wisdom of the drafters of the U.S. Constitution that this troublesome phrase “the people” only appears a handful of times. In the text itself (it also appears once in the Preamble) the references are harmless – Article I.2 and Amendment XVII refer to procedures by which “the people” shall elect their representatives, and Amendments I, II, IV, IX and X refer to rights people possess as individuals to be free from government coercion – the right to assemble, to keep and bear arms, to be free from unreasonable search and seizure, and to retain rights not explicitly granted to the federal government. The framers were far more concerned about the power of pressure groups – or “factions,” as Madison called them in the Federalist Papers – to gain control of the government and hence erode liberty. They accepted this fractionalization as an unavoidable fact of life, a constraint that wise people know to be bound by rather than one to be wished away in pursuit of an imaginary, nearly universally accepted “public interest.” The Constitution of The Philippines, just to take an arbitrary example, mentions “the people” about two dozen times in a relatively short document, and they are mentioned as possessing, among other things, the rights to such completely meaningless and unenforceable vagaries as “a balanced and healthful ecology” and “effective and reasonable participation at all levels of social, political and economic decision-making.”

If “the people” of Nepal get their wish and recover democratic governance, they will find that the hardest part is just beginning. Because absent an institutional structure that limits political warfare and encourages people to resolve their conflicting goals in voluntary market cooperation, they will find that democracy is just as toxic as an absolute monarchy. They may find in short order that “the politicians” have failed to deliver to “the people,” and then the cutthroat Maoists will gain even more traction. They have to build a structure that people trust enough not to bring down by yet more marches or rebellions, and they have to do it in the context of their own cultural constraints.

In a very crabby piece, John Derbyshire recently made the following claim:

Only Anglo-Saxon countries can do democracy. The natural state of human society is despotism. If you tally up all the human lives that have ever been lived on this planet under organized systems of government, no more than five per cent were lived under consensual systems. Even to get up to five per cent, you have to include places like ancient Athens and Tudor England, which wouldn't pass muster as "democratic" by modern standards. In the last couple of centuries, practically all consensual systems have been Anglo-Saxon. Other cultures can fake it for a few decades, as France, Germany, and Japan are currently doing, but their hearts aren't really in it and they will swoon gratefully into the arms of a fascist dictator when one comes along.

I am not quite as fatalistic as that, but I am mindful of the empty promise of “democracy” without the cultural and institutional capital that makes people willing to tolerate its frailties and understand how it (and, more importantly, limited government generally) can be destroyed. The more people are convinced that their private interests are really the public interest, and the more they are then exercised about betrayal of “the people,” the more fragile self-government is. To be sure, this is no justification for authoritarianism. The people of The Philippines, for example, are probably much better off now than under the kleptocrat Ferdinand Marcos, overthrown in 1986 by massive street marches and the felicitous intervention of President Reagan. One hears of the occasional virtuous dictator, the fellow who steals minimally, reforms the economy and limits the natural tendency of majority groups to oppress minorities. But these cases are rare; a thief on the cosmic scale like Zaire’s Mobutu or whoever the current septuagenarian head of the House of Saud happens to be is far more likely. And so consensual government is truly the worst form of government, save for all the others. But the notion that when the dictator is gone “the people” get what they want and need is one of the most pernicious of our age. And so the Nepalese ought to give some thought not to how their new government can serve “the people” but how it can referee their disputes as peacefully as possible.


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