The Democratic Destruction of Democracy

We’re all familiar with the phrase. Democracies allow so much freedom that anti-democratic forces can develop inside of them and ultimately destroy them from within, using the very tools that make democracy what it is (freedom of speech and association, elections etc.). The archetypal case is, of course, the Weimar Republic of pre-WWII Germany (although one can claim that Weimar wasn’t really a democracy and Hitler’s rise to power didn’t occur through purely democratic means). The democratic destruction of democracy is also, misleadingly, called the self-destruction of democracy, as if it is the democracy as a whole rather than an abusive part of it that causes the destruction.

However, I also have a problem with the phrase “democratic destruction of democracy”. There is, after all, nothing democratic about the abuse of democracy by anti-democratic forces trying to get elected with the sole purpose of ending all future elections. Their actions may be democratic in the strictly legal sense, but not in the moral or philosophical sense.

I believe the “democratic destruction of democracy” means something else. Most people, and even those who care about democracy and are willing to die in its defense, view one of its basic characteristics – the plurality of opinion – as a suboptimal state of affairs, and something to be overcome. We all believe strongly in certain opinions, and we may even consider those opinions to be more than mere opinions. In other words, we make truth claims about our opinions. That means that we believe that other people, who have adopted other opinions, are wrong, mistaken. We want to convince them, but that means that we want to eliminate the plurality of opposing opinions. It also means that we want to abolish democracy, because it’s impossible to imagine a democracy in a world of unanimity.

Paradoxically, the most typical democratic activity – persuasion – has the objective of ending democracy. I wouldn’t call it a “destruction”, because the end of democracy is a byproduct, not a conscious goal. Of course, this democratic (let’s call it) termination of democracy is possible only through persuasion, and by the looks of it, that’s not a very sharp tool. Hence the termination is still a rather abstract and long-term possibility. The undemocratic termination of democracy does not suffer from tool-limitation, and is therefore a much less theoretical possibility.

This undemocratic termination can occur inside or outside of democracy, with the tools offered by democracy or with other tools. Anti-democrats can decide to try to get elected, or they can stage a coup. Or whatever. Common to many anti-democrats is impatience with persuasion. Some are motivated simply by power or money, but many believe that the “democratic masses” just can’t see the light and are immune to even the best arguments. Instead of persuasion, the impatient anti-democrats are led to believe that imposition of a worldview is the only remedy for error and mistake. Re-education camps are quick to follow, and extermination camps for those for whom even persuasion in the form of re-education is impossible.

Why Do We Need Human Rights? (10): Why Do We Need Democracy?

Regular readers will know that I see democracy as a human rights issue. The standard human rights texts (declarations, treaties and constitutions) all provide a right of the people of a nation to take part in the government, choose representatives in free elections etc. As with human rights in general, many people are in favor of democracy, but are unable to say why, or are unable to agree on the reasons why they are in favor. Some people may not have a particular reason to favor democracy, apart from a pragmatic one: it has worked quite well, especially compared to other forms of government that have been tried before, and it’s such a fuss to change.

Those who have reasons can be divided into two “camps”: those who view democracy as the best means to an independently valuable  goal, and those who view democracy as intrinsically valuable. The former group is the most numerous (and includes me). An instrumental justification of democracy can take many different forms, depending on the ultimate goal that is supposed to be promoted by democracy. The most common forms are:

  • Democracy promotes prosperity, economic growth and poverty reduction.
  • Democracy promotes peace (internally and externally).
  • Democracy leads to better political decisions.
  • Democracy leads to less repression and more respect for human rights.

I believe all of these statements are very persuasive, and taken together they form a very powerful justification of democracy (although we may need to agree on a very specific definition of democracy in order to be convinced by these statements – but that’s another discussion).

The non-instrumental justification, the one that says that democracy is good, not because of what it produces, but because of what it is, is also very interesting and persuasive. It focuses on what happens to people when they participate in government, what happens when democracy takes place, not what happens after it has taken place. So instead of pointing to beneficial consequences of democracy – more prosperity, more peace etc. – it points to the benefits of community, association, participation, self-government, self-determination etc. and how these things improve people’s characters, virtues and happiness. Read more here.

The only problem I have with this non-instrumental approach in which democracy is an end in itself, is that it tends to collapse into the instrumental approach: if democracy improves people’s character, then it’s also instrumental. It’s only an end in itself in the sense that it’s product doesn’t appear afterwards (like peace follows from democratic rule), but is simultaneous with it (people’s characters and virtues improve because of democracy, but only as long as democracy “happens”).

However, often it’s quite irrelevant which type of justification of democracy we prefer, and how successful (or not) the chosen justification is. Such exercises can be no more than “preaching to the choir”, intellectually interesting but practically irrelevant. People who already accept democracy don’t need a philosophical explanation of why democracy is so wonderful. And people who don’t accept democracy are often immune to rational justifications or to philosophy in general. Good luck approaching the Taliban with a philosophy paper on the benefits of democracy… (In fact, good luck approaching them at all).

Religion and Human Rights (7): What is Religious Liberty?

Religious liberty or the freedom of religion and belief is a human right. It is the right to be protected against coercion in matters of religion, to be free to practice and profess a religion of your choice, in private as well as in public, to change your religion, or to practice no religion at all.

Legal rules on religious freedom

Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states:

Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.

This right is closely linked to the right to free expression and the right to free association.

The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution states:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

It protects the freedom of religion in the US. It’s made up of two parts. The Establishment Clause prohibits the government from passing laws that will establish an official religion or preferring one religion over another. The courts have interpreted the establishment clause to accomplish the separation of church and state and have held that the clause extends to the executive and judicial branches as well.

The Free Exercise Clause prohibits the government from interfering with a person’s practice of his or her religion.

Importance of religious freedom

Religious liberty is an important value because it protects religious diversity and plurality and hence counteracts religious persecution and coercion. It makes a monopoly of one religion impossible – except when culture and demography are such that there is a de facto monopoly which is not contested – and it guarantees the coexistence of different and publicly competing beliefs. In this way, it also guarantees publicity, debate and diversity in general. If there is publicity, debate and diversity on the level of religion, then why not on other levels? On top of that, religious liberty guarantees tolerance: if people can be tolerant – or are forced to be tolerant – in the field of religion, then they will probably be tolerant in other fields as well.

This shows that religious liberty can be of interest to non-religious persons, not only because it protects them from the imposition of a religious belief, but also because it allows them to live in a world of tolerance, publicity ad diversity. Religious liberty is therefore an integral part of a democratic society and a system of human rights.

Problems with religious freedom

However, there is a downside to the concept of religious liberty. Anyone can call their personal insanity a religion in order to try to get government protection. There is no easy answer to the question of what is or is not a religion in the proper sense of the word, but it is obvious that any belief or practice which is part of a religion or claimed to be part of a religion, and which provokes violations of human rights, should not be protected under the right to freedom of religion. Every human right is limited and has to be balanced with other rights.

Freedom of religion is no exception. In particular, the right to absence of discrimination, although closely connected to religious liberty (one should not be treated badly as a consequence of one’s religion), can be a problem if everything can be labeled a religion and if every imaginable theological ideology can enjoy an absolute level of protection granted by the freedom of religion. The equal rights of women should be balanced with the right to practice a religion which provokes discrimination of women. Limiting one right for the sake of another is a normal practice in the field of human rights. This is even more evident in the case of terrorism based on religion.

Separation of state and religion

Religious liberty implies that the state (but not only the state) should not interfere with the religion of its citizens, should not favor or discriminate a particular religion or religions, and should not attach benefits or penalties to any religious affiliation or lack thereof. Religious liberty therefore limits the power of the state and creates a difference between state and society by granting some measure of religious independence to society.

However, religious liberty not only means that the state should avoid interfering in religious matters. It also means that the state should be absolutely neutral as regards religion. There has to be a separation between state and religion (but not necessarily between politics and religion) in the sense that there can be no official state religion. The state should not link itself to a particular religion but should stand above the plurality of different religions. One and the same person cannot be both head of state and head of a church (or an important functionary of a church).

Without this kind of neutrality, certain religions as well as atheists and agnostics will be worse off compared to the adherents of the official religion, if they are allowed to exist at all. Religious liberty means religious equality and the equal treatment of all religions. This equal treatment is impossible if there is some kind of link between the state and a particular religion. If adherence to one religion brings more advantages than adherence to another – and this can be the case when the former is an official state religion or is in any way favored by the state – then there is no real religious liberty. The choice for one religion rather than another will not be a free choice. Even if non-official religions are not actively persecuted or discriminated against, they are worse off when there is no separation between the state and religion because they have less means to influence the public as the official state religion. They are not as free as the official religion.

Another reason why religious liberty implies the separation between state and religion is the need for an impartial judge to mediate between different religions. If different religions are allowed to exist together, we need a non-religious law which regulates their coexistence. It is very unlikely that people adhering to one religion will accept laws which are inspired by another religion. The fact that a religiously neutral state with its religiously neutral laws allows many different religions to exist and to coexist, makes it acceptable to many people. A state which only allows one religion or favors one religion, will only be accepted by the adherents of that particular religion.

The historical fact that religious communities tend to become more and more intertwined within the borders of states, will enhance the attractiveness of this kind of state. A democracy is by definition such a neutral state, because a democracy respects human rights. Once you respect human rights, you also respect religious liberty, and religious liberty leads to religious neutrality on the part of the state.

Just as the state is kept out of religion, religion is kept out of the state. The claims of religion are restricted. A particular religion cannot claim to be the religion of the country in order to take possession of the state or the law and thereby achieve more power than other religions and impose itself on individuals. The state, for its part, is not allowed to prohibit, persecute, discriminate or impose a religion, and it should also avoid using a religion as a means to enhance its authority, as a kind of transcendent confirmation. If you stand close to something glorious, you may hope that something of the glory shines on you as well. You may even hope to become godly, which, historically, has been an enormous advantage to states in pre-modern times. The representative of God on earth is godly as well, and he who is godly is eternal and escapes contestation, which is of course anti-democratic. It is equally unacceptable for a state to use certain religious texts to justify or enforce authoritarian measures.

Separating state and religion may cause some problems. It will for example make it more difficult to universalize human rights. Many cultures, for example Muslim cultures, see this separation not as an advantage but as a problem because religion – unified religion, not the freedom of religion – is still very important in their societies and is considered to be the foundation of politics.

However, state neutrality in religious matters does not imply that democratic politics is necessarily a-religious or atheistic. A democracy executes the will of the people and not the will of God, but if the people believe that their will equals the will of God, then this does not pose a problem as long as the religious rights of the minority are respected and as long as the religion of the majority does not acquire unjustified privileges and does not become the official state religion.

Separation of politics and religion?

This already indicates that the separation of state and religion is not identical to the separation of politics and religion. Religion does not have to remain silent when it comes to politics. It can be a source of inspiration for politicians and it can enhance ethical consciousness and behavior. Therefore, it should not be excluded from politics. It is important to make the distinction between politics and the state. The fact that freedom of religion and the separation of state and religion do not imply the separation of religion and politics can make it easier to impose religious liberty and state neutrality. Religious people obviously and justifiably fear the separation of religion and politics.

The religious neutrality of the state does not necessarily lead to a religious neutrality of politics. A religion is not allowed to infiltrate the institutions of the state, otherwise it would acquire more power than other religions and therefore destroy religious liberty (a choice for a religion is not free if one religion has more power of persuasion than another). But a religion is allowed to try to convince a majority, at least as long as it respects human rights and the liberty of other religions.

Which Human Rights Do We Have?

Here’s a summary list of internationally recognized human rights:

1. Civil Rights or Freedom Rights

  • Equality of rights without discrimination
  • Life
  • Security and integrity of the person
  • Protection against slavery, torture and cruel or inhuman punishment (humane treatment when detained)
  • Protection against arbitrary arrest or detention (arrest or detention only on the basis of a law and with prompt notice of the charges)
  • A public, fair and prompt trial before an independent, impartial and competent judge
  • Presumption of innocence until proven guilty
  • Means necessary for your defense
  • Protection against compulsory confession
  • The right not to testify against yourself
  • “Ne bis in idem”, no two convictions or punishments for the same offense
  • Case reviewed by a higher tribunal
  • Protection against “ex post facto” laws, laws established after the deed
  • “Nullum crimen sine lege”, there is no offense without a law
  • Recognition as a person before the law
  • Equality before the law and equal protection by the law
  • Judicial protection of rights and access to legal remedies for rights violations (the right to apply to a court which offers redress for violations)
  • Protection of privacy, family, home and correspondence
  • Freedom of movement and residence
  • Asylum from persecution
  • The right not to be deprived of your nationality, the right to change your nationality
  • Protection against arbitrary expulsion of nationals and aliens
  • Leave and return to your country
  • The right to marry and beget a family of your choice
  • Protection of the family
  • The right to own property
  • Freedom of thought and religion
  • Freedom of expression (seeking, receiving and imparting information regardless of borders)
  • The absence of attacks on your honor and reputation
  • Freedom of assembly and association (including the right to leave an association)

2. Political Rights or Democratic Rights

  • Political participation, directly and through freely chosen representatives
  • Equal access to public service, the right to be elected
  • The will of the people is the basis of the authority of government
  • Periodic and genuine elections
  • Universal and equal suffrage
  • Secret vote

3. Social, Economic and Cultural Rights

  • Social security
  • A certain standard of living
  • Work, of your own choice and under favorable conditions
  • Protection for the unemployed, the elderly, the disabled and sick persons
  • Fair wages and equal wages for equal work
  • Free trade unions (right to form and join)
  • Strike
  • Rest and leisure
  • Food, clothing and housing
  • Health care
  • Special protection for children and mothers
  • Education
  • Participation in the cultural life of the community
  • Self-determination
  • International solidarity

Why Do We Need Human Rights? (7): From Democracy to Prosperity

In a previous post I commented on the beneficial influence of prosperity on democracy – democracy being one human right among many. Here are some reasons why democracy is good for prosperity. The squeaky hinge gets the oil. Only in a democratic society in which human rights are protected, can an economic injustice be exposed and can claims for its abolition be heard and implemented. People can use human rights to call on the government or the international community to fulfill its duties and to implement certain economic measures. Most governments, including democratic governments, act only when they are put under pressure. The freedom of expression, the freedom of assembly and association (associations such as pressure groups, labor unions or political parties) and the right to choose your own representatives are instruments in the hands of the economically disadvantaged. They can use their rights and the democratic procedures to influence economic and social policy. Poverty must have a voice.

It is true that without a minimum degree of prosperity, human rights and democracy lose a lot of their value. If you have to struggle to survive, then you do not have the time to form an opinion, let alone express it. “Primum vivere, deinde philosophari”; first you make sure you live, and only then can you philosophize. However, life is more than just living. In a situation of poverty, it is indeed difficult to use rights and democracy, but without rights and democracy it is much more difficult to fight poverty.

If there are no free flows of information, no accountable government that needs to justify its actions in order to be re-elected, and no free press, then you are likely to have more corruption, more embezzlement of public funds and more people who acquire an unfair advantage from the proceeds of natural resources and other sources of prosperity. The rule of law and the openness of government, which are typical of democracy, limit not only corruption but also the ineffective management or outright squandering of natural or other resources by untouchable governments.

Economic development is supported by free flows of information and freedom of movement, both typical of democracies. A free press encourages the economy because it allows entrepreneurs to make informed decisions.

Democracy also guarantees the rule of law, which means legal security and predictability. The number of investments – foreign and local – will grow when investors are certain that their contracts are guaranteed by the law and enforceable by a judge, when oppression does not cause violent revolt and when investors are relatively certain that their property will not be stolen without punishment or will not be nationalized by some new revolutionary government.

The rule of law creates a limited state and a society that is relatively free and independent of the state. This means that economic activity is also relatively independent. A certain limit on state interference in the economy is traditionally considered as beneficial for economic development. In a free civil society, everybody can be economically active. In many authoritarian states, only a handful of privileged persons can be economically active, and these persons are not always the ones most suitable for this kind of activity (for example: large landowners, members of the official “nomenclatura” etc.). A free civil society, guaranteed by the rule of law, which in turn is guaranteed by democracy (although not only by democracy), allows everybody to be creative, to cooperate and to exchange on a relatively level playing field. This increases the chances that the best man is in the best place, which in turn encourages economic development. Furthermore, by pumping in as many people as possible in the economy and by letting them move and communicate freely, the economically most efficient and profitable transactions can take place.

What is Democracy? (4): Conflict

Election rules institute conflict and struggle. The place of power is an empty place (says Claude Lefort). The law forbids that persons occupy or appropriate this place in a permanent way. Power is the result of a regulated struggle for this place, a struggle that is periodically restarted because power itself is periodically called into question. However, conflict is not just institutionalized, it is also channeled: potentially dangerous conflicts between groups or parties competing for power can be battled out or decided in a peaceful , formalized and reasonable way. Since there will always be a next chance for the losers – who, by the way, do not risk loosing anything more than power – there is no need to resort to more forceful means in order to win the battle. In this way, democracy supports the right to security . This is one of the many examples of the link between democracy and human rights.

It is very important to notice the connection between the two different kinds of institutionalization of conflict, namely the conflict of opinions institutionalized by freedom rights, and the power struggle institutionalized by the democratic election procedures. These two ways of institutionalizing conflict reinforce each other in a fruitful interaction or reciprocity. The legitimate existence of a continuous, open and public power struggle in which the entire people can participate, justifies and creates public conflict in general, in the society at large and in every domain of life. If conflicts of opinion are allowed in the political domain, then why should they be forbidden in other domains of life? There is no democratic power struggle without freedom of expression because this struggle requires criticism, argumentation and persuasion (in order to form majorities). In this way, democracy protects human rights.

The opposite is also true. Human rights protect democracy because they are necessary prerequisites for a real power struggle. The participants in the power struggle have to be able to express themselves, to present themselves to the electorate, to create a distinct profile for themselves, and to make the electorate familiar with their political program (that is why they need the freedom of expression); they have to be able to organize and associate in a group that is free from government control, because this allows them to gather strength and have a more influential voice (so they need the freedom of association, the rule of law and the separation of state and society); and for the same reasons they have to be able to meet and demonstrate (so they also need the freedom of assembly).

Human rights need democracy. They are safer in a democracy because a democracy needs human rights. But a democracy also needs equal human rights. If everybody does not have equal rights, there can be no equal influence, and if there is no equal influence, there can be no democracy. The creation of public opinion or of the will of the people depends on the equal influence of everybody or, in other words, on the equal ability to convince, and this equal ability requires equal human rights. Equal influence also requires respect for economic rights – because these rights limit the unequal influence of money on politics – and for the right to education for everybody – a right that limits the unequal influence of intellect or talent on politics.