The rise of right-wing authoritarian populism has triggered an intellectual tsunami of works attempting to understand why liberal democracy is failing in the 21st century. All of these accounts, however, rest on the premise that liberal democracy itself must be preserved. Yet liberal theorists have never reached anything resembling a consensus on one of the fundamental reasons behind the appeal of liberal democracy: justice. Most of us have an idea of what we mean by “justice”, usually one that is grounded in the idea of fairness or the rule of law. But as I will argue below, using justice as a synonym for other distinct ideals, or mechanisms to achieve those ideals, leaves us intellectually shorthanded.
To understand why we need to separate the ideas of fairness, rule of law, and justice let’s describe four related societies:
Society 1: Imagine a modern, constitutional state where slavery is legally permitted, such as the US before 1863. Although slaves do not count as people but as property, and lack the basic political rights that are afforded to free men, they are subject to the law rather than the whims of their masters. There are laws, for example, that prohibit a master from killing his slave, or from subjecting them to particularly cruel punishment. These laws are known to both slaves and masters and they are compelled to abide by them. The laws are enforced by the courts without discretion: a master who kills a slave finds it impossible to bribe a court to let him go unpunished. Clearly this state is not fair since a segment of the population lives under different rules than the other. It is also not just, given that slaves will not have the same outcomes in life than free men. But it is clear that there is, at least, the rule of law and that both slaves and masters are subject to it. Continue reading
I hate to sound like a libertarian, but there seems to be a problem with democracy and the problem is government. Unfortunately, the debt crisis afflicting much of the industrialized world has focused the debate on whether government is too big or two small. I am a firm believer that there is no such thing as big or small government: a government can be too big in all the wrong places, but also too small in areas where society would benefit hugely from its presence. Indeed it seems to me that Western democracy (particularly its Anglo-Saxon variety) has swayed too far into this inefficient equilibrium, one which – to use a domestic example – appears scarily like the father who leaves their kids out on the street all day, and then abuses them when they are at home. It doesn’t take a genius to see what kind of children/citizens this noxious type of paternity creates in the long run.
Big brother is blinding you
Leviathan is alive and kicking
The US and Britain are undoubtedly the poster boys for this new kind of two-headed government: one which is a true leviathan in the ways that its all-powerful security apparatus puts a stranglehold on society, but at the same time retreats from its socio-economic responsibilities. It justifies the former attitude by the claim that they are at war with “terror”, however laughably ambiguous this concept is. To be fair, that these countries are in the cross-hairs of terrorist groups is unquestionable; according to the NSA, the data captured through its PRISM program managed to thwart 50 terrorist attacks. Perhaps this is true, perhaps it’s an exaggeration. But this has left some serious questions on the legal and constitutional mandates that such espionage programs rest upon, and most importantly, whether a democratically elected government has effectively been given a blank check to spy on its own citizens. The West, including the US and UK, has criticized Turkey’s prime minister, Tayyip Erdogan, for his wild claim that “winning three elections” gives him the mandate to rule as he wishes. But how is justifying domestic and global espionage in the name of the war on terror any different? How to justify even more blatant abuses such as spying on diplomatic missions, even from military allies? Considering the filth that just two whistle-blowers (Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden), have uncovered about these programs, one can only wonder what appalling and outright criminal acts these two self-described standard-bearers for democracy and freedom have done or are capable of doing. Continue reading