Tuesday, April 27, 2010

The rule of law, democracy, stability and liberty

As Boyes indicates in his most recent post, there is a clear redistributional direction in the US resulting from majority rule, democracy and special interests - perhaps this is the new iron triangle?

I have been motivated (see this review) to read Tocqueville's Democracy in America, I hate to confess that I have never read this important text. This will be a part of my summer reading list as I am completing the reading for a Hayek Liberty Fund conference the first week of June. That reading has focused my attention of the fragile set of beliefs that support a free society. Hayek is clear that the threats posed by majority rule are significant and that for the general rule of law to prevent coercive redistribution by the majority, a shared belief in liberty as an ultimate value is necessary.

It seems to me that 180 years ago Tocqueville recognized the potential tyranny of the majority - I am anxious to share his perspective in an effort to reignite my optimism about our future.

I know I have shared this scenario which I believe I read on The Coordination Problem some time ago.

Our future can be viewed as a horse race. The three horses entered are named Smith, Schumpeter and State. As long as the first two are ahead of the last, our future should remain bright.

I think of this scenario due to today's Coordination Problem post on what is a major step in the direction of affirming the role of liberty in society -

Like Boyes, I am not optimistic about the ability of our free society to continue in the face of a real dearth of conscious consideration of liberty as a value. I am hopeful however, that conversations with Boyes, Tocqueville and the Liberty Fund participants will allow an optimism to emerge and evolve based upon knowledge that I have not yet encountered.

I recognize that, working in higher education, I am in an environment that is particularly sympathetic to notions of social justice and egalitarianism and hostile to liberty. My reading of The Constitution of Liberty, particularly the exploration of coercion and the role that democratic decision making plays in its use, have me more and more concerned. My concern is juxtaposed with colleagues and students who are concerned that the state is not moving rapidly enough to address pressing violations of social justice and egalitarianism. My admiration for Hayek is growing as I am experiencing on a very small scale both the hostility and ignorance he encountered (both in and out of the academy) and a growing frustration and difficulty in maintaining a semblance of civility in discourse.

After class today I asked one of my top students if he would share his ultimate value. I know a bit about his background and was confident that he would be conscious of his ultimate value. After a pause (90 seconds) he responded - free will.

I would guess that if Jay Leno (or Greg Pratt) conducted a man on the street survey with this question we would be dismayed, but not surprised by the response to the question - What is your ultimate value?

I would speculate that some surveyed could not be able to identify their ultimate value, a number might advance justice and a few might advance some version of egalitarianism. How many would articulate liberty, I wonder?

To illustrate this muddle, I asked my class today to react to the following scenario:

For some reason you are standing outside an adult bookstore. You see a person walk in and exit later with a pleased expression. You ask what he purchased and the reply was - 3 items:

1. The first item contained only adults.

Do you think the person be free to purchase this item?

2. The second item contained adults and another species.

Should the person be free to purchase this item?

3. The third item contained adults and children.

Do you think the person be free to purchase this item?

The scenario proposes a third party viewing an exchange between two interested parties. The question was intended to explore liberty, sphere of personal freedom, individualism, general rules, values and morality.

So, should a line be drawn and if so, where?

The majority of my class drew the line at item 3.

I wonder, if more of these types of discussion were conducted in a civil manner, would the value of liberty be more consciously on the mind of participants in our society?

How many of our fellow citizens are consciously grateful that they do not live in North Korea and are consciously aware that with this gratitude comes with a responsibility?

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