14 September 2018 – This is an extra edition of my usual weekly post on this blog. I’m writing it to tell you about an online event called “Open Future” put on by The Economist weekly newsmagazine and to encourage you to participate by visiting the URL www.economist.com/openfuture. The event is scheduled for tomorrow, 15 September 2018, but the website is already up, and some parts of the event are already live.
The newsmagazine’s Editor-in-Chief, Zanny Minton Beddoes, describes the event as “an initiative to remake the case for liberal values and policies in the 21st century.”
Now, don’t get put off by the use of the word “liberal.” These folks are Brits and, as I’ve often quipped: “The British invented the language, but they still can’t spell it or pronounce it.” They also sometimes use words to mean different things.
What The Economist calls “liberal” is not what we in the U.S. usually think of as liberal. You can get a clear idea of what The Economist refers to as “liberal” by perusing the list of seminal works in their article “The literature of liberalism.”
We in the U.S. are confused by typically hearing the word “liberal” used to describe leftist policies classed as Liberal with a capital L. Big-L Liberals have co-opted the word to refer to the agenda of the Democratic Party, which, as I’ll explain below, isn’t quite what The Economist refers to as small-L liberal.
The Economist‘s idea of liberal is more like what we usually call “libertarian.” Libertarians tend to take some ideas usually reserved for the left, and some from the right. Their main tenet, however, which is best expressed as “think for yourself,” is anathema to both ends of the political spectrum.
But, those of us in the habit of thinking for ourselves like it.
Unfortunately (or maybe not) small-L libertarianism is in danger of being similarly co-opted in the U.S. by the current big-L Libertarian Party. But, that’s a rant for another day!
What’s more important today is understanding a different way of dividing up political ideologies.
Left vs. Right
Two-hundred twenty-nine years ago, political discourse invented the terms “The Left” and “The Right” as a means of classifying political parties along ideological lines. The terms arose at the start of the French Revolution when delegates to the National Constituent Assembly still included foes of the revolution as well as its supporters.
As the ancient Greek proverb says, “birds of a feather flock together,” so supporters of revolution tended to pick seats near each other, and those against it sat together as well. Those supporting the revolution happened to sit on the left side of the hall, so those of more conservative bent gathered on the right. The terminology became institutionalized, so we now divide the political spectrum between a liberal/progressive Left and a conservative Right.
While the Left/Right-dichotomy works for describing what happened during the first meeting of the French National Constituent Assembly, it poorly reflects the concepts humans actually use to manage governments. In the real world, there is an equally simple, but far more relevant way of dividing up political views: authoritarianism versus democracy.
Authoritarians are all those people (and there’s a whole bunch of them) who want to tell everybody else what to do. It includes most religious leaders, most alpha males (and females), and, in fact, just about everyone who wants to lead anything from teenage gangs to the U.N. General Assembly. Patriarchal and matriarchal families are run on authoritarian principles.
Experience, by the way, shows that authoritarianism is a lousy way to run a railroad, despite the fact that virtually every business on the Planet is organized that way. Managment consultants and organizational-behavior researchers pretty much universally agree that spreading decision making throughout the organization, even down to the lowest levels, makes for the most robust, healthiest companies.
If you want your factory’s floors to be clean, make sure the janitors have a say in what mops and buckets to use!
The opposite of authoritarianism is democracy. Little-D democracy is the antithesis of authoritarianism. Small-D democrats don’t tell people what to do, they ask them what they (the people) want to do, and try to make it possible for them to do it. It takes a lot more savvy to balance all the conflicting desires of all those people than to petulently insist on things being done your way, but, if you can make it work, you get better results.
Now, political discourse based on the Left/Right dichotomy is simple and easy for political parties to espouse. Big-D Democrats have a laundry list of causes they champion. Similarly, Republicans have a laundry list of what they want to promote.
Those lists, however, absolutely do not fit the democracy/authoratarianism picture. And, there’s no reason to expect them to.
Politicians, generally, want to tell other people what to do. If they didn’t, they’d go do something else. That’s the very nature of politics. Thus, by and large, politicians are authoritarians.
They dress their plans up in terms that sound like democracy because most people don’t like being told what to do. In America, we’ve institutionalized the notion that people don’t like being told what to do, so bald-faced authoritarianism is a non-starter.
We Don’t Need No Stinking Authoritarians
(Apologies to the Man in the Gold Sombrero from John Huston’s 1948 film The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.)
It started in England with the Magna Carta, in which the English nobles told King John “enough is enough.”
Yeah, King John is the same guy as the “Prince John” who was cast as the arch-enemy of fictional hero Robin Hood. See, we don’t like authoritarians, and generally cast them as the villains in our favorite stories.
Not wanting to be told what to do was imported to North America by the English colonists, who extended the concept (eventually) to everyone regardless of socio-economic status. From there, it was picked up by the French revolutionaries, then spread throughout Europe and parts East.
So, generally, nobody wants authoritarians telling them what to do, which is why they have to point guns at us to get us to do it.
The fact that most people would simultaneously like to be the authoritarian pointing the gun and doing the telling, and a fair fraction (probably about 25%) aren’t smart enough to see the incongruity involved, gives fascist populists a ready supply of people willing to hold the guns. Nazi Germany worked (for a while) because of this phenomenon. With a population North of 60 million, those statistics gave Hitler some 15 million gun holders to work with.
In the modern U.S.A., with a population over 300 million, the same statistical analysis gives modern fascists 75 million potential recruits. And, they’re walking around with more than their fair share of the guns!
Luckily, the rest of us have guns, too.
More importantly, we all have votes.
So, what’s an American who really doesn’t want any authoritarian telling them what to do … to do?
The first thing to do is open your eyes to the flim-flim represented by the Left/Right dichotomy. As long as you buy that drivel, you’ll never see what’s really going on. It’s set up as a sporting event where you’re required to back one of two teams: the Reds or the Blues.
Either one you pick, you’ll end up being told what to do by either the Red-team authoritarians or the Blue-team authoritarians. Because it’s treated as a sporting event, the object is to win, and there’s nothing at stake beyond winning. There isn’t even a trophy!
The next thing to do is look for people who would like to help, but don’t actually want to tell anyone what to do. When you find them, talk them into running for office.
Since you’ve picked on people who don’t really want to tell other people what to do, you’ll have to promise you won’t make them do it forever. After a while, you promise, you’ll let them off the hook so they can go do something else. That means putting term limits on elected officials.
The authoritarians, who get their jollies by telling other people what to do, won’t like that. The ones who just want to help out will be happy they can do their part for a while, then go home.
Then, you vote for those (small-L) libertarians.