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Wednesday, 01 July 2009

Comments

Welcome back

The following observations are offered in the genuine spirit of debate.

"They surrounded themselves with pomp and splendour, and adopted a regal bearing to intimidate the rest of society into accepting their ascendency."

I doubt whether there was much intimidation involved. Most people accept that the imperium must be exercised and as long as as it is efficient in the protection of the individual from internal and external threats and does not impinge on the lives of ordinary people I think most people would support it. Ancient English kingship was in any case so hedged in by competing social forces such as the aristocracy, the church, the common law and local customs and freedoms that it was in practice far less oppressive than our present soft fascism. I would very much prefer it.

"This second group of people became the aristocrats"
Politics is the business of obtaining, retaining and exercising power. Whatever you might think of the aristocracy in this country, they acted as a bulwark against the free exercise of power for many centuries. They forced King John to sign Magna Carter and through parliament constantly kept a check on power. They did so for self interested motives, of course, but would that democracy could keep a check on the executive only half as efficiently. We would be both free and prosperous.

"Political revolutions, from the 18th century onwards, were intended to overthrow this system but, instead, they merely replaced one greedy group with another."

This is to misunderstand what politics is about. Politics is about power. Revolutions exist to strengthen power. They always replace a weak king with a strong one. Cromwell for King Charles, Napoleon for Louis XVI, Lenin for Tsar Nicholas etc. Power has a life of its own. When it sees an opportunity to extend its grasp, it always does so. Power always hides behind stated good intentions, but it always lies.

Further remarks later...

Thanks for your welcome. I don't know how frequently I shall be posting, but I do continue to think hard. I look forward to your further comments and am always keen to engage in debate. Here are some further points inspired by your comments.


I agree with much that you say but my interpretation comes from a different angle. I believe that there is a line of improvement that runs from slavery through feudalism to freedom and that progress has been made. There is a role for individuals who wish to exercise power but, in countries which have successfully established either constitutional monarchy or representative democracy, that role has been effectively circumscribed. But the problem remains, that unless the institutions which keep would-be exploiters of power in check are sufficiently robust, the ruthless will regain the upper hand.
I love your description of the current political climate as soft fascism. It calls a spade a spade. It also reminds me that, as well as clipping the wings of political masters, we need to be sure that officials are neither given too much power nor allowed to extend the authority they are given. It is here that the “soft fascism” you identify is nurtured. The present British government seems to love bureaucracy and is taking every opportunity to extend its tentacles.
You rightly point out that, in earlier times, there was a balance between the groups competing for power which acted as a sort of restraint. But it also meant that the powerful were constantly involved in bloody feuds with each other. And little or nothing was done for the majority of the population who remained ground down and excluded from much more than a hand-to-mouth existence.
I am not sure that I agree with your analysis that people “accepted the imperium.” For a long time, I have been trying to put together my thoughts about the idea, instilled in children by their parents, that they should “respect their betters”. I have yet to encapsulate it properly but, in simple terms, I think it is the teaching of a survival strategy similar to teaching children to look both ways before crossing the road. It actually unpacks to: “Don’t be rude to your betters because they’ll have you.” The need for pomp, treason laws and contempt penalties all suggest that effort was and is needed to keep people in their place.
I have described what I think power is in my post Power Structure . Perhaps you are right that revolution occurs when the authorities become weak and an opportunity arises to fill a potential vacuum. However, I believe there was a qualitative shift in power structures because constitutional monarchy and representative democracy moved the goal posts. It marked the beginning of a phase when a much larger part of the population started to enjoy freedom, to be able to choose the pattern of their lives. Once the ball started to roll, groups that were initially excluded were drawn in. At the beginning, no-one would have believed that women and previously despised minorities are now able to participate in this freedom.
I am still not clear in my mind whether it is capitalism which created this change or democracy. Chinese society is offering a better life to a huge part of its population with capitalism but without democracy. Until that phase in world development is played out we shan’t know whether democracy is an indispensible component of a freer life for the many. I would like to think so.
However, as you point out, the lust for power is forever lurking in the shadows, waiting for an opportunity to take over. I think the Bush administration is an example. His cohorts realised that the American Constitution was too strong for them to grab power and hold onto it (although I would not be surprised if of them were sufficiently hubristic to have made plans to do so). Instead, they used their window of opportunity to perpetrate one of the biggest smash-and-grab raids in history, with George W. acting as lookout. You can bet that the bulk of the proceeds of the various asset bubbles landed up in the pockets of those close to the regime, while ordinary people were left with empty piggy banks. These beneficiaries have quietly retired to the shadows to count their loot; while the rest of us are left to repay a massive debt.
Aware of the dangers of power, the framers of the American Constitution remedies which have proved inadequate. Those who wish to exercise power are forced to hide their motives because it is no longer acceptable to openly lust after it. As you so aptly put it when speaking of revolutionaries, they hide behind good intentions. But let us not forget that the power hungry are people, individuals or cabals, and they manipulate their supporters to help them obtain what they want. However, they also are greedy and they are in positions which offer unbounded opportunities to satisfy their greed. The little pigs have been caught red handed and it has caused outrage. If some bigger ones were caught, it might be enough for people to demand a change.
The powerful can be controlled provided that adequate institutional structures exist. I would like to see a wholesale review of the democratic process. We need a radical rethink on the scale of what went into the creation of the American Declaration of Independence and its Constitution.

Further observations.

The following was written before I saw your recent response to my earlier comments and therefore probably makes some similar points. I will continue to offer my thoughts on your original post for the time being and then maybe offer some solutions of my own, time constraints being what they are! (Money to earn, women to chase, beer to drink and so on!)

"the people we trust with responsibility for our welfare"

No-one is responsible for our welfare but us. I would no more trust a politician to look after me than I would a builder to build me a house without benefit of supervision by an architect and a surveyor. It is we who are to blame.
There are far worse scandals in the public sector, involving far more money than here. The real scandal is the failure of MPs to scrutinize legislation and hold the executive to account. Now that is important.

"Two exceptions stand out: the successful rise of representative democracy after the American revolution and the emergence of constitutional monarchies in Europe."

I think the democracy thing is a bit of a red herring. Leaving aside for the moment, whether or not the American or European political systems are democratic in any meaningful way, I think the USA has been successful because it is a constitutional republic. Its democratic elements are bye the bye. Power is held in check by the constitution which is above the political system and above power. This means that ultimately sovereignty lies with the Supreme Court, hardly a democratic institution. This explains why politicians are so keen to get their man or woman in there.Power does not like to be checked and will do anything to clear obstacles from its path.

"Democracy – and its handmaiden capitalism – has shown itself to be the high-road to happiness and freedom for a larger part of the population than any other system yet devised."

First, let me discuss democracy, by which I take it you mean universal suffrage. The latter is a fairly recent development and I believe that the foundations of liberty and prosperity were laid long before its arrival. Those foundations were the Rule of Law, strong property rights, free markets and individual freedom. Democracy is bad for all these things and hence bad for liberty and prosperity. It does not matter who wields the imperium, be it monarchy, aristocracy or democracy, what matters is the strength of the power so wielded. The leader of the largest party in the House of Commons wields more and stronger power than any monarch or aristocracy ever could. Why? Because power is hiding behind a convenient fiction - popular sovereignty - who could argue with that? Power is command but not everyone can command so how can the people be in charge? The governing party is rarely elected by more than a small proportion of the popular vote and yet it believes itself to be expressing the general will. It is not. It is expressing the will to power. Power loves democracy, it feeds on it voraciously, expanding the size and power of the state at every turn, extending its tentacles into every aspect of national life and demolishing all opposition, all in the name of the people.
It is no coincidence that the democratic era has seen the erosion of civil liberties hard won over centuries, the destruction of the aristocracy, the subversion of local government and the church. These social forces all held power in check and now can be got rid of all in the name of the general will. People know quite well that voting changes nothing and that elected officials are no more than window dressing in a system where the real power lies elsewhere, in the civil service, academia, the media and the boards of large companies. That's why they don't vote. If this is democracy, what we need is less, not more.

Final remarks, on capitalism to follow...

Final observations.

"The current financial crisis has cast a shadow over the capitalist system"

That would be to presuppose that we have a system which can be defined as capitalist. I would argue that we do not. Capitalism is, surely free markets with no state intervention. In my part of the country 70% of GDP is reliant on the state, that's higher than in some East European countries before the fall of the Berlin Wall. That's not capitalism, that's socialism.

I would also contend that we do not have a free market in financial services. It is one of our most regulated industries. In addition, government controls interest rates and has a monopoly on printing money. That's not free markets, that's state capitalism. The system suits power very well. It gets control and reaps immense sums in taxation and when it goes wrong it has someone or something to blame... it was Capitalism and the Wicked Bankers! (that's not to say that some bankers were not greedy and irresponsible.)The government pumps money into the economy and keeps interest rates low to maintain the feel-good factor and get re-elected. An asset bubble results. When the bubble bursts... it's someone else's fault. I think a truly free market would be better and probably much more stable.

I agree with your remarks on monopoly but believe that the best remedy is free markets and the removal of the state from economic activity. State intervention creates unintended consequences, is inefficient and very expensive. What we need is no intervention at all. It is interesting that you should mention China. The Chinese had before them, for many years, the example of Hong Kong from which I'm sure they learnt a great deal. One of my few political heroes was the (completely undemocratic!) architect of Hong Kong's success: Sir John James Cowperthwaite.
See here
http://www.tcsdaily.com/Article.aspx?id=020106I
The Chinese regime is a disgusting one of course but I think they are right to resist democracy for the reasons previously stated. What the people there need is the Rule of Law, property rights etc.

What is to be done...?
Apart from going for a large pint of beer this Friday night of course!

Suggestions

The following ideas are not meant to produce some kind of utopia, but to recognize that state solutions to social problems are a terrible idea. They make things worse. My suggestions are meant to restore civil society. In a world of constitutionally guaranteed freedom, minimal taxation and almost no state people will be free to find their own solutions. It is not so long ago that this country supported a vast network of local hospitals and schools, mutual societies, provident societies, credit unions, charitable institutions etc. all paid for and organized by the people themselves. We need to free the people.

I have argued that tyranny is tyranny no matter how it is organized and that democracy as presently practised is conducive of a very modern form of fascism. That is, a fascism shorn of its more unpleasant aspects such as deliberately killing people who belong to socially disapproved groups rather than just allowing them to die as a result of the incompetence and neglect of the state apparatus. What is the natural result of this process and what will the long term effect be, if nothing is done?

"Where will it end? In the destruction of all other command for the benefit of one alone-that of the state.In each man's absolute freedom from every family and social authority, a freedom the price of which is complete submission to the state.In the complete equality as between themselves of all citizens, paid for by their equal abasement before the power of their absolute master-the state. In the disappearance of every constraint which does not emanate from the state, and in the denial of every pre-eminence which is not approved by the state. In a word, it ends in the atomization of society, and in the rupture of every private tie between man and man, whose only bond is now their common bondage to the state. The extremes of individualism and socialism meet: that was there , predestined course." De Jouvenel - "On Power:The Natural History of its Growth"

In other words Orwell's boot stamping on a human face forever, though these days it is as likely to be a pair of high heels!

So what can we do...?

The following suggestions are an attempt to take advantage of the best parts of all three possible systems (ie monarchy, aristocracy and democracy). Constitutional Monarchy as a bulwark against the capture of the imperium by the political class, Aristocracy as a further curb on the executive and democracy where it actually works (locally) and where people can see that their votes and participation actually counts for something.

Firstly remove the state from every aspect of national life except the administration of justice and defence.

Secondly restore all our ancient rights, habeas corpus, trial by your peers,etc. Removal of all offences of strict liability.

Thirdly, adoption of a written constitution guaranteeing this position.

Four, appointment of a sovereign whose sole job is to safeguard the constitution and who is answerable to the law if he/she signs legislation which contravenes its terms. This office should be hereditary with a possible proviso that the sovereign could name a successor. It is very important that the position is not held by a politician.

Five,restoration of the House of Lords to its previous position. This helps to ameliorate the problems of party faction and and the growth of power.

Six, reduce the House of Commons to half its present size, after all, they're not going to have much to do!

Lastly, restoration of local democracy. Democracy only works on a local level. It is much easier to choose a councillor, whom you may well know personally than an MP. Councils would have to raise all their money locally. There would be nothing from the state. Initially they would be responsible only for street lighting, roads and the police and fire services. Any other services would have to be voted on and paid for by local people. This all would have a number of advantages. It would concentrate the minds of electors and officials wonderfully, no more free rides. Political factions would be weakened as in local elections people are much more likely to vote for the person rather than the party. Competition would then take place between different local authorities
to attract residents and to provide the most efficient and effective services. In addition the chief constable and chief fire officer would be directly elected.

All public officials whether elected or otherwise would be personally responsible for their actions with severe penalties for corruption or exceeding their legal powers. Similarly, in the private sector, limited liability would be abolished with all company directors personally responsible for the activities
of the corporation. No more power without responsibility. There would of course be severe penalties for all forms of fraud or deception.

Maybe it would work. I think it would.



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