Democracy and Coercion

By Mark A. Signorelli for FRONT PORCH REPUBLIC

Like other readers here at FPR, and across the web, I have been following the Great Salyer/Carter Debate of 2012 with much interest. I thought Mr. Salyer’s original article was outstanding, and in reply, Mr. Carter voiced a number of reservations about the general “Porcher” ethos that I myself have entertained. The ensuing deluge of comments here and elsewhere brought a number of important issues to light. Nonetheless, I do not think the discussion produced as much light as it might have, primarily because I believe that Mr. Carter either missed or avoided Mr. Salyer’s basic thesis right from the beginning. As I understand him, Mr. Salyer wished to argue that Mr. Carter’s objections to the economic theory of Distributism betrayed certain liberal assumptions, and that this kind of betrayal was in fact all too typical of contemporary conservatives, who purport to be combating liberalism while adopting many of its most distinctive principles. I think there is much to Mr. Salyer’s charge, and I wish to give it a little more consideration.

Since the controversy centered, at least initially, on the specific issue of government coercion, let me start there. As I mentioned in a comment on Mr. Salyer’s article, to govern simply means to coerce, in some form or other. This is just a definitional truth. If I am interpreting him correctly (and I certainly don’t wish to speak for him), Mr. Salyer was getting at a point very similar when he wrote: “I myself endorse coercion quite openly, much as I endorse gravity. Yes, tyranny is a nasty business, but then so is falling down a flight of stairs.” One cannot escape governmental coercion without escaping government itself; abuse of such coercion, in the form of tyranny, is of course deplorable, but so is the absence of such coercion, in the form of anarchy. The more candid we are about this fact, the better. The alternative is to escape into quasi-Rousseauistic fantasies about the “general will,” which, as they disguise the authentic exercise of coercion behind a veil of fictional consent, afford all the more scope to the raw imposition of power.

Mr. Carter seems to contrast a democratic regime with a regime of coercion, such as when he writes in the comments: “There is not a hint that he (i.e., Mr. Salyer) prefers democratic means to advance his agenda. If he did he would not need to favor coercion to reach the goals he wants to achieve.” But of course, democracies do not differ from other regimes in the degree of coercion they might exercise; they only differ from other regimes in the mechanisms they employ to determine how and when that coercion is exercised. The extent of that coercion may be quite as broad and inhuman as any power wielded by a monarch. Consider only our own very democratic regime, with its health-code citations for little girls selling lemonade, its militarily-equipped police forces, its President newly authorized to detain any citizen indefinitely on his own suspicion. As Mark Steyn is fond of saying, George III would never have done such things to you. Mr. Carter’s assumption — the assumption he holds in common with a majority of Americans — is that so long as this coercion is directed by duly appointed officials — i.e., those appointed to office with fifty-one percent of the electorate’s vote — it becomes legitimate, and in effect, ceases to be coercion.

All free and rational governments need a concept of legitimate coercion, but it is by no means obvious that our concept of legitimacy is unquestionably correct, that the attitudes and opinions of fifty-one percent of the citizenry ought always and everywhere to direct the exercise of governmental coercion. This has certainly not been a normative principle of Western political thought (for which conservatives used to express a certain degree of respect). Thus Mr. Salyer raises a very serious point when he expresses doubts about the moral probity of “ordinary folk” in modern America, those who, as he puts it, “treat birth-control pills as if they were M&M’s, stand assembled outside Toys’R’Us like ravenous zombies in the wee hours of Black Friday, and think dolls dressed like cheap hookers make nice Christmas gifts for little girls.” Why exactly should we believe that rule by fifty-one percent of such a population will result in the most just and peaceable regime?

Yet, rule they must. In any complex society, the opinion and principles of some portion of the public must be expressed in the laws, to the displeasure of some other portion of the public. Here is where I think Mr. Carter shows himself the most deceived. He writes, again in the comments, “So if someone has the right ‘vision for a proper life’ it’s okay for them to coerce other people into accepting that vision? And how is that not fascism?” It’s not fascism because it’s a description of every single political order that ever was, or ever will be. It’s certainly a description of our own democracy, where a “vision of a proper life” which includes a lack of etiquette, an all-pervasive trash culture, a deceitful public language known as “political correctness,” and the demolition of enormous swathes of our natural landscape for the erection of strip malls and tract housing are imposed on the rest of us which regard these things as horrifying. The reason Mr. Carter doesn’t consider these things to be forms of coercion is because they go forward with the consent of the majority of Americans, and he, like most Americans, is accustomed to thinking of coercion exercised by a majority of citizens as no coercion at all. For this reason, he is able to believe in that most fantastic of liberal chimeras — the neutral state, the state uncommitted to any discrete philosophical positions. James Fitzjames Stephen, the Victorian jurist and polemical foe of J.S. Mill, took especial aim at this fallacious notion in his book Liberty, Equality, Fraternity:

They found, as everyone who has to do with legislation must find, that laws must be based upon principles, and that it is impossible to lay down any principles of legislation at all unless you are prepared to say, I am right, and you are wrong, and your view shall give way to mine, quietly, gradually, and peaceably; but one of us two must rule and the other must obey, and I mean to rule.

In America, it is the majority that means to rule, and to their views the views of everyone else give way. It is not the case that in America, no one has a “vision of a proper life” imposed on them. It is simply the case that in America, a majority of the people generally gets to choose what that vision looks like. And the rest of us are coerced into accepting it.

Mr. Carter’s comments, then, seem to bear out exactly the accusation that Mr. Salyer made, that submerged in the former’s thinking are certain characteristically liberal assumptions: that the state ought to remain philosophically neutral, that democratic governance is never coercive, that the freedom of individuals in society amounts to the total lack of restriction on their ability to consume as they please. It is certainly the case that authors usually categorized as “conservative” have opposed these ideas strenuously; Edmund Burke alone would provide dozens of quotations against each of those beliefs. So Mr. Salyer’s contention finds some evidence here, that the “creed of Western liberalism” continues to be the insidious measure of our political deliberations, even as conservatives. And to acknowledge this is to recognize how perilous and formidable are the challenges facing conservatives in contemporary America.

The depth of our predicament was ably explored in a fine article called “Freedom and Decency,” published a number of years ago in Mr. Carter’s own publication by their best author, and one of the few great authors of our own time, David Bentley Hart. In his piece, Hart argues that the obvious solution for the obscenity of so much of our “popular culture” is censorship, “against which,” as he writes, “almost every argument in the abstract is predictably fatuous.” Of course, censorship is a form of government coercion, yet Hart dismisses the labeling of such coercion as “fascistic” as a mixture of hysteria and historical ignorance: “were there any historical example of republican freedom weakened or subverted by public and commercial codes of decency, this line of argument might command some force.” The real issue for Hart is the erroneous notion of freedom which underlies the common antipathy to censorship: “what we habitually understand democratic liberty to be — what we take, that is, as our most exalted model of freedom — is merely the unobstructed power of choice.” This sounds an awful lot like the concept of freedom that Mr. Carter is working with, and Hart makes it clear that far too many people who regard themselves as “culture warriors” share it with him. But an authentic understanding of freedom would teach us something far different: “To be fully free is to be joined to that end for which our natures were originally framed, and for which — in the deepest reaches of our souls — we ceaselessly yearn. And whatever separates us from that end — even if it be our own power of choice within us — is a form of bondage. We are free not because we can choose, but only when we have chosen well.”

Somewhat surprisingly, though, Hart never advocates a regime of censorship for our current society, and his reason is simply that the debauched conceptions of freedom, and their concomitant decadence, have become too pervasive and would likely inform the manner in which that censorship was exercised:

Let me stipulate that, in an ideal situation, the practice of censorship would be undertaken only by persons properly educated and formed, whose decisions would be under some form of collective review. But precisely on this point (alas) I discover an obstacle to censorship that makes a creditable regime of public standards seem so unlikely as to be, for all intents and purposes, a utopian fantasy. For, while it really is not that difficult to recognize irredeemable obscenity when one encounters it, as things now stand it is difficult to say whom — what class of persons — one would care to entrust with a censor’s authority.

Here Hart, with his usual incisiveness, identifies the extreme direness of our situation.  We need some form of coercion to stem the flood of cultural depravity, yet our society produces no trustworthy candidates whom we would wish to exercise such coercion. The many do not have the answers, but neither do the few. Democracy is no solution, but neither is anti-democracy. We must approach the question outside of our comfortable political categories, for the problem before us is not how to deploy the resources of our society to counteract a great evil, but how to generate those resources in the first place.

What Hart’s article serves to demonstrate is just how much tradition-minded persons — the kind of people who believe that freedom really is a matter of “choosing well” — must exercise their imagination in order to preserve sane ideas about the proper relationship in civil society between power and liberty. A humane politics presupposes certain things which our society no longer produces — a reasonably educated citizenry; customs and traditions which bind the community and dignify the individual; relatively stable families; a shared culture. To think about politics solely in terms of the “here and now” of American life in the early 21st century is necessarily to think about politics in the absence of these social elements, and that in turn presents the danger of rendering our political thought stunted, narrow, and warped. This is why I found so trivial and unconvincing the accusations, made in numerous comments, that the authors at FPR advocate an “unrealistic” politics which could never work in “the real world.” Of course “Porcherism” (if there is even such a monolithic thing) has no place in our current political discourse, and little hope of affecting policy any time soon, because the only positions our public discourse admits are varying forms of liberalism. But what the authors at FPR have consistently tried to do — oftentimes in ways I sympathize with very little — is to imagine a politics unmeasured by the “creed of Western liberalism,” and to imagine the ways we might generate the elemental social material out of which to create such a politics. Such work of the imagination is always bound to be dismissed as “utopian.” Until we find it shaping our world.

After all, you know what else is completely unrealistic and unworkable in “the real world?” The present order. Every day brings some new warning out of Europe about the impending financial meltdown on the continent, and the social apocalypse bound to follow. Anybody who does not think this horror show is coming soon to our own shores, where we groan under a debt dwarfing those of the European countries, is miserably deceived, and when these trials do arrive, they are going to have profound effects on our society. So what can be the virtue of restraining our political thought to a set of circumstances that are soon to alter dramatically, perhaps catastrophically? And how “realistic” is it to suppose that any remedy for our condition is to be found in the rehearsal of the same empty political forms of elections, and judicial decisions, and op-ed pieces? Which is the wackier hope for a conservative to entertain at this moment in history: the hope that by returning our focus to our own communities, we might rediscover the basic political instincts eroded by three centuries of liberal dogma; or the hope that an election between Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich, and Rick Santorum can change the disastrous trajectory of this country, even a little bit?

Of course, the communities we inhabit, with all of their complex specificities, will always present limitations to our political conceptions, but the greatest such limitations stem from our own bad thinking. Liberalism is bad thinking, and where its influence is found, the capacity to envision an improved political order is neutered. What the controversy between Mr. Salyer and Mr. Carter illustrated for me is how pervasive liberalism continues to be, even in places reputed to be the redoubts of conservative thought for our age. And it reminded me also of what drew me towards FPR in the first place: because I found that the authors here consistently think about politics in ways that eschew liberal assumptions, even such assumptions as are now mislabeled “conservative.” I write this as one who disagrees with a great deal that is published here, and whose own “lifestyle” conforms very little to the supposed “Porcher” norm (I drive dozens of miles to work, suck down obscene amounts of Dunkin’ Donuts coffee, and don’t go in much for the work of Wendell Berry). Nor do I put a great deal of stock in the various economic programs espoused by some FPR contributors, which seem to be taken, by both supporters and detractors alike, as the distinctive thing about this website.  I just believe that Western liberal society has reached the point of total exhaustion, and that our only hope now of preserving some form of civil life is a return to traditions of thought jettisoned long ago. It is a discipline in those traditions that I find here, prior to, and thus more important than, any of the specific forms of life that may take shape from such a mental preparation. If I may close with an appropriately agrarian metaphor, I think I see a trying winter ahead of us, and I think it best to lay in our harvest of wisdom and learning now, while we can. And I simply find that the fruits to be gathered here at FPR generally grow richer and more abundantly than they do most anywhere else.

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