In the previous posting on this subject we looked at the necessity for any type of organized human activity to have clear and understandable rules in order to be just or even functional. There must, in fact, be a recognition and implementation of the democratic ideal.
. . . and that creates a problem. What do we mean by “the democratic ideal”?
|Alexis de Tocqueville|
Well, in the first place, it means respect for the dignity of the human person, which first and foremost means respecting each individual’s natural rights of life, liberty, and private property. In the second place it means . . . what we mean by “human dignity,” of which sovereignty is an essential aspect.
. . . and that creates a problem. What do we mean by “sovereignty”?
In a word, power.
In a few more words, in this context we mean “freedom from external control; autonomy.”
Unfortunately, in the western tradition of liberal democracy — which is the “democratic ideal” to which we refer — there are three completely different things that “liberal democracy” can mean! To make matters worse, they all use pretty much the same terms and even arguments.
It is therefore critical in any discussion of democracy to know the context and the meaning of specific terms within that context. For our purposes, and drawing on the analysis of Alexis de Tocqueville in Democracy in America (1835, 1840), the three contexts are:
|Making people equal.|
· European Liberal Democracy. In the European or French tradition of liberal democracy, out of which we get socialism and communism, the people as a whole is sovereign. Individuals only have such rights as are deemed expedient or beneficial for the greater good. There is no such thing as an inalienable or natural right in the traditional sense, for all rights can be taken away if those in control of the community or state deem it necessary or desirable.
· English Liberal Democracy. In the English tradition of liberal democracy, out of which we get capitalism, an élite among the people is sovereign. In theory, everyone has inalienable and natural rights, but only the chosen few have the special ability to exercise them — which is to say that those who lack the special ability to exercise rights don’t actually have rights. The élite may permit others outside the group of the chosen ones to exercise rights if deemed expedient or beneficial for the greater good. There is no such thing as an inalienable or natural right in the traditional sense, for all rights can be taken away if those in control of the community or state deem it necessary or desirable.
|Not perfect, but better than the alternatives.|
· American Liberal Democracy. In the American tradition of liberal democracy (of which there does not appear to be any surviving example in the world today, even in America*), the individual human person is sovereign. While never achieved in practice, the ideal is that every human being has the same natural rights and the same** capacity to acquire and develop virtue. Each human being therefore should have the same opportunity and access to the means to exercise all rights. Thus, everyone has the same inalienable and absolute rights as everyone else, but at the same time, the exercise of all rights must be strictly limited so that no one’s exercise of a right harms anyone else thereby.
|Hialaire Belloc, The Servile State (1912)|
*America got off to a bad start by limiting those human beings considered “persons,” i.e., those with rights. Ironically, the effort to correct the problem and extend personality to every human being resulted in a transformation from American liberal democracy to a bizarre combination of English and European liberal democracy. This entailed the shift away from the sovereignty of the human person and a move to the sovereignty of an élite (capitalism) and of the people as a whole (socialism). The English and the European versions of liberal democracy are still fighting it out as things drift into the Servile State that is neither capitalism nor socialism, but the worst of both worlds. See William Winslow Crosskey, Politics and the Constitution in the History of the United States (1953) and Hilaire Belloc, The Servile State (1912).
**“Analogously complete” if you want to be strictly accurate. “Same” is not really the correct term.
It is interesting to note that European and English type liberal democracy are so different from the American type that the popes in their social encyclicals wouldn’t even use the terms liberal or democracy except with extreme caution and many caveats. This was presumably to prevent confusion of Catholic social teaching with either capitalism and socialism . . . but the confusion happened anyway, probably because so many people are convinced that nothing except capitalism and socialism are even possible.
|William Cobbett critiqued English democracy.|
In any event, what concerns us in this discussion is the role of regulation in each of the three types of liberal democracy. How the need for regulation in any kind of social order manifests itself gives a good indication of the type of liberal democracy in place in a particular society:
European Liberal Democracy. Regulation is for the benefit of the abstraction of the people as a whole. Individual rights are irrelevant. If rights nominally assigned to or held by any individual or group get in the way of what those who control the collective want, the rights, individual or group, or both, are neutralized or eliminated.
English Liberal Democracy. Regulation is for the benefit of the élite. Only rights held by the élite are relevant. If rights nominally assigned to or held by any individual or group get in the way of the élite, the rights, individual or group, or both, are neutralized or eliminated.
American Liberal Democracy. Regulation is for the benefit of every individual. Group rights are only relevant if delegated from individuals and must be regulated as such, i.e., no regulation may give an unfair advantage to any individual or group, or cause harm to any individual, group, or the common good as a whole.
As suggested above, regulation of the type found in American liberal democracy is currently not applied anywhere in the world. Neither are the European and English types found in their pure form, having in most cases merged into the Servile State, although that has taken a form somewhat different from what Belloc envisioned.
|John Paul II, democracy presupposes private property.|
It is, nevertheless, the State’s job in all three forms of liberal democracy to care for the common good and to be the backup to enforce contracts and regulations in conformity with the rights of individuals and the demands of the common good. These terms are, of course, somewhat vaguely defined when it comes to the European and English forms of liberal democracy. In the American form — again, not found anywhere today — the job of the State (construed as a "social tool") can be more clearly defined:
These general observations also apply to the role of the State in the economic sector. Economic activity, especially the activity of a market economy, cannot be conducted in an institutional, juridical or political vacuum. On the contrary, it presupposes sure guarantees of individual freedom and private property, as well as a stable currency and efficient public services. Hence the principle task of the State is to guarantee this security, so that those who work and produce can enjoy the fruits of their labours and thus feel encouraged to work efficiently and honestly. The absence of stability, together with the corruption of public officials and the spread of improper sources of growing rich and of easy profits deriving from illegal or purely speculative activities, constitutes one of the chief obstacles to development and to the economic order. (Centesimus Annus, § 48.)
That is useful, of course, but we still need to define the principles that should guide not merely the role of the State, but of all participants in the economic process, for the State is, in a sense, the least important actor on the economic stage in a justly structured social order.