Promoted from the Ricochet Member Feed by Editors Created with Sketch. Totalitarian Democracies and Cloistered Kings

 

shutterstock_141024430When President George W. Bush and many others were trumpeting the need for democracy throughout the world, some conservatives were keen to remind us that “democratic” is only an adjective in the USA’s formal identity as a democratic republic. The noun — the republic — is primary. Still, it has become normal to cite democracy as the fundamental principle on which any free society is built.

Yet, as has become increasingly evident in Western governments, democracy and the totalitarian impulse are not mutually exclusive. Expansion and centralization of power seem to be the natural inclination of any government, regardless of how that power is derived. The emergence of the nanny state in America did not slow with the Amendment affording citizens the direct election of Senators or with improved communication between voters and representatives.

As conservatives, we don’t seek Utopian perfection in government. We acknowledge that no system can completely overcome the complexity, the errors, and the temptations of human interaction. So my question is not: “What alternative to democracy can keep government limited and local?” Rather, it is this humbler but equally difficult question: “Do democratic systems offer the best possible restraints on centralization and expansion of power?”

More specifically, is a democratic republic by nature more resistant to corruption and overreach than a monarchy? The United States of America was founded in response to distant royal rule. But it doesn’t seem fair to compare the historical progression of a new nation’s first government to the ancient succession of monarchs from which it sprung. That is to say, we should try to consider a new democracy in comparison with a new monarchy, rather than in comparison with a long-established and much-adapted monarchy. Theoretically, based on the long histories of royals and emperors throughout the world (in Europe, particularly, since we share many cultural assumptions), is a single ruler or a small council a much greater threat to freedom than a congress or parliament? 

I often recall Mark Steyn’s observation that the kings and tyrants of old Europe never micromanaged their citizens as modern legislatures normally do. The king’s authority was absolute, but he generally did not interact with individual citizens except through taxation. By comparison, I glance around my home and doubt there is a single object in it that was not shaped by one or more regulation. 

But did that change occur because legislators are greedier than lords? Is micromanagement more attractive when a thousand topics of law can be considered by a thousand legislators and bureaucrats, so that no one tyrant is overwhelmed by his or her own ambitions? Or is the nanny state purely a consequence of technological advances, which unite us to unimaginable degrees and enable so much that was never dreamed only a century ago? 

Once upon a time, kings required the support of lords, who required the support of knights, who required the support of vassals and merchants, who required the support of farmers and peasants. Power always derived from the people. But the people did not always have books, phones, vehicles, and rifles.

What is it we really fear? What is it we really hope for? If limited and local government is the common goal (as it seems to be among conservatives and libertarians of many kinds), is democratic government truly so pivotal to securing those limits? Or might we be seeking a solution that doesn’t exist? Can anything so simple as a system of government preserve freedom?

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  1. Tennessee Patriot Member
    Tennessee PatriotJoined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    God post. I think about this often. The only thing I have time to add is in addressing the following:

    “I often recall Mark Steyn’s observation that the kings and tyrants of old Europe never micromanaged their citizens as modern legislatures normally do. The king’s authority was absolute, but he generally did not interact with individual citizens except through taxation.”

    The other thing I would add to interaction through taxation is his or her Majesty’s press gang!

    • #1
    • June 17, 2014, at 1:55 PM PDT
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  2. Valiuth Inactive
    ValiuthJoined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    I think you paint a false historical narrative. The inability to enact control by medieval kings was due to technological limitations and lack of strong social institutions. I think what you are missing is that at the local levels independent people where often at the mercy of local lords, with little if any freedom or rights. One can look at said European history and see that nations that developed freedom and liberty where ones that decidedly moved away from medieval governmental notions. By the 17th century most monarchs had consolidated power to a frightening level. The last Russian Tsar was the functional equivalent of the dictators that replaced him, and today we see that nations that have monarchs with actual power for the most part are hot beds of oppression. 

    • #2
    • June 17, 2014, at 5:38 PM PDT
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  3. James Of England Moderator
    James Of EnglandJoined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Valiuth: I think you paint a false historical narrative. The inability to enact control by medieval kings was due to technological limitations and lack of strong social institutions. I think what you are missing is that at the local levels independent people where often at the mercy of local lords, with little if any freedom or rights.

     I agree. Feudalism meant that the Aristocracy had some rights against the King, but it was extremely unfree for those who were not aristocrats. Sort of like federalism in a dictatorship. 

    • #3
    • June 17, 2014, at 8:53 PM PDT
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  4. EPG Inactive

    “Can anything so simple as a system of government preserve freedom?”

    No. Some systems of government may be more likely to preserve freedom than others, but no system of government will do so absent virtue in those doing the governing.

    There could be freedom under a monarchy or a benevolent dictatorship. But we can’t count on the benevolence of the dictator, and kings will tend to become tyrants.

    There could be freedom under an enlightened aristocracy. But aristocracies too often degenerate into oligarchy.

    There can be freedom under democracy. But, as the founders of this country were fully aware, democracy only works with a virtuous people. Q: “What kind of government do we have, Dr. Franklin?” A: “A republic, if you can keep it.” And the framers were not the first to dread mob rule. 

    (And yes, I am channeling Aristotle here — just a little bit — but the old guy was kind of neat).

    • #4
    • June 18, 2014, at 7:25 AM PDT
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  5. Aaron Miller Member
    Aaron MillerJoined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    But didn’t the Magna Carta establish inalienable rights for peasants centuries before British monarchs actually relinquished authority?

    While power in modern democracies is less consolidated, are citizens of the West much better protected against bureaucratic agencies with laws too copious for anyone to know and judges who disregard legal tradition? The IRS doesn’t even have to start from the usual presumption of innocence. And our nation’s current Attorney General, along with many federal judges, obviously doesn’t care about the rule of law.

    Cities are infinitely more regulated than rural areas and small towns. On the one hand, this means that rural peoples are generally more free. On the other hand, city dwellers forced to face government issues constantly are more engaged and better protected legally against incidents of gross abuse. How many differences between modern and medieval societies are due primarily to the great urbanization born of the Industrial Age?

    I don’t mean to equivocate. But I wonder if we assume many features of modern society to be likely fruits of democracy when they truly result from other cultural and technological advancements in recent centuries. What is natural to democracy and to monarchy (among other systems)? And what is only incidental?

    Does democracy better defend the rule of law? Are democratic officials any more or less likely to abuse their powers? Or is that power just so diluted between those who share it that the abuses are milder or less obvious? Is a democratic society necessarily a lawful society? Claire Berlinski’s old posts about modern Turkey seem to suggest otherwise. 

    What are the fruits of directly involving all citizens in government? Is the idea of inherent inalienable rights born of this involvement? Would the idea wither without voter participation? 

    I’m not calling for a return to kings, for less voter participation, or anything like that. But I think democratic governments on the present scale (as opposed to city-states and local democracies) are still experimental, and that we assume many things about democracy which might not be true.

    Is the primary benefit of a democratic system that it is slow and encumbered?

    • #5
    • June 18, 2014, at 7:30 AM PDT
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  6. EPG Inactive

    “But didn’t the Magna Carta establish inalienable rights for peasants centuries before British monarchs actually relinquished authority?”

    Not quite. I think it would be more accurate to say that the Magna Carta was an effort by the barons (i.e. the aristocracy) to check the monarchy’s ambitions. It affirmed the customary rights of the church and of the aristocracy, and affirmed customary legal practices. It may have been of some benefit to freeholders, but probably not to tenants or serfs. I suspect that it would be an anachronism to view it as a declaration of individual rights.

    • #6
    • June 18, 2014, at 8:02 AM PDT
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  7. TG Thatcher

    EPG:

    “Can anything so simple as a system of government preserve freedom?”

    No. Some systems of government may be more likely to preserve freedom than others, but no system of government will do so absent virtue in those doing the governing.

    There could be freedom under a monarchy or a benevolent dictatorship. But we can’t count on the benevolence of the dictator, and kings will tend to become tyrants.

    There could be freedom under an enlightened aristocracy. But aristocracies too often degenerate into oligarchy.

    There can be freedom under democracy. But, as the founders of this country were fully aware, democracy only works with a virtuous people. Q: “What kind of government do we have, Dr. Franklin?” A: “A republic, if you can keep it.” And the framers were not the first to dread mob rule.

    (And yes, I am channeling Aristotle here — just a little bit — but the old guy was kind of neat).

    And there’s also this from John Adams: “Our Constitution is designed only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate for any other.”

    Democracy is not magic. Alexis DeTocqueville was correct, that the habits exercised in what he called the civil society were (are) key – it’s just that under democracy, the benefits of the civil society have the “best” scope for causing *effects.*

    • #7
    • June 18, 2014, at 2:50 PM PDT
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  8. The Question Inactive

    While I certainly wouldn’t want to establish a king in the US, if I were British I’m pretty sure I’d be in favor of keeping the monarchy. Historically, England was very free long before the United States was, and the monarchy was part of the balance of power. When Oliver Cromwell become the Lord Protector and the throne was vacant, Cromwell had much fewer limitations on his power than the kings that came before him.

    Given a choice between having a House of Lords that inherited their seats, or one absolute dictator elected by popular vote, I’d rather have the House of Lords. I think separation of powers is a greater restraint on government power than elections (granted, lately neither has been doing all that great…).

    • #8
    • June 18, 2014, at 2:55 PM PDT
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  9. James Of England Moderator
    James Of EnglandJoined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    EPG:

    “But didn’t the Magna Carta establish inalienable rights for peasants centuries before British monarchs actually relinquished authority?”

    Not quite. I think it would be more accurate to say that the Magna Carta was an effort by the barons (i.e. the aristocracy) to check the monarchy’s ambitions. It affirmed the customary rights of the church and of the aristocracy, and affirmed customary legal practices. It may have been of some benefit to freeholders, but probably not to tenants or serfs. I suspect that it would be an anachronism to view it as a declaration of individual rights.

     Magna Carta included some substantive rights of peasants against barons, but provided very little in the way of procedural enforcement for those rights. 

    Almost all views of Magna Carta as a major document are somewhat anachronistic. It wasn’t viewed as an enormously significant work until Coke used it to create the mythic origins of English Common Law in the 16th Century. 

    It is certainly confused to look at 13th Century English peasantry as having any rights not currently enjoyed by Americans, with exceptions for social liberalism (a 13th century wife had an enforceable marriage, whereas today she can be cheated on or divorced without legal difficulty, 13th century late term kids had a right to life, etc.).

    • #9
    • June 18, 2014, at 3:46 PM PDT
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  10. Valiuth Inactive
    ValiuthJoined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    I think a flaw in trying to compare medieval and modern societies is that the two are really radically different in their understandings of concepts like law and rights. You have to remember that modern society is largely based on the concepts of social contract an idea developed long after the end of Medieval Europe. The modern English monarchy is nothing like its medieval counter part.

    • #10
    • June 18, 2014, at 4:04 PM PDT
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  11. Aaron Miller Member
    Aaron MillerJoined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Valiuth: […] The modern English monarchy is nothing like its medieval counter part.

    That’s why I refer to medieval kings. Modern royalty of Europe serve mostly symbolic roles. I could reference modern dictators elsewhere in the world, but that divorces the concept from Western traditions and values. In Europe, the “divine right” of kings imparted not only power but responsibility. There was an underlying notion of a social contract, however different from the modern concept.

    I don’t want to divorce theory from history. But I also don’t want history to shackle our imaginations when considering how old concepts of government might be updated to conform with modern expectations.

    • #11
    • June 18, 2014, at 4:25 PM PDT
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  12. Sisyphus Member
    SisyphusJoined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    The ancient rights of Englishmen were preserved, albeit with varying reliability, by the Common Law. The Common Law is a legal tradition of findings and precedents that was embued with an odd, at least partly Saxon, egalitarianism. A man’s home is his castle and all that jazz, in a profoundly untidy and often orally transmitted package.

    William the Conqueror wasn’t buying, but nobles trying to run English peoples for him were influenced over time by the culture of the people they were viciously and autocratically subduing. William found a land of councils (wittans) and executives and wasted no time clearing that lot out. The Magna Carta significantly precedes the articulation of the Divine Right of Kings, which was actually headed in the other direction. Power deriving from God to some clown named Louis to his designated officers on down to the fleas in the royal stable and eventually those smelly farmers and herdsmen. Louis de France was trying to get momentum away from weak King John of England who was forced by his nobles to sign the Magna Carta and recognize his nobles rights. In the tradition of the English Common Law.

    • #12
    • June 18, 2014, at 7:24 PM PDT
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  13. barbara lydick Inactive

    EPG: There can be freedom under democracy. But, as the founders of this country were fully aware, democracy only works with a virtuous people. Q: “What kind of government do we have, Dr. Franklin?” A: “A republic, if you can keep it.” And the framers were not the first to dread mob rule. 

    And this, no doubt, was derived from Adam Smith and his book, The Theory of Moral Sentiments “ … that the moral character of a people is the ultimate measure of their humanity.”* In other words, his ‘commercial society,’ (Wealth of Nations) or what we have come to call the free market, depends on people who possess honesty and trustworthiness, when their sense of duty toward others is strong, and when there is successful renewal across the generations of a population schooled in self-restraint.

    *Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy

    Cont.

    • #13
    • June 18, 2014, at 11:37 PM PDT
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  14. barbara lydick Inactive

    [Cont. from above (which would be easier for the reader to reference if the comments were numbered, Mr. Yeti. Too often, there are one or more intervening comments by the time the continued portion is posted.)]

    We have strayed mightily from this ideal, giving those who are demanding income equality, social justice, etc., ammunition against those of us who believe that it is, notwithstanding all of its warts**, still the best way to relieve poverty ever devised by the collective mind of mankind.

    **The worst being rent-seeking and crony capitalism – which we need to admit to loudly – and propose solutions for. What those solutions might be I don’t know, but unless we want to see Piketty’s thinking – and those who would simplistically use his model to sway the voters – victorious in the coming elections, we had better do some hard thinking. Because it’s going to get ugly. It’s time to step out of the think tanks, the op-ed columns, etc., and go into the neighborhoods and talk with real people.

    • #14
    • June 18, 2014, at 11:40 PM PDT
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  15. barbara lydick Inactive

    OMG – I just saw the numbers. They weren’t there a minute ago. Thank you, thank you Mr. B Y.

    • #15
    • June 18, 2014, at 11:42 PM PDT
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  16. EPG Inactive

    @ TG and Barbara L –

    Thank you for pointing out some of the antecedents to my anecdote about Franklin. I remembered Adams’ sentiments, but could not put my hands on the quote quickly enough to include it.

    In reading Aristotle’s Politics, I was struck by his emphasis on the need for the rulers of a polis to practice virtue, no matter the form of the government. He also seems to favor mixed forms of government, arguing that a balancing of powers serves the polis the best. Does anybody know if the framers of our system had been exposed to Aristotle, or is this a case of parallel development of thoughts?

    • #16
    • June 19, 2014, at 11:07 AM PDT
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  17. Aaron Miller Member
    Aaron MillerJoined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Is a separation of powers more important than democratic process?

    • #17
    • June 19, 2014, at 12:10 PM PDT
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  18. Tim H. Member

    EPG:

    In reading Aristotle’s Politics, I was struck by his emphasis on the need for the rulers of a polis to practice virtue, no matter the form of the government.

    I’ve thought for many years that the only workable libertarian society would be a thoroughly religious one. A libertarian society without the kind of individual self-control that religion instills is surely doomed to fail.

    • #18
    • June 19, 2014, at 12:19 PM PDT
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  19. barbara lydick Inactive

    EPG: In reading Aristotle’s Politics, I was struck by his emphasis on the need for the rulers of a polis to practice virtue, no matter the form of the government. 

    Thank you for putting this in the proper historical context, i.e., Aristotle. In my rush to post a comment, I first thought of the two documents published in 1776 -– Wealth of Nations and the Declaration of Independence. And wanting to bring in the morality of and the need for morals in the free market, I stopped at Adam Smith when talking in general about the need for virtue and morality.

    • #19
    • June 19, 2014, at 1:32 PM PDT
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  20. EPG Inactive

    Aaron Miller:

    Is a separation of powers more important than democratic process?

     I think that a separation, or diffusion, of power is more important to the preservation of liberty. In fact, I think that a mere democratic process, without a rule of law that can be enforced despite the wishes of the majority, will almost never preserve liberty. If “the will of the people” becomes the primary measure of the validity of a governmental act, then minorities are at the mercy of the majority, the rich are at the mercy of the numerous poor, and unpopular opinions can be silenced by popular vote.

    I would much rather live under a monarch with restraints imposed by the interaction with lords and commons in parliament, and a “common law” based upon centuries of tradition; than under a National Assembly whose acts were deemed the authentic “voice of the people.”

    In fact, one could argue that the poor state of liberty in the UK is in part a result of the rise of the democratic element in the British constitution, at the expense of the monarchy and the lords.

    • #20
    • June 19, 2014, at 1:33 PM PDT
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  21. EPG Inactive

    barbara lydick:

    Thank you for putting this in the proper historical context, i.e., Aristotle. . . .

    The thing is, I don’t know that Madison, or any of the others involved in drafting the Constitution, were familiar with Aristotle . . . I believe that they were pretty familiar with Roman history, but I am not as confident in their knowledge of the Greeks . . .

    • #21
    • June 19, 2014, at 1:36 PM PDT
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  22. EPG Inactive

    Tim H.:

    I’ve thought for many years that the only workable libertarian society would be a thoroughly religious one.

     I think that’s probably pretty fair. If not “thoroughly religious,” at least religious enough to instill virtue in the vast majority of the populace, and to inspire the non-religious to practice virtue (whether for its own sake or for the sake of the good opinion of one’s neighbors).

    Franklin, who was certainly not conventionally religious, had an appreciation of the advantages religion brought to a society:

    “Tho’ I seldom attended any Public Worship, I had still an Opinion of its Propriety, and of its Utility when rightly conducted, and I regularly paid my annual Subscription for the Support of the only Presbyterian Minister or Meeting we had in Philadelphia”

    The next question (which may open a can of worms) then is —

    Are there religions which are more likely to foster a society that values liberty? Are there religions which do not value liberty, and so are unlikely to foster a society that values liberty?

    I think both history and current events show that this is in fact the case.

    • #22
    • June 19, 2014, at 1:47 PM PDT
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  23. TG Thatcher

    Tim H.:

    EPG:

    In reading Aristotle’s Politics, I was struck by his emphasis on the need for the rulers of a polis to practice virtue, no matter the form of the government.

    I’ve thought for many years that the only workable libertarian society would be a thoroughly religious one. A libertarian society without the kind of individual self-control that religion instills is surely doomed to fail.

     The identity of that religion also matters; some religions are worse than others at teaching individual self-control.

    • #23
    • June 19, 2014, at 8:32 PM PDT
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  24. TG Thatcher

    EPG:

    Tim H.:

    I’ve thought for many years that the only workable libertarian society would be a thoroughly religious one.

    Are there religions which are more likely to foster a society that values liberty? Are there religions which do not value liberty, and so are unlikely to foster a society that values liberty?

    I think both history and current events show that this is in fact the case.

     From the “outside,” my perception is that Buddhism is the “perfect” religion for libertarians. Of course, that perception comes from a vast ignorance … any better-informed thoughts/comments on that, Ricochetti?

    • #24
    • June 19, 2014, at 8:40 PM PDT
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  25. TG Thatcher

    TG:

    EPG:

    Tim H.:

    I’ve thought for many years that the only workable libertarian society would be a thoroughly religious one.

    Are there religions which are more likely to foster a society that values liberty? Are there religions which do not value liberty, and so are unlikely to foster a society that values liberty?

    I think both history and current events show that this is in fact the case.

    From the “outside,” my perception is that Buddhism is the “perfect” religion for libertarians. …

     Christian traditions are consistent/compatible with civil society – starting with the early “churches” which were informal gatherings of followers – and of course some of the groups that developed post-Reformation needed to be self-organizing – and then there’s the “salvation by works” idea, which also requires voluntary organization, if some of the “works” are to be effective.

    Anyone want to mention elements of Jewish tradition supporting civil society?

    Of course, there are ways of expressing many of the elements of civil society that are more communitarian and therefore less about liberty, so I haven’t directly addressed that question about liberty.

    • #25
    • June 19, 2014, at 9:10 PM PDT
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  26. Tim H. Member

    I’m curious: I’ve read several versions of the “Is democracy really the best way to preserve liberty?” discussion over the years. I have noticed that many, if not most of them were from Catholic bloggers or in Catholic-oriented magazines. I wonder if there is some correlation with religious denomination.

    Have any of the rest of you (Catholics, Protestants, and others) noticed this?

    When it comes down to a choice of (A), non-democratic systems that protect liberty (defined on somebody’s standard), and (B), democratic systems that don’t protect liberty, I’d lean towards (B), but hesitantly. I hate both of these options.

    I’d only go with (A) in the most extreme cases of (B) being violent mob rule. Immediate threat to the most basic rights.

    [cont’d]

    • #26
    • June 20, 2014, at 7:44 AM PDT
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  27. Tim H. Member

    [cont’d]

    The cases we’re usually complaining about in democratic (direct or republican) society are much less immediate matters—the kind of regulatory intrusion into daily life that we grumble about. But there’s more to government than that. Government, in practice, also does things that aren’t really questions of infringement or protection of our rights, but which I want to vote on (or vote for somebody to vote on): foreign affairs, wars, where a road will be built, school board policy, and so on.

    An unelected government might keep its hands off my daily life (or it might not—perhaps the lord’s interests are opposed to mine), but the only way I have of influencing its decisions is by petitioning the sovereign. But I can petition and protest in a democracy, too…as well as vote for or against referenda and representatives.

    Furthermore, even the most hands-off unelected government violates our equality before the law. If the government is unelected, then its members are privileged in a way that I am not. So who made them special?

    • #27
    • June 20, 2014, at 8:01 AM PDT
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  28. TG Thatcher

    TG:

    TG:

    EPG:

    Tim H.:

    I’ve thought for many years that the only workable libertarian society would be a thoroughly religious one.

    Christian traditions are consistent/compatible with civil society – … the “salvation by works” idea, which also requires voluntary organization, if some of the “works” are to be effective.

    I should clarify, for the record, that even if one is more into salvation by faith than salvation by works, the “works” are still encouraged, and therefore the voluntary organization to achieve effective works is still part of the equation.

    • #28
    • June 20, 2014, at 10:14 AM PDT
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  29. James Of England Moderator
    James Of EnglandJoined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    TG:

    EPG:

    Tim H.:

    I’ve thought for many years that the only workable libertarian society would be a thoroughly religious one.

    Are there religions which are more likely to foster a society that values liberty? Are there religions which do not value liberty, and so are unlikely to foster a society that values liberty?

    I think both history and current events show that this is in fact the case.

    From the “outside,” my perception is that Buddhism is the “perfect” religion for libertarians. Of course, that perception comes from a vast ignorance … any better-informed thoughts/comments on that, Ricochetti?

     If you look at countries in which the rulers have often been Buddhist (Korea, Japan, China, Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos, Bhutan, Burma), you’ll find a lot of countries that rank extremely high on the dictatorial abuse scale, including strong candidates for the worst in the world at almost any point in history. Japan was rescued by being nuked and rebuilt from the ground up, and South Korea eventually became a democracy after decades of US military occupation and financial support, but in general Buddhism is strongly correlated with big government of the worst kind. The Dalai’s Marxist self-identification is not a fringe position. 

    • #29
    • June 20, 2014, at 2:26 PM PDT
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  30. TG Thatcher

    James Of England:

    TG: From the “outside,” my perception is that Buddhism is the “perfect” religion for libertarians. Of course, that perception comes from a vast ignorance … any better-informed thoughts/comments on that, Ricochetti?

    If you look at countries in which the rulers have often been Buddhist (Korea, Japan, China, Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos, Bhutan, Burma), you’ll find a lot of countries that rank extremely high on the dictatorial abuse scale, including strong candidates for the worst in the world at almost any point in history. Japan was rescued by being nuked and rebuilt from the ground up, and South Korea eventually became a democracy after decades of US military occupation and financial support, but in general Buddhism is strongly correlated with big government of the worst kind. The Dalai’s Marxist self-identification is not a fringe position.

    So that philosophy of moderation and non-violence doesn’t translate into practice, eh?

    • #30
    • June 20, 2014, at 5:09 PM PDT
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