Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Democracy Isn’t Government "Coercion"

Conservatism assumes that government is inherently coercive, a claim that makes conservatives and libertarians favor either “limited” or minimal government, respectively (at least in rhetoric, if not for, say, imperial or banking adventurism).  It’s what makes them think taxation is theft, and that the market should run as much of society as possible.  This premise underlies conservative thinking about what "liberty" is.  And this is a widely accepted view: indeed, the sociologist Max Weber more than a century ago defined government as that institution in society which claims a monopoly on the use of legitimate, organized force, a definition that has had quite a bit of staying power. 

There are counter-arguments that most people, most of the time, follow the authority of the law willingly and do not have to be coerced to do so because they recognize the value of a well-ordered society.  But aside from that, I will claim that the more that government is truly democratic the more that any coerciveness is reduced.  I have a classical republican view of such matters -- and unlike some other political theorists, I understand classical republicanism, which aims at the good of the public, to be a kind of government that is dominated by common working people, since they make up 99% of the public whose good is in question.  

We have to have rules, and those rules have to be binding so that no one can exempt themselves in order to take advantage of everyone else.  Provided that government responsiveness to the people is genuine and not an ideological cover for elite rule, when everyone in society has an equal share in making common rules and everyone is obligated to follow them, government isn’t coercive, morally speaking, because each individual has had an equal voice in making the rules by which all will live together.  And if anyone disagrees with a law, they have the equal opportunity to convince everyone and to change it.  The laws may be obligatory, but that doesn’t make them coercive, because there’s no arbitrary force used against someone without their consent: enforcing rules, once democratically decided, is legitimate, because without that there would be no rule of law at all; but you’ve already consented to be governed by the law when you attempted to make it in your favor.  You then have to live with it if everyone else disagrees and makes it differently.  That is the best we can do in a society where we have to live side-by-side and rub shoulders together; every individual can’t have it their own way. 
The problem now is that the laws aren’t made democratically, but by the corporate plutocracy which is exempting themselves in order to take advantage -- which leads over time to something that truly is coercive and authoritarian, despite hypocritical conservative claims.  That, however, is a topic for another day -- as are related issues, such as how do you keep a government democratic once you’ve established it in the first place, which are substantial problems of governance and constitutional design.  Today I'm just arguing for a general principle. 

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