The habits of freedom

A few days back I wrote on the difficulty of imposing democracy on elite-ridden cultures.  My point was that freedom depends on a specific kind of person, the citizen, who must hold his ground in many other domains than politics.  A certain amount of economic and intellectual independence is required, for example.

Debating democracy is in the air.  Shortly after my post, the Becker-Posner blog carried two long posts and a heated discussion on the question:  is economic independence more important than political freedom?

Now Robert Conquest, writing in the National Interest, has a rambling but provocative article on the impossibility of “Downloading Democracy.”  Conquest’s main point is absolutely correct, and lies at the heart of this blog:  freedom is a matter of right habits, of morality embedded in behavior, more than institutions or procedures, such as elections.  Free peoples will impose democratic structures on government; democratic structures absent a free people are a body without a soul.  Here is Conquest’s take on the subject:

“Democracy” is often given as the essential definition of Western political culture. At the same time, it is applied to other areas of the world in a formal and misleading way. So we are told to regard more or less uncritically the legitimacy of any regime in which a majority has thus won an election. But “democracy” did not develop or become viable in the West until quite a time after a law-and-liberty polity had emerged. Habeas corpus, the jury system and the rule of law were not products of “democracy”, but of a long effort, from medieval times, to curb the power of the English executive. And democracy can only be seen in any positive or laudable sense if it emerges from and is an aspect of the law-and-liberty tradition.

Institutions that differ in the United States and the United Kingdom have worked (though forms created in other countries that were theoretically much the same have often collapsed). That is to say, at least two formally different sets of institutions have generally flourished. It seems that the main thing they share is not so much the institutions as the habits of mind, which are far more crucial, and, above all, the acceptance of the traditional rules of the political game.

More broadly, in the West it has been tradition that has been generally determinant of public policy. Habituation is more central to a viable constitution than any other factor. Even the Western “democracies” are not exactly models of societies generated by the word, the abstract idea. Still they, or some of them, roughly embody the concept, as we know it, and at least are basically consensual and plural–the product of at best a long evolution.

I concur.



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