October 5, 2010

Fundamental Questions

While we in the USA take our democracy-within-a-republic very much for granted, we should not. It only takes a look across the Atlantic to our allies, trading partners, and friends in Europe to see people who look and act very much like us, but who nevertheless periodically confront much more fundamental questions about what good government is than we do. Here, we argue about marginal tax rates, marginal differences in expansion of government involvement in the health care system, and make noises about our debt but never really do much about it. Many of the social issues we confront and clash about are, in the grand scheme of things, really only so much noise. We aren't confronting basic issues like whether the government should nationalize every industry with 50 or more employers. We don't address questions like whether the military should provide police services. We have a very broad, very deep consensus in favor of our federalized republican form of government. In Europe and elsewhere, these kinds of issues are still in play.

I was reminded of this after reading a Portuguese blogbuddy celebrate the centennial of the proclamation of the Republic of Portugal today. One hundred years ago today, the purportedly constitutional monarchy fell and democratic rule became the government of Portugal. I say "purportedly" because an earlier King had imposed what was effectively a dictatorship within the framework of that Constitutional scheme, which resulted in his assassination.  The Portuguese have the good taste to not celebrate the anniversary of the assassination but rather of the subsequent proclamation of a republican form of government as the worthwhile date to commemorate.*  Now, because the author of this blog is a lawyer, he celebrated the holiday with a question -- was it worth it?

In response to the post, I took the time to educate myself about the events of the last century in his nation -- this is the sort of thing I think Wikipedia is good for -- and found an erratic history, one of republican government displacing monarchy, then collapsing into a quasi-fascism, then being usurped by military governments, and only within my lifetime returning to a parliamentary democracy in line with the bulk of Europe.  Looking at Portugal's economic history, it appears that its degree of economic prosperity has roughly coincided with the degree of freedom afforded its people during the last century. The Portuguese were always industrialized and compared with global nations never impoverished, but they've done much better for themselves under republican forms of government than the authoritarian alternatives that were tried. This hardly strikes me as a coincidence but I'm prejudiced in that regard.

On my counterpart's blog, I argued (with the aid of a translation tool since I have no Portuguese myself) that in broad terms, a form of government founded upon the rule of law will necessarily trend towards a republican form of government and away from an authoritarian model. I also argued that a government founded upon popular rule will eventually reach a republican level (which I did not define there as meaning "representative democracy" but that's what I meant) because anarcho-capitalism and direct democracy are simply too inefficient to provide for effective government and therefore even autonomous individuals who find themselves in such an environment will eventually come around to the idea that they need a government with teeth.  I'm borrowing heavily from both Nozick and Rawls here, but that brings me to my question for the morning, one which all you political theory junkies out there will enjoy. And I mean both of you.

My premise asks that you assume a large body of self-governing people who are dedicated to the idea of the rule of law. Is it inevitable that such people will choose a form of government that incorporates a substantial amount of representative democracy?  Or could they rationally, and consistent with their dedication to the rule of law, adopt an authoritarian form of government?  I know that democratic means have resulted in fascist military governments in multiple places during the 20th century (Portugal among them), so what lesson can we take from that -- did those elections represent a real choice by the voters or was there some sort of departure from the peoples' commitment to the rule of law?

It might also be the case that we do not have enough data points in history to plot a curve here -- meaningful self-government is a relatively new phenomenon in human history, after all.

Ultimately, it seems to me not, although I wonder if I must resort to special pleading when considering the cases of Germany and Italy in the 1930's, or if those can be written off as extreme points in the inevitable cycle of right-versus-left power shifts that will take place within a democratic system in response to fluctuating internal economic and external diplomatic conditions. I certainly hope that the rule of law leads to meaningful self-government, and I can't think of a way it wouldn't (eventually), but I've not poured enough brainpower into the issue to be satisfied that this is necessarily the case -- and the example of the rise of fascism in the 20th century suggests to me that I might be wrong.

* Touchingly, it looks to me like the most significant national holiday of Portugal celebrates the nation's greatest poet, Luís Vaz de Camões. Nothing like that here -- July 4 is a fine day to celebrate for our political history, but we have no holidays dedicated to the arts and our Portuguese friends have set an example that we ought to consider following.

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