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Liberty vs Democracy By James Reed
Last year the generally Left Polity Press published the book by Salvatore Babones, The New Authoritarianism: Trump, Populism, and the Tyranny of Experts. Dr Babones is an America academic with an position in Sociology and Social Policy at the University of Sydney. What is of interest to us is the central thesis of the book, that there has been a potential conflict between liberalism and democracy throughout the Western political tradition. At present, liberalism is on the rise, if not out of control, but he does see merit in the presidency of Donald Trump in stopping the overwhelming influence of liberalism, and turning the pendulum back towards democracy. The subtitle of the book mentions the tyranny of experts, and here the central conflict between liberalism and democracy gets murky, because the technocrats are neither liberal, nor democratic, but, as I see it a sui genesis power group. The politically correct liberal is guided by fanatical ideology, but the technocrat is concerned solely with social control and the smooth operation of the social control mechanisms. However there is an alternative position that should be considered:
“Babones is correct that modern liberalism requires deference to expert (or pseudo-expert) authority. The people are the passive recipients of those rights the experts deem them to possess. As the domain of rights expands, experts end up making more and more of the decisions in an ever-increasing number of the most important aspects of public life: economic policy, criminal justice, what’s taught in schools, who’s allowed to enter the country, what diseases will be cured, even who will have the opportunity to run for elective office. The areas reserved to expert adjudication seem only to expand. Previously depoliticized domains rarely return to the realm of democratic determination. University instruction, medical research councils, disaster relief agencies, courts of law and (in America) the Federal Reserve Bank are just some institutions financed by government (i.e., taxpayers) but protected from democratic political oversight. In every case, the rational is that only those with the relevant professional expertise should be permitted to make decisions effecting such institutions.
The desirability of an independent judiciary in particular has now become so widely accepted that the European Union has recently declared Polish political interference with its own court system a violation of the rule of law. As the author pertinently remarks, EU authorities may be unaware that US states still elect their own supreme court justices. Recent liberal demands upon political parties to nominate a minimum number of female candidates or members of underrepresented groups also seek to set bounds to popular decision making, which amounts to restricting politics itself. In sum, There has been in the West a slow but comprehensive historical evolution from the broad consensus that governments derive their legitimacy from the people via democratic mandates to an emerging view that governments derive their legitimacy by governing in ways endorsed by expert authority. What is commonly called the new populism or new nationalism is essentially a revolt against liberal authoritarianism. Consider the issue of so-called free trade. The late Trans-Pacific Partnership embodied much current liberal thinking on free trade, and it went “far beyond the simple elimination of tariffs” (which was the universally understood meaning of “free trade” in the 19th century).
The TPP would have governed the right to invest in companies and operate businesses in foreign jurisdictions, and the right to trial by international expert panel rather than in each country’s court system. The TPP would have replaced the direct democratic accountability of national governments with the unaccountable transnational sovereignty of experts. The freedom to purchase wares from the cheapest seller without government penalty (tariffs) if the seller is a foreigner is one thing; the right guaranteed by treaty to open businesses in foreign countries while remaining free from the legal jurisdiction thereof is another. The populist objection to this new form of “free trade” was not so much any negative economic consequences it may have involved as its authoritarianism. The election of Donald Trump on a platform which included scrapping the TPP was a victory for democratic political oversight and a defeat for liberal authoritarianism. So was the election of the Law and Justice Party in Poland with its determination to subject the country’s courts to greater political control; so is the rising nationalist determination to reassert control over migration and borders; so is the decision of British voters to take their country out of the EU, and much else besides. Our current elites want us to believe that this movement represents a “threat to democracy.” Babones reveals this rhetoric for what it is: the self-interested special pleading of liberal authoritarians increasingly threatened by a resurgent democracy. European man may be in the process of reclaiming his own destiny from a tyrannical clique of “experts.” If, as this reviewer believes, many of these are only pseudo-experts, that is all the more reason to cheer on this process.”
I suppose it all depends on how we define our terms. We could view the liberals as technocrats, based on pseudo-scientific knowledge, for the sake of completeness fo this thesis. I do not care much. Clearly both liberals and technocrats feed upon each other, like mutual hyper-parasites and are equally deadly to the sustainability of what remains of democratic institutions. Both need to be defeated by the people.