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Samizdata quote of the day

Democracy is this thing over here. Civil liberty is this other thing over here. They’re both desirable – as are apple pie and ice cream – but they are different things.


To get confused between these two ideas is to get close to ensuring that we achieve neither. Sure, we want democracy so we can throw the bastards out. We also want to have areas of life that simply cannot be affected by whoever is in power – those civil liberties and rights.

Tim Worstall writing ‘If you confuse Democracy with Civil Liberty you’ll end up with neither‘.

15 comments to Samizdata quote of the day

  • Lee Moore

    I get “liberty” but I’m hazy on “civil liberty”.

    Tim W offers : “Things like LGBT, free speech, media plurality and on and on are civil liberty.”

    LGBT to the extent that involves being allowed to be L,G,B or T, or a combination thereof, without being punished, is part of “liberty”. What’s the “civil” bit ?

    Media plurality sounds like either felicitous happenstance, or some kind of anti-trust laws for newspapers and TV. Is that “liberty” ? Civil or otherwise ?

    I think before we get too deep into avoiding confusion between democracy v civil liberty, we should be given a quick primer on liberty v civil liberty.

  • bobby b

    My guess:

    “Liberty” is raw freedom.

    “Democracy” is rule by vote.

    “Civil liberty” is the protection of freedom from the tyranny of the vote, ensuring that we retain basic foundational individual liberties even when they lose popularity with the majority.

  • bobby b

    From the article:

    “Hungary has experienced “the most precipitous” democratic decline ever tracked by the US-based rights watchdog Freedom House in their “Nations in Transit” report, the think tank said on Wednesday.

    The government helmed by conservative Prime Minister Viktor Orban has “dropped any pretense of respecting democratic institutions.”

    “After centralizing power, tilting the electoral playing field, taking over much of the media, and harassing critical civil society organizations since 2010, Orban moved during 2019 to consolidate control over new areas of public life, including education and the arts,” Freedom House said in the latest edition of their report.

    The country has now crossed the line from a democracy to a “transitional/hybrid regime,” the watchdog said. Such regimes have fragile democratic institutions and citizens face “substantial challenges” to their rights and liberties.”

    This applies very exactly to Biden’s America.

  • Roué le Jour

    And what ideology dominates education and the arts? Anywhere there is taxpayers money, there you will find the left up to their ears in the trough.

  • Fraser Orr

    The thing about democracy is that most “democracies” are designed to strongly temper actual democracy. For example, in the US and Britain we have political parties. You have to vote on a package deal set, generally speaking, by a cabal of “wise (wo)men”. This is further tempered with civil institutions that have huge inertia to change, and a set of competing centers of power (states, governors, legislators, courts, senate HoR, and the civil service at various levels) and ultimately by the constitution, (which is a distinctly undemocratic document.)

    This is true in most modern countries, and although it is frustrating when “your guy” is in power, it is a godsend when “the other guy” is in power.

    One may well lament the intransigence of Sir Humphrey Appleby, but in a sense he is a friend to those who believe his consequent inaction is a blessing to those who think that government is the problem and not the solution. A large, benign tumor is far less dangerous than a small metastatic one.

  • A large, benign tumor is far less dangerous than a small metastatic one.

    Yes and that works for centuries, right up until the point when it doesn’t work any more. We finally hit that point a year and a half ago.

  • This applies very exactly to Biden’s America. (bobby b, July 3, 2021 at 12:17 pm)

    Very true!

    Also, while I don’t live in Hungary and don’t speak Hungarian (which is not even an Indo-European language), so cannot speak from an especially informed standpoint, it is worth bearing in mind that the woke would say this of Orban for merely not taking away free speech from their critics, the eurocrats would say it of Orban for merely defying them on immigrants and others, and both would say it for his not making modern Hungary a more hostile environment for Jews (rather the reverse, in fact).

    This also is like Biden’s America – it is ‘undemocratic’ to obstruct the left’s agenda by preserving civil liberties quite as much as by removing them.

  • barbarus

    Vox seem a bit confused about the notion of democracy in general. They say the Hungarian government are doing this because it goes down well with the voters, then claim it’s a non-democratic government …

  • Vox seem a bit confused about almost everything.

  • staghounds

    “Democracy” has become an approval word, like “beautiful”.

  • bobby b

    It goes down well with the wrong type of voters, is what they mean.

    When they can refer to a majority of citizens as being meaningless – as if they should not have a say in a true democracy – you know that the next step in their thinking is that those wrong voters ought to be dealt with, somehow.

    Perhaps the current freedom on the internet is merely our version of the beginning of our own Hundred Flowers campaign? Ferret out the wrong-thinkers, make your lists, and then . . . work from those lists?

  • bobby b (July 4, 2021 at 5:34 pm), your concern is not foolish, but social media would not still be banning people if they had Mao’s control.

    “The method of provocation” (Hannah Arendt) arose even before any communists took power. It grew in the strange overlapping world of professional revolutionaries, double agents and secret police informers that the idea of “the revolution” spawned. Mao was very much a late-comer following a well-trodden path. Mao knew the wall-posters he treacherously allowed would be seen by a minuscule portion of China’s communist party, never mind its population, so he would easily retain control when, after pretending to ask for constructive criticism, he switched to teaching those rash enough to respond a lesson about not daring to complain even when asked – and to be wary of party dissidents lest they prove mere agents provocateurs.

    The US vote fraudsters are not in that position yet – and very much wish to put us in fear of dissenting from them because they still fear public dissent.

  • Snorri Godhi

    From Tim Worstall’s article:

    Certainly, if that veil of ignorance left me with the choice of near perfect civil liberty wiothout [sic] elections, or elections with the Nazis gaining power, I’d take the no elections option.

    That sounds reasonable, but in the real world we are never given such clear choices. There is a much more opaque ‘veil of ignorance’.

    On the one hand, we can never trust the ruling class to preserve ‘civil liberty’, or any kind of liberty for that matter, when they do not run the risk of being kicked out of office.
    And they actually have more reason to worry, when they can be kicked out non-violently. (Popperian democracy, as distinct from direct or representative democracy.)

    On the other hand: How can you possibly know whether the people you are voting for, are Nazis?
    You know it, of course, when they say so. But, if i am not mistaken, the only free and fair election that out-of-the-closet Nazis “won” while openly declaring themselves Nazis, was an election in which the voters did not yet know what Nazism means in practice. And even then, they failed to gain an absolute majority.

  • Paul Marks

    Democracy and Civil Liberty are indeed different things – but most countries have neither.

    Policy is made by officials and “experts” – it is NOT decided by the people, so most countries are not democracies.

    And policy is about destroying liberty – so we are losing liberty.

    Democracy might mean more (not less) liberty – we do not know.

  • Nicholas (Unlicensed Joker) Gray

    Democracy usually means a lessening of liberty. In order for a politician to be voted to ‘serve’ the people, problems have to be identified so the politician can solve them. If the successful politician remembers the campaign promises, then a mandate can be claimed to extend the reach of government to solve the problem. And it is rare for the mandates to have a sunset clause, or to be repealed. I know Ronald Reagan did get rid of a lot of laws when he was Governor of California, but how many other people have been successful at that?