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Samizdata quote of the day

Democracy is just another way of deciding who gets to control the available means of collective coercion. Democracy has nothing whatsoever to do with civil liberty, albeit the two get conflated all the time. There is nothing particularly uplifting or sacred or morally superior about democracy, it is just better than most of the alternatives when it comes to deciding when a given cunt has outstayed his welcome in the halls of power. As my chum Guy Herbert likes to say “democracy makes a fine brake but a terrible steering wheel.”

What any system needs is some form of constitutionalism, something that places certain things beyond politics (US Bill of Rights is a nice example, to the extent it still works, which it kinda sorta still does in some ways). There needs to be some form of framework that limits what state power is even allowed to do, regardless of which arsehole is in charge this year. That was why Tony Blair was such a profound calamity, as he essentially destroyed British notions of constitutional limits on state power. Everything is now up for grabs.

Perry de Havilland

29 comments to Samizdata quote of the day

  • William H. Stoddard

    Negative democracy, by which I mean that the people get to say, “Hell, no, you can’t do that to us!” seems to be largely a good thing. Positive democracy, where the people get to vote themselves benefits from the state at the expense of minorities, is almost entirely a bad thing. James Madison set this out quite clearly in The Federalist, though unfortunately his safeguards against positive democracy were less effective than he hoped.

  • Zerren Yeoville

    In order to underline the particular degree of odium in which the likes of Tony Blair should be held, may I propose that such people henceforth be referred to as ‘State-supremacists’?

  • George Atkisson

    ZY –

    State-Supremacists? I prefer “Overreaching Brain-dead Arse-Munchers”.

  • Fraser Orr

    TBH I am not sure the idea of enumerated powers (these are the things government can do, and they can’t do anything else) is really effective. It definitely helps since it can tear away the veneer of legitimacy that hides the raw underlying power. I think the real genius in the US Constitution, one that Britain really doesn’t have, is the idea of federalism. They idea that different groups have different sets of powers. All these politicians are megalomaniacal scum, but with federalism they at least are in a constant fight with each other. To me, that is why the real disaster in America is not things like the ignoring of the bill of rights, but rather the centralization of power in the federal government. Were we fifty competing jurisdictions where decent people could readily just walk away from the latest craziness to the state next door, we would be in vastly better shape.

    The problem with enumerated rights is that they can so easily be weasel worded away. Words don’t, in themselves, have much power. However, competing interests really do, they are a self correcting system, in a sense. The only advocates for the bill of rights are the courts. And as has been pointed out, the Supreme court doesn’t have an Army.

    FWIW, a perfect example is the Infrastructure bill in congress. To be clear, decent people need to recognize that when politicians say “Infrastructure bill” they actually mean “Government slush fund bill”. But I guess it is popular because people recognize the need for roads, bridges, ports etc. But roads and bridges and ports are built in states, so what does the Federal government have to do with any of them? Of course the answer is “because they are the ones with the money”, taken from the citizens of the state. If someone were to offer me the option to drop the bill of rights I’d take it, if it also meant I could repeal the sixteenth and seventeenth amendments (the right to tax individuals and the direct election of senators) I would take that bargain. Restoring more competition between the states would be the thing that would truly refresh the country. FWIW, most states have an equivalent to the bill of rights in their state constitution anyway. Needless to say, the direction of the country is exactly the opposite.

  • Jon Eds

    The impulse behind the American revolution was as much about democracy, or egalitarianism, as it was about libertarianism; certainly among the non-lawyer folk.

    I’m a big fan of the idea of an asymmetric democracy – 60% to bring in a law, 40% to remove it. Not perfect but should help.

  • TBH I am not sure the idea of enumerated powers (these are the things government can do, and they can’t do anything else) is really effective.

    Constitutionalism can come in many forms, and it does not have to be all about enumerated powers, and indeed “Congress shall make no law…” is not about what congress is empowered to do but rather what it isn’t. The whole notion of unenumerated rights is what much of common law is about.

    The idea of Constitutionalism in any form is the principle that the state cannot just pass a law that allows it to do absolutely anything. Until relatively recently in Britain, the notion of ultra vires was a major facet of how the state worked (particularly at local level).

  • Snorri Godhi

    The first paragraph is ambiguous, in the sense that the concept of ‘democracy’ is ambiguous.
    Are we talking about direct democracy, representative “democracy”, or Popperian democracy?

    The second paragraph finds me in strong agreement, with qualifications that i won’t go into here.
    That’s because i want to focus on one question:
    In which way did Tony Blair “essentially destroyed British notions of constitutional limits on state power”?
    I am not in any way questioning whether this is true. I just want to understand.

  • Snorri Godhi

    While i was crafting my comment, Perry wrote:

    Constitutionalism can come in many forms

    Indeed, and let me ‘enumerate’ a few ‘forms’:
    * enumerated powers
    * a bill of rights
    * mixed constitution
    * separation of powers
    * federalism (see Fraser Orr above).

    But let’s be clear: none of the above will work unless we, the people, are going to make it work.

    BTW the market-anarchism of Viking Iceland is also a remarkable ‘form’.

  • bobby b

    Some laws we can change with voting majorities.

    Constitutions such as the US’s can also be changed with supermajority votes.

    Still democracy, though, right? Or does “democracy” always imply a 51% win?

  • Fraser Orr

    @bobby b
    Still democracy, though, right? Or does “democracy” always imply a 51% win?

    Depends on what you mean. Is it democracy when the laws are made by representatives rather than direct voting, often when the representatives don’t agree with the public will? Is it democracy when only half the people vote?

    But I did want to point out that there are two other ways laws get made, beyond majority and super majority. That is by executive fiat, and by judicial weaseling. For the former the vast majority or rules we live under are made by executive agencies not by elected representatives. Supposedly under the control of the elected executive, but, if that elected executive can’t fire anyone, and can barely get them to change their mind, who is in charge. And of course the other way is by judicial weaseling, where the courts change the plain meaning of something and restrict it or expand it according to their will, or make something up out of whole new cloth (gun rights, interstate commerce and Roe vs Wade being examples, respectively.)

    I’d suggest these two entirely undemocratic processes are the way most of the significant restrictions on our freedoms are made. Masks anyone?

  • Fraser Orr

    @Perry de Havilland (London)
    The idea of Constitutionalism in any form is the principle that the state cannot just pass a law that allows it to do absolutely anything. Until relatively recently in Britain, the notion of ultra vires was a major facet of how the state worked (particularly at local level).

    That is true, but there is a difference between what a piece of paper says and what actually happens. It is necessary to have an effective means of enforcing the rules in that constitution. One way is to rely on politicians not having the chutzpah to violate what is plainly written, however, I am sure you will agree that is not a very effective mechanism. Rather, the genius of the US Constitution is that there are competing, powerful interests who are set in a catfight against each other. And the fight is designed, as much as possible, to keep them too busy fighting to screw up our lives. That was a pretty effective mechanism for a while. Some say “democracy is the worst system except all the others”, I disagree, I think “federalism is the worst system except all the others”. It has the advantage of being a self balancing system, it took the bastards 200 years to screw it up.

  • William H. Stoddard

    bobby b: I like the word “superdemocracy,” which I believe I may have coined. Democracy requires a 50% plus one majority; superdemocracy requires a supermajority of some size—a mere majority is not sufficient to do anything that affects anyone’s rights.

  • The Wobbly Guy

    Agree with Snorri. The issue is more fundamental. At the end of the day, these are simply words written on pieces of paper.

    What really matters are the social values and beliefs of the people who comprise the democracy. A debased, rapacious electorate would hardly be held back by any high-falutin claims of liberty. Witness the US.

    I think the US founders recognised that too. Wasn’t there some quote or some such? Can a kind soul please find the relevant quote?

  • TomJ

    One point insufficiently understood by Americans is their Constitution is not the single document + amendments; it also includes every SCOTUS judgment saying what said document “really means”.

  • APL

    Zerren Yeoville: “In order to underline the particular degree of odium in which the likes of Tony Blair should be held ..”

    I’m a generous sort of person, Tony Blair can have my two doses of the mRNA vaccine.

    bobby b: “Still democracy, though, right? Or does “democracy” always imply a 51% win?”

    Democracy, rule by the majority, or rule of the biggest mob, is simply tryany ( especially if you happen to on the a member of the smaller mob ). That’s why you need some sort of restraining constitutional structure on government power, especially for a democracy.

    Back in the ’80s I believed the bullshit, that the difference between the totalitarian Soviet Union was that they weren’t and we were democratic. And that’s why we didn’t experience tryany. That has been demonstrated to be …. bullshit, because this is tryany, just in disguise. Democracy didn’t save us from it.

    The government killed citizens last year when they shifted infected COVID-19 patients into the ill equipped carehomes, this year they must know the high incidence of death correlated with the anti COVID-19 vaccination program far exceeds that for any other vaccination program, yet they plough on, killing and lying about it, that’s democracy today.

  • Stonyground

    The idea that our local MP represents us took a bit of a hit after the Brexit referendum when there were MPs from constituencies that voted leave actively campaigning for the result to be overturned. I’m not sure how many of these offenders were booted out at the next available election, probably fewer than sane people would expect.

  • Nicholas (Unlicensed Joker) Gray

    APL, what is a tryany? You use the term many times. Do you mean tyrany? Or something else?
    I prefer the term Meridocracy. It means ‘Share Power’. Citizenship would be a choice. If you wanted to be a citizen of your local county, you would first need to perform 11 months of part-time service in the local public service (militia, fire-fighting, policing, rescue, etc.), and then, for one month, you would be part of the local government, able to directly vote on all laws, past, and proposed.

  • Zerren Yeoville

    Stonyground, 9.16am: “The idea that our local MP represents us took a bit of a hit after the Brexit referendum…”

    It was their sense of entitlement, too. The MP’s who sought to overturn the referendum result were very keen on a line from Edmund Burke, which was endlessly quoted and re-quoted at the time:

    “Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays instead of serving you if he sacrifices it to your opinion.”

    … in short, that their supposedly superior judgment on the virtues of the UK’s membership of the EU should outweigh that of their voters. (The whole ‘wisdom of crowds’ theory seemed suddenly to fall out of intellectual fashion as of the early morning of 24/06/2016).

    They were rather selective in their appeal to Burkean wisdom, however, as a couple of other Burke quotes were not given anywhere near as much attention:

    1: [The] “virtue, spirit, and essence of a House of Commons consists in its being the express image of the feelings of the nation… not instituted to be a control upon the people, as of late it has been taught, [but] designed as a control for the people.”


    2: “in all disputes between [the people] and their rulers, the presumption is at least upon a par in favour of the people.”

  • bobby b

    I remain convinced that real progressives elect people to lead them, and real conservatives elect people to represent them.

  • bob sykes

    The federalism, enumerated powers, and Bill of Rights of the US Constitution have indeed been whittled away, all in the name of democracy.

    The Founders were anti-democrats, and they put all sorts of brakes on democracy into the Constitution: the Bill of Rights, the original Senate (elected by state legislatures), the Supreme Court (but not judicial review of Acts of Congress), the Electoral College, and the Presidency.

    Much of this is gone, even though the words are still there. And most Americans, especially the college-educated, are happy with that.

    There is no mystery as to how Hitler gained power. Examples of his method are all over Europe and America.

  • Night Watchman

    @Wobbly Guy:

    I believe this is the quote you were looking for:

    “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” – John Adams

  • The Wobbly Guy

    @Night Watchman,

    Yup, that’s the one. Unfortunately, they made the original sin of allowing slavery to continue, and that opened up a whole series of holes through which the very socio-economic and moral foundation of the US could be undermined.

  • Paul Marks

    Democracy is a way of removing a government without killing people – that should not be underrated.

    The problem comes when the elected government is not the real government – when the elected politicians are the people really making the decisions. Then an election defeat does NOT remove the government – because the government remains.

    The more people scream about the “value of our democracy” the less and less real democracy becomes.

    It is not just President Trump being helpless in a government that he did not control – that is the fate of many elected leaders who stand against what the officials and “experts” believe to be correct.

    In the United Kingdom it is institutionalised – with Civil Servants, Local Government Officers, and members of free standing Agencies and Authorities making it very clear that they do NOT work for elected politicians.

  • Paul Marks

    As for the franchise……

    It has been expanding since 1832.

    There were some seats where most men (no women) could vote before the Act of 1832, but they were few and far between. Most places had a limited franchise – and many important places were not represented in Parliament at all.

    This was NOT actually a deliberate plan – as the House of Commons was originally made up of people who represented most of the populated places of the country, but over time some places had declined and other places had grown up.

    However, the principle was the same before 1832 – if a government could not command the confidence of the House of Commons, that government fell.

    The difference was that, in those days, the elected government very much was the government – the Northcote-Trevelyan report (seeing up the origins of the modern Civil Service) started the move away from that.

    It was not an all at once process – someone like Prime Minister Gladstone had vastly more power than a modern head of government (some official who did not do what Gladstone told him to do, when Gladstone told him to do it – would, mostly likely, have been thrown out of a window, and I mean that literally as Gladstone was a very PHYSICAL man), but the slow process of the growth of “officialdom” had long been underway – the dream of Jeremy Bentham and his followers (such as Sir Edwin Chadwick and the Mills).

    In the United States there was no Civil Service, in the modern sense, till the 1880s – like him or hate him President Grant (for example) was very much in control of the Federal Government in ways that a modern President IS NOT.

  • Paul Marks

    In the United States the break of the early 1960s should not be overlooked.

    President Kennedy inherited a Civil Service (a bureaucracy), but it was not unionised – he allowed it to be unionised (by Executive Order – part, along with his support for Food Stamps, of the Catholic Social Teaching of the time, which was very much pro union) – Union rules made Civil Service rules much worse, and the Federal Government became totally dysfunctional. As President Franklin Roosevelt (certainly not a “right winger”) predicted the government would become dysfunctional if it was unionised.

    In 1960 the Federal Government was already very big (and horribly unconstitutional) – but it could be argued that it was still functional, since then it has fallen into late Roman or Byzantine levels of dysfunction. Choked by its own rituals and internal agendas and conflicts.

    By the way – before someone accuses me of anti Catholic bigotry. I have the exchange of writings between Dr Luther and Dr Erasmus upstairs, and I think that Erasmus got much the better of the debate. Above I am specifically referring to an aspect of Social Teaching (well intentioned, but mistaken economic ideas), not to general theology.

  • Paul Marks

    Constitutions – such as the Bill of Rights.

    First wording must be “paranoid”.

    If someone says “that is not stylish” or “that is not elegant” then kick that person out of the room.

    For example Roger Sherman was quite right that there must be no wiggle room on MONEY – it is no good saying “we say that legal tender must be gold or silver coin in Section Ten of Article One, we do not have to say the same thing in Section Eight as well” YES YOU DO.

    And when some person says “it would not be elegant to use such words as “expressly” or “specifically” in the Tenth Amendment” that is the reason why such words MUST be there.

    I could not give a damn about “style” or “elegance” in Constitution writing – high sounding froth has no place there, the words of an old Raven do.

    There is the question of who decides.

    Constitutions should be written to be understood by ordinary people (high sounding words should be shoved down the throats of those who suggest them) – and that indicates trial by jury.

    By constitutional JURY – not appointed “Justices”.

    But if there must be judges – then the wording must be plain and harsh, give the people-in-robes no wriggle room.

  • Paul Marks

    It was not “Tony” Blair who got rid of the idea of constitutional limits on state power here – it was Sir William Blackstone (with his doctrine that Parliament could do anything it felt like doing – a doctrine that would have horrified such men as Sir John Holt – Chief Justice from 1689 to 1710).

    As for the unlimited power of Parliament being turned into the unlimited power of officials – see Chief Justice Hewart “The New Despotism” 1929.

    It is true that there was a widespread idea, at least among CONSERVATIVE (not New Liberal) people that there was such as thing as a British Constitution of traditions – hence such things as the network of Constitutional Clubs and the National Rifle Association (much bigger than the American one before the 1st World War) and the Ulster Covenant of 1912. But all this was MOCKED by the establishment even back then.

    In the United States if one turns to a modern book of law one finds admiration for Sir William Blackstone – and statements that the Founding Fathers were “influenced” by the man they, in reality, despised.

    In a way they were influenced by Blackstone – he had a habit of making approving noises about natural law and limited government, before undercutting it all with his doctrine that Parliament could do anything it liked. The Founders took the words about natural law and limited government seriously – knowing that Blackstone really did not.

    As for Mr Blair.

    He did do something – he made it possible, indeed the norm, to get rich by public service.

    As recently as 1997 British government officials were not, generally, highly paid (although some were) – Mr Blair changed that, he held that the top people (in independent agencies and so on) should be highly paid.

    Almost needless to say – the Economist magazine loves this, the people in charge of society (the officials) should be well paid according to the “free market” Economist magazine.

    It never seems to occur to the “free market” Economist magazine that officials are NOT supposed to be “in charge of society” and that paying them more than the politicians who are (supposedly) “in charge of the officials” is an outrage.

    Not that politicians should be highly paid – because they should not be “in charge of society” either.

    Government service should be a financial sacrifice – one should not be able to get rich via the taxpayers, or because one has been in government.

    And, yes, Mr Blair was copying the United States – with highly paid “public servants” (who are really the MASTERS of the public) and the “revolving door” between government service and the Woke Corporations.

    It is not an exaggeration to say that the American system of governance has become institutionalised corruption – a way for officials and politicians to get rich at the expense of the public.

    The reason that the despicable Mr Biden is not arrested for his corruption is because he is not the exception – he is the norm. The Majority Leader of the Senate and the Speaker of the House of Representatives are no better than Mr Biden – they are criminals, whose crimes will never be punished.

    Who would arrest him? (or any of them) The FBI and the “Justice” Department are as corrupt and despicable as Mr Biden is himself.

    Nor is it just the Democrats – many of the Republicans are just as corrupt. Politicians such as Thomas Massie who regards Congress as a distraction from his farming and engineering work (and who votes against the insane “Covid Stimulus” stuff) are rare indeed.

    If any of the Founders returned today, even Mr Hamilton (that hero of the “Woke” theatre), they would have to conclude that the American system of governance is an experiment that has FAILED.

    And it is a failed experiment that we have copied in the United Kingdom – especially since Mr Blair, with his doctrine of high rewards for those who “control society” in the bureaucracy and the revolving door to the Woke Corporations.

    Hello Mr “Nick” Clegg at Facebook.

    Civil Servant for the European Union, and elected British politician (the two paths should not be taken by the same person), then “Deputy Prime Minister”, now being paid by a “Woke” Corporation.

    That was the dream of “public-private partnership” (institutionalised corruption) of Saint-Simon two centuries ago – and it is coming into effect now.

  • Paul Marks

    On the historical point – concerning Roman Catholic teaching.

    It is clear that trying to apply such Encyclicals as that of of 1891 (Pope Leo XIII partly under the influence of Cardinal Manning and others) to the United States Federal Government, or to any government with LIMITED powers is not a good thing. The vague statements that government must help the people one finds there. are not compatible with clearly limited government. And the historical claims in the first paragraph of the 1891 Encyclical, that the people had been impoverished or made more immoral by “capitalism” do not stand up to examination – it is just not true that people were poorer or more immoral in 1891 than they had been in 1791 or 1691 or 1581 or 1491 – if anything the opposite is true. Nor is any evidence (or real argument) presented that expanding government in size or scope will make people less poor or more moral than would otherwise have been the case.

    Fraser Orr suggests that any wording can be twisted – but some wording is harder to twist (even for the scumbags in robes – the “Justices”) than other wording. Had the writers of the Federal Constitution been so “paranoid” as the writers of SOME later State Constitutions were, it would have been better. To give an obvious example – the 10th Amendment really could do with the word “expressly” or “specifically” in there, and some drafts of that Amendment had such words.

    A single word can make all the difference – just as for want of a nail the horseshow was lost, for want of the horseshoe the horse was lost, for want of the horse the rider was lost, for want of the rider the message was lost, for want of the message the battle was lost, and for want of the battle the kingdom was lost. And all because a man was careless with a horseshoe nail.

    However, one should be careful not to imply that late 19th century figures such as Leo XIII or the Protestant Bismarck, or the Episcopalian Richard Ely just made up statism, and nor did the atheists (such as Karl Marx) either. There has always been a long tradition to look back to.

    For example, as far back as the 5th century A.D. the theologian Augustine argued that the state (not just the church or voluntary effort and mutual aid) should look after the old, the sick, the poor (and on and on).

    It is from the same source (Saint Augustine of Hippo – no relation to the animals that Perry likes) that the great strength in the ideas of Predestination/Determinism (for, contrary to some thinkers, Predestination and Determinism are often linked) and using force in matters of religion, comes from.

    Other thinkers had similar ideas – but the authority those ideas carried (and still carry) came from the prestige of Augustine and a few others.

  • Paul Marks

    Why are the taxes and debts of (for example) Florida lower than the taxes and debts of (for example) New York? Is it some special moral virtue that the people of Florida have over the people of New York State? No it is not.

    The taxes and debts of Florida are lower than the taxes and debts of the State of New York, because their Constitutions are different. The Constitution of Florida was written with the intention of keeping both taxes and debts down – and the Constitution of New York was not written with anything like so strong an intention.