In his classic defense of free market economics, The Road to Serfdom, F. A. Hayek explains why the expansion of government control over a complex society inevitably shifts power from representative democratic assemblies to boards or bodies of technocratic elites. Democratic assemblies are designed to operate, within limits, on the principle of majority rule. Yet majorities in large bodies can only be effectively forged on the basis of general principles or laws; they are impossible to maintain in the context of the management of a complicated society or economy.
Why? On any given issue requiring management there is an infinite variation of possible policies, each suiting the needs or interests of different parties. Inevitably a representative assembly does not divide merely into two general segments, each seeking to gain the majority against another, but into innumerable factions. The result, as Americans witness constantly in their own government, is gridlock. And the solution to gridlock is the assigning of the particulars of legislation to technocratic elites (i.e., lobbyists and lawyers) who design a policy that will be enforced by another body of technocratic elites (i.e., bureaucrats). As Hayek puts it,
The inability of democratic assemblies to carry out what seems to be a clear mandate of the people will inevitably cause dissatisfaction with democratic institutions… The conviction grows that if efficient planning is to be done, the direction must be ‘taken out of politics’ and placed in the hands of experts – permanent officials or independent autonomous bodies…. ‘It is common ground that the present parliamentary machine is quite unsuited to pass rapidly a great body of complicated legislation.’ (104).
Case in point: Obamacare. The average elected representative in Congress had very little influence over the particulars of the policy; most probably didn’t even know the details of what they were voting for or against. And yet the problem is not with President Obama and the Democratic Party. The same tendency is observable in Republican legislation like President Bush’s signature Medicare Prescription Drug legislation. Any piece of legislation seeking to expand federal control or management of something as complicated as health care or the economy requires the rule of experts.
One need not be a libertarian to accept Hayek’s basic insight on this point. And of course, it is by no means clear what Hayek’s alternative would look like in practice, particularly in a country committed to federalism like the United States. What is appropriate for a body of elected representatives at the local or state level is not necessarily the same as what is appropriate at the federal level.
But Hayek’s perspective is at least worth pondering. From his perspective the unpopularity of Congress today is less the result of the tendency of power to corrupt, or the irresistible need for the politician to do what will get her or him reelected, than it is the effect of the American people having given Congress a mandate it cannot possibly fulfill.
The fault is neither with the individual representatives nor with parliamentary institutions as such but with the contradiction inherent in the task with which they are charged. They are not asked to act where they can agree, but to produce agreement on everything – the whole direction of the resources of the nation. For such a task the system of majority decision is, however, not suited… There is no reason why there should be a majority in favor of any one of the different possible courses of positive action if their number is legion (105).
The delegation of particular technical tasks to separate bodies, while a regular feature, is yet only the first step in the process whereby a democracy which embarks on planning progressively relinquishes its powers… The belief is becoming more and more widespread that, if things are to get done, the responsible authorities must be freed from the fetters of democratic procedure (107-108).
Alexis de Tocqueville warned that when democracy went down this road it would spawn a massive interest group of government officials, bureaucrats, and associated elites whose interest would gradually diverge from that of the people. Tocqueville would not be surprised by the contemporary political battles between public unions and populist reforming governors such as that which took place in Wisconsin this past year. Yet Joel Kotkin points out that both President Obama and Governor Romney represent a set of elites seeking to manage the country in one way or another.
The middle class, we’re frequently told, decides elections. But the 2012 race has in many ways been a contest between two elites, with the plutocratic corporate class lining up behind Mitt Romney to try and reclaim its position on top of the pile from an ascendant new group—made up of the leaders of social and traditional media, the upper bureaucracy and the academy—that’s bet big on Barack Obama.
Kotkin interprets the Tea Party as a populist reaction to the increasingly authoritarian and technocratic character of American government. Yet he by no means conflates a President Romney with the Tea Party.
Of course, Romney himself is the very opposite of a populist. As president, he would offer four years of technocratic, corporate power. Yet at the same time, a Romney administration—contrary to the claims of Democratic operatives and at times also the mainstream media—would not embrace the savage worldview of Pat Buchanan, Sara Palin, or even Rick Santorum. It would be establishmentarian in a “sensible shoes” kind of way.
So what is the choice facing American voters? Hayek would tell us that we have given our democracy an impossible mandate: the management of the most complicated economy in the world. In this case we might want to moderate our hopes for what any politician can achieve. After all, when we go to the ballot box we are not usually voting for particular rules or policies. For most of us we are simply choosing which party, with all of its technocratic expertise, will do the least damage. Good luck with that.
[Note: I am not as cynical about the upcoming election (or some of the issues at stake) as this last paragraph may suggest. I am simply trying to put some things in perspective. Consider it a nod to the book of Ecclesiastes.]
Comparing Islamism to Protestantism – The trajectory of reformation, pluralism, democracy, and public influence
Yesterday I highlighted some of the changes in the Arab world that are leading to the democratization and secularization of politics. What is particularly striking about the phenomena is that it is not the growing acceptance of western values or of liberal theory that is driving the change. Rather, it is the development of competing and evolving forms of Islamic practice, including Islamic fundamentalism.
The great example is Egypt. Despite the surge in influence of conservative Islamic groups like the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafis, Egypt has not followed the path of the Iranian Revolution three decades ago. Rather, various Islamic groups are competing with one another, and with the military and other parties and movements, to shape an evolving quasi-democratic state. In the process, Islamist leaders are more concerned about pandering to popular values concerning, say gender and sexuality, than they are to imposing their own revolutionary agendas. In short, religion and democracy are allies here, not enemies.
It is still unclear where all of this will lead, but what are particularly striking are the various points of analogy with the western, particularly the Protestant, experience of modernity.
To be sure, Christian political theology has always been more conducive of the separation of church and politics than has Islam. There is something about the proclamation of a kingdom that is not of this world that creates the concept of secularity, the idea that certain institutions and practices are limited in their significance to this world. The state is one of those institutions, and politics involves such practices.
But the fact is, the West did not immediately pursue the way of democracy. Although Christian political theorists and theologians articulated theories of self-government, of representation, of rights, and of the separation of powers long before the Enlightenment arrived, these developments took place within the context of serfdom, monarchy, and empire, and only eventually of small scale aristocratic republics. They never questioned the establishment of religion or considered how government might recognize religious pluralism because there was little need to do so.
It was the various social, political, and religious developments that came with and followed the Reformation that changed all of this. All of a sudden nations like the Netherlands found themselves bitterly divided between Catholics and Protestants, while countries like England found their populations fracturing into a multitude of Protestant sects and eventually denominations, groups that defined themselves according to belief and commitment rather than cultural or ethnic identity. In fact, it was the religious pluralism that became so dominant in the American colonies, particularly in the middle colonies, that gave rise to the separation of church and state, and to the largest scale experiment in democratic governance the world has ever known.
And yet something profoundly unexpected to many religious zealots then took place. In precisely the country where church and state were separated, religion thrived, and in the continent where governments refused to give up the establishment of religion, Christianity withered. During the Second Great Awakening it was the most evangelical and democratic forms of Christianity that won the allegiance of the masses. And it was in the context of both exponentially multiplying religious pluralism and of widespread cultural and political influence – what historians have called the Benevolent Empire – that Protestantism experienced its disestablishment from political power.
The pattern was arguably repeated in the 20th Century. The Mainline denominations that were so culturally and politically prominent gradually declined in number as their theological moorings collapsed. On the other hand, the Fundamentalist and Evangelical groups most isolated from political power and most faithful to their conservative creeds thrived. By the end of the century it was these groups, not the Mainline denominations, that represented mainstream Christianity, and it was these groups that had the most moral, social, and political influence in the country. Even more interestingly, the political significance of these groups (i.e., the rise of the Christian Right) appeared only in the context of the increasing secularization of government and the growing pluralism of the country.
What is the connection with the Islamic experience? Note some of Olivier Roy’s conclusions once again:
Fundamentalism, by disconnecting religion from culture and by defining a faith community through believing and not just belonging, is in fact contributing to the secularization of society… In such a context, any endeavor to restore traditional norms through laws and regulations will fail. After all, you cannot change a society by decree. [Think of the impact of the Reformation on the understanding of the church, and the gradual shift away from the coercion of the true religion in Protestant countries.]
The growing de facto autonomy of the religious arena from political and ideological control does not mean that secularism is necessarily gaining ground in terms of culture and society. Yet certainly a new form of political secularism is emerging… What is at stake is the reformulation of religion’s place in the public sphere. There is broad agreement that constitutions should announce the ‘Muslim’ identity of society and the state. Yet there is similar agreement on the proposition that shari’a is not an autonomous and complete system of law that can replace ‘secular’ law. Instead, shari’a is becoming a loose and somewhat hazily defined ‘reference point’…. [Think of the growing recognition among Protestants that the Torah could not directly be applied to modern civil law, and a willingness to wrestle with the complexity of applying biblical law to modern societies.]
The recasting of religious norms into ‘values’ helps also to promote an interfaith coalition of religious conservatives that could unite around some specific causes: opposition to same-sex marriage, for instance. It is interesting to see how, in Western Europe, secular populists stress the continent’s Christian identity, while many Muslim conservatives try to forge an alliance with believers of other faiths to defend shared values. In doing so, many of them tend to adopt Protestant evangelical concerns, fighting abortion and Darwinism even though these issues have never been prominent in traditional Islamic debates. In this sense, the modern neofundamentalists are trying to recast Islam into a Western-compatible kind of religious conservatism. [Here the comparison to conservative Christianity in America – in both its Catholic and Evangelical forms – is obvious.]
It’s all very fascinating. Note again the points of analogy:
1) It is in the context of the revival and reformation of religion that a new emphasis is placed on individual faith and commitment. The group of disciples is distinguished from the cultural or ethnic people group.
2) The inevitable result is religious pluralism, the competition between various religious sects or denominations.
3) Religious pluralism makes it impossible for any one religious group to dominate the cultural or ethnic people group theocratically. Politics must necessarily be secularized and democratized.
4) It is by appealing to broadly accepted religious values, or by translating religious commitments into more widely accepted moral commitments, that religious groups maintain their political and cultural influence.
5) Groups that refuse to play according to the democratic game, or to accept the secularization of politics, are marginalized.
Whatever descriptive truth was left in the old saying, ‘Islam admits no separation between din and dunya’ (that is, between religion and the world) has been definitively emptied out by the Arab Spring – Olivier Roy
It is often said by Christians that unlike Christianity, Islam allows no distinction between church and state. While Christianity has always emphasized the spiritual (or eternal) nature of the church in contrast to the secular (i.e., temporal) character of the state (or of civil government), Islam allows no such nuance. The implication, to many Christians, is that Islam as a religion is incompatible with the values of freedom and democracy.
In a fascinating recent essay entitled “The Transformation of the Arab World,” Olivier Roy, a professor at the European University Institute in Florence, argues that the Arab Spring has challenged this perspective. While Islam may be somewhat incompatible with liberalism or secularism, he points out, it is by no means incompatible with democratization, or with the secularization of politics. What’s more, it is the very revitalization of Islam that is making the distinction between religion and politics an emerging reality.
Roy points out that intellectuals often view the Middle East as if it is caught between the horns of a terrible dilemma: the choice of secular dictatorship or Islamic totalitarianism. Even democratization, it is often thought, will inevitably fail due to the political commitments of the various forms of Islamism.
In contrast, Roy argues that the Arab Spring has given expression to a very real democratization that is beyond the power of the Islamists to control even as it remains thoroughly Islamic in its orientation. Roy writes,
In order to grasp what is happening in the Middle East, we must set aside a number of deep-rooted prejudices. First among them is the assumption that democracy presupposes secularization: The democratization movement in the Arab world came precisely after thirty years of what has been called the ‘return of the sacred,’ an obvious process of re-Islamization of everyday life, coupled with the rise of Islamist parties. The second is the idea that a democrat must also, by definition, be a liberal.
In other words, it is just as Islam has thrived in the Middle East that Arab culture has become increasingly democratized. It is just as young Muslims are taking their faith more and more seriously that politics is going through a process of secularization.
In part, Roy explains, younger Muslims are coming to embrace a form of Islam less associated with political identity and more associated with personally embraced faith. One reason for this is the set of significant demographic changes these Muslims have experienced.
[T]here has been a dramatic decline in fertility across the Arab world… Women have entered universities and the job market. Young people obtain more schooling than their parents did and marry later. Husbands and wives are more often closer to each other in age and level of education. They have fewer children, with nuclear families replacing extended households. Mobile phones, satellite television, and the Internet have allowed the newer generations to associate, connect, and debate on a ‘peer-to-peer’ basis rather than through a top-down, authoritarian system of knowledge transmission. The young feel less strongly bound to patriarchal customs and institutions that have been unable to cope with the challenges facing contemporary Middle Eastern societies.
As a result of these political changes, Roy argues,
The young are more individualistic and less prone to feel the pull of holistic ideologies, whether Islamist or nationalist… The failure of political Islam that I pointed to twenty years ago is now obvious. This does not mean that Islamist parties are absent from the political playing field – quite the contrary. But their utopian conception of an ‘Islamic state’ has lost credibility.
Democratization, in short, is resulting from profound social and cultural changes in the Middle East. Al Qaeda is “yesterday’s news” and younger Muslims are interested in a different form of Islamic practice. Even the Salafists “are recasting religion as a code and a set of clear-cut norms disconnected from tradition and culture.” The new form of Islamic practice “delinks personal faith from traditions, collective identity, and external authority.”
Young ‘born-again’ Muslims have found their own way by surfing the Internet or joining local peer groups. They have criticized the cultural Islam of their parents and have tried to construct their own brand of Islam, one that feels more like a matter of conviction and less like an inherited habit.Religion has become more and more a matter of personal choice.
And what is the political result of all of this?
This individualization and diversification have had the unexpected consequence of disconnecting religion from daily politics, of bringing religion back into the private sphere and excluding it from that of government management. Fundamentalism, by disconnecting religion from culture and by defining a faith community through believing and not just belonging, is in fact contributing to the secularization of society.
To be sure, the secularization of politics should not be conflated with political secularism or with liberalism. Most Muslims continue to want Islamic convictions or shari’a law to serve as the guide and foundation for civil law. But there is less faith in the ability of Islamists to “change a society by decree,” and as Roy demonstrates by numerous examples from recent events in Egypt, Tunisia, and elsewhere, even the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafis are increasingly conforming to the democratic game.
Why? Because the increasing emphasis on the role of religion in every area of life, alongside the democratization of that religion, has “given birth to a variety of religious movements.” The multiplication of forms of Islam represents “a willy-nilly democratization of the religious field.” And when so many religious groups are competing with one another, democratic politics becomes a necessity.
Again, the point is not that Islam is no longer viewed as relevant for politics. But its relevance is more in the way of values and moral commitments rather than authority. Increasingly Muslims are recognizing that even shari’a law is more of a “reference point” than an “autonomous and complete system of law that can replace ‘secular’ law.” Indeed, as Roy notes, “Instead of the secularization of society, we might do better to speak of the ‘autonomization’ of politics from religion and of religion from politics, due to the diversification of the religious field and the inability to reconstruct religion as a political ideology.”
These are fascinating developments, and there are numerous points of analogy with the experience of Christians in the modernization, secularization, and democratization of the West. Tomorrow I’ll take a look at some of these points of analogy.