#47 On real democracy

Dear Mat,

Do I not give Jesus’ teachings a fair go because of his reputation? I have to say, my major engagement with religion has been to read the holy texts as though they were written by unexceptional humans (which indeed they were).

In The Bible we get the opposite: the mother of all halo effects where people listen to what Jesus says not because of the quality of his teachings but because he is posing as the son of someone important. Evaluated as anonymous statements on how to live, the New Testament fails terribly. Nowadays, unfairly transplanted from the cultural context in which it was written, it recommends behaviour that is totally unethical and totally nuts given what we now know about human nature and the world. Love thy neighbour as thyself. Impossible. Give no thought for the morrow. Terrible advice guaranteed to ruin.

Jesus had a lot of contradictory advice, none of it about achieving justice in this world, or of fostering a culture of debate and error-correction. No religion gives you that because it would be suicide for the religion. The real story is how these cults were corralled into taking on non-religious, modern ideas that — despite religions and other conservative traditions— led to civil society, accountable governments and at least semi-vigilant citizens.

I don’t understand the process by which that happened. Maybe it’s liberalism, maybe it’s the impact of technology, maybe it’s the gradual emancipation of women, maybe it’s widespread literacy, maybe it’s Maybelline  — whatever it is, we should try and figure it out. It ain’t religion or stoicism or human nature. It ain’t anything that was around before 1500.

You said:

Human flourishing always comes at the cost of injustice […] struggling for recourse  [in a democracy] is exclusively either arguing your point or voting. Western civilisation is the opposite. If someone kills your family member you must suffer that injustice and suffer the additional culturally-enforced injustice that you must leave the bastard to police and face the monster in a courtroom.

I think human flourishing has only been possible with the getting of justice. Tribal justice involved killing in retaliation, often getting the wrong man, meanwhile your tribes are in perpetual conflict, so no social justice is ever attainable. Feudalism was worse: no justice at all if the pharaoh kills your family. So starved for justice were people in that world that they invented powerful cults about magic justice-givers in the sky who sort it all out when you’re dead.

We can argue and vote. If it stopped there we wouldn’t be living in a real democracy. We can also petition to change a law or run for office and change it ourselves; we sit on juries and decide cases and the legal system itself is open to legal challenge; we can engage the free press, write angry letters, take people to court and appeal the decisions; we can make FOI requests, appoint advocates to investigate for us, engage one part of the government against another and we can even sue the government; we can object to doing most things given reasonable circumstances, or we can whip up an angry mob and march through the streets demanding recourse. If the government in turn tries to stop us from doing these things, it’s a sign of autocracy. In fact in a real democracy it’s illegal for the government to stop you doing these things and them doing so is a warrant for further actions.

Importantly, individual (self-interested) action is often not enough for serious reform and combating serious injustice. Collective action is needed otherwise an organised, paid, self-interested collective called, the government, will destroy you before you achieve it through individual efforts.

It weirds me out that libertarians and classical liberals, who are supposed to be vigilant about the dangers of tyranny, are the ones who think it will magically be OK if everyone just keeps their own house in order. Why do social justice warriors emphasise group identity? Because atomised people are easier to rule. Liberals in turn emphasise individuality because independent minded people are harder to rule. Both are onto the right idea: resisting oppression, avoiding totalitarianism. Clearly a combo is needed.


PS Treaty of Versailles? Really? That’s your comparison to reparations for being enslaved?

Also published on Medium.