Discourse Is Democracy
Suppressing Open Exchange is Suppressing Democratic Society
For if liberty and equality, as is thought by some, are chiefly to be found in democracy, they will be best attained when all persons alike share in the government to the utmost.
Here is a thought experiment. Consider two hypothetical societies. The first is a constitutional dictatorship with a history and culture of open debate and constitutional provisions that reflect that history. Policy advocacy groups are free to advocate; media openly broadcasts government missteps; public debate is lively. Subjects of the dictatorship are able to freely consider all of this information. This is reflected in the constitution. But also reflected in the constitution is that they have no vote. The dictator rules by decree, and those decrees become the law of the land.
The second society is a pure democracy where every adult citizen casts a vote. No governing body, other than the people, has the power to pass any law. All legislation is by referendum. But this society has a history and culture of idea suppression. Strong social pressure to conform was long ago codified into laws placing strict limits on what information can be broadcast on the airwaves. Media only broadcasts views sanctioned by the society’s elite. That elite sets the Overton window, and the rest of society behaves accordingly for fear of social or even legal reprisal. Dissenting views are censored in media, and dissenters are lawfully jailed under the society’s robust Disinformation Laws.
Which society is more ‘free’? Over time, which society’s laws will come to more closely reflect the will of its population?
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You may be surprised to find yourself unable to conclude that the nominal democracy is freer than the dictatorship. You may feel like they’re a wash. You may even have the intuition that the dictatorship is more free and will more closely reflect the will of the people.
I believe the former intuition is onto something. And the latter intuition is undergirded by a deep, universal truth that should tell us something about the nature of democracy.
Natural Law’s Check on Government
Where does power lie? In a state of nature, the now-cliché adage “might makes right” applies. As philosophers like Hobbes have argued, government is the exchange of that state of nature, and the pure insecure freedom it provides, for a provider of security.
The exchange of freedom for security, i.e. the “social contract,” is an active, dynamic relationship between a state and its people. It’s renegotiated with changing social values, changing laws, and changing regimes.
Nobody signs an actual contract before joining society. You’re born into it and you don’t have a choice. The same applies to the hundreds of millions of other people you share society with. But hundreds of millions, that’s a lot of people. And, under the right conditions, that’s a lot of power.
And that’s the rub. No matter what laws or rules your society imposes, the mass of people living in that society threaten to upend it if the government oversteps too far. The people in a society will only accept so much deprivation, limitation, abuse, before the social contract starts to look like such a bad deal that they have nothing left to lose. And so, while individuals are thrust into the social contract without explicit consent, the mass of people together hold a last-ditch veto power to void the contract in its entirety.
How Do We Explain Abusive Despot States?
Okay, that all sounds well and good for ivory tower philosophical pontification, but in the real world there are incredibly abusive despot states like North Korea that seem to stick around.
American Conservatives point to the right to bear arms as the ultimate check against government tyranny. Indeed, North Korea places strict controls on firearms. But North Korean gun control isn’t any more onerous than, say, gun control in South Korea, or Japan, Singapore, Australia, or countless other countries that no sane person would argue are anywhere near as totalitarian and oppressive as North Korea.
And consider Russia: Russia has elections. Russia has universal suffrage (women in the old U.S.S.R. had the right to vote even before their American counterparts). Russia has relatively permissive gun laws and a gun culture that, while it is dwarfed by America’s, far surpasses gun culture in most of the developed world. In fact, while the U.S.S.R. ushered in a brief period of severe firearm restrictions, Russia has otherwise always had a heavily armed populace.
Granted, this well-armed populace did overthrow their emperor. Natural law’s check on government came for Russia’s last Czar in 1917 in the throes of World War I, but that was only after centuries of imperial rule, most of which coincided with some of the most grueling feudal conditions in all of the west. Clearly, an armed populace deprived of dignity and rights isn’t a sufficient condition for popular uprising.
Oppressive despot state can last, and the common variable to all those that do is idea suppression. A stronger police state, a greater willingness to brutalize your population, these are all things that make popular uprising more difficult but that only moves the threshold for when revolution occurs. Systemic idea suppression, the ability of an authority to obfuscate reality and define truth, is the only sure-fire way for a government to completely decouple itself from the will of its people.
The example of China drives home this point. China is a totalitarian regime balancing two highly conflicting interests. To assert itself on the world stage and have its desired impact on geopolitics, China needs a reasonably well-educated and productive populace. But to maintain domestic dominance, it needs to suppress dissident ideas and control the flow of information. Even with the CCP’s seemingly iron grip on the domestic front, the regime’s overstepping with Covid caused enough popular backlash that the Chinese government has had to change tack and offer concessions to the people.
Even the CCP isn’t completely decoupled from natural law’s check on government because it can’t commit itself to totally depriving its people of information and agency to draw conclusions and manifest their wills in the external society.
Government as a Conduit for Popular Preference
Now let’s circle back to the hypothetical set out in this article’s opening. The reason our nominal dictatorship is actually more free and more reflective of the population’s preferences than the nominal democracy in the long run is because the dictator’s populace has not been deprived of their ability to take in information, or to discuss and assess it. That population will know it if and when the dictatorial government strays from popular preference. And the dictator knows that, if they stray too far, the populace still has natural law’s check on government.
Ultimately, government is the conduit mediating a population’s preferences and the nation’s aggregate policies, rules, and people that implement them. Successful monarchies (e.g. England), the ones that lasted, understood this, and their governance to varying degrees reflected popular preference.
It is important to note, though, that these societies never mirror popular preference, nor does any society for very long. This is because a perfect mirror, also known as mob rule, is both highly volatile and subject to intolerable extremes. The Founding Fathers of the United States understood this. It’s emphasized at length in the Federalist Papers, and its at the core of many of our constitution’s “anti-democratic” provisions.
And so, one way to see different systems of government is as differently-tuned conduits to harness, channel, and smooth out the implementation of popular preference. A monarchy is a highly conservative conduit, designed to err toward blunting the raw will of the populace and only move where absolutely necessary to preserve its power. If it’s too conservative, however, it will meet its end at the hand of natural law’s check on government.
As information has become more democratized, with possibly the single most significant advance being the printing press and the Gutenberg bible in the 1400s, we have seen a trend toward government conduits blunting public sentiment less and reflecting it more. Democratic republics, a relatively new conduit technology in human history, are still experimenting with the tuning process. How much do you directly effectuate popular preference? How much do you blunt or counter it with other checks in the governing structure?
But explicitly democratic governments are far more modern than the broader trend of societies becoming more reflective of the will of the people. In other words, societies started to become more democratic before governments did.
The Open Exchange of Ideas is Democracy
To summarize, the proliferation of knowledge through societies has tended to increase the degree to which they reflect public sentiment, i.e., these societies become more democratic, regardless of whether those societies’ governing structures had explicitly democratic features.
Governments that suppress information and the individual’s ability to make their own judgments, on the other hand, tend to decrease the degree to which those governments reflect public sentiment, i.e., these societies become less democratic, even when those governments have explicitly democratic features.
What does this tell us? First, it tells us democratic government is not synonymous with democracy in any meaningful sense. Democratic government is a technology that came into popular use hundreds of years after the general trend of “more democratic societies” began to take off. It’s a tool designed to effectuate democratic society.
If democratic governing structures like suffrage aren’t democracy, just tools to facilitate it, then what is democracy?
Democracy is a kind of society where citizens take in information, come to conclusions, develop views, and make those views manifest in the external society, causing that external society to change or stay stable in accordance with the aggregate views of the population.
The open exchange of ideas is core to every part of that definition. We take in information mostly through the exchange of ideas, whether its a book, article, news broadcast, podcast, formal debate, or an informal discussion online or in person. We come to conclusions by digesting information and considering the arguments that present that information. Then we make our conclusions manifest by sharing them with others, who may or may not be persuaded by us.
Popular sentiment can only grow and change if ideas spread. Persuasion in turn is one of only two ways ideas can spread (the other being force). Citizens cannot come to conclusions and act to manifest their will without the free exchange of ideas. And if citizens cannot come to conclusions or manifest their informed individual wills, how can any policy their government produces be said to be “democratic”? Even if that policy is implemented by referendum.
The only alternatives to the free exchange of ideas are various flavors of authoritarianism. You can have your pick: despotism, aristocracy, theocracy, plutocracy, technocracy. But whatever group’s will manifests in your society, it cannot be that of the people broadly.
Mob Rule and Clamors for Authoritarianism
The dance between democratic mechanisms and non-democratic ones is a delicate balance. Too much democracy and you get tyranny of the majority, mob rule, government captured by moral panics, and all the other baggage that comes with. Not enough and you get authoritarianism.
But rising contempt for the free exchange of ideas will only strengthen populist anger. You can’t abolish natural law’s check on government. But if you try to neutralize the threat by suppressing the free flow of ideas, you risk plunging society into an era of genuine authoritarianism (or losing and ushering in a reign of terror).
The fact is, the best defense against rising support for authoritarianism is a level-headed populace whose whims don’t engender fear. If you don’t have that, your goal needs to be to restore it. We need to revive our culture of a marketplace of ideas, which has been supplanted today by a marketplace of engagement that validates feelings and stokes hatred rather than pursuing the truth.
And the best defense against rising populism and calls for mob rule is an elite that earns trust, and doesn’t overstep its mandate. Large societies need authorities. Complex societies need experts. But in a democratic society, they don’t rule by decree. They have to use persuasion, because the only alternative is coercion or force. The more you clamor to silence dissenters and anoint certain experts (the ones you agree with, of course, because the others are quacks), the more you stoke the mob, and add to its ranks. The only way to shrink its ranks is to rehabilitate trust in expertise—which means more honesty, more access to information, less lying, and less open fetishization of rule by technocracy.
We are playing with too many fires all at once. I’m increasingly afraid we will get very badly burnt. There is a narrow path left back to safety. I hope that we can marshal the will to take it.