Showing posts with label political philosophy. Show all posts
Showing posts with label political philosophy. Show all posts

Friday, June 22, 2007

Men are not angels

Working in the office of a Japanese Dietman and watching Japan's "sausage-making" process has been valuable in a number of ways — many of which I have documented here one way or another — but one lesson that I have left largely unmentioned is my renewed appreciation for the American political system.

No political system is perfect, because human beings are imperfect. The label of democracy does not automatically make people and the institutions by which they govern themselves somehow more perfect than otherwise.

But that is the genius of the American political system. It is grounded in human imperfection. It's all there in Federalist 51 by James Madison: "If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself. A dependence on the people is, no doubt, the primary control on the government; but experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions."

It is not just checks and balances, giving the branches of government the duty to check other branches (and making it in their interest to do so) — it is a culture of accountability: oversight committees, inspectors general, auditors, ombudsmen, and even investigative journalists, who lend a hand when others fail. The existence of these mechanisms presupposes human failure. They exist because they assume that individuals will try to skirt the law, will try to abuse their power — and that without vigilance by citizens, and by organizations and individuals whose purpose is to be vigilant, the system will be subverted.

One of the things I find most regrettable about the Japanese political system is the near-total absence of a culture of accountability. Public funds disappear into private pockets. Public interests are subverted by private interests. The watchers collude with the watched, and the voters — those who should be watching the watchmen — look away in indifference or disgust instead of demanding better.

It is with great alarm, then, that I look at the latest sinister twist in the saga of Dick Cheney, who has now asserted that his office is a kind of hybrid executive-legislative body, and free from the bounds of laws that govern both branches. That is a remarkably subversive idea: a powerful fiefdom within government that is free from "external [or] internal controls on government."

As the wreck that is the Bush administration finally comes to an end, the American people have a lot of serious thinking to do about the foundations of American constitutional order: not simply "liberty" or "democracy" or "equality," but accountability. It is government held accountable for its actions that makes the others possible. Unaccountable government is arbitrary government, and if American constitutionalism is to survive, citizens must recognize this as being the highest ideal.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

At the frontier of political thought in China

This week it seems Wan Gang, a non-CCP party member (he belongs to the nominally independent China Party for the Public Interest), became the first non-communist cabinet minister in decades. The People's Daily noted that Wan views his appointment as an important step in the development of democracy in China.

Wan is undoubtedly being overoptimistic in his assessment of his appointment, but via the China Digital Times comes an article by Daniel Bell in Dissent on the active debate about how China will change politically.

Bell's essay, which is rich with references, is a must-read to understand how officials and intellectuals are thinking about the future of the Chinese political system. He insists that change is only a matter of time, and that the Confucian revival — discussed here — could well provide the basis for a kind of deliberative council composed of meritocratic elites. Bell deserves credit for thinking seriously about China's political future in a way that recognizes that the perfect should not be the enemy of the good: just because it is extremely unlikely that China will become a liberal democracy in the near future does not mean that political change that falls short of democracy should be dismissed out of hand.

This just goes to show the extent to which China's identity, like Japan's, is up in the air. The manner in which these two giants answer the open questions about who they are, how they should relate to their pasts, and how to ensure the best quality of life for their citizens in a time of rapid change will profoundly impact the international environment in Northeast Asia — and so rushing to condemn China's military modernization, as Gary Schmitt does in the Washington Post, is wholly premature. (Check out Robert Economist's reply to Schmitt here.)

Atlas shrugs in Japan?

This afternoon one of the local DPJ politicians supported by my boss was in the office, resting, and he asked whether I have read "Einrando." After some initial confusion, I finally figured out that he was asking about Ayn Rand — because he's in the process of reading Atlas Shrugged in Japanese (there are few books for which "in the process" is as apt as Atlas Shrugged).

We then proceeded to discuss the various "philosophers of liberty" — Hayek, Hume, Locke, Smith, Popper, Oakeshott — and he insisted upon the need for more liberty and smaller government in Japan.

I was taken aback, not necessarily because of his admiration, but because I had been discussing the applicability of Atlas Shrugged to Japan with Colonel Sturgeon just the other day. My point wasn't so much about Japan's needing smaller government and less exploitation of the government for private ends — it does — but the applicability of the novel's mood.

In the novel, the various sectors of society and economy fail, like a body wracked with disease that systematically attacks different organs. There is a pervasive gloom, with the action of the plot punctuated by news reports about one industrial sector after another failing. As I have watched reports of massive corruption in corporations in every sector of the Japanese economy — the latest example being NOVA, the leading English conversation school — and throughout the government, I cannot help but recall the atmosphere in Ayn Rand's dystopian America. While Japan might not be experiencing serial organ failure, it is suffering from a pervasive infection that has weakened every sector of the body politic.

Now, no one should construe this post as an unqualified endorsement of Ayn Rand. I consider my youthful infatuation with her thinking as one of those things that people should grow out of, like wearing velcro sneakers. As Stephen Fry said in an episode of A Bit of Fry and Laurie, "I don't believe in market forces. I used to, of course, when I was a child, but like everybody else, when I grew older, I discovered it was all made up." Now I would not go quite so far as that, but I did grow out of Rand: the world is far too complicated to be divided neatly into craven collectivists and heroic individualists.

But the discussion of the applicability of liberal (in the old sense, or the current sense for Europeans) thought to Japan is interesting. As I have written before, I have a hard time with importing Western political concepts into the Japanese context. Modern Japan has never known liberalism — it has had liberals, but never liberalism. Its institutions and political culture is steeped in constant interaction between state, economy, and society. Some would say that it is so as a function of Japanese culture, and is thus impervious to change. To me, that is neither here nor there. As far as I am concerned, it is a function of political culture, which while being slightly more susceptible to change is still a function of unique conditions in a given polity. As an Oakeshottian, I am content to let political culture be. Political culture grows over time, and is resistant to attempts by outsiders to change it. (Imagine what the New Dealers who came over to Japan with SCAP would think about what they wrought.) Would more liberalism in a political sense, with greater respect for the individual and a more dynamic civil society be enormously welcome in Japan? Absolutely. Would more economic liberalism, with more risk-taking, more dynamic enterprises, and less collusion among bureaucrats, politicians, and corporations be welcome? I must answer again in the affirmative.

But these will result only from long-term structural change; Japan will not change overnight. And as it changes, it will necessarily reflect Japanese conditions: for example, a more active civil society, but one that cooperates with the government and more risk-taking, but a strong safety net to protect people from getting too hurt. And with more than a quarter of Japan's population set to be over sixty-five in a few decades' time, there is a floor below which the Japanese welfare state will not recede. An aged society is necessarily a society in which the state will have an active role.

Nevertheless, the question of whether and how Japan will become more liberal is a fascinating one, that will only grow more interesting with time.

Thursday, April 5, 2007

Fukuyama on democracy

Francis Fukuyama, in a brief essay posted at the Guardian, argues against connecting his "end of history" thesis with the Bush administration's foreign policy. (Hat tip: Andrew Sullivan)

I can think of few contemporary ideas that have been more misunderstood than Fukuyama's argument in his original essay "The End of History?" in The National Interest and his subsequent book, The End of History and the Last Man. His argument was not a triumphalist paean to liberal democracy at the end of the cold war. Rather, as the appending of "the Last Man" to the title of the book suggests, Fukuyama sought to spell out the full implications of an increasingly liberal democratic world, and by using Nietzsche as a starting point, clearly presented a more nuanced view than those who often refer to "the end of history" realize.

In any case, I especially liked the conclusion to Fukuyama's essay:
I never linked the global emergence of democracy to American agency, and particularly not to the exercise of American military power. Democratic transitions need to be driven by societies that want democracy, and since the latter requires institutions, it is usually a fairly long and drawn out process.

Outside powers like the US can often help in this process by the example they set as politically and economically successful societies. They can also provide funding, advice, technical assistance, and yes, occasionally military force to help the process along. But coercive regime change was never the key to democratic transition.

Democratization cannot be primarily a military project, nor, ultimately, can it be primarily a foreign project. Democracy can only emerge when a nation desires it, and is willing to work towards a democratic governance, at which it is fitting and proper for the developed democracies to give their support.

Fukuyama's point about the US and other developed countries serving as examples for aspiring democracies is interesting in light of something I heard the other day at a campaign rally in Zushi. With the first wave of unified local elections scheduled for this Sunday, 8 April, Japan is in the throes of an intense bout of campaigning, with candidates presenting themselves before the public at railway stations throughout Japan. On Tuesday I observed Kanagawa Governor Matsuzawa Shigefumi, who is up for reelection, outlining his goals for political reform in Kanagawa. Interestingly, in talking about the need for term limits, he pointed respectfully to the American political system, saying that although President Clinton was extremely popular, he was still constitutionally required to retire. The point is that while it has become popular to speak about how little foreign countries respect and admire the US, I think this is exaggerated: at its best, the American political system still is a model for democracies everywhere, something all Americans -- but especially American elected officials -- would do well to remember. The rest of the world is watching closely.

Finally, a more profound and older expression of the ideas found in Fukuyama's essay was penned by British political philosopher Michael Oakeshott, who wrote the following in his essay "Political Education":
When a matter of attending to arrangements is to be transplanted from the society in which it has grown up into another society (always a questionable enterprise), the simplification of an ideology may appear as an asset. If, for example, the English manner of politics is to be planted elsewhere in the world, it is perhaps appropriate that it should first be abridged into something called 'democracy' before it is packed up and shipped abroad. There is, of course, an alternative method: the method by which what is exported is the detail and not the abridgment of the tradition and the workmen travel with the tools -- the method which made the British Empire. But it is a slow and costly method. And, particularly with men in a hurry, l'homme á programme with his abridgment wins every time; his slogans enchant, while the resident magistrate is seen only as a sign of servility. But whatever the apparent appropriateness on occasion of the ideological style of politics, the defect of the explanation of political activity connected with it becomes apparent when we consider the sort of knowledge and the kind of education it encourages us to believe is sufficient for understanding the activity of attending to the arrangements of society. For it suggests that a knowledge of the chosen political ideology can take the place of understanding a tradition of political behavior. The wand and the book come to be regarded as themselves potent, and not merely the symbols of potency. The arrangements of society are made to appear, not as manners of behavior, but as pieces of machinery to be transported about the world indiscriminately.