Wednesday, January 14, 2009

A comment at FP gave me the opportunity to jot something down I've been thinking about since beginning to read Stephen Walt. The context is a discussion of US policy towards Iran.
Sooner or later people should begin to consider that democracy is preferable not because its more moral than other forms of government but because its more stable. The rule of law is preferable because laws founded on agreement if enforced evenly and simply build trust. And trust is the goal. The idealism of law as some form of Aristotelian logic is absurd. But realism should be the understanding that most people are stupid, not the defense of stupidity.
I think that puts it nicely.


  1. Anonymous3:30 PM

    Democracy - yes, obviously a somewhat better feedback loop.

    What I don't understand is why you (I'm not necessarily talking about this quote) are so crazy about law.

    There are other ways to build trust and 'law enforced evenly' in a large polity seems somewhat inflexible, problematic.

    I suspect people, especially in small rural places, are often reluctant to get the law involved and prefer to deal with lawbreaking incidents (even serious ones) locally, inside the community.

    Come to think of it, it's the same problem with 'democracy', actually. The bigger the polity, the more problematic it is; there are, potentially, large clusters with millions of people who are being coerced by a majority that exists somewhere hundreds of miles away.

  2. "What I don't understand is why you (I'm not necessarily talking about this quote) are so crazy about law."

    Religion is law; the Ten Commandments are law.
    Law is formalized tradition. And the larger the community, the more formalized that tradition needs to be. I prefer a system of law that's directly responsive to the arguments of the people they govern, but not all law is democratic law. There is such a thing as authoritarian law; but fascist law is an oxymoron: it's false custom. The rhetoric is empty. The formal rhetorical order of the court of the Sun King was more powerful than the King himself.

    "The bigger the polity, the more problematic it is"
    More difficult, at least.

    "large clusters with millions of people who are being coerced by a majority that exists somewhere hundreds of miles away"

    If 60% of the population lives in cities and 40% lives in the country, and there are few points of commonality in other ways, it can become a real problem. You need to foster multiple bonds and links of obligation across whatever fault lines exist.

  3. Anonymous4:55 AM

    You could (arguably) build trust without law; king-Solomon-style, for example.

    Judges without laws; it can be a local priest, local Don, some committee of patriarchs (and/or matriarchs), direct democracy, or something else. Maybe I'm idealizing here (sounds like I am, actually), but it seems to me that this kind of arrangement exists in many (if not most) places for centuries and works relatively well.

    In this case there is no formalized tradition, there may not be equal application (it needs not be claimed); each case is unique and judged pragmatically, empirically, and thus (as I understand) there is no law as such. Or is this something you would still call 'law'?

    For example: if someone kills his neighbor in a bar brawl, what use is it for the village if he goes to jail 1000 miles away for 10 years? They would lose two workers instead of one. Instead, the priest (or popular vote, or some other authority) could rule that the murderer should now be giving a half of his income out to the victim's family. But under some other circumstances the murderer might be sent to jail or even executed; it's all in the details.

    It's not realistic to expect to have all the possible circumstances written into the law, and thus, I think, the trust should lie with the authority, rather than the law.

    Does it make sense?

  4. You're missing the point Abb. You're giving no weight to the theater of law and governance. Louis XIV was not a dictator was he was a king. There's a difference.
    But I'm still not a monarchist.
    And we're not going to be living in small tribes again any time soon.

  5. Anonymous12:38 PM

    I don't see much difference between an American president or a SCOTUS judge and a king. It's the same concept, just a question of how the authority is selected.

    If you think that there's some majestic Law above them all, you're kidding yourself.

    They do what they want and then ask lawyers to justify it; the king uses priests for that.

    The priests and lawyer work to obfuscate the real issues, for the most part.

    Also, a small village is just an example, there's enough difference between NYC and Peoria, Boston and Lowell to make at least some laws pointless or even counterproductive.

  6. The people of this country are responsible for the situation it's in no more or less than their leaders.
    The same is true for Israel.

    That is far less the case for the Palestinians.
    People are weak- Power corrupts.


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