Human Nature and Political Organisation

Covers human nature, case studies, human rights/natural rights and utilitarianism.

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Human Nature and Political Organisation
Defining Conservatism by its Enemies
Case Study: Gene Sharp: `From Dictatorship to Democracy'
Another enemy of the conservative is personified in the liberalist ideology of the American
academic Gene Sharp. His little book `From Dictatorship to Democracy' (free on the internet)
is a sort of handbook for opponents of dictatorships all over the world. Sharp's unstated (and
unargued for) assumptions are that (i) democracy is always better than dictatorship and (ii) that
democracy is right for everyone and for every type of society. Inspired (apparently) by Gandhi's
peaceful revolution against colonialism in the 1940's, Sharp's book contains hundreds of `tips'
on how to undermine dictators by peaceful means.
It all sounds fine in theory of course ­ there are indeed some pretty nasty dictatorships around.
But what about those untested assumptions? Is democracy always the best form of government
for everyone and for all societies? Even Mill thought not. He (infamously) exempted children,
mad people and the `uncivilised' nations from his theory of liberal government (in `On Liberty').
He thought a society needed to reach a certain stage of political development before it was
ready and able to follow his harm principle (political liberalism). The Indian case is instructive.
Gandhi's India is the world's most populous democracy and it seems to work reasonably well,
but Pakistan has had a quite different postcolonial experience of alternating democracy for
short periods, interspersed with long periods of military dictatorship. Is there something that
makes Pakistan unsuited to democracy? Some people think that something is Islam. Are
some nations/peoples/societies/cultures simply unsuited to democracy? During the `Arab
Spring' of 2011 one author, writing in Prospect, argued that getting rid of dictators was one
thing, but getting rid of the patriarchal bonds which exist throughout Arab culture would be quite
another thing altogether. Patriarchy seems inconsistent with democracy because it appears to
entail deference to patriarchal authority rather than to the `authority of reason' (one's own
independent judgement) ­ which is often seen as a prerequisite for a democratic political
Mill also had something to say in `Considerations of Representative Government' about the
conditions under which democracy can take root and flourish. Order, progress and a
willingness of the citizens to participate and shoulder the responsibilities that go with citizenship
seem to Mill to be necessary conditions for representative government. Do those conditions
exist in the present day Middle East?
Remember also Hooker's warning about those who can see easily enough what's wrong with a
system of government, but may not have the insight and perception to see if change would
make things better or worse (`they have not ordinarily the judgement to consider...' etc). Does
either of these conservative criticisms undermine Sharp's view about `democracy for all'?
Criticisms of the Liberal Conception of the State
Edmund Burke: `Reflections on the Revolution in France'
One of the most trenchant critics of what we have since come to call liberalism came from
Burke in his `Reflections' (1790). The book is a deadly missile aimed at the ideas which gave
rise to the French Revolution. The notion of a Social Contract and its associated idea of the
rational agent completely failed, according to Burke, to take into account that no `rational'
justification for the authority of the state could ever be given. Any such justification was bound
to be the object of continuing objection precisely on the grounds on which it had been

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­ that is, of rational thinking. Hence there could never be any lasting ground for
authority in the state derived from reason.…read more

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For Goldberg, modern welfareliberals are activists. They believe that the state should be active
in doing stuff that the state should `fix' whatever needs fixing, whether it be education, housing,
welfare, healthcare, or whatever. You name it and welfare liberals believe that the state should
fix it.
The American TV show The West Wing provides an interesting case study of the welfareliberal
attitude to the kind of `big government' that Goldberg criticises.…read more

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Goldberg's point about the apparent oxymoron (and its early alternative title) is that the
emotional and doctrinal roots of welfareliberalism are a lot closer to the `totalising' ideologies of
the socialist left and of fascism in particular than they may care to admit.
Note that Goldberg's critique is not directed at the classical liberalism of Locke et al. Goldberg
calls himself a conservative, but I think we would be better calling him a classical liberal.…read more

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Within only two years of writing the `Reflections', Robespierre's Terror was unleashed on the
`dim or wilful'. Burke's analysis can also serve as a judgement on the very many examples
which have followed the French Revolution and which owed much of their impetus to this kind of
thinking. Pol Pot's Cambodian `Year Zero' experiment is but one example.…read more

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You are familiar with this one. A bomb is about to go off. You have arrested someone you think
is the bomber. Are you entitled to torture him to save the lives of thousands, perhaps tens or
even hundreds of thousands. The Americans (George Bush) though so after 9/11. Learned
legal opinion was sought to justify waterboarding and other `enhanced interrogation' techniques.
The Vice President Dick Cheney claimed that these methods had actually stopped America
experiencing another major terrorist outrage.…read more

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Section 4. Justice
Nozick continued...
There is a further step that Nozick's theory seems to imply. If taxing what is rightfully mine is
unjust, then why is it any different from the state taking what it thinks I owe in direct labour?
Let's say I work for 200 days a year. Let's say my taxes add up to about 25% of my gross pay.…read more

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Rawls says it is hypothetical. What kind of a contract is that? You answer
that it isn't a contract and that you are therefore under no obligation.
Mill offers further support for Nozick when he discusses tyranny of the majority. When a
tyrant arbitrarily takes what he wants from his subjects (whether he goes through the ritual of
enacting laws as justification is immaterial) we call the acts of such a ruler, unfair and a
tyranny.…read more

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Aristotle would concur with that last thought from Burke. Liberals (including Rawls and
Nozick) start from the wrong premise ­ that of the `atomistic' individual and his (or her) `liberties'
or `rights'. But human beings only become persons in the context of their participation as
members of society. And relations in society proceed from the notion of reciprocity, not from
abstract principles such as `liberty' or `rights'.…read more


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