THE DANGER OF LANGUAGE

The Windrush scandal in Britain is a story of how the members of a group of the population during the last few years found themselves demoted to a state in which they could not sleep at ease at night out of fear that someone would come and take them away. The Windrush generation are the migrants from the British West Indies who brought their labour force to Britain after the Second World War, on British encouragement, both adults and children with their parents. (The Empire Windrush was a transport ship that brought the first contingent of organised migrants from Jamaica and other Caribbean islands in 1948.) They settled here, made their lives here and became British.

Recently, members of this group came under intense scrutiny from immigration authorities and many found their right to live in Britain questioned. They were harassed for documentation to prove their right to reside. They found documentation such as employment and tax and social security records, even passports, disbelieved. They were forced into bureaucratic nightmares to procure additional documentation, often at substantial financial cost. They were denied standard services, such as health care, or were forced to pay for normally free services. Some were detained, some lost jobs, some were deported or threatened with deportation, some denied travel on the threat of not being readmitted, some refused re-entry from abroad.

The refugee children scandal in the United States is a story children of migrants on America’s borders, whose right of entry were in question, having been forcefully separated from their parents. They have sometimes been detained in concentration camp like facilities in border areas, sometimes sent away to other parts of the country.

In retrospect, authorities in both countries have acknowledged that what happened was wrong, but what should not have been done was still done. In both these civilised democratic countries practices came into operation which we otherwise associate with totalitarian dictatorships. How could that have happened?

It happened, of course, because officials on the ground obeyed orders from above. It has sometimes been seen as a mystery that totalitarian dictators have been able to get officials to implement brutish oppression, but there is no mystery. When officials are embedded in bureaucratic structures of command and obedience, those in command can get almost any order obeyed. Officials may not like what they have to do, but it gets done.

But in these two stories, there has been something more to it than obedience. Officials have executed perceived orders with extraordinary and brutal zeal, even in the face of horrendous and irrational consequences. Hardly anyone in position of authority in the respective services seems to have raised any question or objection, at least on principle.

That kind zeal comes from something else than just orders, it comes from the language in which the orders are couched. Language of caution can influence officials to implement orders with common sense and flexibility. Language of aggression can bend them to bureaucratic insensitivity.

In both these stories, public policy went seriously off the rails. The reason for that is ultimately that leaders were aggressive with the language they used to promote and justify their policies. In Britain, then Home Secretary Theresa May announced that immigration policy should be designed to create a “hostile environment” for illegal immigrants, and made a great show of that hostility. Immigration officials took to looking for illegal immigrants behind every bush and turned on a minority of mostly poor and black citizens with rigid demands of proof of their legality. In America, President Trump has whipped up anti-immigration sentiments by speaking of immigrants as criminals, rapists, and as vermin infesting the country, and asked for zero tolerance in the implementation of policy. Immigration officials dispensed retribution against children, even down to taking infants and disabled children away from their mothers.

Public policy depends on leadership for good or bad direction. Language is powerful. It is a responsibility of leadership to use language with prudence. Aggressive language from up high is dangerous – not just careless but dangerous. We see that in these two stories. We have had leadership of terrible language. We have had administrative practices that belong in totalitarian dictatorships.

 

REFORM – THE IMPERATIVE NOW

All democracies are imperfect. They need constantly to be improved. Continuous and never-ending reform is part and parcel of the democratic enterprise.  If leaders and citizens think that their democracy has made it and found the Holy Grail, it is doomed.

There are two reasons behind the imperative to reform:

  1. Democracy is a process of trial and error. We must be sensitive to failures and mistakes and seek better ways. Circumstances change, for example in domestic economies or world affairs, and democratic governance must adjust.
  2. For confidence in democracy, citizens need to see that leaders are attuned to shortcomings and willing and able to work for improvements. They need to see that leaders deal with problems. Otherwise they will, with justification, see democratic governance to be incapable and gridlocked.

Professor Robert A. Dahl, in On Democracy (1998), recommend that democratic countries engage, every twenty years or so, in a thorough process of constitutional reform.

Democracy is now under threat. That goes to both values and capabilities. This misfortune (hopefully temporary) has many causes. One cause is a tendency to sclerosis in reform. If we look to the United States, to Britain, to other European democracies, to the European Union, we see dysfunctions not being dealt with. It is not dysfunction itself that is the rot, but that problems are not confronted and taken on. It is time for us in America, Britain and the EU to follow Professor Dahl’s advice and look very seriously into the ways we do governance.

The standard model today is representative democracy: citizens elect representatives to make and implement policies on their behalf. Reform can follow two paths. We can seek to repair what is deficient in the representative system, such as the organization of elections, the procedures of parliamentary decision-making, the methods for the nomination of candidates for election, the financing of candidacy and campaigns and the like. Or we can seek more far-reaching innovations towards alternative forms of democracy: participatory democracy, referendum democracy, deliberative democracy and the like.

These are not strictly alternative strategies, but there is a complicated dialectic between them. There is no known alternative to the representative system, but that system as we now see it operating on the ground needs pretty serious repair to regain credibility. If we concentrate on alternative innovations, there is a danger of making the perfect the enemy of the good. The search for alternative models can even contribute to further undermining the credibility of the representative system without offering any practical alternative.

Representative democracy is a model that has very much going for it. That needs to be preserved and improved, not replaced.

There is a back-to-basics message here. It would seem, as things now stand, that the recommended strategy of reform would be, first and basically, to improve the representative system, and then, on that basis, to think of innovations as add-ons in support of the representative system.

WHAT IS DEMOCRACY?

In a recent debate (at this event in Berlin), I and others were challenged to explain, no less, the meaning of democracy. I suggested a partial answer along three lines:

  1. Democracy is A PACT between the state and citizens in which the state makes two commitments, it promises citizens order and it promises to protect their liberty. Autocratic systems, even benevolent autocracies, if there is such a thing, can at best promise order, but always on the condition that citizens surrender their liberty. The democratic idea is audacious, the autocratic idea petty.
  2. Democracy is A CULTURE. A well functioning democracy is made up of a constitutional order that sits on a democratic culture. Constitutional order is necessary but not sufficient. The purpose of democracy is safe and effective rule. No constitution can provide for that without being embedded in a democratic culture. A democratic culture is one in which citizens and leaders support democratic ideas, values and practices and where these beliefs are upheld and transmitted from one generation to the next.
  3. Democracy is a continuous CONVERSATION between citizens and between citizens and leaders, based on freedom of information and assembly (the constitutional provision) and an inclination in the population to engage (the cultural predisposition). The object of this conversation is a workable (if moving) consensus on the rights and duties of the state and of citizens respectively.

It then follows that democracy can be constituted and work in very different ways from one country to another in the service of these purposes, depending on historical circumstances.

Democracy is now challenged on all three lines. Autocratic systems, such as in China, that do not recognise liberty and hence reject the double pact, are confident enough to claim moral superiority. In America and Britain, the Trump election and Brexit are symptoms of fractured democratic cultures. A consequence of fractured culture is that the conversation disintegrates into a shouting match of polarisation.

 

IDEOLOGY

When in Berlin, go to the German Historical Museum!

I work my way through its present exhibition on the Russian Revolution (the October 1917 one, that is) and its consequences. The terror and death that followed was of horrendous proportions. It’s a display of the destructive power of ideology. For Lenin and his followers, nothing was not permitted in the name of “the revolution.”

Revolution was possible in Russia because previous regimes had failed to democratise. Once in power, the Bolsheviks tried to export the revolution to the rest of Europe. But it was not wanted and was nowhere taken up where democracy was sufficiently vibrant to prevent it from being imposed from above.

Ideologies are belief systems that give meaning to history and destiny and that take hold with commanding strength. They are manmade, but then take on a force of their own. Leaders think they can use ideology as a tool, but once they have let the genie out of the bottle, they become enslaved by their own creation. It does not matter if the ideology is of the left or the right, it is ideology itself that is the evil force. Where ideology reigns, ends justify means.

Could social destruction under the force of ideology happen today? It is happening! In Venezuela, before our eyes, a rich economy is being destroyed, a democracy disestablished, and a civilised society torn apart. A regime is clinging to power for the sake of another “revolution.” It does not matter that the revolution is bringing devastation on to the country whose well-being is its purpose.

DECISION AND DELIBERATION

Decisions made by a democratic National Assembly (or Parliament or Congress) have democratic legitimacy. That’s what we want in a democracy, decisions that are valid because they are made democratically.

However, strangely enough, the democratic legitimacy of decisions correctly made can sometimes be a problem. Whatever the National Assembly decides, must be correct because it is democratic. If someone is able to get the National Assembly to make a decision in their favour, say in a matter of taxation, they have won, because the National Assembly has put the stamp of “democratic” on that decision.

One agent who has an interest in getting the National Assembly to make certain decisions is the government. Governments have agendas they want pushed through, and they want to do that with as little trouble as possible from the lawmakers. National Assemblies are therefore under pressure to produce certain decisions and to do so without resistance.

The potential problem here is that this may push the National Assembly into making badly planned decisions because the government is desperate to get those decisions made that it has promised the electorate and to get the Assembly’s stamp of “democratic” on them. Such bad decisions are a big problem: since they are democratic, it is very difficult to overturn them and the country is stuck with potentially serious consequences of mistaken decisions.

Such mistakes happen. A case in point is Brexit. Then Prime Minister Cameron was able to get Parliament to sanction a referendum in a quick and easy decision without giving him any trouble or resistance in the matter. That was clearly a mistake. The country is now tearing itself apart and is unable to extricate itself from the mistake that has fallen down upon it. (Although it is my belief that Parliament will eventually find a way of correcting this mistake, it is, as we are seeing, very difficult to overturn a decision that has the legitimacy of a referendum behind it.)

The lesson is that National Assemblies should be able to make good decision and protected from making bad ones. Their decisions should be democratic but they should also be good, productive and workable, and certainly not counterproductive.

National Assemblies need assistance to manage the difficult combination of democratic and productive decisions.

They need the assistance, first of all, of protective procedures. Procedure is a boring matter for those of us interested in politics, but terribly important. National Assemblies need to impose rules upon themselves whereby they force themselves to not making decisions without careful scrutiny of consequences. They must avoid knee-jerk decisions because such decisions are in high risk of being bad. They must give themselves time and they must take themselves through routines of scrutiny. The Brexit decision, for example, was taken by Parliament without any preliminary work on what the consequences might be, and we are now paying the price.

They need assistance, secondly, in knowing what is in the interest of the people. One might think a good way of doing that is to ask the people, for example in a referendum. But we now know, from modern psychological research (such as by Daniel Kahneman who won the Nobel Prize in Economics for his research), that this is too simple. You and I and all of us are prone to making mistakes about our own good because there are mechanisms of bias at work in our minds. Our instinctive preferences are not necessarily what we really want. It turns out that people often change their minds and correct their preferences if they are given the opportunity to reflect and work on them with some care.

From this, political scientists are concluding that the popular will is not something that just exists in the population but what emerges from what they call “deliberation.” The German theorist Claus Offe has suggested that National Assemblies should have the support of more sophisticated information about “the will of the people” than raw expressions of preferences. He suggests “deliberative panels” consisting of a random sample of the population – he calls them “citizen deliberators” – charged with working their way through appropriate procedures from raw preferences to “reflective preferences” in important political matters. He thinks the panels should be constituted by some kind of lot among all citizens, that their task would be to help both citizens and lawmakers to form considered judgements, and that their authority would be exclusively advisory for National Assemblies.

As often, original ideas on first encounter seem odd, but this suggestion is really quite common sense. The reason we have National Assemblies, is that in a big population we for practical reasons must appoint a sample of the population to make decisions for us. If preferences depend on deliberation, the same logic would apply to the pre-decision process of forming preference. We will not get proper deliberation unless we design proper procedures to do it.

As for additional panels to advise the National Assembly, that’s the rationale of for example the House of Lords in the British Parliament and of various other “upper houses” in other national legislatures. Offe’s idea is slightly different, in how the panels are made up and precisely what they would do, but the idea is much the same.

 

UNIVERSAL SUFFRAGE? AND THE CHILDREN?

We are celebrating, in Britain today, the centenary of women winning the right to vote. In 1918, the vote was extended to all men over 21, and to women of the propertied class and over 30 years of age. It was to be ten more years before all women over 21 got the vote.

We are used to thinking that with all adult men and women having the vote, and the voting age having been lowered to usually 18, we have achieved universal suffrage. But that is not right. A whole class of citizens are still denied the power of the vote: children.

That matters. The interests of children are light-weight in the competition over public policy. The Family Allowance that was introduced in the great welfare reforms at the end of World War II, has subsequently shrivelled in real value, the result being high rates of poverty among children. It has not had enough political support. In the great austerity drive after 2008, pensions have been singularly protected from any erosion in value. Pensioners have the vote and use it.

It is mostly though obvious that children cannot have the vote, but that is sloppy thinking. It was once thought obvious that women could not vote. The battle against “the obvious” is the first bastion. In The Subjection of Women (1869) John Stuart Mill said it thus: “.. the burthen is hard on those who attack an almost universal opinion ..”

The logic is that children should not have the vote because they cannot vote, but that is to confuse two separate questions, the should-question and the could-question. If we for a moment set practicalities aside in our minds, and ask only the should-question, we would surely conclude, theoretically, that children should have the vote. The principle of universal suffrage is that all citizens have an equal interest in government matters and that therefore all citizens should have an equal say. In the abstract, that must include children no less than other categories of citizens.

The question, then, is really if they could have the vote. If a practical way could be found, there is no issue of principle standing in the way.

In recent years, great advances have been made in the recognition of children’s rights. In many ways children are now, in law, citizens rather than subjects. For example, children have property rights. Children cannot manage property, but that is not taken to mean that they cannot have property. The practical solution is that someone is appointed to be the custodian of the property on behalf of the child, until the child is old enough to take care of it himself or herself. The custodian has a duty to manage the property in the best interest of the young owner.

The similar logic in respect to the vote would be that all children have the right to vote but that this right is managed on behalf of the child by a custodian until the child comes of age, now sometimes referred to as demeny voting.. That’s a practical solution that solves the could-question. Since there is no independent should-question standing in the way, the matter should be resolved.

The solution I have advocated  is that the children’s vote is managed on their behalf by the mother (or the father if the mother is absent) so that the mother is the custodian of a second vote in addition to her own irrespective of the number of children. There are other ways it could be done, but this has been my preferred arrangement. There is every reason to trust that mothers would manage the second vote on behalf of their children and not as a second vote for themselves, just as we trust custodians to manage property.

There is a small lobby in democratic countries in favour of the children’s vote. Not a powerful lobby – we have not yet won the battle against “the obvious” – but a persistent lobby. I first lent my voice to this following in an article in the then International Herald Tribune on 14 December 1996, under the heading “In a Democracy, Children Should get the Vote.” The progress that is being made is for a lowering of the voting age to 16, which has been introduced in some democracies and is coming elsewhere. But since there is a way that concurs with current legal thinking to include all children in the power of the vote, there should be no reason not to go the whole way.

WAS MACHIAVELLI A DEMOCRAT? IS HE RELEVANT TODAY?

Relevant, perhaps, but a democrat? Was he not the author of a book of tyranny? Perhaps not quite.

In The Prince, the most famous how-to about governing ever composed, Niccolò Machiavelli speaks to the man set to govern the state of Florence. His message is straightforward: if you are to govern, you better be effective.

Well, exactly who he is addressing himself to, and why, and what he means to say, is a bit of a mystery. He does preface his tract with a letter to “the Magnificent Lorenzo de’ Medici,” but when he started to write it he did not know that Lorenzo would be selected by the Pope (in 1513) to be the new Florentine leader after the collapse (in all but name) of the Republic. Perhaps he wanted to flatter the young and inexperienced prince to get himself a job, but it is likely that his friends advised him to hold back and that he never presented his text to Lorenzo or anyone else in his circle. Perhaps his intention was not at all useful advice but rather to confuse the autocrat with inconsistent and counterproductive ideas and thus entice him to failure. Machiavelli was after all a man of and for the Republic who had every reason to resent the new regime. Or perhaps not. Although a man of the Republic, he was also desperate for job and position, and in need of income, and probably very ready to compromise on his principles if he could get himself back into government service. He wrote the tract quickly, finishing it the year after he was deposed from his post as second chancellor to the Republic, having endured a spell in prison and under torture. Could it be that he wrote it in anger, or to get some resentment off his chest? We do not know. However it came about, it is a tract full of mystery and contradictions.

Machiavelli had good reasons to occupy himself with effectiveness. Italy in general and Florence in particular were in decline, suffering from internal disarray and threatened and to some degree subjugated by foreign powers. That, he thought, was the result of weak and inept governing. So when he reflected on the doings of the new the prince and the need for effective rule, what he had in mind might have been less the glory of the prince and more the standing of the state. Even if not a Republic, Florence was still Florence and needed the order of being governed. His message, then, was one of effectiveness for a purpose. He thought that effective rule was necessary if the ruler were to have any chance of winning the goodwill of the people and hence for the cohesion of the ruler and the ruled that would make for a solid state. It is in the interest of those who are ruled that the rule they are exposed to works. Otherwise, not only the state but also the lives of its citizens are in peril.

For Machiavelli, then, effective rule is a noble ambition. But it is also, in another piece to his puzzle, a difficult ambition. The world is not an easy place, people are not easy to deal with, the times were brutal and turbulent. Rule in such a way as to create order is difficult.

From this comes his many and well known recommendations for ruthlessness on the part of the ruler. There is no escaping his cynicism on the use of hard means, to put it carefully, but was he an apologist for tyranny? The reason, or at least one reason, he was a man of the Republic, was that under republican rule, where there is a division of power and where those in power are answerable to at least some of the people, there is ideally no need for tyranny. He also thought that kind of rule was the best basis for a stable state. Although republican rule is not democratic, that is as close to democratic thinking as was available at the time.

However, in the setting in which he reflected and wrote, republican rule was not going to happen. The problem to hand, then, was how to secure effective rule when power was in the hands of a ruler whose position rested not on the institutions and conventions of the state, but on a foreign authority (that of the Pope). The prince had been parachuted in by the enemy, yet that same prince was the only hope. That kind of ruler does not have the luxury of being able to trust that the people trust him. It is to rule under those circumstances, or so we may think, that Machiavelli’s hardest recommendations apply.

Those of us who are concerned today with the future of democratic government have much the same reasons to occupy ourselves with effectiveness. Democracy is challenged and in some ways in decline in quality and delivery. Movements of anti-politics and anger are taking hold. The core democracies of Britain and America are in a terrible way, in crises of identity and gridlocked governance. Their predicament is not unlike that of Machiavelli’s Florentine Republic: the constitutional institutions function poorly, in Britain and America’s case in particular their national assemblies, Parliament in Westminster and Congress in Washington. Cohesion of the rulers and the ruled is much wanting, as is goodwill from people to governors. Admirable constitutions are falling into disrespect and are weakened by internal divisions, lack of confidence and poor leadership. External powers of non-democratic persuasions are asserting themselves. In Europe, authoritarian Russia, with customary paranoia, is busy stirring up disorder in the democratic part of the continent, and winning admiration for “strong government” in particular in some of the younger democracies. In China, a re-constituted People’s Republic is on a mission to make totalitarianism work, racking up followers in democratic countries who either admire authoritarian force or hate democracy, or both. However you read The Prince, it is a reminder that the elementary condition of good government is effective government. We today need to be reminded that this is as true of democratic government as of any other kind. The purpose of democracy, after all, is not to be democratic but to provide for safe and effective government.

For more on Machiavelli, read Erica Benner: Be Like the Fox: Machiavelli’s Lifelong Quest for Freedom.