The Meaning of Treason: Unintelligable Apart from Primacy of the Individual

The democratic dance between coercion and freedom

“Treason” is very much in the eye of the beholder. The word describes a significant attack on the fundamental order of things, usually a form of governance. But if that order of things is illegitimate in the eyes of the viewer – dictatorships or theocracies as seen by Westerners or godless democracies as seen by the godly? Is treason, then, merely a relativistic concept? Or is there a more absolute idea that would define treason as a betrayal of the individual or of human rights?

North American ideas about ideal governance are unambiguously, even automatically and thoughtlessly, biased toward “democracy” as the default standard. Alas, the very concept tends to be incompletely understood.

Democracy as actually practised in the Western world implies so much more than the idea of majority rule. Here are some of the essential points not usually articulated or even grasped:

– Democracy is not the same as freedom even though, alas, the two terms are often used interchangeably. Freedom has to do with the option spectrum of the individual and the security of that status. Freedom (for many) is a goal.[1]

Democracy is not a goal. It is merely instrumental. It is a decision-making technique. Where democracy operates to oppress a majority (as it often does), it is in fact the opposite of freedom, and democracy may in fact be used by unfree societies to purportedly validate their practices. Referenda were central to Hitler’s consolidation of power.

– The idea of limits is essential, because democracy is, at its core, a majoritarian concept and because the operational end of democracy is state action. The essential foundation of state action is coercive rather than co-operative or voluntary. (Imagine a taxation regime with no auditing or sanctions.) But coercion is inimical to freedom. Thus, in a free society, the operation of government, and therefore of democracy, must be constrained to an optimal level (its precise point is often the subject of much debate).

The idea of limits also applies directly to the “optimal level” debate. It is clear that as the fraction of the electorate dependent upon the state for (earned or unearned) transfer payments grows, so too will grow the ability of these clients to control the state via the ballot box. If pensioners, for example, were 51 per cent of the population, they could vote for and enforce extravagant pensions, at least until the economy shrank via the exit of, or reduced incentive for, producers. Some Western societies are testing this limiting factor.

In other societies, majorities may choose to democratically oppress minorities. Indeed, the framers of the U.S. Constitution spoke often of such dangers, being themselves rather ambivalent on democracy.

– The recognition and protection of minorities is considered an essential feature of civilized societies, and yet it is a direct contradiction to democracy, in the sense that the majority does not and must not prevail in certain areas.

More profoundly and to elaborate, the smallest minority is the individual. The very idea of individual human rights challenges democratic rule, just as, conversely, the idea of human rights requires democracy as the decision-making rule for giving consent to coercive action.

– In addition, there are hierarchies of categories protected to some extent from democratic action. The highest level, though its pragmatic importance can be challenged,[2] is that of natural rights. One then moves down through constitutional law, codes of rights and process, ordinary law, custom and mere trust and politesse. [3]

Some of these categories (such as constitutions and codes of rights) customarily require “supermajorities” for amendment. All of them require due process if government wishes to interfere in their operation.

Over the years, this recognition of a basket of rules imposing a requirement of due process has come to be known as the rule of law, which is in itself a far more basic and older constraint on human activity than is the idea of democracy. In that sense, undermining the rule of law is arguably more treasonable than is anti-democratic activity. But then – what if the law is unjust?

In addition, it is clear that maximal diversity is likely to be attained with an optimally sized “basket of rules”. No rules at all lead to anarchy, chaos and lack of freedom, and nothing but rules lead to lack of diversity. The sweet spot in between defines the tolerant society, though of course exactly how much one ought to tolerate is often a matter of considerable debate.

Much more could be said, but the above is perhaps sufficient to indicate that what we tend to call “democracy” is in fact a complex web of mutual expectations of one another that allow us to live together in peace and constructive activity. Indeed, the only reason majoritarian voting enters the mix we call “democracy” is the belief in some societies that citizens should afford some level of consent to the coercive activities of the state.

Nevertheless, it must be clearly understood – there is ample justification for the state, even if democracy is not included in its rules. Human beings have an individual and a collective need for order and predictability, a need to foster mutual support and co-operation, a way of building infrastructure and other “social capital” and a response to the “free rider” problem posed by economists.

What’s at the core for Western liberalism: Not democracy, but the rule of law

For Westerners, democracy is an allegedly indispensable attribute of collective rule or the state. Too few in the West appreciate that democracy is not a foundational principle of the state but rather a quite recent add-on and only a small part of our pattern of living together.

The rule of law, on the other hand, truly is indispensable. A functioning society is inconceivable without it. In an operational sense, the rule of law really comes down to predictability.

Throughout the ages, strongmen, tyrants, monarchs, dictators and oligarchies have understood this principle. That is not to say that those in power have always agreed to be thus governed, but the condition of predictability is essential to a successful and continuing society.

Experience over the years has taught us and our rulers pro tem that it is better – and certainly more agreeable for most – if that predictability is based upon voluntary exchange, co-operation and trust rather than thuggery, contestation and suspicion.

Other principles are almost as fundamental. For example, the separation of politics and administration is of enormous importance to social success. We can see this principle, outlined in the pioneering work of Baron de Montesquieu and adopted in the American constitution, exemplified in modern times in circumstances ranging as widely as the corrupt consequences of Boss Tweed’s Tammany Hall in New York to the work of Stephen Cornell and Joseph Kalt[4] studying the differential success of Indian tribes.

Newly desirable practices such as accountability and transparency in public affairs are much more recent and less fundamental – though, of course, essential to the achievement of modern expectations.

However, if what one wants is, say, a society based on a mystical religion or the support of a hereditary monarchy and secure Establishment, then accountability and transparency would be destructive of that end. (So too would democracy, of course.)

As a general principle, it cannot be emphasized too strongly that the optimal rules for the governance of any society depend in the end upon two things that may well be interrelated: First, what kind of mix of individuals makes up the society? Second, what do they want their society to do for them? What is common to all of these ideas is the good of the individual human being.

The fact is that quite reasonable societies can be constructed that do not include majoritarian elections, especially if other sorts of checks and balances (for example, a balance of power between various “estates” or regions) are included. For Westerners, any system lacking majoritarian elections would be unacceptable, but that is a relatively recent viewpoint in human affairs, not an established law of nature.

We turn now to the fundamental dividing point between such systems.

The gulf between West and East, between the individual and the collective

In giving a short account of the most fundamental of governance concepts, two things stand out as being as obvious today as they must have been to the earliest humans capable of thought. The first is that the individual is not only the smallest, autonomous, free-standing, decision-making unit but also the only temporal locus of consciousness, pleasure and pain, etc. The second is that the individual is almost nothing without the collective, incapable of surviving alone in infancy and old age and incapable of doing significant things alone at any age.

This symbiotic arrangement between the individual and the collective requires order and rules, stemming from the very fact that the individual is autonomous and can move in any direction. Collaboration – pulling in the same direction – is essential for both survival and progress. Unorganized autonomy is a recipe for chaos. (This is not an argument against the free market society, which is in fact very well organized.)

Collaboration requires rules, and the best sort of collaboration – the voluntary, imaginative sort, which produces the best outcomes – requires not only rules, but also co-operation. Co-operation in turn is brought about by way of incentives, which are at their most efficient when they are predictable and constructive, which brings us back to order.

The result is a virtuous circle. The individual working with the collective earns much in the way of rewards. The collective that best organizes individual effort produces the most. As physical, human and social capital gradually evolve through the investment of surplus production, societies bootstrap themselves forward. Anything that seriously subverts this virtuous circle may properly be described in the language of treason, not against the state but against humanity.

Humankind throughout history has come up with a variety of social arrangements to work with these realities. Of course, we have no records of the earliest experiments, but it is likely they were hierarchical and based upon such things as strength, agility and perception. Gradually, the social skills would have become more important, but the backstop of strength has never disappeared. Coercion remains the ultimate guarantor of order.

In modern societies, coercion has faded far into the background for most people at most times. Rather, we get along because we see that it is useful to do so. Thus, social exchange becomes, to that extent, voluntary.

Indeed, so ingrained have these patterns become that we have developed the habit of trust, which is to say that we rely upon others to behave in predictable ways with a higher order of certainty. Trust-based societies are vastly superior to any alternative, because they reduce frictional losses otherwise required to ensure security and order.

One indicium of social development is how far this idea of trust extends. The idea of trusting one’s natural family is ancient, and that of the extended family or clan almost equally so. In what are considered “advanced societies”, trust is far more generalized, becoming the default attitude toward other citizens. As noted above, this hugely reduces frictional losses, making the societies much more productive in terms of fuller lives and more options for the individuals making up the society.

But in much of the world, social development in terms of trust stops at the family or clan level – with one crucially large and important exception. This exception relates to a shared belief within the society in some ultimate purpose, a purpose larger than the individual, the family or, indeed, the society itself. In a recent lecture,[5] Leah Bradshaw of Brock University contrasted Aristotelian and Kantian concepts of what this ought to mean. She came down on the side of Aristotle, but what is clearly important to the individual is the integrity of the service-provision function of the collective. To subvert this (my words, not hers) is an act of treason.

This is true even of theocracies, to the extent that they have general support. For whatever reason – whether fortuitous access to revealed truth, as some would have it, or simply because the world is a very complex and confusing place requiring explanation – people have found it useful to envision some sort of supreme and ultimate order whose existence gives reason and meaning to their lives. The usual word for this body of thought is religion, though many people who say they are not “religious” share such ideas.[6]

Religion can be an exceedingly powerful social force, sometimes even surpassing the power of the practical individual-collective working relationship. A collective can hardly be said to have a religion (even though all of its adherents may share the same one), but for the individual, the religion can transcend the collective. The faith can also, interestingly, be in the collective or used by the leadership of the collective for governance purposes. The permutations and combinations are as numberless as human variety, but it is safe to say that degree of religiosity is another index of social development.

Now, here is the interesting thing, and the thing that distinguishes post-Enlightenment societies from the rest: When the object of religion or ultimate belief becomes the individual himself, the appropriate governance type changes.

As long as the central shared belief of a collective is in some supreme imposed order, be it internal[7] or external (usually religious), the individual can – must – logically subordinate his or her individuality to that greater authority. Majoritarian democracy is not a suitable method of governance for such societies, because democracy is based simply on individual views, not divine or temporal truths.

‘Authority societies’ and ‘individual societies’

I will refer to the two types as Authority and Individual societies. In Authority societies, where truth and purpose are defined by some higher order, democracy makes sense, if at all, only for limited purposes. For example, the Iranian system, an Authority society, is based upon Islamic truth as revealed to a priestly class. If one believes this, it is clearly nonsense to subject the application and elaboration of such truth to uninformed opinion. Elections (again, as in Iran) may be held, but not to govern basic decisions.

To understand this point of view, it may be helpful to make an analogy with science, which is somewhat amusing because the development of science is usually cited as one of the necessary conditions for the development of the Enlightenment[8] and the popularization of the concept of individual value that followed. Notwithstanding that, democracy is an idea that is thoroughly and properly foreign to science.

To find out which idea is correct and ought to be applied, one does not poll scientists and go with the majority, (though in the current global warming debate, we are perilously close to that way of seeing things). Rather one asks, which science, which theory works? Which concept correctly, understandably, universally and unambiguously predicts what will happen? If one has such a theory, one has science. It is not a democratic concept at all.

In pre-Enlightenment societies, the Authority – temporal or religious -is, by analogy, the “science”. The views of the individual as polled by democratic methods simply do not matter. What matters rather is, “What would Jesus do?” or “What does the Koran say?” or “What is the view of the Dictator?”[9] Moreover, in such societies, that approach seems perfectly natural to believers.

Of course, no society or individual is totally Authority or totally Individual or pre or post Enlightenment as I am using the term. We are all a mix. But it is fair to say, from a political point of view, that the traditional Anglo-Saxon democracies (including the United States, for all its religiosity) and most of Western Europe are Individual. North Korea might stand as the opposite pole for the Authority grouping, admittedly of an extreme variety, with other nations fitting into the gradations between. Japan, for example, is generally classed as a democracy but has and expects of its citizens an unusually high degree of internal consensus that perhaps comes close to approximating an Authority.

One of the markers – and the reason the United States, for all its religiosity, is Individual – is the question of how the rule of law is ultimately applied. Is it totally self-contained within the society and secular (at least in theory) or does it rely for validation and even actual judgement upon the rules of an Authority that is greater than the commonly developed views of the collectivity? By this measure, Japan emerges as being clearly Individual, because it is based upon temporal, locally developed law.

In passing, one must acknowledge the argument that says that democratic governance is itself nothing more than a religion and that the commonly held – as distinct from commonly developed – world view of, say, Islam or Christianity should be accorded equivalent status. I reject that on the basis that the belief in the individual as the ultimate standard of value is a fundamentally different approach than is the belief in a supreme being or maximum leader and that the commonly held views of a democracy, being subject only to individual sovereignty and having and claiming no value beyond that, are of a different class and kind. Once again, democracy is not a religion, because it is merely instrumental, not a goal.

What we see going on in the philosophical world of politics is an evolution in the aforementioned mix in answer to two powerful attractions.

The attraction of Authority is obvious. It requires no thought and no assumption of personal responsibility. For better or for worse, the rules are clear and the future is predictable. Order, that great yearning of humanity, is looked after, even if the existing order is disagreeable for some.

The attraction of the supremacy of the individual is equally clear. In exchange for the acceptance of responsibility, one is empowered. In acceptance of the burden of thought, the option spectrum is dramatically expanded. Overall social predictability is not affected due to what mathematicians call the Law of Large Numbers, but individual order is lessened – a problem that Authority societies do not suffer. Individual societies must attempt to address this problem with various sorts of safety nets that try to prevent the exercise of individual responsibility from resulting in personal disaster.

These urges contend in all of us, from the mixed emotions of a libertarian longing for peace in the sanctuary of a church after a personal loss to the mixed emotions of a religious Islamic youth watching Britney Spears on the satellite. But, alas, each society can only have one ultimate decision-making regime, and the Individual and Authority types do not easily co-exist.

The historic sorting out has been by way of evolution and revolution, at a leisurely pace. Religion was exceedingly powerful when emerging from the Dark Ages of a thousand years ago. In the Middle Eastern cradle of civilization and in Western Europe, Church and temporal Authority co-existed, usually as two faces of the same coin and to mutual advantage. The individual was a cog in a wheel, save for a few leaders.

Then the tide of Islam peaked in Europe and receded to the Middle East, to consolidate in due course as the Ottoman Empire, with extensions to Southeast Asia. Western Europe, by contrast, went through the upheaval of the Renaissance, the religious split of the Reformation and Counter-Reformation, and the very extended period of imperial and local wars that exhausted two centuries of civilization and (along with the Black Death, economically empowering the surviving workers) all of which mitigated against the power of ecclesiasticals in the Authority balance (vis-à-vis the absolute ruler who was arranging for and benefiting from the rise of the nation state).

Britain had its Civil War and Revolution relatively early on (in the seventeenth century) and the power of Authority had essentially been gathered entirely into the monarchy after Henry VIII. But the nobility still retained its place, claimed and held since Runnymede. This mix, along with the rise of the commercial class and the curious tripartite parliamentary concept of the English, allowed for peaceable evolution from thereon.

Absolute rulers were to prevail rather longer in the rest of Europe (interrupted and horrified by the French Revolution), with the result that the transitions to proto-democracy were more halting and jerky, but the end result was to be the same. All over Europe (and almost from the beginning, after the decline of the Pilgrims, in the settler society of America) the idea of Authority was in long-term decline. This was true whether one characterizes Authority as religious or secular in character. All was swept away. Many of the changes described above were characterized as “treason” (or the ecclesiastical equivalent, heresy) in their day.

Much of the world was in the process of being reorganized based upon the primacy of the individual, and, of course, such a fundamental transition gave rise to great challenges.

One response at the economic level was the idea of the free market, which at root is a mechanism for individuals to make voluntary transactions. The free market is difficult for an Authority state to work with, as China is discovering, for the very reason that voluntary transactions are the essence of individual empowerment.

Another answer to the transitional challenges on the political level is captured in the concept of devolution, or smaller government, closer to home. One example is federalism, that marvellous political invention that atomizes jurisdictions, leaving them to work together in those areas where they can agree and going their own direction in others. “Authority” is thus divided and shrunk, but smaller societies are more likely to be homogeneous and therefore less needful of individual tolerance.

As the idea of the Individual state works its way through the system, it is evident that Authority can no longer be the ultimate reference for decisions. But when “Authority” is replaced in this regard, there must be a substitute decision-making protocol. Democracy became the default scenario.

Operationally, early Western democracy continued at first to be quite congenial to the establishment class,[10] beginning as a sort of “guided democracy”, to use an Asian concept. Even in post-revolutionary societies, the idea of deference to one’s “betters” changed slowly, this deference assisted by the lack of education of most of the citizenry.

But while all of this was going on, so too was the Enlightenment. (See previous pages for a fuller description.) The main political outfall of this excited focus on reason and science and understanding the natural world and industry and commerce and the New World and greater reliance on the artisan, the scientist and the merchant – all of these things made possible and validated a view, should an individual choose to hold it in response to considering the philosophers of the day, that the individual had primacy – that the individual was an end, a value, freestanding and to itself.

This sort of thing is the fuel of a major, if orderly, upending of things, and there followed the quite rapid evolution of the kind of democratic government we see today, which is based, at least in principle, upon the sovereignty of the people.[11]

Elsewhere, the Russian and Chinese giants had followed different paths, not examined here, leading neither to democracy nor individual sovereignty, but rather another example of secular Authority, in this case under the rubric of Communism. Japan entered a period of very rapid modernization after 1880, and by the end of the Second World War was in a state of advanced order, discipline, education, tradition and history congenial to a kind of individualist democracy established by the Americans, though with its own special and collectivist features. The defeated Germans, by contrast and with a strong tradition of individualism, immediately came up to speed with their European neighbours after the disastrous experience with Authority under Hitler.

The possessions of the Colonial Powers, largely in Africa, are a special case, complicated by tribalism and the good and bad aspects of colonial legacies. India, too, is a special case – left a nominal democracy by Britain, but initially ungovernable, huge, chaotic, tribal, full of religious tensions and bound to an economic collectivism.

The enduring meaning of treason

So the world remains a complicated place, but in the view of this writer, the overall trend is clear, and it is always in favour of the underlying primacy of the individual, seeing the state in whatever its form (i.e., democratic, authoritarian, theocratic, tribal or whatever) as merely instrumental rather than fundamental.

In the future, if I am right, the state will be increasingly seen as a public utility, albeit a very important one, and religion will increasingly be seen as a spiritual comfort rather than the basis for a temporal order.

The challenges then will become new ones for individuals – how to ensure that freedom does not degenerate into licentiousness, that affluence does not lead to wasting the planet and, above all, that due attention be paid to the co-operative and regulatory instruments of our common trust and citizenship so that the estate of the individual may continue to prosper. The betrayal of this last duty defines the enduring meaning of treason.

[1] For others, freedom is not a goal. It may in fact be troubling or even anathema. For anyone convinced that he or she is in possession of any One True Way, for example, freedom is simply a licence to error or sin. This view is the common one in theocratic societies.

[2] Because in truth, “rights” are not self-enforcing. Any proclamation that cannot be defended by a temporal power – a UN declaration of universal rights, unsupported by certain member states, for example – can be called meaningless. Others would say that even so, they define an aspiration that should be noted.

[3] “Mere” only in the hierarchical sense, for in every society, trust and politesse constitute the foundation of order and civilization.

[4] In works collectively known as the “Harvard Project” at the Kennedy School of Government.

[5] “Ties of Friendship and Citizenship in a Globablized World,” Centre for Public Renewal, November 24, 2009.

[6] No doubt because no specific set of beliefs articulated by others quite suits them, and religion almost by definition connotes a shared set of beliefs.

[7] E.g., a dictator, oligarchy or philosophy, such as communism.

[8] The Enlightenment, a period generally running through the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and including (in the English-speaking world) such figures as Locke and Hume in philosophy and Adam Smith in economics is understood as many things by many people. The important development I emphasize from that time is the rise to general respectability of the idea of the innate worth of each and every individual. Of course, other societies see Westerners as being typically arrogant in describing this development as “enlightenment.”

[9] “Dictator” here is used as a proxy for a temporally supreme leader of whatever group and however styled.

[10] With violent exceptions, such as the French revolution, for a time.

[11] In law, sovereignty in Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand lies is the monarch, but this is mostly a relic and fiction, though not without occasional legal power.

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