Discussion on Donald Kagan’s ‘Democracy May Have Had Its Day’

This is a reprint of a Facebook discussion with Helen Evans Phraner between April 27 and May 8, commenting on the article on Donald Kagan “Democracy May Have Had Its Day” in the Wall Street Journal by Matthew Kaminski. http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424127887323789704578446614144636002.html?mod=djemEditorialPage_h

L Larry Liu While I very much agree with Kagan’s sentiment about the importance of flourishing, virtuous citizens on behalf of a democratic government (and his critique of current academia in a lack of nurturing them), there are two items which I find inherently problematic (which might have been influenced by his close reading of Thucydides):

First, he claims that “The tendency in this century and in the previous century at least has been toward equality of result and every other kind of equality that could be claimed without much regard for liberty,” he says. “Right now the menace is certainly to liberty.”- Rather than seeing more equality of result (he must be referring to affirmative action programs among others), I see less equality of result. The few programs that are offered to the disadvantaged are by far outweighed by the growing separation between the wealthy and the poor. Most of the income gains have gone to the wealthiest people (refer to Picketty and Saez 2012 http://www.imf.org/external/np/res/seminars/2012/arc/pdf/PS.pdf). Education can not alleviate the situation, because we simply get more graduates in an abundant labor market. Student loans are topping $1 trillion. So not only do we have no equality of result, I would argue we also do not have enough liberty. I would question this trade-off relation between equality of result and liberty, when sharp inequality of results diminishes liberty.

Second, Kagan argues that we have to maintain our US empire with high defense spending, so we can prevent an anarchic world, in which Iran and Asia (i.e. China) are going to threaten the rest of the world community. This argument is not sustainable. Having a US empire without a firm economic base will simply make our abdication of world power more painful. He laments the cuts in our defense spending, when, in fact, much of the defense spending had been generated after we started our foreign wars in Afghanistan and Iraq leading to hundreds of thousands of deaths. I am assuming that in his Hobbesian world view the world leader and world police can do whatever the heck he wants. Furthermore, I find it unlikely that China and Iran will threaten the world. Iran is a relatively weak country in the Middle East, which is crushed by US sanctions that hurt the Iranian middle class, and drive them in the ranks of the ayatollah. China is a rising economic power house, which will likely demand a greater political say in world affairs. This function has to be conceded to China if significantly greater tension is to be avoided.

Helen Evans Phraner Although I follow your argument Larry I believe the essence of Kagans’ piece is one of practical application albeit fantastical at this point. Education -being equal- should encourage critical thinking and a world view. That being said Kagan uses his “moxy” to provoke a deeper significance to our current circumstances. This same application has created a nation of citizens as well as politicians who collectively can not decide on anything including our own “image” as a nation. While we are worrying if we should “turn the other cheek” we are getting slapped by our own greed and self righteousness. Athens is not a metaphor its a warning. Remember your Thucydides and allow me to paraphrase here;’A bad law followed is better than a better law not followed’. Kagan is stating a fact. To preserve this Nation we must hold fast and apply the lessons left to us by the ancients. Every citizen must be held to the same laws and the same benefits. Sadly, as you know, most citizens in the US are far more focused on living their own lives and do not think in terms of national or greater good unless it hits them in the wallet. As far as our world image, our leaders have almost entirely missed the mark. This did not happen during the past administration but has been a succession of failures over the last several administrations. We want to play sheriff without a gun. So when we do get the guns out – to defend the innocent- others cry foul. This is because we are trying to have it both ways and as Kagan has put it there is no such thing. Our leaders have tried to create a kind of Athens/Spartan pseudo government for us to actually believe is possible. It is not. I take Kagan to surmise the crux of this manifestation is the ignorance of our citizens and the allowances we have given to the powers in charge of our own fate.

L Larry Liu I hope you can help me out a little bit here: what do you mean by same laws and same benefits? How is that related to our foreign policy interventions? What is the greater good in the realm of imperial policy? Explain to me the metaphor of the sheriff without a gun. What can’t we have both ways? Use guns AND defend the innocent?

(I should note that this is not very seminar-style to ask questions, but I have discovered the usefulness of asking questions, which- for Socrates- is more fun than answering them.)

Helen Evans Phraner I agree! Questions are useful. Let me try and explain. I understand Kagan to be reflecting on the obvious bias in our Universities today. This bias would include the influence of money via corporate interest. When he is reflective of the equality demonstrations of the past he is showcasing a noble effort with varied result. I was in fact being ironic when I stated; “same laws and same benefits”. This was actually what previous generations in the U.S. fought for but as we know it has yet to come to fruition. Hence the example of Athens. I take Kagan to be saying without an intelligent, well educated and autonomous public we can not possibly form a cohesive government or populous for that matter. Our foreign policies as well as our domestic affairs are a reflection of our own imbalance. This per Kagan falls back on our cultural follies. Kagan” tough talks ” where it concerns our military is more about consistancy nothing more. When I used the metaphor of the “Sheriff without a gun” I was trying to express our role in world affairs. We want to impose our brand of democracy on other nations but we don’t want to look like bullies when we are doing it. Kagan seems to see this as making us appear vulnerable so we should always present ourselves as “armed”. Not as a threat just as a matter of fact. I hope this helps. I have a question or two myself. Can you help me understand “realm of imperial policy” and can you better explain your take on Kagans “menace to liberty”. I think we are on different tracks.

L Larry Liu Helen, it seems to me that you are focusing on his claim that we need an educated, virtuous citizenry so that we can better steer our country in international affairs. But would it make us look less like bullies if we had this educated citizenry in place? Does being “armed” mean that we need the virtuous twins of a military-industrial complex and an educated populace? If that is your position and I did not misrepresent your view, I would like to disagree with that position, in the sense that education and military-foreign policy are two separate things. The only way how I could see them relate is that they work against each other. In my argument, an educated citizenry will demand an end to a waste of plentiful resources and instead feed and clothe the poor, the hungry and the homeless rather than bomb them into submission.

My understanding of his “menace to liberty” is that, because we focus too much on equality of results (affirmative action etc.) we disregard liberty. Liberty and equality are a trade-off following Aristotle’s observation that a democracy (equality) leads to tyranny (no liberty). The multitude of the poor supported by liberal academia- following this account- suppress dissenters for fear that eminent individuals (whether in business, politics or academia) will produce inequality. My take on this account is that while I am generally sympathetic to much of what Aristotle said (I even substantively agree with the Aristotelian proposition), I disagree with Kagan’s application of it to contemporary America. Rather than seeing a ceaseless pursuit of equality at the expense of liberty, I see a ceaseless pursuit of wealth concentration by a tiny oligarchy, which not only endangers equality but also liberty. It is not that the poor demand the rich to be like the poor that our country is losing liberty, but it is because the rich take all that is to be had from the poor that we are losing our liberty. How is this domestic account connected with foreign policy? I think it is connected in the sense that due to the general weakness of the poor and the middle class there are not enough pacifist forces acting on our government leaders, and the military-industrial complex, which principally benefits a handful of contractors for the government (Aristotle would simply call them ‘oligarchs’)- is allowed to benefit from our imperial endeavors.

Let me clarify my question ‘What is the greater good in the realm of imperial policy?’ Here, I must admit that this was less a clarification question, and more an opinion-laden question. (But good that you caught it, which shows your thorough seminar-training!) You have written that we can not pursue good policies abroad, because internally our country is not educated and not virtuous enough. (And as I argued, the two may be connected, but in a different sense- refer to my first two paragraphs.) I essentially implied with that question that we can not be pursuing the greater good if we have to work within the constraints of our imperial ideology and policy- which is the framework that Kagan and you are operating with. The essence of an empire is that it has to contain the multiple parts in the globe, and that this containment often breeds enormous resentment against the emperor (which is the US). For example, you can review the whole literature on (Washington-based) IMF policies on third-world countries. None of these countries have been very happy with what the fund did to them. Now the big talk is about China making big investments in Africa and stretching its imperial ambitions. There is no doubt that economic dominance coincides with political and military expansionism.

Helen Evans Phraner I see your point but I think you may have missed mine. I do believe it all starts with education however, the line to world affairs is not so easily drawn. Allow me to step away from Kagan and speak for myself here; I see the problem with education in this Country as being one of deviation and subject to corruption. What I mean is the wealthy can buy a more lofty education but not necessarily a better one. Private Universities and Academies are subject to just as much perversion as any other form of academia. Money being the obvious influence. I am sure I could list an assortment of other concerns such as greed and other corruptions but I wish to stay on target. Public schools and their affiliates have more obvious obstacles such as poverty and quality of staff and of course corruption. Again, the list could include other problems. I think what Kagan was concluding the fight for equality must include a unified education for all American citizens and part of that shared education must include the classics. I agree with the logic of this statement. If we were a country of equally educated- hence enlightened citizens- our society would be shaped differently and our world identity too. Our laws, policies and foreign affairs would naturally be effected as well. If you remember in my earlier offering I stated “albeit fantastical”. We are not capable of this. We can only work with what we have. Many people in this country -who vote by the way- think with a narrow minded view point. I am sure you know what I mean. These folks elect and influence law makers. I love the reference to Thucydides as it pertains to the fickle nature of the masses. Western cultures (specifically the U.S.) have put themselves in a position of imposing their brand of “right” throughout the rest of the world. I am of course referring to Democracy. I deliberately use a big ‘D’ here as it is the crux of our current condition throughout the world. I stated previously the average American today is more concerned about their wallet. If our elected officals point a finger and state the bad guy responsible for our hardships is “over there” the average citizen accepts this as true. What we are exposed to in the media is case in point. Who owns the media? Big business. Who controls the education and information medium of our citizens? Big business. Who controls the government???? This is that line I was referring to. At least a part of it. Why are we so paranoid of other cultures? Why are they so “hateful” toward us? I don’t presume to have all the answers Larry but I do think if more Americans were educated and encouraged to think with a broader view point instead of paranoia and blameless effigy we might see the pendulum swing in a more positive direction.

L Larry Liu Working from the western classical tradition (Aristotle, Thucydides etc.), I am mostly in agreement with your concern that education and good policy are inextricably bound together. This is the main point of your argument, and I have supported this position in my previous reply. But just for the sake of argument, I want to use Confucius’ and Mencius’ idea of the benevolence of the ruling class (仁), which is essential for good policies and good development of society. Following the principle of this Chinese philosophical account there is a sharp distinction between the rulers and the ruled, and that the rulers are the only ones that matter, because the rulers are the wind and the ruled are the grass. The wind blows and the grass bends. That was the metaphor used by Confucius in explaining his theory of governance. If we were to adopt the Confucian account to the current malaise in America, we see no over-application of democracy, i.e. a mob which due to its lack of education is screaming out “terrorist” at the sight of Muslims. According to Confucius, having the mob rise up needs to be taken for granted, and that the real blame ought to be focused on the ruling elites, who have retreated into their high-rise condominiums in cavier and champagne, negotiating how they can fix up the next financial crisis and come out ahead while making the masses pay for it. Of course, you can always demand the common man to be educated, but even with the proliferation of education credentials- as you pointed out correctly- it might not have any substantive effects on whether they can use that knowledge to steer prudent rather than rash policies. The ancient Greeks argued that if you want to have better policies you need better common people. The ancient Chinese say that if you want to have better policies, you need better leaders.

Now, having read both the Greek and the Chinese account (two of the greatest civilizations on earth that developed independently from each other), I can see some weaknesses in the Confucian account. Confucius postulated the heavenly mandate (天命), which is the heaven’s (or god’s for that matter) permission for a ruler to stay in place so long as he is a good ruler. If he is a bad ruler he may be overthrown, but only by another capable and legitimate leader, and not by the masses. Historically, we have seen that happen several times, not only in the French revolution. But the weakness in the account is that if you rely exclusively on the virtue of the ruling elites, you might not be able to carry out good policies, and the only secure way for good policy is the democratic participation of the masses. But here again, the Greeks fear mob rule, while the Chinese do not conceptualize democracy.

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