Chasing the Norm

Australian academic and blogger on politics, international relations, and culture

Liberty, Equality and Democracy

Liberty, Equality and Democracy by Chris BergBerg - Democ

As everyone knows, democracy is in a bad state these days. Polls show widespread dissatisfaction with our political system, many would not vote if they didn’t have to and few people seriously engage with politics. Globally, the post-Cold War wave of democracies risks rolling back, while authoritarian capitalists like China seem to stand impervious.

Indeed, it is worse than we think as Berg makes clear. The notion that democracy is a system where people develop considered views and are represented by accountable leaders in a timely and effective manner is shot through with problems.

The temptation might then be to abandon democracy, or at least reduce its scope. Indeed we have already moved well down this path with the growth of statutory independent bodies to make expert judgements on our behalf. This is already common in economics (The RBA or ACCC etc) and becoming increasingly popular as a resolution to health or environmental problems.

This is a grave mistake Berg argues. Democracy is not about good decision making processes he argues. That’s a nice outcome, but the real reason people across time and space have yearned for it —in a multitude of diverse forms— is because ‘it is an ethical claim about the relationship between state and citizen, and about individual equality’.

In other words, Democracy not a mechanism for choosing the nature of our political community but a normative philosophy that takes human equality as its fundamental starting point. Attempts to fix the decision making capacity of democracy that reduce or undermine that basic equality are therefore undemocratic.

Regular readers of my reviews will know I tend to like shorter books. Get into the idea and get on with it. In this case however I couldn’t quite decide if the length was just right or about 1/3rd too short. The book moves at a cracking pace, and while Berg describes and explains very clearly, you need a strong level of background reading in politics and philosophy to truly follow the debate.

That’s not a bad thing, given few would pick up this book without such an interest already, and bulking it out might deter many who would, without necessarily better informing the most likely audience for this book. Still, with a book this ambitious a slightly slower pace might have helped to strengthen its overall effect. This book is planted in modern Australian concerns but bounces from republican England to Poland, Ancient Greece and the Soviet Union with barely a breath.

This is a difficult book to review because it took me a while to work out what it was trying to say, and I’m still not sure I’ve quite grasped it. I spent much of the book thinking that the historical and philosophical analysis of democracy and equality was an intellectual means to make an ideological argument (namely that over-regulation by centralised experts should be abandoned for a more libertarian idea). Only when I reached the end did I realise the philosophical analysis of democracy and its value is the actual point, with implications for modern policy only given brief reference along the way. A stronger editor’s hand by the publishers might have helped bring out a greater clarity as to the focus of the book. (along with removing a handful of unfortunate typographical errors).

Speaking of the publisher, only a PR person could be so unthinking as to put Tim Wilson describing the book as “mischievous” on the cover. Wilson occupies precisely the sort of role Berg critiques, and the mischievous line suggests the serious argument is just a front, undermining the vale of the work from the very start.

Instead of being a subversive attempt to re-define democracy in libertarian terms (as Wilson’s quote implies) Berg rightly notes that there’s space for a range of ideological systems to operate within the democratic equality framework. Unfortunately given the short length of the book we don’t get any significant attempt to explore this in any depth. In particular I would have been interesting to see a greater engagement with what is meant by liberty and equality to help flesh out exactly what was intended. Poking a few mainstream media talking heads is hardly sufficient for such a fundamental re-interpretation of our system. He notes that non-state forces like poverty or racism can damage equality and liberty, but we have to infer where he would draw the line. More so, how might we make decisions about this principle? Will a utilitarian ethics suffice or does this have to be much more absolutist? I suspect many will end up agreeing with the general premise of this book (we’re all good democrats) but without it changing their opinions on specific issues).

There are two notable features of this book that deserve recognition and praise. The first is that Berg is making a libertarian argument for democracy. Though he only briefly alludes to it, many who share his ideology have an extremely sceptical view of democratic society (precisely because it allows public interference with individual liberty). It is therefore very encouraging to see the most prolific and engaging libertarian author in Australia clearly stake his flag amongst the democrats.

The other notable feature is the sheer ambition of it. While there is a voluminous literature on these topics, few try and bring it together in such a publicly accessible form and with as clear a public policy concern. In an ideal democracy, books like this would be common place and widely explored and discussed. In our current environment, it’s far too rare. Whatever your take on the merits of the argument, credit should be given for having attempted the work in the first place.

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Disclaimer – I’m mates with the author.

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