A few years back a former colleague of mine and I chatted about what led to free and prosperous societies. By “led to,” we didn’t mean what elements are necessary for freedom and prosperity. Those are actually empirically provable and almost even obvious: Property rights; the rule of law; independent institutions; judicial independence; moderate regulation; the size of government; and other factors both major and minor.
We pondered not what was core to economic flourishing and often to a free society – but how nations arrive there in the first place.
After all, if human beings were purely rational creatures, it wouldn’t take much more than governments in say, Egypt and Argentina, to look at the evidence and prosperity evident in places as diverse as the Netherlands and Hong Kong (before the recent crackdown), then enact laws and policies that imitate them. Voila! —the stage is thus set for future flourishing.
Except it’s not clear that only a rational approach has led to why some nations have institutions that foment or protect economic and other freedoms, while others do not.
What civilized institutions protect us against Part I: Concentrated, abusive power
For example, we know that concentrated political power is dangerous. “Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely” said Lord Acton. And he was right.
Thus, the question: Is part of the reason some Western countries, historically, were able to resist concentrated power and thus demagogues, because of only a rational approach to designing their government institutions?
There’s conflicting evidence here.
You can look at the rise of Protestantism and see how it eventually had an effect upon politics and institutions in Western societies. Pre-Protestant Revolution, the close relationship between church and state was an example of power corrupting both. Afterwards, especially after the Hundred Years War, it was understood that people could have different religious beliefs and there was no need to kill each other.
Similarly, as the notion of separateness of institutions and the worth of the individual grew (Martin Luther’s appeal to his conscience and God was exactly this), it arguably had an effect upon political institution as well—government. The act of religious division led to an understanding that perhaps different spheres existed in society, and one could be independent of the other and protected from each other (i.e., church from state and vice-versa). This development (along with others) also allowed for diverse views to flourish as well as institutions to protect the same.
(There’s no one magic formula; Martin Luther’s appeal was made in what is now Germany, which hasn’t been immune to demagogues and concentrated power.)
That’s an example of an organic development. But a clear counter-example exists. America’s founders were rationalists, skeptics and deists. They also understood the problem of concentrated power, after the abuse early colonialists suffered at the hands of King George III.
Thus, James Madison, Tom Paine, Thomas Jefferson, George Washington and others avoided the temptation to think that if only the right man was up top, all would be well. Instead, they recognized the problem of power, and also the reality of factions, and designed a system that deliberately split power into “bits” so that no one person or entity ever possesses all power.
In short, that’s why the House of Representatives, Senate, executive branch (the president), courts and also state governments exist. They each have some power but not all power. They often must negotiate to get anything done. The system was designed exactly that way to prevent a monarch, a tyrant, a dictator from ever arising.
What civilized institutions protect us against Part II: Mobs
That was a long introduction to how to understand recent events in Washington D.C., the trashing of the Capitol Building, but also other, if lesser, mob-like behaviour from Montreal to the streets of Portland and Seattle and which has now infected all presumed differing partisan and ideological strains of life in not only the United States but also Canada.
The motivations were starkly different, but there’s one common link between the mob that invaded and trashed Capitol Hill recently/the outgoing president who egged them on, and the crowd that ripped down Montreal’s John A MacDonald statue last year, Portland and Seattle “protesters”, and yet others: they all reject (and probably despise) the institutions of civil society, and their actions are destructive to them.
Spot the difference
Let’s start with the first link, the disrespect and disdain for the institutions of civilization that separate those nations that provide some freedom from those run by and for autocrats, tyrants and dictators.
When Donald Trump refused to accept the results of the presidential election, he ignored the country’s voting system, which is defended even by his own party. Georgia was a prime example. There, Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger repeatedly pointed out that Georgia’s system was secure, and in fact was the same one that led to the election of nine Republican congressmen.
Trump never explained why the system worked fine for those congressmen but somehow not for the presidential vote. Instead, the president spent an hour on the phone telling Raffensperger to “find 11,780 votes”. Acting like a banana republic autocrat, Trump’s phone call was yet another attack on liberal democracy and it institutions.
Trump’s claim of widespread fraud and irregularities lost in at least 50 court cases across the United States. That includes one from a Trump-appointed judge who said arguments presented to him were “light on facts” and lacked “merit.” The U.S. Supreme Court, (which in 2000, told Democrats to stop trying to eke out a win by demanding endless recounts in Florida based on hanging chads) in 2020 also declined to buy the spurious argument from Texas that it had an interest in Pennsylvania’s management of its election process.
Mobs vs. checks & balances
After all that, Trump’s response was to repeat the various fraud allegations that gained no traction in courts including with judges he appointed. He instead urged his supporters to show up at Capitol Hill. Trump used incendiary language and over-the-top advocacy for months, weeks and the day of the attack.
On December 19th, Trump tweeted to his 88 million Twitter followers to promote the early January protest on the Washington Mall. “Big protest in D.C. on January 6th,” is what Trump wrote, including this line: “Be there, will be wild!” Here’s another: On January 5th, Trump gave a speech in Georgia repeating the false allegations of a stolen election, where he also said, “They’re not taking this White House. We’re going to fight like hell.”
Such behaviour undermines what liberal democracies are all about: the rule of law; the independence of institutions including their staff; the willingness to stand down and transfer power peacefully after a democratic vote has taken place and after more than 50 judges looked at allegations of fraud and irregularities and found no persuasive evidence that widespread errors and cheating existed enough to affect outcomes in any individual state.
Trump’s response and those of his more rabid acolytes—some in Congress and some who invaded Capitol Hill—would be familiar to students of the history of the western hemisphere in Latin American countries. All too often, the caudillo or strongman has been revered as the potential saviour: Vote for or fight for the dear leader and he will rescue us. Mob thinking and mob behaviour inevitably follows.
Canada has mobs too
Before Canadians get too precious—assuming we are free from mob behaviour—we’re not now and never have been.
When a mob attacked the John A MacDonald statue in Montreal last year, it was a destructive attack not only on an historical figure, but on how matters are decided in civilized societies.
Similarly, when Alberta talk show host Danielle Smith recently quit her radio show because of Twitter mobbing, civil discourse has once again been trumped.
Your team doesn’t matter; our institutions do
American mobs—again, see Seattle and Portland last year and a plethora of others—have also demonstrated a similar tendency to act as if existing institutions (including elected city councils, laws, injunctions, courts, and judges) are irrelevant – including the one on Capitol Hill.
The point is not that civil disobedience should never occur. Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King both practiced non-violent resistance against policies and laws they argued were unjust. But they employed non-violence, not mob behaviour. And both understood the fragility of their society’s institutions. It was why both were willing to go to jail for their actions. They were promoting needed change, not violent insurrection.
King and Gandhi both respected the institutions of a peaceful, civil society enough to know that despite flawed laws, policies and politicians—and we are all flawed— the way to effect change in liberal democratic societies where free expression, association and independent institutions exists is to challenge those peacefully—and not aim for an immediate “win” through violence. Destroy those institutions, and one day a Caudillo may come to power who imprisons you.
King and Gandhi understood that the institutions that allow for peaceful debates and peaceful transitions are critical.
Back to my discussion how key institutions arise and secure or lead to free and flourishing civilizations, there is no perfect answer on whether they arise organically, or via reasoned implementation. It could be either or a combination of both.
But I do know this: Regardless of how institutions of civilized society arise, they are far too fragile and precious to allow mobs to tear them apart and down. That in fact would disenfranchise the rest of us who have acted peacefully.
Mark Milke wears many hats and one is that of an author. His most recent book is The Victim Cult: How the culture of blame hurts everyone and wrecks civilizations.
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