Liberty – The Dahrendorf Questions

img447aBrowsing my bookshelves I just found a small brochure titled „Liberty – The Dahrendorf Questions“, edited by Timothy Garton Ash in 2009. The London School of Economics (LSE) held a seminar in honour of Lord (Ralf) Dahrendorf on three questions linked to the main topic of Dahrendorf’s research: Liberty.

The first question was on the effect of the financial crisis of 2008 on liberty in the European Union, the second about the relationship of liberty and development, and the third about diversity and liberty in our modern societies.

Many of the debates are still relevant and may give us an incentive to follow up on them. Picking up only some of the statements mainly on the second and third question I want to put them into the context of our contemporary situation in 2016.

Jürgen Habermas introduced into the seminar, then Ralf Dahrendorf answered. He said:

„I will say one word – a point which has concerned me in recent years. Jürgen Habermas has put his finger on it: I do increasingly believe that without the rule of law our belief in the mechanisms of democracy is just not good enough. The mechanisms of democracy are easily introduced but they  don’t stick unless there are certain rules  – basic rules of the game that are observed and enforced.“

In our days this has become a crucial point. Even when humanitarian action becomes necessary it is not advisable to fail giving enough attention to the rule of law. People loose trust, when they feel that laws are bent even for the best purpose. Loosing control is the direct effect of loosing the rule of law. In his great work „Faktizität und Geltung“ Jürgen Habermas discussed the importance of rules given in the form of laws for social cohesion. At some time social science became too mechanistic, describing institutions or behaviour patterns, using statistics, studying correlations and regressions, and showing some disdain for normative issues. The reaction to that technocratic view was often ideological, setting up or referring to norms which came out of nothing like so-called laws of history or visions of Utopia, based on hope and moral sentiments, but neither on facts nor on a deep philosophical discussion of the meaning and functioning of norms and laws. Habermas and Dahrendorf have different approaches to study society, but both are strictly keeping rationality in seeking convincing arguments based on facts. Both come near to an ideal discourse.

An important contribution to the first and the second question is given by Partha Dasgupta from LSE:

„I was struck by Ralf’s remarks about the rule of law and you can certainly see in the US, … the whole framework had very much of the feel of arbitrary government. The crisis may threaten globalisation, which is both a consequence of economic liberty and  – more important I think – in very important cases has greatly increased liberty. …
…it will increase poverty, and it may well in the process undermine democracy and the legitimacy of democracy,…“

The financial crisis made it clear that some banks were operating outside of the law, the Euro-crisis showed that some governments could cheat with impunity and even aggressively blame those who keep the law of being the culprit. The law has become strict for the poor but lenient for the rich. There are losers of globalisation. Social Darwinism of the nineteenth century justified misery by saying that the whole society would be strengthened if the strong prevail over the weak. Today this would be politically incorrect, but there is a lot of Social Darwinism in the background convictions of economic and political leaders today. This is the basis for populist reactions all over Europe and the US, undermining democracy and the legitimacy of democracy. 

The rise of countries like China or the South East Asian tigers led to a new division of labour in the world. Some of our western industries were no longer competitive, others could profit from the new markets as long as we could keep a competetive edge on high technology. In our days the new markets become ever more competitive in many more sectors. We are under high pressure to keep up with our quality standards and production costs. Only by automation we could at least keep pace with the world markets. This leads to a new distribution of income and wealth in the world. It has always been an illusion to believe that the poor in Asia could lift up their standards only by distributing the additional wealth created by economic growth. There is some redistribution of income raising the poor in China to a decent standard of living and at the same time by the mechanism of competitivity lowering the standard for the poor in less competitive societies in Europe.  The call for protectionism is growing. It gives a promise to keep the ‚unfair‘ competitors out, but it does not give any incentive to become competitive oneself, so it leads to further decline. Democracy is not voluntarism. The collective will of the people to compete and to work hard can change the situation, the will of the people expressed in referenda to reduce input into the system – work less – and at the same time to increase output – gain more – is just futile. Economic success is not a voluntary decision but the result of hard work.

On the topic of development Dasgupta said that the widespread opinion that liberty and democracy are good for economic development has to be qualified. There are factors that correlate with better development but some aspects do not. „There may be trade-offs between democracy and other things we care about.“ – he said.

It makes no sense to hide behind a screen of „political correctness“ not admitting that non-democratic states like China can be successful. Democracy is too valuable to depend on such an assessment. But defending it with weak arguments weakens democracy. So it is dangerous to say that democracy is good because it gives people more prosperity. Sometimes it does so, sometimes not. There was a tendency during the Cold War to compare the systems of Capitalism and Communism by their economic performance. This has never been very convincing. Democracy is a system of how to make collective decisions for those who belong to a certain community under a common constitution and common laws. There are other forms of decision making, more authoritarian systems, that claim to be economically more successful.  But that does not make such systems preferable. Democracy is the best of all deficient systems because it is the most decent and just system that respects the dignity of human beings more than any other system. It is the best prevention of arbitrariness and a system that makes mistakes corrigible. So for us the question is how to mitigate the trade-offs between democracy and other things, but never to give up democracy for the other things we care about. 

„Ralf has talked of the primacy of the rule of law. The rule of law, however, is consistent with many forms of government; … Practice of the rule of law, more generally, an expectation of decency in the public domain, creates trust among citizens,… Mutual trust is to my mind the lubricant that makes for economic development.“

This is a crucial point: what we see today is a breakdown of trust also in Europe especially in the European Union. This may well have a negative effect on our economic performance. How can the trust as an expectation of decency be upheld if the former gamblers who ran Deutsche Bank into trouble enjoy high life with their enormous boni unharmed ? How can trust be re-established for car companies like VW who cheated and continue to treat their customers as stupids ? How can there be trust if the government does not strictly keep the rules given by the stability pact for the Eurozone, by national and European law on migration and blurring the legal difference between refugees and illegal migrants.

„How does a society tip from one ‚belief system‘ to another ? That seems to me the fundamental question in the social sciences, to which we economists really do not have much answer. What we know is that mutual trust involves a lot of coordination among the actors, whereas mutual distrust doesn’t. That is why destroying a society is a lot easier than rebuilding it. You can establish as fine a set of institutions as you care, but it will all come to naught if people don’t trust one another. The institutions won’t work. The deepest question in the social sciences remains unanswered: how does decency develop among a wide and disparate group of people ?“

We had this tip switching from trust to distrust in our institutions including European integration within the last two years. The underlying reasons were there for much longer time as we see in this debate which took place in 2009. But at a certain moment problems accumulated and a qualitative change came about. What we call polarisation is mainly a lack of trust of a considerable part of society that the problems we are facing can and will be resolved.  There is also a lack of hope that our children will be better off than we were – the opposite is now a common belief. And the lack of control toward the wave of illegal immigration has convinced many people that the government will not protect them of what they fear. Politicians and the media told the people that their fears were irrational. But the people did not accept the offer of being educated instead of being protected.

Trust is not only the lubricant for economic development. Without trust we also loose faith in democracy. The parliamentary system lives from the trust the voters convey to their elected representatives. They expect decency, not obedience. The representative needs to be trusted that he or she thoroughly studies all aspects of government and legislation before decisions are made. They have to think about all consequences, especially long-term, of their decisions. The voters must trust them because they cannot themselves use their time for all the necessary deliberations. Democracy does not mean that everybody can take the power in his own hands, but to limit the power entrusted in representatives by giving them a limited time to prove their competence. Checks and balances are established to keep their power under control. That is why I do not think that referenda have much to do with democracy. We should stick to parlamentary democracy.

Robert Skidelsky intervened and asked if it wasn’t a question of imperfect information involved in distrust. But Partha Dasgupta dismissed this as not being very relevant, because the deeper problem of society is an absence of trust, such that a lot of transactions will never be performed that would work under the condition of mutual trust.

Economists show that a lot of transactions necessary for economic development are never made if there is a lack of trust. The same is true for any political development. If there is a lack of trust in Parliaments then politicians don’t dare to make strong decisions, a kind of lethargy becomes a widespread phenomenon, if there is a lack of trust between parts of society then interactions are avoided and a self-enhancing process of division starts off, ending up in irreconciliable positions without any will to compromise.

Paul Collier then makes the point that trust need a certain homogeneity:

„Trust is endogenous to the rate of growth in the economy and to the structure of society. Homogeneity helps trust. If you have no growth in a society, and the sort of societies I work on in Africa have had forty years of no growth, everything is perceived as zero-sum. So you cannot get trust in that environment. It is simply that these societies are completely fractured; there is no common identity because national identity has never been forged. Sub-national identities triumph, and that is again the death of trust and cooperation. Both of those contrast with China. In China you have got fast growth, you have got very strong national identity.“

Our problem is not – like in Africa – that there was no ’nation building‘, but that the society that was once rather homogenic has fractured into new sub-national identities. This includes right wing groups who claim to be outside our statehood, this includes some – not all – immigrants, mainly Muslim parallel societies in some cities. There is a lack of trust between these communities. After the recent development in Turkey this distrust has severley increased even inside the Turkish community inGermany. As long as no trust is building up between our Muslim communities and the hosting society integration will fail. Trust needs both to Tango. The immigrants must be helped to know what they are expected to do – leaving them in respectful distance does not help at all. But they have to go a long way towards the hosting nation to become part of it. Jürgen Habermas once made a distinction between assimilation to all aspects of the hosting society which he thinks is unnecessary and the integration into the constitutional political system which he thinks is a necessity. The big question is how far immigrants want to identify with their new homeland and how far they want to remain a sub-national entity – the death of trust and cooperation. 

Fritz Stern recommends history as another discipline economists should look for to help them.

„I would say that already years ago I was concerned about the decline of trust in the United States. The gradual disappearance of trust in very different areas in the United States, and that collectively will bring about a reaction. … In the fiteenth century, the Roman Catholic Church was full of corruption. Out of that corruption, in part, came a Reformation, came a mental, intellectual, moral backlash, and so on. “ Stern then compares this to the corruption that became evident during the financial crisis and sees already a moral backlash in fundamentalism, that could be very deep and serious.

Interestingly Fritz Stern believes that the Reformation was a backlash because it grew fundamentalism. He has a point here. In 2017 we commemorate the 500th anniversary of Luther’s reformation. It was a renovation of Christian faith going back to the roots of the scriptures. At least part of protestantism (I was born into calvinist protestantism) was very near to millenarist apocalyptic movements. There are similarities to Islamic reformers going back to the Qu’ran, also partly ending up in apocalyptic fundamentalism. Even if one could question the comparison of our times with Reformation, the backlash to fundamentalism instead of compromise is already taking place under our eyes – not only in religion but also in politics. 

It would be interesting to study Reformation under the aspect of trust: The hence universal Catholic Church (at least in the occident) gave consolation for this world and hope for paradise beyond this earthly valley of tears. The corruption Luther saw in Rome convinced him that the Pope was the Antichrist. So nobody could trust the Catholic hierarchy any more to give hope for salvation. This lack of trust in the established churches is still a factor for the proliferation of many fundamentalist sects in Christianity. And te lack of trust in the ‚Establishment‘ is a factor for the proliferation of political fundamentalist sects.

The election of Donald Trump as President of the United States of America shows the result of that gradual but severe loss of trust in the American society. As Frity Stern said eight years ago, there was a collective reaction. It showed that the people decide expressing their main fears and concerns and put aside all other aspects as for example the lack of decency of the candidate.

Adair Turner makes the point that China has shown that a succesful model without freedom is possible. Then he draws the attention to a fundamental point often forgotten:

„…is a very particular form of restriction on freedom that we do not often talk about. You could say that one of the most fundamental freedoms that people have and in particular that women have is the decision as to how many children they have. Now the right to decide how many children you have can be restricted in two directions. It can be restricted because you live in a country which will not allow you to use contraceptives, or where the husband will not allow you to use contraceptives, or the priest tells you it is a bad idea, or you do not have enough education. And you can also be restricted by being told that there is a one-child-policy. Sadly, I think the one-child-policy, although I do not like it, has been far more fundamental to the breakthrough of the Chinese economy than we like to admit.“

This is a very important remark. It is true that with less poverty the birth-reduction is normally going down, but without a lower birth rate poverty may never go down. We expect the African population grow to double its actual size within the next 30 years. A one-childpolicy could be a good solution. But different from China, the African states are not powerful enough for a reasonable policy. Many in Europe argue that migrants coming from Africa are ‚refugees‘ from poverty. In fact they are people who thanks to an uncontrolled birth rate have no perspective for a decent life. Is migration the solution ? Some argue this is just what European nations did when they had excessive birth rates, so Africans do nothing else than Europeans migrating to America during the last centuries. This may be true. However, this was achieved after a genocide of most of the Amerindian population. This did not start as a peaceful occupation of empty spaces. And nobody would claim that Europe is an empty space today. 

My conclusion is that Africa needs a one-child-policy of some form. Otherwise we face a catastrophy on African soil and catastrophic and unsustainable migration flows at once. I have no idea how to enforce such a solution – but the Chinese model is only one possibility, more voluntary models may not be hopeless if closely linked to economic incentives.

Guiliano Amato refers to his experience as former Italian Minister of the Interior. He thinks that actually the rise of the newcomers in our societies is much more difficult than the rise of the blacks and other minorities in the United States. What strikes him „is the fact that diversity becomes a source of fear both for the newcomer and for the hosting community.“

In the meantime this fear has become a political factor throughout Europe. Fear is not a good basis for good politics, to ignore it is neither a way to cope with it. In the years before 2009 there were debates in the United States why the Europeans had such problems with immigration while the example of the US showed that there are many positive aspects of migration. Amato’s hint is important because it makes clear that the Americans misread migration to Europe. Especially Muslims coming to Europe did not want to become occidental ‚Europeans‘ but wanted to stay oriental Muslims, while the great bulk of immigrants to the US  wanted nothing more than becoming fully integrated Americans as fast as possible. The difference that makes migration in Europe more difficult can be seen if you take note that education in the US accelerates integration, while in Europe many well-educated Muslims continue to stress their separate identity.

„Consider that in one of our cities, Padua, there is a wall dividing the immigrant section from the other parts of the city due to drug trafficking, to criminal acts that are being committed – it is not something without any reason at all, but it is sort of a refined reaction to that kind of frequent misconduct….
… In poor communities there is a conflictual reaction. The level of trust Putnam testifies decreases: the more the diversities in a community, the less the level of trust.  So, there is this gigantic problem of policies of integration just to make liberty compatible with diversities . In the sense, and I go back to mutual trust, that is not only a perequisite for economic development , but also for , let’s say community life. If we mistrust each other there is no community life, and there is no freedom, each of us toward the other….“

The events happening at New years Eve 2016 in Cologne have shown how fast trust breaks down if diversity is expressed in misconduct. Still there are no physical walls in Germany, but the events of 2015 and 2016 have erected walls in the heads of many people in Germany. If it is true that Daesh wanted to discredit immigrants and to create divisions they could then exploit for their war, then they were successful. Many of the immigrants of autumn 2015 showed no respect at all for laws of immigration, they were violently demanding entry to their preferred country at the Greek-Macedonian border as well as in the camps in Calais. How should we trust them to become law-abiding guests or even citizens after that experience ? 

Without trust there is no community life. Many migrants come from societies where trust already broke down long ago. There is even no trust inside their own community, and no trust towards the host country. So both, migrants as well as the host communities have to try to build up trust. But this is easier said than done. The last year was characterized by loosing trust and not by building it. There was a loss of trust towards governments and parties who tried to deny problems instead of solving them, towards immigrants who cheated with their papers and trained how to use the judiciary to get asylum even if they did not come from a place where they were threatened.

Martin Wolf mentioned the lack of understanding for normal people in the new financial elites, those called the ‚Davos Men‘ by Samuel Huntingdon. If the world elite does not belong to countries democracy is in threat. Then he goes on talking about the problem of diversity asking for the opinions on religion and ethnicity  „…and quite specifically, since I have no reason to be politically correct, the question of the role of Islam in a democratic society,…“

In a way I feel to be part of what Huntingdon called the ‚Davos‘ people, because I would define myself as a world citizen with German roots, having worked in Russia, Latin America, Spain and Britain as well as at home inGermany. But I stayed close to my social roots that is a family where I was the first at least in the five generations I overlook who went to university, so I know the fears of decline as well as the outrage about the arrogance of the ‚Davos people‘. The problem seems to me that in our days for a well qualified world citizen the job market is the whole world, such that your price on the labour market is a world market price – and high qualification is indeed well paid. But at the same time those who know no foreign languages (except the English speakers who are privileged by the use of English as a world language), those who are limited to their national job market even if highly qualified are the loosers, because they have no escape from declining industries or services towards new frontiers. The ‚Davos people‘ behave like the European aristocracy in the eighteenth century, being cosmopolitans at home all over Europe but economically based on the work of dependent farmers who did not move beyond the next village.

„Now, religion it seems to me, is a much more central issue for us, because it is a set of ideas. It is not about people’s origins, it is a set of ideas – linked of course, with ethnicity. And some of these ideas – this has always been true of religion, but is certainly true in its present for within some of the immigrant communities – seem to me, at least, to be intensely illiberal. Not merely intensely illiberal; anti-democratic, anti-intellectual; indeed hostile to every single value I hold dear. …
… Now, having a large number of peope who find the values, political systems and legislation of the society in which they live fundamentally inconsistent with their basic values is pretty problematic, it seems to me, for the future of a liberal democracy, and actually raises the question of whether you’ve got to a point of diversity at which actually the whole becomes dysfunctional.“

Living with diversity is inevitable in a globalised world. But the devil is in the detail: what kind of diversity do we like to live with and what kind of diversity is unacceptable. To begin with: in a democracy I have to accept a great spectrum of political opinions and ideologies contending for prevailing in elections or only to be uttered at the beer table. The first German democracy of the Weimar Republic had been destroyed because it was defenseless against the enemies of democracy. This has to do with the old problem of how far tolerance can go towards the intolerant. So the Basic Law, the German constitution of 1949, got some more safeguards. If value systems are illiberal, anti-intellectual, hostile to every single value I hold, if they are unsavoury, then I feel justified to fight them with all political means. If and only if such ideologies get violent they have to be fought with the full power of law and order. I will not welcome anybody to come to our country who holds such an ideology and I regret that I cannot throw citizens out of my country who hold such ideology. However I have to live with them. The main problem is the anti-democratic ideology. This destroys trust in democracy and makes the whole fabric of society dysfunctional. Here fighting such views politically is not enough, here democracy has to fight back also with legal safeguards against extremism. Being tolerant is part of our values, but being intolerant towards the intolerant is not at all betraying our values, it means protecting them.

Leszek Kolakowski said he knows the solution referring to a Russion ideologist who thought that equality is only possible if children are separated from their parents and educated in common. This „absurdity“ would be consequent if equality woulf be a serious universal idea. Since education is so crucial at an early age, this may be the only way to make religion compatible with liberty.

Adair Turner claims that education for freedom could be tested,

„…if there were a Muslim girl from a very devout background, they are giving her an education such that if she wants the choice, she would be capable of saying: I have ceased to be a Muslim. But that to most of the Islamic community, is an incredibly offensive statement.“

Turner is quite pessimistic because of the idea of apostasy being unacceptable. This also makes an educational system that offers a free choice unacceptable for many Muslims. „Islam is tolerant of those who never had the faith, but … is totally intolerant of those who were born into the faith and left it.“

The problem of apostasy being unacceptable that Turner brings up here is not the real problem. Also Christian communities do not like apostates, Christian fundamental sects severely sanction it by social exclusion. The real problem is that the cohesion of Islamic communities is such that they wield the power to stop apostasy if necessary using violence inside families. Christian communites have lost that power when secularization became general and laicité accepted. So in our time you can remain a Christian even if you tolerate apostasy. The state sees itself as neutral and does not enforce religious rules. Islam is not only a religion but also a legal system. If modern European states allow Islamic law to be applied inside Muslim communities then it gives up unity of the legal system for all citizens. This means a severe restriction of freedom for this part of the society.

Guiliano Amato has a different view: „Adair, it is very dangerous to tell Muslim people: if you want to accept liberty and the basic values of our society you have to stop being a Muslim. This is really disruptive. „

Amato is right, you cannot expect anybody to give up his or her religion. It is important that immigrants are obliged to obey to the law more than to their God – but this is already very problematic for all religious people. When the Confessing Church stood up against the Nazis they said: we obey God more than men. They let their conscience speak against a criminal state. But in a democracy the situation is different because politics has a much more forceful legitimacy. And not obeying the law would disrupt society – and society must not tolerate that.

Amato appreciates those Muslims who try to read the Qu’ran compatibly with our times. Still there are principles depending on the word of God, but others just depending on backward traditions. Amato’s family came from Sicily where only decades ago the treatment of women did not differ much from such backward traditions.

I admit I do not share the optimism some have about a Euro-Islam coming up. This may take too much time to be relevant for the development of a consensus about democracy. So I believe there has to be an element of enforcement of democratic rules against religious ideologies as long as such a consensus is not there. This would by the way be compatible with Islamic law allowing Muslims to adapt to laws in the ‚Realm of War‘ of the Unbelievers if they are a minority there and cannot enforce Islamic law. Amato is also right to mention that backward traditions are part of the problem. In Europe such traditions took centuries to be overcome – democratic elections were the way to overcome them by legal means, but modernizing society was the way to overcome them by social development. Both was necessary.

Dahrendorf asks where does the rule of law emphatically apply ? Where not to make compromises ?

„And here my answer , Martin, would be in what we call ‚the public space‘: in ‚public spaces‘ narrowly defined, but once defined quite unambigously defended. I think we should insist on certain values,. But I repeat ’narrowly definded; that is to say we should not get into what happens to the families and in the homes. We should get into the people’s behaviour where it is relevant to others.“

The devil is in the detail. How narrow can you define what is public ?  Do we really have to respect the limits of home and families if macho behaviour and pressure of the families deny any freedom to women ? When there is widespread violence at home ? – Where does people’s behaviour become relevant to others ? Some immigrant communities see even behaviour in the private sphere as highly relevant for the whole community. Is it relevant to us if we feel not at home when a woman with a niqab comes along the street – or is talking to us to buy something without showing the face ? But I agree with Dahrendorf that the state has the duty of presenting very convincing reasons if it is intruding into the private sphere of the citizens. The public sphere is the place where, as Kant said, the freedom of everybody is limited by having to be compatible with the equal freedom of each other. 

This public sphere is the result of a long history of struggles for values and ideas. These values are part of our democratc identity. We should respect it and we should expect everybody who wans to be in our public sphere to respect it as well. Diversity is a consequence of liberty, it must not become a reason for the end of liberty.