Most readers will probably have by now that Switzerland has passed a referendum to ban the building of minarets anywhere in the country. This has prompted many musings, in particular on the relationship between democracy and liberty.
This looks, after all, like an example of an illiberal but democratic measure. This prompts Chris to say
“We have, therefore, a simple conflict of fundamental values, a vindication of Isaiah Berlin: …Some among the great goods cannot live together. That is a conceptual truth. We are doomed to choose, and every choice may entail an irreparable loss.”
By contrast, Left Outside tries to harmonise the two (and hence judge this decision undemocratic) by saying
“I don’t think it must be inherently democratic simply because it was a decision returned by a referendum. There are some things in a democracy more fundamental than simply voting for representatives or in referenda…equality before the law is essential, as is…freedom of conscience”
Dave argues for a similar sort of conclusion along different lines:
“If democracy is merely about the relationship of individuals to authority then [this ban is democratic], but if democracy is about associative relationships and how we collectively relate to authority, then the Swiss have weakened that associative relationship and its collective relationship with the Swiss state…
All of these are valid points, but I’m not sure they would convince Chrisiah Berlin (a composite personality insisting that ‘some among the great goods cannot live together’). Isn’t this just a redefining of the word ‘democracy’ to include various more substantive notions of freedom?
If we define ‘schmemocracy’ as ‘the will of the majority being effected’, regardless of whether that will is well-informed, or cohesive, or correct, then have we just replaced an apparent conflict between liberty and democracy with one between ‘democracy’ and ‘schmemocracy’?
To my mind, though, there’s a more basic argument for thinking that this event doesn’t show us a conflict between liberty and democracy/schmemocracy. Namely, that even if we define ‘democracy’ as ‘the will of the majority being effected’, this definition is still technically ill-formed.
Because what is meant by ‘the majority’? After all, the number of people who voted ‘yes’ in this referendum is a few million, which is less than 0.1% of human beings. That’s not a majority.
So there must be some criterion of what counts as the relevant population, the ‘demos’ of whom a majority is needed. One way to define that is to assume that the relevant population is always that of the sovereign nation-state. That is what, it appears, the great majority of people nowadays do, but it looks distinctly arbitrary to me. National boundaries are largely about how successful one groups of armed men have been relative to other groups of armed men. Nationalism then is rather like deciding political issue by a boxing match between leading politicians.
To my mind, the only reasonable way to define the relevant population is by a measure something like ‘those who are affected’. Now, those who sincerely and passionately want to build minarets are substantially affected by this ban; those who just don’t like seeing them, or knowing they’re there, are affected in a much more superficial way. One is being prevented from doing something by the state, while the other retains complete freedom either way, and merely has to tolerate seeing some disliked structures as they walk past.
So in this sense, the people who might or might not build minarets are the primary ‘demos’ (in that freedom of religion is primary over the sort of diffuse right to a ‘nice-looking’ neighbourhood) and I imagine a majority of them voted ‘no’.
Indeed we could go further. If three people want to build a minaret, and aren’t hurting anyone else by doing so, they form the primary ‘people affected’ and so the ‘democratic’ thing is for them to choose whether they can build a minaret or not.
And a big part of anarchist models of society (and, I presume but don’t know for sure, of Marxist non-models after the ‘withering away’ of the state) is the idea of voluntary federation: that individuals and groups of any size should have the constant right to withdraw from larger social organisations if they feel heavily persecuted. This is not a magic bullet, but it is, I think, the most basic way to organically embody this idea of individual and minority freedom within the structure of democracy.
This isn’t always as simple as I may have made it sound, of course. Things affect lots of people to different degrees – such as by consuming resources that others could have used. But we’ve always known that – we’ve always known, in particular, that Mill’s famous ‘harm principle’ is only a rule of thumb against the complexities of the real world. But it’s still a good rule of thumb, and what’s interesting is that by paying attention to who counts as the relevant ‘majority’, we can make the harm principle (that paradigmatic claim of personal liberty) coincide and connect neatly with valuing democracy.
Also, of course, there can still be tragic conflicts – between one person’s liberty and another’s, between one groups’ democracy and another’s. But that’s not the same as a conflict between liberty and democracy in the abstract.
Which makes a certain sense: both are principles of self-rule, one individual and one collective.