There’s a new fashion afoot – to transform all the errors that western nations have made in the past into a cloud of pallid guilt from which any expression of enthusiasm for the liberal democratic world and its past is frowned upon. This holiday is a fine time to decisively reject this corrosive mentality and to celebrate the cause of the free.
Recognizing dark sides of our histories need not, and should not, confuse a person into lacking the courage and perspicacity to see the remarkable developments in political thought that have shaped the possibilities for freedom. These achievements are worth both defending and encouraging.
Where should we start? Perhaps I should mention John Locke, a seventeenth century British philosopher who, in his work “Two Treatises of Government,” suggested, contrary to those who thought that monarchs had a God-given right to rule, that people should be allowed to overthrow their government if they are unhappy. The best way to do this is through peaceful democratic change, but Locke said that people should even use revolution if necessary. Those who took up his suggestion in Maidan would agree.
This simple idea, among his others, was the lynchpin of the American Revolution. Today, across the world, people still struggle with governments they cannot dislodge. This holiday, three cheers for John Locke!
Once you have a government which you can remove when you please, it is necessary to have checks and balances that minimize the risk of politicians abusing the law to lock up people they don’t like or make laws to terrorize their enemies. French philosopher Montesquieu most clearly elaborated the idea of the “separation of powers.”
Those who rule (the executive) should be separated from those who make the laws (the legislature). Both these branches of government should be separated from those who implement the laws (the judiciary). A simple idea and easily corruptible. It remains a work in progress around the world today. This holiday, three cheers for Montesquieu!
The separation of powers is impotent if we do not build a trustworthy legal system with checks and balances in the state. Since medieval times, following fights between monarchs and the people, and much blood spilled, great people have hacked through the undergrowth of tyranny to clear our path.
From their hard-won efforts have come superlative ideas: that our judges should be independent; that everyone should be equal before the law; that a person brought before the law should be presumed innocent; that you should not be tried for the same indiscretion twice; that you should be represented impartially if you find yourself before the law; that you should be judged by your peers (by a jury); and that you should not be unlawfully imprisoned indefinitely (habeas corpus) – a vital buffer against the abuse of executive power. The ancients had similar ideas, but it was in modern liberal democracies that these concepts were most fully consolidated and realized.
This collection of safeguards is not perfect. Maybe there are other innovations we have yet to stumble across. But as an advance on the old ways, they are remarkable. Liberal democracies have largely attempted to advance these general tenets and in this respect, this represents one of the most startling differences between them and the tyrannies that they oppose. This holiday, three cheers for impartial law, those who worked so hard to bring it into existence, and those who continue to fight to improve it!
Now let’s turn our attention to the scientists – people like Francis Bacon, who were not mere scientists, but political theorists too. It was they who, during the so-called Enlightenment, saw that humans are imperfect. Through their scientific work, they began to realize that the best way to understand the world was with a sense of humbleness and incremental experiments.
If something doesn’t work, throw it out and try again. This idea works as well in science as it does in politics. Unlike the disasters of monolithic ideologies such as Marxism, the democratic way accepts some disorderliness and a maelstrom of different opinions and ideas as the best way to inch the human condition forward. The limited powers of the human mind and its natural inclination to arrogant certainty was as much a hinderance to scientific knowledge as it was to the building of societies.
It might be said that this single insight was the most important that we ever came across, even if in retrospect it seems rather obvious. Of course, that didn’t stop some nations attempting single-plan ideologies right up to the present day, but in liberal democracies, the discovery was largely heeded. It is an appreciation of the fallibility of humans, not their perfectibility, that is the foundation of good government.
This holiday, three cheers for the Enlightenment and its scientists and political philosophers!
Then there is the constellation of ideas that buttress what I have laid out. Amongst them are a menagerie of freedoms. We could talk about freedom of religion and expression. Not much more than 300 years ago, John Locke was forced to flee to Holland in fear of his life.
Locke’s ideas about overthrowing government were treasonable stuff. Yet over those 300 years, through the hard work of everyday people, we have built political systems that grant freedom of conscience and more besides. Freedom of the press, perhaps the most profoundly important freedom after the printing press was invented, has led to one of the most contentious battlefields for liberty in the digital age.
The fact that I would be unable to publish this article in North Korea illustrates the essential point. That I can publish it in Kyiv Post without so much as an eyebrow being raised summarizes everything to which Ukraine aspires.
And let us not forget civil rights. In Britain, the brave and brazen Mary Wollstonecraft, who wrote furiously for women’s equality, is remembered. But around the world, many others fought for equality of respect. This holiday, three cheers for civil freedoms, from the press to religion, that generations of everyday people have fought to create and protect!
None of these developments presume that we will ever achieve utopia. Our weakness is to be found everywhere. There are people locked in prison for questionable reasons in the UK. As for checks and balances in government gone awry in the UK – well, we could spend a whole night in the pub talking about those.
Our failures are not a reason for more state control, but the opposite: to expose them to ideas and a greater range of opinions by enabling political opposition, protecting the freedom to express dissenting views, and creating a legal environment in which people can be confident of fair treatment.
The errors and mistakes in free societies are easy pickings for those who like to engage in whataboutism whenever liberal democracies criticize the human rights record or the behavior of other governments.
For all its aberrations and historical injustices, the liberal democratic world has attempted the experiment of freedom, and systematically found solutions to its challenges, unlike any other collection of nations.
This Christmas and New Year, there is not a better time to raise a glass and re-affirm without sheepishness or coyness the greatness of the liberal and free state of mind and those who defend it.
Three cheers for the free!
Charles Cockell is Professor of Astrobiology at the University of Edinburgh.
The views expressed are the author’s and not necessarily of Kyiv Post.
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