Monday, July 15, 2002

I had intended a long and complex response to Robert Musil, but in some respects that won't be necessary, as the response can be limited to a few key points.

1) Arguing that the Declaration of Independence is any sort of universal law of political philosophy is completely clueless. Ask a Brit of the time what he thought of the American Revolution, and you'd likely get an earful of a very different interpretation of events than Jefferson's. Or, indeed, if you had asked any of the loyalists- all those people who thought that Jefferson et al were wrong, that the revolution was against their rightful king, and when the revolution happened left the United States to become part of (and help found) Canada, which still recognizes the British monarchy. Which, by the way, Musil has declared his enmity to by declaring it illegitimate in a way that even Jefferson had not. Jefferson's beef was partially that the United States was being ruled badly by a faraway king not interested in the States themselves but only in the resources they could bring. He never said that George should stop being the King of England, nor would he. Has Musil forgotten the apocryphal story that originally they wanted to make Washington a king?

2) In response to his diatribe about Korea, let me cite the opening passage of the report he quoted:

Responsibility for the aggression. The invasion of the territory of the Republic of Korea by the armed forces of the North Korean authorities, which began on June 25, 1950, was an act of aggression initiated without warning and without provocation, in execution of a carefully prepared plan.

Any assistance on behalf of other nations to defend Korea at the time does not invalidate the international system, because North Korea had already violated the RoK's national sovereignty by the very source the Musil cited! After that, any assistance that the (relatively young) U.N. provided could have been and indeed was requested by the RoK.

As to his implication that report on the source of the conflict in any way invalidates my observations about sovereignty:

Had internationally supervised elections been allowed to take place in the whole of Korea, and had a unified and independent Korea thereby come into existence, the present conflict could never have arisen...Experience suggested that the North Korean authorities would never agree to such elections... Notwithstanding the continued efforts of the Commission, it appeared on the eve of the aggression that the Korean peninsula would remain divided indefinitely, or at least until international tension had slackened.

Musil seems to argue that this report supports the idea that democratic systems are the best ones and should be implemented. Quite possibly, but it also recognizes that you can't arbitrarily force an unwilling state to become democratic, otherwise the U.N. would have done so. (And keep in mind that this was during the Cold War... if North Korea could have been forced by the free world to become democratic, they would have done so in order to fight communism. The existence of a great power (the Soviets) with completely different views, interests, and objectives, however, prevented this from happening.)

In any case, silly misrepresentations and ludicrous attacks aside, Musil has shown nothing that invalidates what I've said before. The Republic of Korea became democratic (with the consent of the citizenry, thus lending the process real legitimacy and the government real sovereignty) whereas North Korea (which already had a non-democratic government that was hostile to the idea) was not. North Korea invaded South Korea in order to annex it, South Korea (obviously) didn't intend to submit, and the United Nations came to South Korea's defense, because North Korea had broken the rules.

3) Musil, it isn't just that Anarchists don't believe in those "universal principles"... rather a lot of people don't believe in the "universal principles" of the Declaration of Independence, including (as I mentioned) the ancestors of the United States' closest neighbour! (Is Musil not aware of the river of loyalists that left the United States during and following the revolution?) Anarchists be damned, Canadians thought it was bunk! The whole "that's not an anarchist" argument is a sideshow, because I was referring to "those that believe in radical democracy"... if "anarchist" isn't the proper word, then I invite Musil to name those that believe that property rights are not as important as democratic rights. Marxist, socialist, anarchist, liberal, Canadian, whatever- the point is that they exist, they reasonably disagree, have valid reasons for doing so, and therefore make the word "universal" absolutely mistaken. As it usually is in political philosophy.

4) This isn't a point that Musil brought up, but was brought up by some people in the comments section of an earlier post. I responded there, but I'll respond here, too.

Machiavelli once said: "Anyone who ignores everyday reality in order to live up to an ideal will soon discover he has been taught how to destroy himself, not how to preserve himself". This is an important insight: there is a fundamental distinction to be made between looking at the world as you think it ought to be, and the world as you know it to be. They aren't the same thing, and sometimes you need to deal with the peculiarities and problems of the latter in order to best get to the situation as it exists in the former. Denying reality is comforting, but useless for those that want to both create and safeguard positive change. This, not Wilson, was the reason the League failed: it assumed everybody shared the same views it did, operated entirely under that assumption without even a cursory examination of the international community as it really was, and was flabbergasted when it discovered that that wasn't the case (first when the United States opted out, then when Japan left, and finally when Germany made a mockery of it.)

The problem with national sovereignty is, of course, that legitimacy can indeed by gained at the point of a gun... as Fukuyama's citation of Hegel in "End of History" made clear, deals made in the defense of one's life are still valid deals. It is true that such legitimacy is pretty weak, however, since it means that anybody with a bigger gun or a faster draw gets to run the show- it's a recipe for instability and a rebellious populace. This is why governments try to find other reasons to name themselves the legitimate government- including things like elections, a monarchy, "states of emergency" (in the case of coups), or simply appealing to the popular sentiment- when popular presidents become dictators, they often claim that the people want it to be so, and sometimes it may even be the case if the democratic system is ineffective and deadlocked. While the United States may be able to afford the luxury of a weak government, many other states cannot.

Still, unfortunately, it remains the case that sovereign, legitimate nations (whether democratic or no), can and do do awful things to groups of people if the vast majority of the population is willing to let them get away with it, rather than rise up in defense of that minority. This doesn't invalidate the idea of international treaties and bodies... in fact, that is the reason they exist. After all, a sovereign nation need not deal, trade, or ally itself with countries it finds despicable, and can do everything in its power to hamper their goals. So countries make agreements- "you don't behave this way, and I don't make your economic and strategic life a living hell, and may even help you out". Agreements like this between large groups of countries is a big reason why rights are as relatively well-protected as they are today (they certainly weren't in Musil's vaunted 18th century) and forms the foundation of the concept United Nations. National sovereignty exists, but it isn't enough- the problem (to get back to the original point) is that those that forget that national sovereignty exists despite the form of government and that those forms they don't like are illegitimate are saying that that government should not exist. (This, in Musil's case, includes the Queen of England, which means that if Musil were running the United States he'd have just called Britain a sham government. I doubt Blair would let that slide.) This means that those necessary agreements cannot take place (because one party doesn't recognize the other one should even exist.) Unless the judging party is then willing to take control of the other government itself (although that isn't exceptionally democratic in its own right), that means that you get the worst of both worlds: you get a government that you can't do anything about completely unhampered by international treaties and bodies, and which knows that no matter what it does, it cannot live up to your expectations and therefore can feel free to be as repressive as it wishes.

If you want to advocate slaughter and strife, then by all means, continue complaining that the only valid form of government is republicanism and reap the enormous harvest of enmity, desperation, and hostility that that will create. Those of us that live in the real world and wish to make it the best place possible will try to deal with the situation as it currently exists, try to make it as good as possible, and work to show the people of the world that democracy shouldn't be adopted because it is the only legitimate system, but that it's the best system for all involved, even if we disagree on the particulars.

Anyway, this will be my last post on the subject for a while. Not because it doesn't interest me, and that it isn't important, but because Musil's complaints have become repetitive and it's pretty obvious that he's trying to catch me in some sort of contradiction or portray my observations in the most negative light, rather than attempting to engage, understand, and respond to them. As long as he thinks that the declaration of independence is the final and only work of political philosophy that exists, that republicanism is the only legitimate form of government, and that anyone who points out that he is incorrect is a fascist (who, by the way, didn't recognize the legitimacy of other forms of government either... they thought socialism was evil and democracy was so ludicrously ineffective as to be dangerous), I find myself with little more to say. If Musil wishes to persist in his dreams of political uniformity, let him. I have laid out the international system and the concepts of legitimacy and sovereignty as they exist now, and the inevitable flaws and problems in both that lead to the creation of collective bodies and international treaties. If he wishes to find universal political principles, then I wish him luck, because what I've just mentioned is about the only universals that exist in politics. Whether he wishes to believe it or not will change nothing.

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