Liberal democracy: Roets, Vegter and van Staden

At this point in civilisation’s collapse, I’m tempted to celebrate any attempt to talk about ideas in political and moral theory that are of universal interest. Simultaneously, though, a concern regarding how low my own standards might have sunk leaps out from the idealistic fog.

The topic provoking that thought is something discussed in a recent set of columns in PoliticsWeb and DailyFriend, where Ernst Roets, Ivo Vegter and Martin van Staden debate what liberalism means, in respect of themes such as whether it can accommodate consequences such as negative impacts on individual liberty.

The concern arising from these columns is less that of the dearth of serious critical engagement, but more the prevalence of think-pieces that contribute to stupidity, or at least to filter bubble-driven entrenched views.

That’s normal, sure, at least for all of us who have been reading things on the Internet from the beginning of the era when blogs became a thing (or even on BBSes); and where said blogs were going to save us from the tyranny of mainstream media, because humanity would now have access to the insights of those previously excluded, and/or who were constrained by editors and fact-checkers.

Yes, I’ve often been one of those people (category: Opinionistas and bloggers, with one of the two being more ‘credible’), and also, one of the authors involved below is a friend of mine. And while you might think this a problem, if the problem is expressed in mere accusations of hypocrisy (regarding criticising a certain mode of engagement while doing “the same thing”), that would be lazy and lacking any argumentative substance.

I consider Ivo a friend, and I think he’d agree with the paragraph above. And it’s trivial to note that this doesn’t imply that he (or anyone) should agree with anything else I say here.

Anyway – the reason I’ve made the possibly unwise, and probably fruitless, journey to the admin pages of this website is to note that what Ernst Roets, Ivo Vegter and Martin van Staden have been saying to each other of late will not encourage any changes of mind, and will quite probably not conduce to any reflection at all.

This would not matter at all, if the authors were simply bloggers in the old-school sense alluded to above. And this is not to say that they are in some refined category containing the likes of James Baldwin, Hannah Arendt, Carl Bernstein, Barbara Ehrenreich, William Safire or whatever. That would be an absurd, but they are also not merely people with Twitter accounts or vanity websites.

One is a Chief Executive of a prominent and well-funded organisation that has influenced national policy; another is one of the few columnists who is plausibly a “household name” in South African media; and the last is Head of Policy at an prominent liberal think tank, and was previously an executive member of another previously influential NPO.

Before you read the “previously” above as snide in some way, it serves to make a point. Organisations such as the Institute of Race Relations once provided serious and ideologically-sensitive analysis (in that they were aware of their political commitments, but also of the value of making an argument for those commitments), but they have since become early adopters of mindless panics regarding topics like Critical Race Theory.

Anyway, back to the topic – the conversation is about liberal democracy, communitarianism, personal liberty and so forth, and you can read it all in sequence as follows: Roets, 8 June in PoliticsWeb replies by Vegter (June 13, DailyFriend) and van Staden (June 22, DailyFriend). Then Roets replies to the replies (26 June, DailyFriend), and lastly, I saw Ivo’s tweet linking to his response to Roets (27 June, DailyFriend).

An annoying thing about all this: I think Afriforum (Roets’s organisational home) are not net-positive contributors to South African politics, but I see what Roets was trying to say in his first piece, and I agree with his conclusion, despite the paucity of his argument.

And it seems to me that both Vegter and van Staden decline to engage with the significance of the broader point he was making, instead choosing to respond to the (justified) provocation offered by his reliance on a false dichotomy, and theologically-driven moral reasoning, in making said point.

Roets might be right (and I think he is; and yes, it is awkward to agree with him) that “Classical liberalism” – at least as currently understood – is fundamentally illiberal, at least on some credible understandings of what liberalism is. But making the point via appeals to the putative authority of a religious text’s teaching on morality and social mores, and sensational juxtapositions with Hungarian autocrats, invites easy – and perhaps, lazy – dismissal.

The dismissal could come from either or both of those who don’t regard the religious guidance as insightful or authoritative; and those who might also think that a historically constrained example such as Orban doesn’t readily illustrate the concepts Roets is trying to highlight.

The fact that Roets chose to frame his argument in the way he did is of course disappointing, as is the fact that his respondents rose to the (unintentional, I think) bait in focusing on the distractors, rather than on whether there was something interesting to say about his thesis.

Liberal scholarship itself – leaving aside whichever flavour of god you prefer, or whomever is President of whatever nation at some time – has included Centuries of debate on the extent to which liberalism entails commitments to the interests of others. As I noted earlier, I agree with Roets’s conclusion, as noted in posts like this one, speaking of J.S. Mill:

Third – and this is one thing that differentiates some versions of liberalism (in this case including mine) from others – is that it is easy to forget what motivates Mill in the first place. He was a radical in his time, being an early defender of both female emancipation and the abolition of slavery*, and his career – but more importantly, his liberalism – was fundamentally rooted in humanism.

Then, there’s this post on Judge Learned Hand – an under-appreciated proponent of liberal values – including this remark:

And what is this liberty which must lie in the hearts of men and women? It is not the ruthless, the unbridled will; it is not freedom to do as one likes. That is the denial of liberty, and leads straight to its overthrow. A society in which men recognize no check upon their freedom soon becomes a society where freedom is the possession of only a savage few; as we have learned to our sorrow.

I’ve gone on long enough, and also, really don’t think it could be constructive to join in with the nitpicking of any details found in the various contributions. The point here is simply to note that in this case, neither the critic of “liberalism”, nor the defenders of it, are doing much more than speaking to themselves and to members of their tribes.

To be clear: Roets is to my mind right about the concern he raises; Vegter is right about the lack of quality in Roets’s argument; and van Staden is right in his articulation of a related, yet separate issue (in that he spends much of his time talking about flaws in democracy, rather than what Roets was trying to talk about).

And yet, all of that results in a “debate” that to my mind adds nothing to the intellectual scaffolding of a reader besides reinforcing their preferred position. It seems at least possible that we could do better than this, in that political labels such as ‘liberal’ don’t need to be treated as positions to be defended, rather than being a summary label for things we can defend as valuable, and that we would (or should) continue to care about, regardless of which label we found ourselves carrying.

By Jacques Rousseau

Jacques Rousseau teaches critical thinking and ethics at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and is the founder and director of the Free Society Institute, a non-profit organisation promoting secular humanism and scientific reasoning.