31 January 2019

Is there really freedom in a democracy?

 The Essays for: Is there really freedom in a democracy?

----Essay by Ruel----

Hello Lawrence,

Below is the link to the essay I wrote for Sunday's PhiloMadrid's topic:



----Essay by James----


Is there freedom in democracy? The first thing that we should ask ourselves is what exactly is freedom and what is democracy.  The Oxford online Dictionary says that “Freedom: is the power or right to act, speak or think as one wants”. While democracy is described as “A system of Government by the whole population or all the eligible members of a state, typically through representatives”. However consulting the dictionary only gives us a theoretical definition which may often be interpreted in a different way by citizens and representatives alike. On the one hand a large portion of the population think that they have a license to do as they please, while on the other hand many politicians, political parties, public institutions and private business corporations see too much freedom as detrimental to their own interests and whenever possible try to control the individuals liberties.  However, nowadays it is not acceptable for the powers that be to use coercion to achieve this goal so instead persuasion and conditioning are alternative methods.

As far as freedom in a democracy is concerned, it is true that anyone eligible to vote has a say in selecting their representatives. However it is extremely important to have an educated electorate in order for the system to function properly. If the population are not well informed then they are not using their right effectively and the results will lead to disaster. We only have to look at the problem with BREXIT and the election of Trump. Furthermore, in the run up to an election we are bombarded with propaganda from the different political parties in a bid to condition our decision. Very often the electoral manifestos are influenced by private business which invests in the political parties campaigns. This comes at a price of course, take the case of the United States where the amounts of money donated to the parties is astronomical. In the last Presidential Elections, Bernie Sanders, the independent candidate that lost questioned the influence of Wall Street on politics. Many of the lawyers who donated to the Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's campaign represented big corporations and banks.

Consequently, even though we may think that we have voted for the candidate we deemed fit for that office, it is does not necessarily mean that he really has ours interest at heart. Without doubt, sometimes the politicians have other more important interests. Returning to Donald Trump whose campaign was supported by the NRA (National Rifle Association), after the latest mass shootings and the many fatalities that occurred he still took the side of the NRA. In order to try to bring attention away from a gun control debate, Trump focused on the problem of mental health. But this is nothing new, for many years the NRA have supported the campaigns of other ex-Presidents. 

Incidentally, apart form the freedom to vote in either elections - to select our representative - or in referendums I cannot think of any other areas where citizens can participate actively to influence the decision-making of their governments. Evidently this is not a very democratic system! What can be done to change this? According to Noam Chomsky citizens should organize ourselves into groups and challenge the present way of doing thing. So as to improve the functioning of the system and to ensure a real democracy where the population participates in its decision-making and hence a true sense of freedom. In fact, with the technology available today it would be easy to develop a system to allow the people - rather than their representatives - to decide on many issues.

Chomsky believes that Government policy can also be influenced by public institutions and private business. He is quoted as saying “those who control the economy also have control over State policy”.  As a result a situation has developed in recent years in many countries where the public institutions are gradually being privatised. Moreover private business has moved into and controls institutions such as health, education and even transport. In these sectors, labour conditions have declined. Workers have lost many benefits that were obtain with great effort and sacrifice over previous decades. Such is the situation nowadays that in many jobs, workers do not protest about their conditions for fear of losing their positions. This reversal in labour laws and conditions needs to be dealt with and the lower levels of Maslow's hierarchy of needs should at least be catered for.

In the definition of democracy above, there is a reference to “the eligible members of a state”. This evidently suggests that certain spheres of the community are excluded.  Obviously the term alludes to prisoners, school-going-children and adolescents, people with mental illnesses, the member of the community with special needs, the Gypsy community, immigrants and of course the homeless. Paul-Michel Foucault referred to these, as other spaces or Heterotopia (1).  He has also addressed the relationship between power and knowledge, and how they are used as a form of social control through societal institutions.  He is quoted as saying “Schools serve the same social functions as prisons and mental institutions- to define, classify, control, and regulate people”.  Clearly he has a point because generally speaking, people educated in certain centres such as religious schools often acquire a conservative viewpoint while on the contrary those who attend non-denominational schools obtain a more liberal or progressivist indoctrination.

On the contrary, there are certain situations or even crises where a Government may understandably decide to curtail our freedom. An example of this is whenever they need to declare a state of emergency because of a natural disaster or because of an imminent terrorist attack. Furthermore situations can arise that may even demand a curfew to avoid the looting of a city. Other examples of when freedom may have to be suspended would be in the case of a war - with conscription or military service -, imprisonment for a crime, or committal to a Mental Institution.

In conclusion, there are democracies of different calibre throughout the world. Some of them having more or less Freedom but a common denominator to them all is that the population has been conditioned to accept the idea that freedom must be limited. We are told that too much freedom is counterproductive for society and would lead to anarchy and social unrest. (2)  “The smart way to keep people passive and obedient is to strictly limit the spectrum of acceptable opinion”.

 The Postmodernism movement is quite critical about abuses in the use of power and in the curbing the individuals rights. Governments and Members of Parliament have their essence in political parties which can be susceptible to the influence of economic powers such as the financial institutions and large business corporations - multinationals - .  In recent times we have seen evidence of this in the countless cases of corrupt that has been covered by the media. Furthermore we have seen the privatisation of many public institutions such as hospitals, schools and public transport. Clearly, all of these influences by private enterprise restrict our freedom in different ways.

(1) “Of Other Spaces, Utopias and Heterotopias” work by Paul-Michel Foucault, the French philosopher.
(2) Quote from Noam Chomsky



----Essay by Lawrence----

Is there really freedom in a democracy?

No, but the problem is not with democracy.

There are a number of issues with freedom that makes the subject as useful as a contradiction. For our purposes we are concerned with two types of freedom, philosophical freedom and political freedom: I assume that the democracy part of the question is political democracy.

A rough and ready definition of freedom for our topic includes freedom of action and free will. Freedom of action implies no constraints to act whereas free will is the idea of choice. The distinction can be subtle, the common idea of free will includes the idea of responsibility; we are still held responsible for our actions even if we are as determined as anything. Freedom of action might be limited by external causes thus limiting the scope of our choice. So the issue for us is what are the constraints on our philosophical and political ideas of freedom that makes this concept of freedom much weaker than our everyday use of freedom? 

At the basis of our everyday use of freedom, political or otherwise, is that we feel we can choose amongst options and that we do this at will.

Our idea of freedom today is a product of past philosophical thinking that today we would be more careful and circumspect before we express this thinking in public. A quick glance of the concept of freedom we see the hand of dualism at play. Freedom is something that belongs to our sense of “being” rather than our sense of being some mechanical instrument. Maybe our past view of freedom is that gravity might affect our body, but it does not affect our “mind” or “soul” and hence our freedom. In other words, we are immune from the effects of the material world.

But just because we feel we can choose A from B it does not follow that we are free to choose A from B. Many of us are also aware that just because we feel we are free to choose something it does not mean it is the best choice make or the right choice to be had. So, are we mixing up freedom to choose with ability to select?

A key reason why our idea of freedom is false, or certainly not 100% sound, is that we are limited by our epistemological state of mind (brain) about the choices we are making. We are basically limited in what we can know and be informed about a situation or opportunity. Of course, one of the limitations is that we do not have access on how things will pan out, or develop, before they do happen. It is ironic, however, that we can predict the movements of celestial bodies but not whether Kant would have been punctual for his lectures on a given day.

Indeed, I would argue that we make choices because we don’t know all there is to know about a situation. We might know that our choice is made either from experience or from thinking things out, but the key point here is that we do not know the status of that choice because there is nothing to know; if events have not happened then there are no facts to know about that event. But this is not enough, information about said events might must reach us first anyway to be able to know anything about them. In the meantime, never mind that we can only choose from what is available to us at the time and place we are at the time of choice making.

Another issue about our epistemological limitations is that we do not know the intentions of others. This is even difficult about someone we know, let alone someone we don’t even know they exist. Despite the wonderful maths of actuarial science it is still difficult to predict the intentions of someone else despite evidence to the contrary. In a way, our epistemological constraints have a similar effect on our freedom to act as much as a ball and chain tied to our ankles. 

At the physical level, maybe we are in a better position to predict future physical event: I can safely predict that I will never be judged a Mr Universe, unless the organisers have a short circuit in their brain and start selecting men for their philosophical prowess, and even then I doubt it.

The advantage of the physical world is that many times we know immediately our limitations due to the cause and effect principle. But we also have the advantage of knowing what we can do in the physical world: I can walk to the bus stop within four minutes from my front door even if I have to wait at the traffic lights. Predicting when the bus will arrive is another matter.

Our view of democracy, however, also depends on our idea of this philosophical freedom we have inherited from the past. The idea of choice on who to vote for gives us a sense of freedom which is probably unjustified. But there is another side to our idea of  a democratic political system which is that we are not oppressed or punished for our opinions and ideas. Compare my thinking that the Queen of England has unflattering hairstyle and the President of North Korea equally having unflattering hairstyle. The Queen of Britain probably doesn’t care what I think!

Political freedom is a negative reaction to the use of fear by those in power rather than by any other conceptual creation. Indeed, fear is used as a political weapon to influence our choices. Vote A if you want a really good health care service, Vote B if you want to become financially independent.

Sure, in a democracy we expect to have a wide range of options on how to run government and political society; but we are still constrained by how things will develop in real life. Our sense that we are free to choose the party we support is not indicative that there is real freedom in democracy.

Look at the 2017 election in the UK where the two main parties were offering the same flagship policy: Brexit. Thus 74% of the United Kingdom (eligible to vote or not) did not have a choice about the future of the country. And if you think that is bad, 48.2%
(vs 46.1%) of Americans eligible to vote voted for Clinton but still got Trump.

But there is an antidote, even if not a perfect one, to this chimera we call freedom: one criterion is called knowledge, the more we know about things (to use modern parlance) the more we narrow the gap between having a false beliefs and choosing a possible favourable outcome. In other words, we first need to have the freedom to know things and the right skills to learn before we can even begin to think about choices.

Another, criterion is that of having the means to know things and learn about things. But true freedom in politics, is not work, nor study, but having a choice of what to eat tomorrow without having to dig the ground ourselves. Political freedom is first and foremost not being afraid from where the next meal is coming from. Poverty is the ball and chain of freedom; we are free when we can really choose what to eat. In effect if, according to Napoleon or Fredrick the Great, an army marches on its stomach, so do the citizens of a democracy.

Best Lawrence

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