The strength of all governments lies not in weapons but in the spirit which puts the weapons at their disposal.

At Double X, Kerry Howley uses Myanmar’s latest sham trial of Suu Kyi to explain why a certain perception of legitimacy is a necessary for the persistence of even the least legitimate regime:

[E]ven when the world isn’t watching, which is to say, even when the accused is not Suu Kyi, Burma tries political dissidents. It does so because even totalitarian regimes need to justify themselves to the people they rule and the bureaucrats who do their bidding. At some level Suu Kyi’s elaborate trial was held for the benefit of the minor officials, judges, and attorneys who orchestrated it—educated people who need to believe that their jobs are necessary and just, that they are ministers of due process rather than yes-men for a bunch of thugs.

A certain degree of “buy in” is a necessary condition of stability in any kind of regime. The great advantage of democracy is that it keeps policy and public opinion at least loosely aligned and provides a mechanism for peaceful transitions in government when public opinion disagrees too much with the prevailing policies of the state. As the great democrat Ludwig von Mises once put it:

Its function [i.e., the function of “the democratic form of constitution”] is to make peace, to avoid violent revolutions. In non-democratic states, too, only a government which can count on the backing of public opinion is able to maintain itself in the long run. The strength of all governments lies not in weapons but in the spirit which puts the weapons at their disposal. Those in power, always necessarily a small minority against an enormous majority, can attain and maintain power only by making the spirit of the majority pliant to their rule. If there is a change, if those on whose support the government depends lose the conviction that they must support this particular government, then the ground is undermined beneath it and it must sooner or later give way. Persons and systems in the government of non-democratic states can be changed by violence alone. The system and the individuals that have lost the support of the people are swept away in the upheaval and a new system and other individuals take their place.

But any violent revolution costs blood and money. Lives are sacrificed, and destruction impedes economic activity. Democracy tries to prevent such material loss and the accompanying psychical shock by guaranteeing accord between the will of the state—as expressed through the organs of the state—and the will of the majority. This it achieves by making the organs of the state legally dependent on the will of the majority of the moment. In internal policy it realizes what pacifism seeks to realize in external policy.

Myanmar’s current regime will collapse some day and chances are it won’t be peaceful.

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13 thoughts on “The strength of all governments lies not in weapons but in the spirit which puts the weapons at their disposal.

  1. If this is what he's saying, he doesn't understand it. We're seeing bizarre paranoid theatrics about health-care reform precisely because Democrats like Ezra have been extremely insistent on changing the health care system into something a huge swathe of Americans very intensely resist.

  2. But that's just not true. I mean, the debate this last week is about forced euthanasia, a thing that literally no one is advocating. The things that actually are being advocated poll either well, or indifferently when they are individually put to the public. To the extent that people say things like 'keep your government hands off my medicare' there quite literally is no debate. This bespeaks a major lack of democratic legitimacy of exactly the kind that von Mises so lauded. In the previous post on this topic, a number of commenters pointed out that Ezra has said some things that imply a certain willingness to do what is necessary to get what he wants (e.g. the Tauzin comment). Is this sort of thing poisoning the debate? Assuredly. But really, who here has the mote in his eye, and who the tree trunk? I know you, a reasonably consistent libertarian would probably say that both sides have fairly large sticks, and arguing over whose is smaller is pointless, but I'm not so sure.

  3. OK, I just reread your comment, and realized I made an uncharitable assumption of what you meant by 'huge swathe'. I'm sure you cold find 20-30% of the country that 'intensely resist[s]' some if not all of the proposals that are actually on the table for health care reform. By some measures that would count as a huge swathe. It's not trivial by any means. But, and sorry to be crude here, screw them. 27% of the country (on any given issue) are crazy:http://kfmonkey.blogspot.com/2007/01/repost-cra…I, however, want to start a small business sometime in the near future, and need a decent Health Insurance Exchange with rules against discriminating on the basis of prior conditions and such. I also care about the well being of my society, and what we have is not working. So, are we going to try, based on the best available evidence of other countries' experiences, to make some things better (with the inevitable infelicities), or demagogue the process into oblivion?

  4. Arghh! OK, one last thing, and then I'll let someone else talk, but back to what I read Ezra as trying to say: have we, as a polity, come to the point where we can only demagogue issues to oblivion, or force changes through despite the 'will of the people'? Or is there some possibility for real, process-legitimating debate? If not, we seem awfully close to the Myanmar situation. What should be done abut this?

  5. Hunter – I totally agree with your opposition to the evil insurance companies discriminating on the basis of pre-existing conditions.In solidarity, I am going to go out, crash my car, and then try and buy a no-deductible collision policy from Geico.

  6. Yes, well, cars and health being exactly the same thing, I applaud your plan. /sarcasmI never said anything about 'evil'. I talked about things 'working'. The risk spreading social function of insurance works sometimes and doesn't others, and the reasons why it doesn't when it doesn't are usually specific to the situation. In the case of AIG and the financial system, it is understood that the problem was analogous to one firm insuring the entire city of New Orleans (and only New Orleans) against hurricane damage, on the theory that the Army Corps of Engineers had done more than enough to ensure that the levies would hold in the strongest of storms. In the case of health care, the need for a risk spreading scheme should be obvious given the catastrophic costs sometimes but not always but definitely not never involved. The failure of the standard, private insurance market to accomplish that risk spreading should also be clear to anyone who cares to look. The reasons for that failure are quite different from those involved in the AIG case, but boil down to the fact that an individual mandate is the only way to ensure that your plan isn't widely replicated by the young and healthy (of which I am currently one – for now). Given the alternatives, I'm quite content with the state coercing folks into an appropriately regulated market, in return for regulations which ensure that the risk is actually spread by that market. Or, you know, we could just go for a single payer system. But I'll take what I can get.

  7. I'll just also point out that there is the equivalent of an individual mandate with car insurance (at least in my state, the relatively libertarian Texas). No one here complains. You can buy more coverage than the minimum if you want. There is no redistributionist scheme to help the poor pay, but given the pathetic lack of public transportation hereabouts, perhaps there should be. Or not. Again, cars aren't health care. Watching someone walking on the side of the road just is different than watching them dying on it.

  8. it is also worth noting that Democrats do not bemoan the health of our democracy when the antics of groups like Acorn or Code Pink are the issue.

  9. This is true. The 'frenzied, incoherent mob' that is being objected to is, well, both frenzied and incoherent. Objecting to the frenzy in this case is more than a bit hypocritical. But the incoherence is another matter entirely. Code Pink may have been stupid in the way they tried to get there message out, but opposition to the war is just not the same as opposition to allowing the government to take over medicare. One you can disagree with. The other just makes no sense; you can neither agree nor disagree, but only shake your head in amazement at the utter disconnection from reality.

  10. It's ok to oppose lots of government when it comes to war, but it's not ok to oppose lots of government when it comes to health care?Are you a sock puppet?

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