Liberal Legitimacy and the Least Bad Hegemon

Maybe the least unreasonable argument for the security state’s relatively unchecked discretion is that it is necessary to maintain a relatively liberal global order. America’s international spy-craft and diplomacy may not exactly square with civics-class ideas about the legitimating function of democratic oversight, and to that extent the American security state more or less constantly violates basic liberal ideals. But that’s okay, because it’s all in the name of liberal ideals! Making the world safe for democracy is a serious business and we cannot risk bungling it by subjecting the very important hush-hush gambits of the spooks to overzealous democratic scrutiny. The globe spins in anarchy! The competitive lawlessness of the international order practically ensures that the pragmatic Machiavels of the American security state will be frustrated with the consistent domestic application of the ideals they have sworn to uphold. What good are those shiny ideals if we’re all dead or, worse, forced to speak Chinese and use Baidu?

This is a queer sort of consequentialism that claims to be a form of liberalism by making liberalism the thing it’s trying to maximize. And the logic of consequentialism is a logic of trade-offs. If you need to sacrifice three units of liberalism domestically to secure twelve units of liberalism abroad, well, you’d better do it! Or if you’re a parochial nationalist, if you need to sacrifice three units of liberalism domestically now to maximize expected domestic liberalism threatened by nefarious foreign forces, well, you’d better do it! What kind of liberal is willing to threaten the quantity of liberalism, foreign and/or domestic, by stringent adherence to liberal demands of legitimating democratic oversight?

Sorry, it doesn’t work this way. Either you believe in the liberal-democratic theory of political legitimacy or you don’t. If you do, the state either meets liberal-democratic procedural requirements and acts legitimately, or it doesn’t and acts lawlessly, criminally. If you don’t, you should just admit it!

You’re free to favor welfare and gay marriage and free health-care while rejecting fundamental liberal ideas about what separates the state from a vast criminal enterprise. The problem is that there aren’t any other remotely plausible ideas about what might separate a state from a criminal enterprise. But maybe you’re a hard-headed utilitarian realist who believes that states are bound to act as vast criminal concerns, but that the better, smarter states maximize the efficiency of the criminal side of things by branching out into all sort of less evidently criminal lines of business that keep their victims/subjects/citizens safe, healthy, and fairly well satisfied with their lot. And it’s pretty obviously best for everybody if one or several of the nice-ish criminal states suppress the less nice criminal enterprises, political or otherwise, through whatever means, criminal or otherwise, are deemed necessary. Because the efficacy of nice-ish criminal states depends so much on the goodwill of their victims/subjects/citizens, it’s best if all the geopolitical nasty business can be done in a way that doesn’t upset the folks at home. Anything that would upset the people obviously needs to be a secret. And if some smug jackass employed on the criminal side of things shoots off his mouth, imperiling the popular goodwill that helps the nice-ish criminals do what they need to do keep the less-nice competition down? Well that guy isn’t helping anybody but the bad (worse) guys! Maybe you think all that. But that’s not remotely liberalism, is it?

The least awful sounding version of this Global Sicilianism is what I think of as the “least-bad hegemon theory.” America is the least-bad hegemon because it’s liberal_ish_, in the sense that it violates liberal rights relatively less than most other states, and in that queer liberalism-maximizing sense that it keeps the world more liberal than it would be under the alternative hegemons. But being the least-bad hegemon, or the most liberal, or best-for-liberalism hegemon, is not a way of qualifying as a non-criminal enterprise. Again, either the state exercises its power legitimately, having fully satisfied the standard democratic procedural requirements necessary for the protection of its citizens’ basic rights, or it doesn’t.

My sense is that many of those who vigorously resist substantive, legitimating public deliberation over the policies of the spooks do think that America’s status as the least-bad hegemon confers legitimacy on secret, dubiously vetted policies–maybe even confers super-legitimacy on undemocratic secret tactics, if they’re really, really necessary. For these folks, civics-class American ideals are somehow both an impediment to maintaining America’s strategic edge and the point of it. We get to violate our ideals because we’re superior for having them. Hypocrisy is the tribute vice pays to virtue, and all that.

In the first half the twentieth century, there was this idea that cumbrous liberal democracy couldn’t possibly compete with the streamlined authoritarian state. It’s my impression that the secret American security apparatus has its roots in this era, and an in this idea–that we can’t afford to let the unpredictable dithering whims of democratic opinion interfere with the cold Machiavellian executive decisiveness required to maintain America’s place in the global order. What’s interesting to me is that we so rarely even consider whether this institutionalized subversion of democracy is really necessary to to remain the least bad hegemon. Kruschev didn’t actually bury us, after all, and that’s not because the CIA was so wicked smart. It might even be the case that thoroughgoing liberal democracy is not actually inconsistent with global supremacy. Anyway, it’s amazing that the liberal principles of legitimate state power upon which America was founded seem to so many of us so obviously unworkable that we don’t even begin to take seriously the possibility that American power could survive the consistent application of American civics-class ideals.