Thursday, August 18, 2011

Political Multiculturalism

America is a democracy. It is a liberal democracy. It is democratic in that it decides political issues, issues of governance, by popular election. The public elects its political office holders. They, in turn, legislate and execute legislation. It is liberal in that it is committed to limited government, a precept enshrined in its constitution. It promotes public liberty by leaving its citizens free to go about their business without (undue) government interference.

Now there is talk of multiculturalism. Is it compatible with liberal democracy? There appear to be cross-currents of thought on this  question. On the one hand, the freedom that liberalism promotes carries in its tow the freedom to freely adopt any particular cultural orientation, without impediment.

On the other hand though, the liberalism that promotes this freedom is itself a cultural orientation. As such, it competes with alternative cultural orientations, some of which are inimical to the very freedom touted by the liberal view. Accept multiculturalism wholesale, and you have exposed yourself to infiltration by cultures hostile to the freedom you cherish. You have opened the floodgates to incursion by the foes of freedom. You have set up conditions favorable to the spread of cultural opposition to the various freedoms, including the freedom to freely choose and adhere to a given culture, including liberal culture. How to escape this dilemma?

Ostensibly, it is inescapable. This, then, augurs ill for the adoption of multiculturalism by a liberal democracy. If its liberalism is to be preserved, multiculturalism must be jettisoned. Multicultural liberal democracy is an oxymoron.

Or so it would seem.


It may be argued that there is no problem here. Contrary to what has been assumed, liberalism is not a culture. It is a culture-neutral determination not to impose a culture (which, in itself, does not constitute any kind of cultural orientation) and to leave everyone free to adopt, individually, any culture. It relies on the good sense and good will of the people to perpetuate adherence to this governing norm, and to make political choices that will keep it in place. (In and of itself, it is merely a starting point, an initial position, one whose continuation strongly recommends itself to the sensible mind.) However, by pursuing democratic procedures, people are, in principle, perfectly at liberty to adopt an orientation that is entirely at odds with this norm, and to endure the consequences. To be sure, there is a liberal cultural orientation that is diametrically opposed to the denial of individual freedom. It has its many adherents; and they abhor any form of extraneous imposition. They will cast their ballots in a way reflecting their championing of freedom. But this is something apart from the basic political norm of liberalism, makers of this case will say.


Suppose society has a culture that promotes freedom. It encourages everyone to be free to adhere to the (political) outlook they please. Now suppose that some people freely choose to subscribe to a philosophy that says that people should be compelled to conform to certain practices. It says, that is, not that people should be free to conform to those practices if they so choose. Rather, it says that they should be made to conform if they should fail to do so of their own volition. (How it will impose its will is a separate question. It may resort to educative measures, for example.) The inevitable outcome is that the society no longer has the culture of freedom it had originally espoused. Initially, this might affect only a certain segment of the larger population. That is because the sub-culture in question presumably does not control the larger society. Consequently, only that segment over which it does exercise control will be affected. Now, this already points up the unviability of the principle upon which this society is based. The principle is, after all, meant to assure freedom to all its members. However, matters are liable to become further exacerbated. Suppose the freedom-opposing segment wrests political control of the government. This is particularly possible in a democracy, where governance is decided by popular vote. In that eventuality, the group in question is now in possession of a great deal of coercive power. Before long, everyone will come under its dominion. Individual freedom will no longer be anywhere in evidence. What this shows is that promoting a policy of freedom to be free to suppress freedom is a losing proposition. It is not self-sustaining. It eventually undoes itself. If a society values its freedom, it has no choice but to limit individuals’ freedom to actions that do not curtail other people’s freedom – their free exercise of choices.

In political philosophy texts they ask what justifies political authority. Why should people, like me and you, submit to it? But what kind of question is that? What choice have we? Political authority is coercive. And it has the means of enforcing its mandates. It is from this that it derives its power: sheer brute force. It is too strong to be subdued by a competing power. If it weren't, it would give way. Power always goes to the mightiest. This is the way of nature. At any given moment, a political configuration reflects perceived (strategically adjusted) distributions of power.     

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