Sunday, February 13, 2011

Egypt and the State of Nature

News comes today that the Egyptian military, left in charge by the departure of President Hosni Mubarak, has dissolved parliament and suspended the constitution. The move has been applauded by the protesters -- a diverse group to be sure -- who toppled Mubarek. International reaction is likely to be ambivalent for military control of a nation is rarely, if ever, a good thing. The good news is that Egypt's military has so far not given any indication that it wants to establish a military dictatorship and its public pronouncements today have indicated a desire to draft a new, more democratic constitution and hold elections within six months.

The Egyptian people now confront that moment in the history of a nation when they must replace an old, no-longer-effective political order with something new. This is not exactly what the great modern political theorist Thomas Hobbes described as the state of nature: a time during which there is no common power to put the people of a territory in awe. When such a situation exists, according to Hobbes, people do whatever it takes to preserve themselves and cannot be faulted for whatever they do; their choices can only be evaluated as more or less well calculated to achieve self-preservation. As a result, during this time people live in a state of war, indeed a "war of all against all." "In such a condition," Hobbes tells us, "there is no place for industry, because the fruit thereof is uncertain, and consequently, no culture of the earth, no navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by sea, no commodious building, no instruments of moving and removing such things as require much force, no knowledge of the face of the earth, no account of time, no arts, no letters, no society, and which is worst of all, continual fear and danger of violent death, and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short."

This is not -- yet -- the condition of Egypt. While the economy has slowed due to the unrest that preceded the downfall of Mubarak, it has not collapsed. While there were demonstrations, the level of overall unrest was relatively low and major clashes between demonstrators and the military did not occur. Indeed, perhaps the most remarkable thing about the demonstrations was the relative order and peacefulness with which they occurred and with which the government responded. Life for many in Egypt continues to be poor, brutish, and short, in part due to the policies of the Mubarak regime. But it seems clear that there is a "common power" capable of keeping people in awe -- the military -- and, as a result, the war of all against all has not materialized. Political order has not disappeared, though its nature will surely change.

The situation, therefore, reflects the time described by John Locke and Thomas Jefferson as the moment of revolution: when one government is cast out and replaced by a new one without returning the society as a whole to a state of complete disorder. Locke's description bore a strong resemblance to the so-called Glorious Revolution in England, when James II was sent packing and William and Mary were called to the throne by Parliament, establishing parliamentary sovereignty once for all. Jefferson's, of course, was meant to capture the moment of the American Revolution, when the colonists cut their ties with the king and set up their own new nation with its own independent government.

We can hope that developments in Egypt will go the way of William and Mary's England or the post-revolutionary United States. But we should be aware of the Hobbesian warning: revolutions bring disorder, and disorder can get out of hand, rendering a once "common power" perilous. When that occurs, there are two directions in which a nation and its people can go. Those who hold power can find themselves incapable of enforcing order, whether through lack of physical strength or lack of will, and as a result the state of nature returns. Afghanistan, for example, seems to be ever teetering on the edge of chaos; it is a nation in which the ability of any power to extend its reach to all of the country bespeaks a "failed state," which is to say a situation strongly resembling the Hobbesian state of nature. A even more powerful example is offered by Somalia, where no power is able to enforce its will on the nation and where life is truly solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short -- Somalia is the Hobbesian state of nature.

At this point, however, it does not look like Egypt will go the way of Afghanistan and Somalia. Order appears to be too deeply embedded in Egyptian society, and frankly the military appears too powerful. Today, as the military tried to persuade the last demonstrators to leave Tahrir Square, people set to work tidying up, scrubbing grafitti off statues, repainting curbs, removing litter. This reveals a deep sense of order in Egypt and suggests that the state of nature is far, far away.

But should events not move forward smoothly and consistently with the wishes of the protesters who felled Mubarak, disorder may re-emerge. If it does, there is a strong chance that the holders of power will redouble their efforts to enforce order, becoming less tolerant of dissent and much more willing to use whatever force is necessary to preserve peace.We can applaud the democratic rhetoric of those who filled Tahrir Square and the restraint so far shown by the military. We can applaud the idea of creating a commission to draft a new constitution and the promise of truly free and fair elections in the near future. But we must be mindful of the lessons of Hobbes and history: few revolutions have actually resulted in stable, long-lasting democracy.

The American case remains more an exception than the rule, surely due to the principles and actions of a truly special generation of political leaders. More typical, unfortunately, is the experience of France after 1789 where, as Hannah Arendt has argued, "constitution followed upon constitution while those in power were unable to enforce any of the revolutionary laws and decrees," resulting in "one monotonous record illustrating again and again what should have been obvious from the beginning, namely that the so-called will of a multitude (if this is to be more than a legal fiction) is ever-changing by definition, and that a structure built on it as its foundation is built on quicksand." More typical, as well, is France after 1848, when Alexis de Tocqueville, the great observer of democracy in America, participated in drafting a new constitution that soon gave way to the autocratic rule of Napoleon III. More typical, unfortunately, is the short story of the Weimar Republic in Germany, a democracy that collapsed due to a combination of factors, among which were a devastated economy and a lack of democratic political culture to help weather the inevitable storms of the first years of republican government.

If history has taught us anything it is that democratic rhetoric in revolution does not necessarily (or often) translate into stable democratic practice. Talk of democracy too often is used by those who seek power. In the wise words of Federalist No. 1, "a dangerous ambition more often lurks behind the specious mask of zeal for the rights of the people than under the forbidden appearance of zeal for the firmness and efficiency of government. History will teach us that the former has been found a much more certain road to the introduction of despotism than the latter, and that of those men who have overturned the liberties of republics, the greatest number have begun their career by paying an obsequious court to the people; commencing demagogues, and ending tyrants."

This is not to say that Egypt cannot succeed at crafting a new model for a democratic republic. It is only to suggest that we should temper our enthusiasm and not be bamboozled by the rhetoric of democracy and constitution. It is to suggest that neither the departure of Mubarak nor the formation of a constitutional commission necessarily means that democracy is coming to Egypt; nor does it mean that Egypt can avoid what the classical political philosophers always sought to emphasize -- the tendency of democracy to degenerate into class war, chaos, and ultimately tyranny. Perhaps our best hope is that Egypt (or any other nation in the region -- Yemen, for instance) avoids the fall into the sort of civil war that Hobbes saw as the essence of the state of nature.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Dirty Hands

The problem of "dirty hands" is a central paradox lying at the heart of politics, and of other "public" practices such as law, business, the military, and law enforcement. The problem emerges when one is confronted with a situation in which achieving a particular goal requires the violation of commonly accepted moral principles or rules. In Sartre's play of that name, the Communist leader Hoerderer says: "I have dirty hands right up to the elbows. I've plunged them in filth and blood. Do you think you can govern innocently?" Hoerderer, of course, wants to end class society, and he insists that in order to do so it is necessary to do things that the morally squeamish would find offensive and wrong. So be it. Camus' "just assassins," too, have dirty hands: they kill in order to achieve justice. As Robespierre noted during the French Revolution: if you want to make an omelet, you have to break some eggs.

The problem of dirty hands has been addressed by numerous ethical and political theorists, including a key contemporary treatment by Michael Walzer (whose analysis has influenced many, including me). But its classic version is in the works of Niccolo Machiavelli. Machiavelli famously sought to teach princes -- or political leaders in republics -- the value of learning how not to be good. His argument was that princes must sometimes act in ways that violate traditional or widely accepted moral principles if they want to be successful. Success, in the world of the Machiavellian prince, meant increased power and the glory that comes with it; in the world of a republic, it meant persistence and growth (in resources, in influence, in power) over time. In order to achieve success, it is necessary to be prepared to act in ways that are widely considered immoral: to be cruel, to lie, to break promises, to be stingy, to act aggressively, and so forth.

To do otherwise, in the world as it really is (Machiavelli insisted that he was a "realist"), makes it likely that others will take advantage of you. If you are unfailingly forgiving to those who have opposed you, they will continue to conspire against you, ultimately working your downfall. If you always tell the truth, you become prey to those who would exploit certain bits of information and to those who would lie to you. If you keep all your promises, even when the reasons for making them have disappeared, you harm your state, your nation, and undermine your own power. If you are too liberal with your (or your state's) riches, you will be plagued by never-ending requests for more, always more, until you have impoverished yourself, your government, your country. If you insist on always pursuing peace, if you give up the right to attack before being attacked, you risk the destruction of your nation, its subjection to outside powers, and the accompanying loss of liberty; maintaining liberty, in short, requires a willingness to take the offensive.

To be successful, the prince -- and, I repeat, Machiavelli's argument seems to apply just as well to all leaders who have political success in view -- must sometimes kill his opponents, lie to his enemies and even (if occasion demands it) to his friends (for friendship has no value independent of political success in this vision), deny benefits to those who need or even deserve them, violate treaties and other agreements as needed, wage war, and so on.

None of this means, I should note, that Machiavelli was, as Leo Strauss claimed he was, a "teacher of evil" -- at least not in a simple sense. Machiavelli does not praise evil; he does not say it is good. Machiavelli's language makes clear that he accepted standards of good, probably the traditional, Christian standards of his day. That's why the prince must learn how not to be good. There are rules that specify what is good, and the prince (if he is to be successful) must learn how and when to violate those rules. Of course, Machiavelli is clear that political leaders should not always violate the rules; but they must be willing to do so for purposes of self- or national aggrandizement. The rules and principles of morality, however, do not disappear. When he attacks a political opponent or a neighboring state, when he lies or breaks a treaty, the prince is not doing what is good; violating the rules is wrong, and the consequences (success) do not make it right. Quite the contrary -- when he violates the moral rules, the prince does what is not good. That is the nature of the job: it requires he (or she) who would do well, who would maintain and extend personal or national power, who would keep his (or her) place at the top of the political structure of nation or region or world, to transgress (sometimes) the proscriptions of ordinary morality.

It is important to realize that this does not mean the prince is subject to a higher morality that justifies violations of the standard moral rules. Machiavelli is not a utilitarian who seeks to dodge the deep problem here by arguing that what the prince does in violation of the moral rules is really good when placed in the scale of utility. The utilitarian insists there is nothing that is good or bad in itself: good and bad can only be determined once one has evaluated the consequences of an action for all those affected by it. This dissolves the problem of dirty hands by denying that the political actor's hands are dirty (assuming that all relevant consequences were carefully considered and entered properly into the calculation). Utilitarianism denies that something can be both bad and the right thing to do. The right thing to do at the time is simply good; it cannot be bad on a utilitarian analysis. (I set aside for now what is called "rule utilitarianism.") Thus, the utilitarian would say that torturing a prisoner who has information about a pending terrorist attack is good, not just permissible though unfortunate or sad. The torturer does not have dirty hands at all; she has not plunged them in filth and blood. She has done the right thing. She is morally good; she may even be a moral hero. The utilitarian would say that we should ignore our moral scruples about torture because nothing, not even torture, is bad in itself apart from its consequences.

There is a host of good reasons to reject utilitarianism that I won't go into here. Suffice it to say, that as Michael Walzer argues, utilitarianism is inconsistent with our moral take on things. Yes, we claim to reason on the basis of consequences, but when we do so we rarely (if ever) truly considerable the consequences of all available alternatives to everyone affected by our action, as utilitarian theory requires. Rather, we act as egoists: we think only of the consequences, often only the short-term consequences, to ourselves and our friends. So, on the one hand, despite our wish to sound utilitarian, we don't really decide things that way. On the other hand, we ultimately are not comfortable with thoroughgoing utilitarianism. How many of us really believe it is morally good to torture an innocent person (say the pre-teen child of a terrorist) in order to achieve our goal (information from the terrorist himself)? And yet utilitarianism sees no significant difference between torturing the innocent and the guilty so long as both will lead to the desired consequences. If it will work, torturing the child is the morally right thing to do. The trouble is most of us don't think that way.

The real tragic bite of the problem of dirty hands cannot be wished away by conceiving of a higher morality that dissolves the dilemma. Max Weber famously argued in "Politics as a Vocation" that the politician cannot live according the Sermon on the Mount (or according to any other "good book") because the job of the politician is to do what it takes to achieve the good for his nation (or his governing coalition, or his party). And that means that the politician, particularly when he takes up the sword and does violence to others, "does bad in order to do good." He may suffer internally as a result, but as a servant of his community he does what is necessary even when that means turning away from morality. 

Machiavelli, Weber, and Walzer make us see something important about public roles. They ask us to think about whether we would want a person in these roles -- say, as president of the country, or as our defense counsel -- who always strictly adhered to commonly accepted morality. Or would we prefer someone who is willing to do what is not good if the circumstances demand it? They ask us to consider whether politics -- and public life in general -- is a place where traditional moral rules do not always apply, whether these are vocations where good people will inevitably fail and only those willing to set morality aside will succeed. If so, does that mean we should not evaluate candidates for these positions on the basis of morality but on the basis of some other standard? If so, what is that standard? And, perhaps most importantly, these theorists compel us to think about how we can hold in check the willingness to do bad into order to achieve the good. If our public figures -- politicians, business leaders, lawyers, and so on -- must be people willing to set aside high-minded moralism for the sake of the end built into the nature of their role, how can we ensure that they do not become mere tyrants, despots intent on doing bad things for the sake of evil, people who cast all standards except "success" aside no matter what that might mean?

These are tough questions, and ones that we would prefer not to think about. We are too used to falling back upon absolute standards, principles, rules. But in the muck and filth of the public world, absolute standards seem not to apply. And we have been made too comfortable by the nature of our public life, from which much corruption and violence (though not all, to be sure) has been eradicated. We do not live in a third world nation; we do not have millions of people on the Mall demanding a change of government; our democracy is stable and longstanding. But we are sometimes forced to think about dirty hands -- when presidents condone torture or invasion, when lawyers insist on the privilege to deceive, when business leaders tell us the bottom line requires them to leave millions jobless while a handful reap great profits. Let us hope we develop the resources to think about how to call these people to account in a way that doesn't imagine that their vocations can be carried out with purity of heart and soul.