Four Essential Ingredients of a Free Democracy
A Free Democracy is a country in which people can speak freely, examine arguments, and contribute to taking decisions without fear, a country where all viewpoints are open to scrutiny and decisions result from a full consideration of the facts of the case. It is a land where injustices can be addressed and all are equal before the law. There will be various opinions about components which contribute to this process and they are themselves subject to debate, but such debate, I would suggest, depends on four principle requirements, without which it would be hampered or prevented. They are Truth, Free Speech, Protection, and Privacy. To some extent these are interdependent, and I hope to show each is vital to the preservation of the others.
If any society is to be free from both social and personal injustice, Truth is a primary value. Without truth it is impossible to evaluate anything or take a valid rational decision. Truth allows us to understand problems and formulate appropriate solutions. It helps us to convict the guilty and clear the innocent. It enables us to protect people from being unfairly treated, unjustly vilified. It provides a basis for democracy by exposing corruption and enabling the effects of policies to be understood. It is a prerequisite for any valid understanding of the world in which we live and it protects the ordinary citizen from arbitrary arrest and imprisonment by giving access to impartial justice.
Truth depends on access to evidence and the ability to examine it, to circulate it, to ask questions and receive answers which can themselves be tested. It depends on the absence of fear from making honest enquiry and a willingness by people to do so before reaching conclusions, for nothing should be considered true unless it can be traced to verifiable first principles. Anything else is to a greater of lesser extent conjecture. This is a version of the scientific method, in which hypotheses are tested by experiment and can only be considered valid if the results support the thesis.
Truth, therefore, cannot simply be an accepted unproven opinion, even of a respectable or authoritative person or group. Truth cannot be verified by an official body without reference to an empirical standard. That is why measurements must be traceable to standards, why historians must sift ancient texts, why courts examine facts, and why we should not simply believe everything we hear or read. That is why Putin’s law against misinformation is so intolerable, because it defines truth as what the government says irrespective of any other evidence. A law against misinformation which simply required people to present evidence for what they’d said might be acceptable, but one which defines one unproven position as true and anything else as false is a travesty of truth, for it denies access to the truth when the government chooses to lie.
Truth is not an official or popular opinion. It is objective fact. As such, it is sometimes difficult to ascertain with certainty, but it must be the aim to find it so far as possible, and even when difficult to know, it remains true though unknown. Lack of knowledge cannot invalidate the concept. Human beings can be wrong, and sometimes what we think we know turns out to be mistaken. Sometimes a theory is as close as we can get, but a theory is only an approximation or an understanding. When new information comes along a theory is subject to revision.
Honest enquiry and assessment depends on Free Speech and protection from consequences of speaking freely. If speech is constrained it might become impossible to question a proposition or to receive an honest answer, and these too would be a denial of access to truth. Truth itself needs protection, although some proponents of Free Speech fear such protection because they fear it might constrain speech from being free, but that depends on the purpose of Free Speech. Is it an end in itself, or a means to promoting discovery of the truth? I would maintain protection is essential to prevent Free Speech being used to undermine Free Speech or to cause fear which would also constrain it, for without protection for truth, Free Speech becomes dangerous even to itself. The real threat to freedom comes, I would suggest, not from protecting Truth from falsehood, but from using a false measure of Truth as the basis of such protection. Would the Russian law really be so bad if defendants could cite evidence of destruction in Ukraine to demonstrate their claims in a free court and show the Kremlin view not to stand up?
As noted above Free Speech is a vital ingredient because it is necessary to enable honest enquiry and the challenging of error. Without it error or deception cannot be challenged and the quality of public debate cannot be maintained. Moreover, unless people can speak freely there can be no confidence in public knowledge, since what cannot be questioned cannot be relied upon to be true. It is therefore important anyone can speak freely without fear of censure. Constraint of speech could lead to people being afraid to tell the truth as they see it or even afraid to contribute to public life at all.
However, although limitations on Free Speech can be dangerous, so can unlimited speech. If Free Speech is taken as license to malign, to deceive, to threaten or to slander it can be both endangered and endanger. Although totalitarians clamp down on Free Speech once they have power, they will also have used deceptive or intimidating Free Speech to have gained it in the first place. It is by making extravagant claims or outrageous slurs on opponents authoritarians persuade people to side with them. The problem of Free Speech has always been how to maintain Free Speech without enabling its enemies to use it to undermine the very free society we wish it to preserve? Not only can the misuse of Free Speech directly enable malicious people to undermine the freedom of others, but it can give other opponents of freedom justification in seeking to close it down, pointing to the excesses as a need to take action. Preserving Free Speech is therefore problematical as it can be used easily by its enemies to destroy itself.
Arbitrary restrictions of Free Speech such as forbidding discussion of certain subjects or denying criticism of certain people or beliefs limit the enquiry necessary to maintain a true view of the world and would therefore be dangerous to public perception of Truth. Equally, unrestricted Free Speech also allows the public to be misled concerning truth. Attempts to restrict speech in certain areas therefore again threaten that freedom essential to a free democracy functioning well. If such restrictions are likely to be self-defeating and will undermine public confidence, what is left? I believe the answer has already been noted above. Just as the understanding of Truth, or the best approximation to it and the journey of improved understanding partly depends on Free Speech, so functional Free Speech depends to a large extent on a requirement of Truth. The two are interdependent and even intertwined. It is already a civil tort to malign somebody falsely in a manner likely to turn others against them. I would suggest that is also a mechanism which could be extended to protect Free Speech from self-destructive misuse.
At present the laws of defamation are only available to defend the super-rich from false allegations made against them personally. People with enough money (defamation actions can only be afforded by those with a few million pounds to spend on the case) can defend their reputations by requiring those maligning them to defend their words in court. If the accuser cannot show their words were true or do not sufficiently diminish the reputation of the prominent person they have identified they will be required to pay substantial damages to the person for unjust loss of reputation. This, of course, deters criticism of the very wealthy unless the person making a claim can be very sure (and demonstrate that to the satisfaction of any editor) of the truth of their allegation. Although primarily protecting the wealthy from defamation, a secondary effect is to protect the public from mistaken beliefs resulting from that same defamation.
The principle behind defamation law is a good one in protecting people against falsehood. The problem is that such actions must be brought privately by the victim of the slur at their own expense and in their own interest and the cost is prohibitive for all but individuals or businesses who can justify the expense against that of letting the false allegation stand unchallenged. If cases could be brought not in the interest of a person with a wounded reputation but in the Public Interest and at Public Expense the protection could be extended to all and to the wider public perception of truth. So, a law requiring anyone making or publishing a statement of alleged fact to be able to prove what they claim, making it an offence to make a statement in the absence of evidence, could prevent such misuse without preventing debate.
The media would rail against any such change to the legal framework, portraying it as an attack on the Free Press which they would argue is essential to a functioning democracy. However, I would counter that only a responsible Free Press is helpful to a true democracy. An irresponsible press using its freedom to malign politicians or sections of the public in order to distort the perception of the demos is extremely harmful to the functioning of democracy. Freedom to investigate and expose should never be confused with freedom to deceive or manipulate. That too, is the kind of misuse of Free Speech which harms its cause and purpose. Democracy should mean the power of a well-informed populace, not power to media organisations and their owners. The next question would be how Truth would be determined, but that is simply answered, by the person making the claim providing adequate evidence to substantiate it, just as in a libel case. More importantly, who would be responsible for bringing an action and how could we ensure they are impartial? That is a more serious issue, and I cannot pretend I have a precise answer. Details like that are best hammered out by a consensus of suitably qualified experts in law rather than one person raising the concept. It should be possible to devise a suitably independent body with requirements of impartiality to assess whether a statement published or reported to them looks true and if not to take whatever corrective action they see fit with the potential to lay the facts before a jury if necessary.
Having dealt with the issue of defamatory speech against individuals or groups, the other obvious potential misuse of Free Speech is to intimidate or incite harm. Much of this, however, is already illegal and, if anything, a strong law against this harmful effect should be adequate to prevent harm. It would need very careful drafting to ensure someone angered by mere disagreement could not claim that constituted harm. In accordance with the principles of Diverse Diversity I would argue that protection against falsehood, incitement, and intimidation should be adequate to prevent harm without extending protection to specific identifiable groups, which distorts the areas of speech which can be freely covered. If everyone is equally protected there should be no need to single out specific categories or groups for special treatment.
Truth and Free Speech depend on the freedom to seek and use them without fear. Equally, Free Speech should not be used to cause unnecessary fear to opponents or targets. People must be free to exercise their democratic rights without fear, so protection from fear, from intimidation, and protection for those wishing to tell truths which might be unpopular in some quarters are all important. Society needs to be, as I would say, safe for truth.
Protection is important too to ensure those who might be targeted cannot be harmed and all can safely go about their business and express their views in safety. If people are not protected they might suffer undue harm or take matters into their own hands to protect themselves. Neither of these is likely to end well.
It should be obvious that anyone could be attacked or silenced and therefore everyone needs to feel safe and protected. Protection needs to be for all without fear or favour. However, this is where matters can become more difficult. What exactly, should people be protected from? It is one thing if people are genuinely frightened to speak, either to raise their opinion or to report wrongdoing because they fear reprisals of some kind, but should they also be protected from feeling insulted or upset? What happens if someone feels frightened when no threat was intended? Should people be “protected” from hearing a view contrary to their own beliefs, either because they will be shocked or because they wish to silence opponents?
That last clause should be obviously “no”. It would be contrary to the idea of Free Speech if opponents could be silenced to “protect” others from hearing an opinion. It is not possible to engage in debate or discussion without hearing the other side’s case and responding to it. No search for truth can be undertaken without engaging the views of others and considering their merits. No side will have a monopoly on truth, even when one of the other sides is deliberately lying; truth is not found in some space between two opposing arguments, for truth is not on a single-dimensional scale. Therefore no side is entitled to silence other viewpoints. Opinions are not harmful unless they are defamatory. People should be protected from real harm, not imagined harm, in order that discussion can take place. Discussion is essential for understanding, and understanding is essential for democracy. Therefore, discussion too must be protected.
For the same reason, protection need not take the form of sanctions against an opponent. That would be appropriate if harm is intended, but in a situation where someone has overreacted to another’s position it might be better to use some form of arbitration to enable the discussion to continue without an opportunity for harm. That way, both the frightened person or group and the discussion are protected and hope of achieving understanding can remain.
And this raises an important factor. Although people need to feel safe, that safety does not have to come at the expense of closing down Free Speech. Rather, it is about creating a safe environment in which Free Speech can take place without the risk of harm. In such an environment disagreement must be respectful and a genuine search for truth needs to be the purpose. This will not please extremists who court controversy in an effort to force their viewpoint without due consideration, but it is not conducive to democracy to allow such extremists to operate in that form. Defamation, vilification and emotionalism should have no place in a rational debate. Emotive appeals are not arguments and are a very bad basis for decisions. “Culture Wars” have no place in a democracy because their fundamental methods are undemocratic. Democracy depends on reasoned understanding of facts. This is an Enlightenment approach and some seek to discredit the Enlightenment because it began in less enlightened times, but that was its point. Although it began in an age of slavery and imperialism, its values and arguments led eventually to the abolition of both. Without Enlightenment freedoms, the debates and change of public mood which led to those reforms would not have been permitted.
Protection cannot come cheap. In fact, effective government cannot come cheap. A society will have to devote resources, financial and moral, to ensuring its proper functioning. There is no benefit from declaring people protected if that protection cannot actually be implemented.
Privacy is a basic form of protection. It enables people to associate freely without fear because their actions are largely unknown. Surveillance exposes people to risk because they are then unable to operate in privacy. Like Free Speech, privacy cannot be an absolute value. Sometimes, where a crime or an intention to commit a crime is suspected, the police or an intelligence agency will have to watch someone’s activities, but the general assumption should be that ordinary activities, including political discussion, should be able to take place in private to reduce the risk of intimidation.
To understand the importance of privacy in protecting political freedom it is only necessary to read 1984 or see what happens in totalitarian states where heavy surveillance is used to identify and defeat dissent. In order to dissent, it is important people are confident their activities are not being recorded unless there are exceptional reasons to do so.
This is under threat at present. On the roads we drive past ANPR cameras which can be used to track a car from one end of the country to another. We have to trust those are used to identify vehicles of particular interest, but if records are kept of where every car has been, that could be used with “big data” analysis to identify networks of associates with political purposes and act against them. The same could be true even more of facial recognition cameras and those are reputedly already used for this purpose in China. Social media networks do not just enable people to advertise their activity to friends. They also harvest huge amounts of data on people’s tastes, beliefs and interests for commercial and, possibly, state purposes. The states concerned might not be our own, but those to whom the company concerned answers. Many home and small business security cameras are linked to servers in China, enabling the Chinese to use them to monitor the movements of people wherever these cameras are installed. Again, once enough cameras are installed it becomes possible to use them to follow people around.
There is a need to consider how privacy can be protected, because knowing one is being watched could also intimidate those involved in political discourse.
So these, I would argue, are four essential ingredients necessary for a free democracy. They might not be the only ones but without any of them it would be far more difficult for people to dissent and therefore be free to stand or vote democratically in elections, and without free and fair elections, and open and fair debate on issues there can be no true democracy.