Will a wave of civil disobedience push back technocracies’ turn toward state dominance?
Winston Churchill once famously said that “democracy is the worst form of government except for all those other forms that have been tried.” It is a privilege to live in countries that uphold democratic values, where individuals can freely express themselves without fear of arrest. However, democracy and freedom, like any valuable asset, are not inherent or guaranteed. They require constant vigilance from a free populace to protect them.
In today’s increasingly technocratic world, there is a growing tendency to categorize systems, developments and events. This may seem convenient: it saves us from the effort of thinking critically and analyzing situations from multiple perspectives, and seemingly frees us from assuming burdensome responsibilities. When things do not go as planned, it is easy to avoid accountability by saying, “Nobody could have known.” Furthermore, this categorization often sidesteps meaningful debate, as distinctions between what is necessary or unnecessary, right or wrong, and good or bad become blurred.
In the realm of governance systems, we often see categorizations such as “good” liberal democracies, “illiberal” democracies considered renegades, and “bad” authoritarian systems. Within Europe, most EU member states are viewed as liberal democracies, while Hungary and Poland are sometimes singled out as renegades. Russia and Belarus, on the other hand, are often labeled as authoritarian systems.
A robust democracy goes beyond just holding elections every four years. It is crucial that there are effective checks and balances among the three branches of government – judicial, legislative and executive. A democracy is only worthwhile when it safeguards those principles so eloquently set in the United States Declaration of Independence: life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Upholding individual freedoms, as well as fostering trust between the people and their elected representatives, are essential ingredients.
The primary objective of a democracy should be to protect the freedom of its citizens. This includes respecting the principle of subsidiarity, where power is devolved to lower levels of government to prevent an overly powerful central government. Constitutions protect the rights of the people against state abuses of power. This blending of democratic systems with liberalism has brought prosperity and many other benefits to societies around the world.
Nevertheless, in the so-called “liberal democracies” around the world – mostly in Europe, North America and countries like Australia – systems are becoming more and more technocratic. This has resulted in elites imposing a growing number of rules that bind the population, leading to a maze of laws and regulations that limit freedom and allow authorities to make arbitrary decisions.
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Governments are increasingly exerting control over citizens, eroding the right to privacy, as evidenced by requests for “financial transparency.” Another example is the data retention rules on communication in Europe, which are upheld by governments and the European Parliament despite rulings by the European Court of Justice. These are just some examples regarding general data collection by authorities.
Centralization of power is on the rise, undermining the role of local governments. Informal supranational organizations such as the OECD or G20 set rules without democratic legitimation, exacerbating the growing distrust between government and citizens.
Authorities openly admit to viewing citizens as unreliable and in need of constant surveillance, particularly highlighted during the pandemic and by climate issues. Tax agencies are also pushing the envelope, as tax codes become more opaque, illogical, overextended and complicated, making it difficult to fully comply. Many Western countries fail in their duty to protect legal security, a fundamental aspect of democracy.
An erosion of trust
The excessive control and overregulation show that the “democratic leadership” in many countries see people as inherently flawed or childish and therefore requiring control. This is deeply troubling, since treating people as children or inherently bad can result in them behaving accordingly. Truly free societies have been built upon trust in the inherent goodness of people and the power of civil society.
Trust is a vital element of a functional civil society. It fosters healthy relationships between individuals, businesses and the state, allowing for meaningful interactions and collaboration on equal footing. Even in extreme cases and catastrophes, such as 9/11 or during times of war, we often witness people’s innate desire to help and support each other. One recent example is the acceptance of Ukrainian refugees in places like Poland.
In Poland, it was civil society and not bureaucracy that played a pivotal role in assisting refugees. This underscores the fact that there is no valid reason or justification for governance to disregard the trust of its citizens – unless the technocracy has a hidden agenda for domination. Civil society thrives when the power of the state is contained.
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The dominance of the state, bureaucracy and technocracy is already stifling civil society and overburdening the dedicated civil service. A critical issue is that politics has become a profession. In many Western countries, most parliamentarians are professional politicians who rely on state payments and party support for their livelihoods. They have no alternative profession to fall back on, leaving them limited in their ability to act according to their conscience. The role of parliament should be to represent citizens and ensure that the government does not become too big, while also limiting public spending and reducing the tax burden on citizens.
However, the current actions of many parliaments, especially in Europe, often seem to be contrary to these principles. Parliaments have become increasingly dependent on the state. Similarly, the U.S. Congress has the ability to shut down the government when it oversteps its bounds. But this important and useful power has been reduced to a political tool rather than an effective measure to prevent excessive expenses.
Strange developments can be observed where threats such as epidemics or climate change are exploited to justify harsh measures that intrude into the private lives of individuals, all under the guise of saving humanity. While certain measures may be necessary, civil society and market-based approaches often work better, especially when they are based on open, nondogmatic, reasoned debate. Creating fear and panic can be misleading and result in oppressive measures. No wonder conspiracy theories about an illegitimate power grab are on the rise.
A society of victims
In contrast, civil societies should be enabled to further promote the idea of individuals as heroes, capable of achieving positive outcomes and helping others through their own strengths and self-responsibility. This principle is also rooted in Christianity. However, in recent times, the focus has shifted toward victimhood, which is often misused and can foster a culture of entitlement rather than responsibility.
The consequences of such developments are manifold. The population’s frustration increases, self-responsibility decreases, and distrust permeates society. The important principle of friendly competition and cooperation based on mutual trust is eroded. In turn, a growing number of freedoms are exchanged for an illusion of state-provided security. To obtain benefits in such a society, it becomes more advantageous to be perceived as a victim rather than an achiever. This enables the authorities to exert control over the population and leads to an ever-growing, hungry administration fueled by taxes.
What is interesting is that the term “citizen,” which traditionally implies a free individual, is increasingly replaced with the term “taxpayer.” This shift seems to distort the system, as the state should exist for the benefit of its citizens, rather than citizens being reduced to mere sources of taxes or recipients of benefits from the government. This evolution in liberal democracies begs the question: are these systems still truly liberal and democratic?
Despite all this, one advantage that remains is the freedom to express dissent against the government without fear of arrest. However, increasing limits are being put on freedom of opinion and speech, including within academia. Public shaming and repercussions for expressing opinions that differ from the mainstream are on the rise. This can make it challenging for individuals in public careers or large corporations to express dissenting views. Many university professors admit to being reluctant to speak out against the mainstream, even if their opinions are scientifically founded. Issues related to gender, health, climate and energy, among others, are often fraught with radical and polarizing tendencies. Civil society – increasingly marginalized by an oversized state – is no longer able to do enough to counteract this tyranny of “values.”
This represents a new form of despotism, where an arbitrary and power-corrupt technocratic elite holds sway as a nomenklatura. Under this system, the healthy parts of a good civil service are taken hostage.
A swing of the pendulum
These unfortunate examples may be part of the reason democracies around the world are in retreat. When we consider how liberal democracies sometimes undermine themselves, it is not entirely surprising. Autocracies are posing challenges to the free world, and the degradation of Western democracies may weaken their systems, playing into the hands of autocratic, fascist and socialist despots.
The hope in this situation is that, as is normal in human societies, when a system becomes saturated, the pendulum tends to swing in the other direction. Hopefully, the moment will come soon when an increased degree of necessary civil disobedience will arise in Western societies, peacefully forcing technocratic systems to change.
As parliaments and political parties betray, to a certain extent, their role to defend the freedom and interests of the citizens, it becomes the responsibility of civil society to fight against this development. If civil society fails in this endeavor, by accepting authorities’ unconstitutional and illegal practices, the immense sacrifices, achievements and efforts made by the world to defeat the tyrannies of fascism and Nazism in World War II, and communism in the Cold War, will be lost. So too will be the enormous, historically unmatched success of European integration.