Monday, November 10, 2003

Canadian Hate Crimes, Totalitarianism, and Democracy

There's an interesting exchange going on between Henry Farell at Crooked Timber and David Berstein at the Volokh Conspiracy regarding free speech restrictions in Canada. David's suggestion is that government restrictions on free speech, as in cases of hate crime legislation, are the first step toward the goal "to have the government enforce PCism throughout society." He suggests that this is happening in Canada, and mentions the case of a professor who has been accused of hate crime in response to anti-American political speech. Henry thinks that David is exaggerating to the point of absurdity. He says:
Now I'm all for occasional doses of overheated language to enliven our political discourse, but Bernstein’s rhetoric verges on the bizarre. Canada has adopted some (relatively moderate) free speech restrictions in its Charter, but by most reasonable definitions of the word, it isn't an authoritarian society. Nor is it likely to become one anytime soon. There’s a rhetorical slippage in Bernstein’s argument, between government-enforced restrictions on free speech and political authoritarianism/totalitarianism. They’re rather different things. States can have some restriction on free speech and remain democratic. France and Germany have done it for fifty-odd years.
In general, I find this kind of development more alarming then Henry does, but that's not my point here. What I'd like to address is the confusion of the logical relationship between authoritarianism/totalitarianism and democracy. People make this mistake very often, and I've always been a bit puzzled by it. I'm no political theorist (although I was a poli sci. major for a few semesters), but I was under the impression that democracy and authoritarianism were completely different things, and not conceptually inconsistent. Democracy refers to the sources of political legitimacy and power, and totalitarianism is concerned with how much the government interferes in private life. Therefore, when David says that a country can restrict free speech and still be a democracy, of course that's true -- but it doesn't mean it's therefore not totalitarian. Suppose that the large Christian majority in a country voted to forbid the practice of minority religions -- this law would be both democratic and totalitarian. Of course "totalitarian" is vague, and I'm pretty sure that Henry's right to claim that describing Canada as a "totalitarian theocracy" is an exaggeration. But I don't think David is outside the realm of reason to suggest that a case like the one he links constitutes becoming a little bit more totalitarian. Democracy is just not the issue.

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