Are the Russians right, that there is freedom beyond democracy

*Wahington Times - Moscow - *Rising middle class ready to shop

One of the errors I see in western commentators on Russia is their assumption that Putin is “anti-democratic” whenever he is anti-monopoly. Failing in other words to separate democracy from capitalism, and worse capitalism from a market economy.

In the US, capitalism is often seen as investing in small companies with new ideas.
In the world at large, capitalism is often a simple monopoly. A high roller from a rich outside country buys up all rights to a pipeline, usually with government bribery involved, and then squeezes the parties at both ends of the pipe. Anti-market.

And some of the outlying provincial governments he wants to rein in have acted badly, giving favors to the rich and powerful, handing national resources to private benefactors. Is this reining in necessarily anti-democracy? Or more anti-corruption? Is centralization bad if it protects national assets from regional cronyism?

How do you divorce capitalism from the free market? I don’t see how that’s possible unless we’re operating under wildly different assumptions of what capitalism is.

Nah, and if you gotta murder a few journalist to keep things running, well, you gotta break a few eggs and all that.


Edit: I just wanted to add that I agree that there is freedom beyond democracy. After all, a democratic form of govt. can squash my rights every bit as effectively as a despotic one.

There is a distinction between personal freedom and democracy. For example, suppose 90% of the population votes to prohibit the word “fuck” on television broadcasts. The other 10% votes that swearing on TV is part of freedom of speech. So what do you do; support what is clearly the democratic will of the majority or support an absolute standard on freedom of speech?

A free market requires that participants in the economy have a choice between competing alternatives. Capitalism only requires a monetary system and the ability to invest in commercial enterprises. (Admittedly there would be some choices in a non-free market economy - investors could invest in the one car company or the one pharmaceutical company or the one telecommunications company - but the issue is that consumers would have no choice.)

Ok, Little Nemo, but I think when most people talk about capitalism they’re under the assumption that it operates under a free market for the most part. Can you give me examples of an economy that was capitalist but did not generally have a free market?


I’ve made this argument before and it’s off topic to this thread, but briefly I feel that for a free market to function properly it requires actual real world alternatives not just theoretical alternatives. If producers are acting in concert or if one producer has a controlling share of the market, the freedom to make real decions becomes increasingly abstract. To avoid re-opening old debates, I won’t point out the real world examples where the conditions I’ve described either exist or are coming into existence.

Yes. Freedom means more, as the saying goes, than the freedom of the rich and poor alike to live under bridges. There’s ‘freedom from’ and there’s ‘freedom to,’ and there’s individual and collective and sometimes there’s a tension between them all. And that’s where politics happens.

Social democracies see collective freedom from poverty, poor health etc as important enough to over-ride some of the individual freedoms of some sections of society. That an abstract freedom that can’t be taken advantage of due to events and circumstances is no freedom at all.

The Russians and the politicians in South and Central America whose political base is the long impoverished peasantry believe that the needs of the many for basic requirements outweigh the need of the tiny elite to retain their grip on the country’s wealth and until the people aren’t living hand to mouth on two dollars a day ‘freedom’ is a hollow concept.

Remember the era of the robber barons in the US before all the anti compete, anti trust, taxation enforcement, etc agencies and processes were put into place?

So, you want Russia and other developing countries with very little in the way of a legal system or a framework in place to support capitalism without it going over the top, to just open up and let the one with the most money win?

Based on my experiences with emerging markets, people want a stable society and the ability to become middle class. As a government, if you provide that opportunity to enough people, then you’ve got a country that’s pretty happy with the government.

Keep in mind that the American form of democracy has evolved over centuries and systems built up so that it works after a reasonable fashion in the US of A. Trying to force that same system on a country without the corresponding infrastructure has a high probability of blowing up. Or else the demographics are a lot different, eg you probably can’t plug and play US style democracy overnight in China with 1.3 billion people, or in Iraq where there was a long standing strongman in a place that was a pretty recent invention as a country.

Now I’m not advocating a strong military dicatorship or anything, and generally in countries where the GDP rises then democracy seems to increase.

You can look to the example of Singapore, IIRC has a higher GDP than the US, but is pretty much a benevolent dictatorship operating under a democratic guise.

At risk of getting academic, Isiaah Berlin comes to mind. Positive and Negative Freedom

Negative Freedom is the ability to do what the f/ck you want

Positive Freedom is the ability to live in a non-failed State

For my money, Putin has done a pretty good job, it looks to me as if he has nearly reformed a kleptocracy - and done so pretty painlessly.

Agreed. Russia in all its guises has tended towards a strong central state and the electorate seem to agree with that now. They prefer to see the country’s assets under state control and Putin has run with that. It’s not like they weren’t basically stolen by gangster-capitalists and Communist Party bosses turned oligarchs in the first place.

Neither of Putin nor the Russian people care about western howls of protest and nor should they. It’s their country. At the moment they have the vast energy reserves and can hold europe by the balls. Putin would not be doing his job if he wasn’t looking to maximise that national advantage, abstract free market principles be damned.

We might not like the outcome but it ill behooves the West to bleat on about the proposed rise in their defence expenditure when it is a twentieth or so of the USA’s and NATO has extended to the Russian borders.

It isn’t off topic at all since it was part of the OP. The strange thing is, I agree with the above statement I just don’t see how you divorce that from capitalism.


Key things to keep in mind:

  1. There is more than one kind of “freedom,” as noted above.

  2. Democracy != freedom by any definition of the latter, although it does tend to produce more freedom (by varying definitions in varying circumstances) than non-democratic systems. Democracy, strictly speaking, is a system where the collective will of the people (insofar as they have a will) is done, is enacted into public policy. Democracy, by that definition, is an ideal various republican systems approach to various degrees.

  3. Democracy != capitalism by any definition of the latter. Democracy, as a political system, is compatible with various economic systems.

  4. Capitalism != a free-market economic system, as noted above.

  5. What Russia has got now is a free-market system without democracy. How much it has in the way of non-economic forms of freedom is debatable.

All good points, BrainGlutton, and well worth clarifying - I thought maybe it was just me perceiving certain terms as being used interchangeably here and in the linked article.

Partially. You don’t need a million choices (Coke vs Pepsi works for most people). But you do need a couple things for a free market economy to work properly:

-Relatively low barriers to entry. Granted, certain industries like steel or airlines have high barriers to entry by virtue of being capital intensive, people should have the right to start competing businesses if they have the means.

-Defense of property rights - People won’t start businesses if they feel like the government or local warlord can take it away on a whim.

Most people have little interest in politics. They would rather go to work, make some money and come home to their families.

That’s the problem – too many people do use such terms interchangeably, out of either mental laziness or deliberate obfuscation.

I think the reasons people in the west see Putin as anti-democratic have more to do with his squelching of any media source not supportive of him, his persecution of his opponents, the habit his critics have of dying in sudden and mysterious circumstances and the ever narrowing concentration of power in the hands of the president. Add to that the growing belief that he will continue to rule Russia after his constitutional limit as president expires.

To dismiss his actions as some sort of valiant trust-busting action takes quite an apologist.

Okay, to use a relatively non-controversial example, consider the old diamond cartels. They had an effective control of the production of diamonds. They decided it would benefit them to fix the price artificially high (far above what the actual production costs were) and got away with it for decades. They set all the terms for the sale of raw diamonds - they would literally tell dealers how many diamonds they were going to buy and which diamonds they were going to buy (forcing dealers to buy diamonds they didn’t want in order to get the ones they did), telling them what price they we’re going to pay (no negotiations were allowed) and telling the dealers that if they ever bought diamonds from a non-cartel source, they would be cut off from all future cartel sales (so that even if dealers were sometimes offered better terms from non-cartel sources, they had to refuse them because they knew they’d have to rely of the cartel for future purchases). So while there was technically some minor portions of the diamond business they didn’t control but it would be delusional to claim there was a free market at work.

But it was completely capitalist - the people that ran it were all businessmen looking to maximize their profits. And the buyers were also businessmen, who while not happy with the system, freely invested their money knowing that they could still make profits by playing the game by the cartel’s rules. And individuals could get in at lower levels, investing in diamonds knowing that the cartel would maintain their value.

I’ve a feeling that Putin is a bit bemused by the way in which the West is acting, but it might just be window dressing - certainly when it comes to Europe.

When they asked to join NATO, we could simply have said ‘no’, we’ll set up UNATO and would like you to be the founder member.

Sticking ‘anti missile missiles’ on borders is a bit dumb, it probably gives the locals some construction work, but any other benefits are incomprehensible - to me.

As Russia gets wealthier their system will loosen up, it takes time for people to adapt to ‘fair laws’ and a degree of self criticism.

**Capt. Lance Murdoch ** nailed it.

A key overview of Putin’s Stalinist tendencies, Kremlin Rising (2005) is being re-released in an updated edition in two months (this link is to the upcoming ed.). There is a depressingly new spate of assassinations, nuke tech & arms deals, etc. for them to include in the update.

It’s true that democracy does not have to equal freedom. The U.S. is not a democracy - it’s a constitutional republic. The majority cannot vote to take away inalienable rights from the minority. They are not ‘free’ to do that.

Freedom is simple. If no one is directing your life through force, if you have the ability to act on your choices and accrept the consequences, you are free. If you are allowed to keep the things you make with your own effort, you are free. Whether your freedom derives from the democratic choices of your fellow citizens, or whether it is maintained by a benevolent dictator who prevents people from using government to intrude on your freedoms doesn’t really matter.

Hong Kong was very free in the post WWII era, despite being a British colony with an appointed governor. Because that governor took a ‘laissez-faire’ stance towards the Hong Kong economy and let people choose for themselves how to organize their commercial lives and interests.

On the other hand, a democracy in Iraq has every chance of having the majority vote to seriously oppress the minority.

What is true, however, is that you cannot have freedom while having the state control the economy. State intervention in economic affairs removes individual’s choices in who they want to deal with, how they want to sell their goods and for how much, etc. So while you can have a free, capitalist economy under a democracy or a benevolent dictatorship, freedom is absolutely incompatible with Communism or Socialism. By definition, Communism and Socialism take choices away from people and substitute them with commands issued from a controlling power.

Thats Orwellian double-speak. How about a 'freedom to not be embarrassed by your neighbor having a better car than you do"? “Freedom from having to work”? “Freedom from worrying about rent”?

Using ‘positive freedoms’ like this is just another way of saying, “take from someone else and give it to me”.

A rule of thumb is that you cannot have an intrinsic freedom to something that requires someone else’s freedom to be taken away to provide it. In fact, it’s the opposite of freedom. It’s justified coercion. If my neighbor has two BMWs, and I don’t have any, I can make all kinds of BS arguments about how he doesn’t need two, and how it’s not fair, and how I should be ‘free to have a BMW as well’. In the end, it’s just rationalization for my desire to put a gun to his head and take something by force that he earned and I didn’t.

This is why the founding fathers of the U.S. used the phrase “freedom to pursue happiness”. Not “Freedom from unhappiness”. It just means that you have a right to do things for your own reasons. It doesn’t mean you’ll achieve happiness, or that someone else has an obligation to provide it for you. It just means that the state’s well-being does not come at the expense of your own freedom to seek your own path in life, so long as you do not force others to support you or pay for your choices.