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Thinking men

January 20, 2013

From The Economist:

20121215_BKP002_0IT IS hard to summon up much enthusiasm for politics these days. In Europe politicians are paralysed in the face of low growth and high unemployment. In the United States they are threatening to push the country off a fiscal cliff of their own devising. And in the Arab world spring has already turned into winter. Left-wingers rightly point out that the recently ascendant liberal orthodoxy has brought problems in its wake. Yet they are singularly incapable of forging a progressive consensus to replace it. (…)

How can people run their collective affairs without sacrificing individual rights to collective order? What is the basis of the state’s authority over its citizens? Should that authority be absolute or limited by constitutional checks and individual rights?

The fact that human beings have been debating these subjects since the days of Plato and Aristotle matters for two obvious reasons. The first is that we continue to think about practical affairs in terms that have been bequeathed to us by our forebears. The Americans and the French are the world leaders in this, obsessed with their revolutions. But the British also think in terms of Magna Carta and colonial people in terms of their founding constitutions. Lineage matters.

James Madison has the best advice for Egyptian liberals who want to prevent Muhammad Morsi from turning democracy into dictatorship. John Stuart Mill (pictured centre) has the best arguments against Michael Bloomberg and the “soft despotism” entailed in his soft-drink regulations. Immanuel Kant has the best insights into the gay-marriage debate—he argues that, once you have stripped away the nonsense, marriage is nothing more than a contract for the mutual use of the sex organs. (…)

These political thinkers have the added bonus of being extraordinary characters. Thomas Hobbes (pictured right) was born prematurely during a thunderstorm—“my Mother dear, did bring forth twins, both me and fear,” he said—and erected his entire political system on the bedrock of terror. Jean-Jacques Rousseau idealised humanity but sent five children to foundling hospitals (where only 10% survived). Mill was raised to be a utilitarian calculating machine, but devoted his later years to his wife and soulmate. [More]

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