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The Philosopher in the Castle

Václav Klaus, the current Czech president, is most often portrayed as a liberal or conservative, who is nonetheless not always guided by his own opinions in practical politics. But then, from an analysis of Klaus's speeches, essays and books, it is clear that the Czech president's political philosophy is a rather eclectic compilation of viewpoints, and that defining it as liberalism or conservatism, or a mixture of both, is quite problematic.

Liberal, Ltd.

Liberalism and conservatism were not simply perceived by their founders as theories, but as practical guidelines for human behavior. Consequently, it is hard to consider - even on a theoretical level - anyone whose political actions violate their theories as a liberal or a conservative. At the same time, Klaus the politician is almost indivisible from Klaus the theoretician.

Placing Václav Klaus among the doctrines of classical liberalism deserves to be corrected on several points. First and foremost, Klaus effectively rejects the idea of natural law, which is the starting point for the founders of "pre-democratic" liberalism (especially John Locke), and which lies behind the modern theory of human rights as well as the American constitution. Klaus criticizes the concept of human rights as a social construct that threatens freedom. He is just as skeptical towards liberal rationalism, which is linked to Locke's theory of a social contract and believes that a just social order can be created with the aid of reason.

Klaus has much more in common with Edmund Burke, who criticized the French revolution, which involved the rational construction of a social order divorced from historical and cultural contexts (i.e. traditions). Burke, who is considered to be the founder of modern conservatism, rejected revolution as a solution and championed the gradual, organic resolution of problems within the framework of constitutionalism. Klaus is closer to utilitarians like James Mill and Jeremy Bentham than he is to classical liberals. The utilitarians maintained that the principle motivation for human behavior was the maximization of pleasure and the minimization of pain. They also rejected the ideas of natural law and promoted the role of representative forms of government as the basic means for protecting individual freedoms.

It was John Stuart Mill who completed the thought process linking liberal constitutionalism with representative democracy, and he is generally regarded today as the ideological father of liberal democracy. But it is not possible to unequivocally associate Klaus with Mill because, in his concept of "evolutionary democracy", Mill placed great emphasis on the effort to improve the person and society and to link representative democracy with citizens' education. According to him, the government should fulfill this role in the interest of social progress. Of course, the idea of molding citizens with the aid of education so that they can - for example - become better democrats, is rejected by Klaus as social engineering.

Klaus and Hayek

Václav Klaus often calls himself an admirer of Friedrich von Hayek, whose teachings connect some aspects of liberalism and conservatism. It is certainly possible to find a congruence of opinion between Klaus and Hayek insofar as it concerns Hayek's theory of "spontaneous order", which effectively rejects the idea of society as a rational construct and conversely stresses that the social order is the result of the gradual acceptance of certain rules that have stood the test of time.

Klaus also agrees with Hayek insofar as it concerns Hayek's concept of the market state and his criticism of the welfare state. Of course, he is not a disciple of Hayek when it comes to the concept of democracy. Hayek and a number of other authors (most recently Fareed Zakaria) think that procedural democracy is less important for the protection of freedom than liberal constitutionalism. According to them, democracy in the form of regular elections and other procedures and mechanisms still doesn't guarantee human freedom. Zakaria warns against illiberal democracies, which can be spawned with the aid of democratic mechanisms. Klaus frequently speaks of freedom as the cardinal value. Nevertheless, his views on what is needed for the defense of this value are far removed from those of Hayek and classical liberals and conservatives. They feel that it lies in the rule of law, particularly in liberal constitutionalism. Klaus, on the other hand, emphasizes the procedural aspect of democracy.

Democracy as a discussion

Klaus also doesn't concur with Hayek on the issue of a civil society. Although Hayek does not explicitly use this term, he sees voluntary associations as being one of the bulwarks against state expansionism. He also perceives public opinion as a corrective for political power, but he perceives it differently to Klaus and many other politicians. In other words, he does not simply see it as some kind of public dictate that a politician has to pander to in populist terms. According to Hayek, it is more of a structured process, which arises within a community framework.

More recently, the German philosopher Jürgen Habermas described the public as a space for rational discourse - as a form of civil society in which rational opinions were developed in the form of public opinion, which should provide guidance for political power. This should be controlled and kept in check by some external authority. In modern democracies, this authority is no longer defined as God's will or natural law, but as a certain type of discourse, which is based on reason. This understanding of the public and public opinion is also related to Habermas's concept of discourse ethics, which is close to the idea of so-called "deliberative democracy", which has currently been the subject of much discussion. Both concepts place great emphasis on finding social harmony in rational solutions via structured discourse within the framework of a civic community and democratic politics. In the Czech milieu, it is possible to find traces of this thinking in Masaryk's phrase "democracy is discussion". Thus it is evident in one strain of Czech humanism. Unlike his predecessor Václav Havel, Klaus definitely does not belong to this tradition. In his essays and speeches, we find much criticism of "non-political politics", as well as references to fair political competition, the role of political parties, standard mechanisms, and elections.

Down with elitists

In this regard, Václav Klaus is linked to the Austrian economist Joseph A. Schumpeter, the father of so-called democratic revisionism. Schumpeter was a critic of classical theories in which democracy was assumed to be "government of the people, by the people, for the people". In his opinion, a real government of the people was just an illusion. He sees democracy as a procedure, an institutional framework for ensuring political decisions. It cannot be a goal in itself.

Schumpeter believes that the decisive element of democracy consists of competition between various elite groups - particularly regular elections in which the favor of voters is courted by political parties and their leaders. Although Klaus stems from Schumpeter, whose theory of democracy is also called "competitive elitism", Klaus himself often somewhat paradoxically criticizes so-called elitists and elitist government.

Naturally, Klaus is interfusing two concepts: political elites represented by political parties (which he defends) and intellectual elites (which he criticizes). His anti-intellectualism also has clear links with Schumpeter, who maintains that a dissatisfied intellectual class poses the greatest danger to capitalism. This exponentially growing group, which has been spawned by the success of capitalism, is strongly critical of capitalism and, according to Schumpeter, this gives rise to the potential for self-destruction.

There is power in unity

It is not possible to associate Václav Klaus with communitarianism in the sense in which communitarian thinkers clash with liberals. Klaus stands clearly on the side of procedural democracy, which is advocated by Schumpeter. But in his writings, we find references in which he sympathizes with so-called procedural liberalism, which is espoused by people like John Rawls, for example.

Whereas procedural liberalism emphasizes the ethical neutrality of the state and abstractly constructs the concepts of law and justice out of the autonomous position of free individuals, communitarianism brings the concept of commonly shared good to the fore. Ultimately, Klaus rejects commonly shared ideas of prosperity and good as explicitly as he rejects comunitarianism itself.

According to communitarians (Michael Walzer, Charles Taylor), a collective concept of good can only arise in a society of shared destinies. At the same time, some communitarians are linked with so-called republicanism, one branch of which begins with the teachings of Niccolo Machiavelli. This emphasizes active political participation founded on civic virtues. As far back as the first half of the 19th century, Alexis de Tocqueville wrote that the individual was the citizen's worst enemy. A citizen is a person who strives to achieve his own prosperity via the prosperity of the community, while an individual is skeptical and wary in regard to matters such as public interest, the common good or a just society. Klaus clearly prefers the concept of the "individual" to the concept of a "citizen". An understanding of society, which stresses civic engagement, civic virtues and solidarity as conditions for a successful democracy, is something that is alien to him.

Like liberalism, classical republicanism emphasizes the rule of law, but unlike liberalism it is critical of so-called negative freedom as the individualistically perceived freedom of individuals. Conversely, it stresses active participation in the political process, i.e. freedom for doing something or positive freedom.

This distinction was succinctly expressed by Hannah Arendt when she wrote the following: "Men are free - as distinguished from their possessing the gift of freedom - as long as they act, neither before nor after; for to be free and to act are the same". Klaus often speaks of freedom as a basic value, but he does not subject the concept of freedom to any deeper analysis. At the same time, he is precisely the person from whom we could particularly expect a clearer definition between negative and positive freedom.

Of course, communitarianism has its inverted form, because some authors accentuate it as a community in which shared ideals of good are formed chiefly in terms of nations and ethnic communities. In this sense there are communitarians who are vulnerable to criticism from a liberal standpoint, especially those who demand things like collective laws for these types of communities.

The opinions of Václav Klaus on the role of a national community paradoxically intersect this understanding of communitarianism. In his conception of the idea of a nation, he primarily interprets it along the same lines as Johann Gottfried Herder - i.e. as a community of shared language and culture. At the same time, Klaus often talks of national interests as though they were based on the shared ideals of a national community and therefore do not even need to be defined. For example, in his so-called "Manifesto of the Heart and Mind", which was presented in Pilsen on 15 October 2000, Klaus said the following: "Our nation's difficult history has taught to us rely on good sense and to believe in this. Many make fun of it, ridicule it and vilify it, but that is also all they are able to do against it. The wit and sense of the overwhelming majority of our people is steadfast. And it is precisely our good sense that we have to thank for the fact that we are still here as a nation today. We have our customs and traditions as well as our way of life and cultural expression. These satisfy us and they suit us as well. We want to live as best we can. We want to live according to standards that are our standards."

Klaus's conception of the nation is therefore surprisingly close to the holistic theories of communitarian nationalists. At the same time it casts doubt on his assertion that his opinions are closely linked to American political philosophy. America is a political nation, which defines itself by subscribing to the basic ideological postulates of "civil religion". On the contrary, Klaus's concept of the nation is typically "Central European". Most West European nations, as observed by Ernest Gellner for example, emerged as political nations, which were cemented by a combination of high culture and a state based on bureaucracy and nation-forming constitutionalism. In Central Europe, various ethnic groups invented their states and a unifying myth to go with it (an "umbilical cord" as Gellner put it) In many ways Klaus continues this tendency, which has its origins in the 19th century. In his concept, the nation is an absolute source of good, and he often speaks about it by using words like "we", "us", etc.

Which type of democracy should be chosen?

The two basic models of working democracy are competitive democracy and consensus democracy. At first glance, it could appear that Klaus is a clear advocate of competitive democracy, because he was the very one among Czech politicians who repeatedly emphasized political competition as well as the need to form governments that have clear profiles. Klaus also repeatedly championed a majority voting system, which facilitates competitive democracy better that a system of proportional representation, which conversely tends to produce weak coalition governments.

One form of consensus democracy is of course "consociational democracy", which was theoretically described by the Dutch political scientist Arend Lijphart. This is particularly useful in societies that are strongly fragmented in social, religious or ethnic terms, and in which the political elites of various parts of the political spectrum decide to cooperate in the interest of stability. Holland and Belgium are examples that are often cited. Naturally, it is possible to argue that the "opposition agreement", which was Klaus's brainchild, was a form of consociational democracy. Even in the case of the Czech Republic, two competing political formations decided to cooperate in the alleged interest of political stability. In the homogenous Czech Republic, however, none of the reasons that Lijphart wrote about for introducing this model of democracy exist here. Paradoxically, this model was supposedly introduced primarily because of the need to change election rules so that a genuine competitive democracy could be created. But at the same time, both cooperating parties - Klaus's Civic Democrats and Miloš Zeman's Social Democrats - originally anticipated that this form of silent, closed coalition could continue even after subsequent elections.

Are political parties sufficient for democracy?

Klaus's political philosophy is also not too clear insofar as it concerns his understanding of the role that competitive interests play in a democracy. Although he frequently describes democracy as an arena in which various legitimate interests clash, he is primarily thinking of the interests of "free individuals". Although such interests take on an institutionalized form in themselves, in Klaus's interpretation of things only political parties are actually the standard form of such institutionalization.

But if politics is the clash of aggregate individual interests, it is unavoidable that such interests will become institutionalized in other forms besides political parties, and it is not clear why Klaus only attributes legitimacy first and foremost to political parties. In the United States in particular, the extremely influential theory of pluralism maintains that all interests existing in society are organized in some way. These compete with each other in their approach to politics and they strive to influence the activity of the state from their own viewpoint. "Pluralists" emphasize that the opinions and interests of individuals are formed by the members of groups. Politics is a conflict between groups, and these conflicts take place within the scope of certain boundaries. Klaus associates interest groups with the dangers of corporativism and warns against the coalescence of various interest groups with the state. Of course, this does not satisfactorily explain why political parties should be immune to this danger. The Italian and German experiences after the First World War clearly show that free competition between political parties was not enough on its own to avoid corporativism.

Disdain for citizens

The last problem mentioned brings us to the issue of a civil society. Klaus himself rejects this as a collectivist concept. Conversely, some theoreticians whom he avows consider it to be an essential instrument for controlling and restricting political power. Many democratic theorists also accentuate a civil society as the contents page for democracy - i.e. as the environment in which citizens who freely join forces for the purpose of attaining various goals outside of the power structure of the state learn civic virtues and active citizenship, and thus become better democrats.

According to some theorists, a civil society automatically grows out of the tendency of free individuals to unite for certain, frequently non-political goals, and that it is therefore a completely natural consequence of the liberal concept of democracy. This is precisely the reason why it is hard to understand Klaus's antipathy towards a civil society. Klaus should be able to accept a civil society, at least in its minimalist form, because a whole array of theorists, starting with Adam Ferguson, primarily associated the idea of a civil society with that of the market. The market economy, as an area of freedom, individualism and private law, was seen as the basic form of a civil society.

Václav Klaus: where he comes from and the place where he is headed

Klaus's political philosophy is a relatively colorful composite of various theories and his own conclusions. In terms of pure theory, there are indications that Klaus is something of an economic liberal, whose greatest inspiration comprises the ideas of Milton Friedman. Of course, even in terms of political philosophy, he inclines towards an economic concept of democracy. In the opinions he expresses, it is possible to find traces of Schumpeter's democratic revisionism much more frequently than Hayek's conception of liberalism and democracy.

In the Czech context, Klaus comes from the political traditions of national populism, which were primarily represented by the National Democrats during the era of the First Republic. Although Klaus is often critical of a large state in accordance with the political tradition mentioned, he also defends the idea of a strong nation state. First and foremost, he defines this as the defense of Czech national interests. His criticism of the European Union is not just based on certain liberal postulates, which he frequently refers to when criticizing the EU for its alleged socialism. It is also based on his perception of the role of the nation.

It is not possible to fully separate Klaus's eclecticism from the intellectual atmosphere of the normalization era in which his Weltanshcauung was formed. Many of his opinions on political theory are the views of an autodidact influenced by the political economic thinking that was then accessible through samizdat publications, particularly the Austrian and American schools of national-economic thought.

Of course, recently it has been possible to notice certain shifts in Klaus's interpretation of democracy and freedom. He spoke about a civil society as an existing organism for the first time in one of his speeches before being elected president. Moreover, he has also recently spoken about the need to find a social consensus through democratic discussion or to acknowledge the opinion that freedom cannot work without a basic agreement on what is ethical and good as one of the valid approaches to democracy - even though he doesn't share this "communitarian" perspective. In his role as president, Klaus has also warned against the excessive power of politicians. In other words, it appears that he may be moving towards a more complex understanding of democracy, which is freeing him from the strong economic and ideological approach that he originally adopted.

The New Presence - 1. 4. 2004