A Good Week for Liberty

by Eric Schliesser on November 10, 2022

It’s probably not an entire coincidence that the Russians plan to withdraw from Kherson after realizing that the mid-term Trumpist wave petered out. It’s safe to say that whatever the final results will be, there will be sufficient, even bipartisan, support to continue the weapons flow to Ukraine for the time being.

In fact, the Ukraine war has exposed two fatal weaknesses of Putin’s regime that reflect the structural weaknesses of all such kleptocratic political orders. First, he encourages corruption down the chain of command in order not just to reward loyalty, but also to maintain leverage over his cronies. But, as any Chinese sage could have taught him, there is no level at which this stops; each level of authority mimics the strong-man at the top. This process gets accentuated in the chain of command of the armed forces, who are shielded from the evidence that things are deeply amiss until it’s too late to do much about it.

Second, there is no reliable source of information that can flow to the top. Critics are systemically eliminated and exiled; an independent press has disappeared. This puts fear into anyone who might speak truth to power or show individual initiative that serves the public interest. What’s “more ruinous” to the state, we can paraphrase Spinoza,  “than that [people] should be considered enemies and condemned to death, not because of any wickedness or crime, but because they have a mind worthy of a free person?” (Spinoza’s is, alas, a more gendered version of this question.)

Putin sitting at his long desk engaging with the world as he wishes to see it mediated via a fancy set of monitors just is the perfect image for the epistemic closure that surrounds the strongman. And the more the dictator tries to control his epistemic environment — to adapt a framework developed by Neil Levy — the more polluted it becomes. All ordinary, higher order evidence that help one evaluate the briefings and information one receives become worthless in that situation, and planning and decision making becomes an exercise in wishful thinking. The built in advantage that liberal democracies have is that they have many institutions that function as epistemic engines which all provide epistimic signals and feedback: not just the press, voting, the sciences, and a wide range of markets, but also an ordinary, reliable bureaucracy which (as I have argued with Nick Cowen) quietly and with consistent reliability supplies a plethora of certified information throughout the day and year.

In addition, while Russia is fighting the war with non-trivial amount of soviet-legacy weaponry, it cannot obtain the one comparative advantage that accrues to planned economies: the ability to command and control resources to prepare for war. Thus, the unthinkable has happened; Russia is becoming dependent on other countries’ supplies of weapons and ammunitions, and so vulnerable to its own suppliers. It’s predictable that absent a democratic revolution, Russia will become a vassal state of China in the medium term.

As an aside, Russia’s demographic situation was not rosy before this war started. But because the borders were left relatively open – and throughout the Spring we have seen long lines of young Russians leave the country where they could (it’s almost as if Putin decided it was a costless to him way to get rid of any potential critic) — the decline of the productive potential of the population must be, alongside battle-field deaths and injuries, heading for a catastrophic implosion. (This may get temporally masked by the high earnings from the energy sector.) Before the war, Russia’s economy was the size of Canada and South Korea. If Russia did not have nuclear weapons, it would be facing landgrabs from hostile neighbors in its far east by now.

As President Biden instinctively realized, defeating Putin’s Russia is itself a means toward defeating Trumpism at home. For, preventing an easy victory in Ukraine undermines the capacity of Putin to meddle Stateside, and elsewhere. (Obviously, the achievement is primarily due to heroic sacrifices by the Ukrainian people.) More subtly, but more importantly, the last few weeks – Lula’s defeat of Bolsonaro included– have reversed the cascade of opinion that assures us that only strong men who speak for a unified people can meet the immense challenges of the age. This will not prevent the many mini-Trumpistas in Europe (some of them women) and elsewhere to continue to enjoy a variety of success, but now their opponents  know that their victory is not inevitable.

Since the climate crisis will only accelerate the call for decisive action by governments in the face of enormous and enormously complex challenges and trade-offs, we would be very badly served if our governments were controlled by men who lack the temperament to listen to expert advice altogether and lack the instinct to build broad, diverse coalitions. Tocqueville has surely long been proven right that democracies are bad at tackling long range problems early and steadily (and more cheaply); but when action cannot be avoided anymore the ugly business of log-rolling and trading-off interests (and sacrifices) with procedures and institutions designed and accustomed to doing just that the outcome will be a better, albeit imperfect mechanism, than that of despotic government. This future is by no means something to be proud of —  I am not expecting much climate justice, alas, to poorer nations. It is probably better than food-riots and potential civil war (Sri Lanka, Pakistan [etc.] give us a glimpse what to expect from that future). And unless the green movement can somehow take on the trappings and fervor of a great religious awakening we probably should not expect much better.

In fact, the midterms have delivered on President Biden’s greatest promise: to restore normalcy. While there is much imperfect in American democracy, and Trumpism is by no means eliminated, nowhere have there been unusual (by American standards, which are on the lower end of those seen in long standing liberal democracies) shenanigans in the voting and counting process. Some Trumpists have even conceded in normal fashion with the well-worn platitudes the occasion demands.

I don’t mean to suggest the world is back to normal. It’s been, after all, over a generation since we could teach kids the virtues of thrift and teach them the principles of cumulative, compound interest thereby. (I can’t wait for Quiggen to set me straight!) Next year will be a tough year with recession in many places. This will give many opportunities to Hucksters everywhere. But with luck this recession will also end the misallocation of resources in speculative, unproductive financial assets – the collapse of FTX will be a juicy metaphor for the end of an era to the next Adam Tooze – and hopefully encourage more innovation in areas of social need (medicine, climate transition, housing, pandemic preparedness, alternative sources of energy, etc.). So before we start gaming the next Presidential election, let’s cherish the good week for liberty. For, as predictable as the sunrise, the next crisis is undoubtedly hurtling toward us with immense speed.



Peter 11.10.22 at 6:24 am

“Alito said tribes don’t share a common interest because they were all at war with each other before the arrival of European settlers.”

-Hard to say it’s a good week for liberty when the supreme court hearing on ICWA makes clear they are planning to reinvigorate the genocidal campaign against indigenous families by returning to baby thieving.


oldster 11.10.22 at 11:06 am

“Putin… is the perfect image for the epistemic closure that surrounds the strongman.”
Yes. But one wrinkle to be added: he watches Fox News, a lot, and gets his briefings from people who watch Fox News.
You can see this in his rapid adoption of US buzzwords and shibboleths, “cancel culture” and “gender change” eg.
He thinks he’s breaking out of his information bubble and seeing into the heart of the enemy. But it’s just moving from the Kremlin bubble to the MAGA bubble, which is equally divorced from reality.


engels 11.10.22 at 11:47 am

there is much imperfect in American democracy

America isn’t a democracy. It’s an empire.


engels 11.10.22 at 12:26 pm


Sashas 11.10.22 at 1:52 pm

In fact, the midterms have delivered on President Biden’s greatest promise: to restore normalcy.

This seems premature, especially the part about conceding elections. The abnormal part wasn’t that anybody conceded when they lost. It was that anybody didn’t. Tell me about a return to normalcy when you can tell me that everybody who lost has conceded.

Even then, I find cheering for a return to normalcy to be cheering for the hollowest of victories. Hurray, moderate and conservative Democrats will go back to telling me everything’s fine and why don’t I just shut up about my rights? Everything’s fine. Wouldn’t want to rock the boat, would we? Just be content with what you have! I try not to be bitter, but for some reason this feels like watching a bunch of my allies announce how the Threat From The Right has been defeated, and it’s time to go back to beating up Lefties.


M Caswell 11.10.22 at 2:32 pm

I think Spinoza wrote “homines” here, and not “viri” (as in the previous sentence), so maybe not as gendered as you think. Perhaps no redaction necessary!


nastywoman 11.10.22 at 3:26 pm

@’America isn’t a democracy. It’s an empire’.

Are you sure?

and about ‘A functioning democracy’ –
Only in a ‘functioning democracy’ – ‘the people’ can vote for anybody who doesn’t believe in ‘democracy’ – while in an Empire they can’t –
or if they could –
IT wouldn’t be an Empire.



Seekonk 11.10.22 at 4:43 pm

“Alito said tribes don’t share a common interest because they were all at war with each other before the arrival of European settlers.”

Peloponnesian Wars, Germanic Wars, Norman Invasion, Hundred Years’ War, Thirty Years’ War, WW1, WW2, and on and on and on. Europeans drenched their continent in blood and had so many wars that they gave some of them fancy names: War of the Bands, Wars of the Roses.

The nerve of Alito! If Europe was so great, the Europeans would have stayed there.


Eric Schliesser 11.10.22 at 5:02 pm

Ah I didn’t bother to check the Latin, thank you, Mr. Caswell. But if he uses ‘viri’ in the previous sentence isn’t the implicature here that ‘homines’ is gendered? Or do you think he is thinking of (say) Queen Esther (and other heroines) here?


Eric Schliesser 11.10.22 at 5:03 pm

Oldster, yes. That’s a nice (and sobering) observation. Merci.


Eric Schliesser 11.10.22 at 5:20 pm

Hi Sashas,
You may notice that my post predicts a rather dire future for humanity. So, no not ‘everything’s fine.’

On your point about beating up Lefties…it depends on how leftie we’re talking about. Quite a few Lefties have done really well — not the least in Pennsylvania — and democratic socialists of America and some fellowtravelers are entrenching themselves into the core of the Democratic party, at least in some regions. This election has reinforced that trend.


Sashas 11.10.22 at 6:29 pm

@OP: Apologies, the ‘everything’s fine’ and the text around it was my attempt at a description of what I hear some moderate and conservative Dems saying. I did not intend to apply it to you!

I think Leftists have done quite well lately, but I don’t have to be very old to remember times when the Democratic establishment was more interested in rhetorically firing on Leftists than Neonazis. I fear we’re about to go back to that now that the Right has failed to conquer our institutions this time.


LFC 11.10.22 at 6:38 pm

engels @3
A country can be a flawed democracy and also have (or be) an empire, whether formal or informal.

Victorian Britain, for instance, was a very flawed and imperfect democracy with a formal empire.


chris 11.10.22 at 10:54 pm


Bear with me here: Putin “encouraged corruption”. Note that’s not something you do outright, it’s more a mastery of turning a blind eye. Now I don’t think he’s a stupid man, so that means he knew that nobody was going to count on said blind eye. Thus he would still be snowed every bit as much as an honest leader would, by the bootlickers around him, about how bad said corruption was at any given time. They know that somebody was going to be periodically made an example of, and Putin wouldn’t care who.

So he probably used a fudge factor. “Ok I’m registering about 10% of reality”. And he also then, again if you don’t think he’s even of worse that normal intelligence, knows that he has to periodically clean it back up. It won’t plateau by itself.

What is the best way to do that? Gin up a war against a very beatable enemy who is both nearby and not anybody the world cares that much about. The cakewalk promised does not happen -my maybe imaginary Putin expects exactly this-, the rot is thus unarguably exposed and cleansed by the fire of battle. and you get two birds with one stone. You wind up with a bit more territory and even more importantly, an again functional military.

Can’t beat that!

Unfortunately for him, great for the rest of us, his estimate was off by at least one order of magnitude. And now he’s in real trouble.


reason 11.11.22 at 12:45 am

I’m not sure whether it is Putin watching Fox news and picking up memes, or if the meme flow isn’t in the other direction.


Paul Segal 11.11.22 at 3:17 pm

“I don’t mean to suggest the world is back to normal.” I would like to request/propose that we avoid using the phrase “the world” to refer to the 4% of the world’s population who live in the USA, or even the 16% who live in the US, Europe, and other rich countries.

I’m also troubled by “normal”. If “normal” means back when the rich world had positive real interest rates (when “we could teach kids the virtues of thrift”), then for most of the world that means greater poverty, worse health and education, and chronic vulnerability to catastrophic crisis. (Hence my first post for Crooked Timber.) Not a few of those catastrophic crises were caused by military offences or economic policies of the “normal” USA and its allies, often led by Democrat presidents.


oldster 11.12.22 at 12:54 am

There are definitely cases where the propaganda flows from the Kremlin straight to Fox News, no doubt about that.
But some of the culture-war obsessions are clearly Made in the USA, and seem bizarrely artificial when parroted overseas. The two cases I mentioned — “cancel culture” and transgender issues — simply are not hot button issues in other countries, except when they are aping the US, or trying to stir up division in the US.
I suspect that Putin started watching Fox because he thought it was smart to know the enemy, and then kept.on watching after he found out they were his best friends. What other announcers have been as open and explicit about their adoration of Putin as Tucker Carlson has?


Eric Schliesser 11.12.22 at 7:05 am

@16 Paul,
I am afraid I find your language policing odd. You used the word ‘we’ more than a dozen times in your post. But last I checked nobody gave you that authority to speak for the rest of us.
But to get to the heart of your substantive criticism, I offer three responses. First, my post presupposes that you are right about “the fact that life has always been chaotic, oppressive, dangerous for the 93 percent (or thereabouts) of the world that isn’t straight white male in a rich country. For the vast majority of people – not all, but yes the vast majority – the present chaos is substantially preferable to the historical chaos.” That’s the ‘normal’ I presuppose. And, in fact, while I don’t think an author is in a privileged position to interpret their own text, I was literally including the 84% you think I left out in my use of the ‘world.’ After all one of my substantive claims in the post is that the return to normal “is by no means something to be proud of — I am not expecting much climate justice, alas, to poorer nations.” Between you and me, I find it odd you would object to that because, as it happens, that is compatible with quite a few of your substantive claims in your post, for example “Looking ahead, we face a very real threat from climate change, and we ought to be devoting much larger resources and efforts to mitigating it.” I agree.
But second, I doubt the resources needed to mitigate will materialize at the relevant scale until it’s rather late (and even then too stingy toward countries outside the 16%) for reasons internal to the mechanisms of representative democracy (not the least the character of American representative democracy, which I can hardly be said to praise in this post.). And in my post, I explicitly suggest that some places among the 84% are probably already at the point of no return. (That’s compatible with your claim that in the aggregate things have become better along many dimensions this past half century.)
Third, that’s not the conservative claim that all reform is doomed to failure. But more an observation that the success conditions for reform are notably absent here (if by that we mean large scale climate justice and mitigation that helps the bit of the 84% that needs it well before the rich 16% will need it). For, you speak of ‘coordinated efforts to improve the world’ and list an impressive number of success stories; but these efforts don’t just magically appear because “history is on our side.” My substantive riposte is that if you look at the political and economics conditions present and the mechanisms used when coordinated efforts to improve bits of the world work, that these are notably absent now. I may be shown to be wrong about that problem, of course, but as it happens it has eluded solution thus far.


James Charles 11.12.22 at 11:43 am

“2019 RAND Paper . . .
As far back as 2019, US Army-commissioned studies examined different means to provoke and antagonize Russia who they acknowledged sought to avoid conflict. “


engels 11.12.22 at 11:57 am

Democrats May Have Won More Suburban Votes in the Midterms. That Doesn’t Bode Well.


RobinM 11.12.22 at 5:09 pm

Oldster says ” The two cases I mentioned — “cancel culture” and transgender issues — simply are not hot button issues in other countries, except when they are aping the US, or trying to stir up division in the US.”

I suggest a quick look at what’s been happening in Scotland where the rather bitter, politically divisive debate on transgender recognition has nothing to do with what’s going on in the US.


nastywoman 11.12.22 at 5:56 pm

as we always had this theory that comedy will solve ALL of these problems –
and as now Comedy is ALIVE to such a dimension that we now have solved the TwitProblem and it is slowly ‘thinking in’ how we can deconstruct ALL of the Right Wing Racist Science Denying Stupid Philosophy -(and still working on lowering the price of Insulin) – couldn’t you guys help US to – and y’all don’t need to tweet as George W Bush –
just tweet as –


engels 11.12.22 at 10:29 pm

The trans debate is massive in England too but I don’t see how you can say it isn’t influenced by the US as both sides seem to import a lot of their ideas, slogans and gurus.


JPL 11.12.22 at 10:52 pm

Your concerns, in your helpfully non-conventional post, seem to center around a point of difference regarding principles of governance, exemplified under the one category by Putin, Xi, Bolsonaro, etc., and under the other by “Biden”, examples typically referred to by the categorical terms ‘kleptocrats/kleptocracy’ (or, ‘plutocrats/plutocracy’, which I think focuses the problem more accurately) and ‘liberal democrats/liberal democracy’ respectively, the contest between which seems to characterize our current “the future of democracy is on the ballot” phase. I threw in my two cents in in an earlier comment here, suggesting that we reinterpret the idea and ongoing project that we have been calling (since de Tocqueville?) “democracy” as the open-ended attempt to bring principles of governance into line with ethical principles, and, reciprocally, to bring our understanding of ethical principles into line with principles of governance, elevating what, for some so far unaccountable reason, seems to be added by the term ‘liberal’ in ‘liberal democracy’, as opposed to just plain ‘democracy’, and subordinating the “will of the people” idea (although still important), since we have found out that “the people” often want things that they ought not to want.

I’ve been bothered by the way the media typically and conventionally frames this problem, which seems superficial and a bit off-center. I feel it would be helpful if we could get a clearer understanding of just what is at stake in this struggle; that it is essentially between the power principle and ethical principles as ways of understanding governing principles of social relations and also truth-seeking activities. I imagine the discovery of a Wakanda-like culture where inhabitants have developed a quasi-ethical aversion to and avoidance of, in personal and public life, occupying positions in which a power differential could be exploited. (I say” Wakanda” because some African cultures historically have developed elements of such a system, such as communal land tenure.) Also there have been some (unsuccessful) attempts to regulate the appeals made by political parties in election campaigns (“appeal” being the reasons offered by parties to the electorate as reasons for voting for them).

Modi told Putin “Now is not the time for war”, but it could have been more effective if he had been able to say why that is so. Does “now” mean that we are no longer conducting foreign policy under the aegis of Realpolitik, where the power principle is dominant and ethical principles are irrelevant, and we can now explain why attempting to take control of a currently independent population by force and without their consent is wrong, and why it’s better to avoid doing things that are wrong? With all these concerns I’m sure philosophers have already been on the case, but these are things that philosophers are capable of helping us all understand better. Am I off the mark here (no doubt my remarks are simple-minded in a better-informed philosophical context)? You seem to share these kinds of concerns; am I mistaken about what philosophical thought can contribute to public discourse?


JPL 11.12.22 at 11:06 pm

The Modi quote I think should be, “Today’s era is not an era of war”. Clearer, and substitute “today’s era” for “now” in the above comment.


Eric Schliesser 11.13.22 at 1:26 am

@JPL (24-25),
Thank you for your kind, and perceptiv comments. I find your comments very fruitful (and they actually intersect with a larger research project I am working on). I want to resist to urge to treat liberal democracy exclusivel in terms of the attempt to instantiate “ethical principles” (although the temptation is real, for historical, political, and philosophical reasons.) I understand liberal democracy as an attempt to fuse in governace power principles and ethical principles. (This is also why it can end up being co-responsibel for criminal enormities.) And I think it’s important never to lose sight of this (even if it’s natural to do so). And I understand plutocracy/kleptocracy as a particular kind of instantiation of the power principle, that often draws on other commitments (nation, religion, empire) to smooth its practice.


LFC 11.13.22 at 5:41 am

Prompted partly by JPL’s comments above:
Although philosophers, political theorists, political scientists, etc. have filled entire libraries with theoretical and empirical treatises on democracy, I’d suggest that it is not necessary to be deeply acquainted with this literature to come up with a set of rough criteria for distinguishing (imperfect) democracies from autocracies. The attributes of the former would include, for example: a press reasonably free from direct government control (and possibly also an information environment not fatally polluted by disinformation); a judicial system reasonably independent of direct control by other parts of government; elections that are not shams or contests in which one side is systematically disadvantaged by government policy (and possibly also not awash in huge amounts of money, though that may be debatable); a commitment to “the peaceful transfer of power”; some understanding that elected representatives are accountable to their constituents, if only in the minimal sense that they can be removed at the next election; and the assurance that citizens enjoy the standard rights to, e.g., free expression and freedom from arbitrary deprivations of personal security/liberty and freedom of movement (e.g., the government cannot jail people for participating in peaceful protests or criticizing govt policy, etc.). One could set up a continuum with ideal types of democracy and autocracy at each end and actually existing regimes/polities ranged along the continuum. Outfits (and academics) that rate polities already do this, e.g., Freedom House, though one may not agree with any particular such group’s choice of criteria.

I would view kleptocracy (official, institutionalized theft/corruption) as a feature that autocracies may or may not have, but autocracy is the more fundamental label, I think. For example, what most clearly distinguishes the Chinese political system, as I (perhaps wrongly) understand it, is not kleptocracy (though that probably exists) but the fact that it is a one-party system without a legitimate, recognized opposition; and while there are or may be certain channels of dissent available, these are carefully controlled, monitored, and limited by the CCP.


Anarcissie 11.13.22 at 2:41 pm

In regard to democracy, I would like to note that my democratically-elected representative, having written a public letter suggesting that the resolution of a certain unfortunate conflict might be furthered by negotiation (an opinion I share) was told to shut up and indeed shut up as she was told. Therefore, I do not have representation and do not live in a representative democracy. Conceded, there are some fragments, some tattered decorations of it left. That is not the same as the original idea. Maybe it exists somewhere else?


engels 11.13.22 at 3:26 pm

#13 If democracy is “government of the people, by the people, for the people” then I don’t think it’s compatible with empire because “the people” being governed aren’t the ones doing the governing. Past empires (like Victorian Britain) may have viewed themselves as democratic because they didn’t see subject populations as fully “people” but I don’t think that flies in 2022.


Paul Segal 11.13.22 at 4:38 pm

@18 Eric, language policing is super annoying, for sure, but I don’t think it’s odd, and I do think it’s necessary. No doubt you’d agree we should police phrases like “the man in the street”, which implies that men are the normatively standard case. In my view, using “world” for something that applies only to rich countries is similarly problematic. I think that applies to the sentence I quoted. If you think my interpretation is implausible, OK, we’ll just have to disagree there.

It also applies to your comment about thrift, since real interest rates remained positive in most of the world while being negative in rich countries. And as it happens, interest rates are a powerful example of the harm caused by neglecting global differences: if US monetary policy makers gave more than zero weighting to the well-being of people outside the US then they wouldn’t be raising interest rates as they are. You might well agree with this, but my additional claim is that that attitude is exacerbated by the kind of language we are discussing, which is why I think it merits policing.

Regarding my own use of “we”, I was explicit when I meant me and people like me, as opposed to the wider world. That distinction was part of the point of my post.

Other than this, I wasn’t disagreeing with the rest of your post, which I found interesting and informative, nor accusing you of being conservative.


LFC 11.13.22 at 5:03 pm

engels @29
I see where you’re coming from on this but if we were to get into the details I think we would still disagree. So further conversation on this particular point would probably not be productive.


engels 11.13.22 at 7:05 pm

Interest rates are also a great example of how living under an empire isn’t democratic: “our currency, your problem” indeed.


Anarcissie 11.13.22 at 7:38 pm

engels@29 —
You’re forgetting the other meaning of “democracy”.


LFC 11.13.22 at 8:04 pm

Not an economist, but rising interest rates in the U.S. could reduce consumer demand for certain items, which could lead, say, to a garment factory worker in Bangladesh working fewer hours and making less. On the other hand, for a subsistence farmer in Tanzania, say, whose livelihood is not tied in any significant way to trade or the global market, the effect would be zero. In a better world, the chair of the U.S. Federal Reserve perhaps should take the interests of the Bangladeshi factory worker into account, but in the actual world if he or she did that he or she (or they) would not be reappointed. Moreover, it’s not altogether clear, istm, that letting inflation in the U.S. go unchecked would benefit poor countries.


lathrop 11.14.22 at 1:35 am

Anarcissie @28: “Therefore, I do not have representation and do not live in a representative democracy.”

I don’t think it works like that even in the best case scenario, with representation occurring in a multidimensional issue space where one may be “represented” on some issues but not others, in the sense that one’s representative agrees with and/or votes with one’s position. The remarkable Hannah Pitkin’s “The Concept of Representation” was my touchstone for years, even when I resisted it.


Anarcissie 11.14.22 at 5:15 pm

In this case, I believe that the representative and her opinions arose organically, one might say, out of the politics of the community, rather than being imposed on it by power or fraud, and that her participation in the composition and communication of the letter reflected the preferences and interests of that community, of which I am a part. I don’t think it’s idealistic of me to suppose that the letter might be rejected, accepted, discussed, ignored, and so forth by the representatives; that would be the point of having a collection of representatives. But that’s not what happened. It was simply annihilated, put out of existence. Therefore, I do not have representation even in the communal sense I describe, and I do not live in a representative democracy. If I may allude to another part of this discussion, it’s not ethical, either.


engels 11.16.22 at 11:15 pm

Relieved to discover WW3 didn’t start today.

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