Wednesday, May 17, 2006


My post below got left hanging with an obvious conclusion ... what happens when politicians "follow the mob". History has a very interesting lesson there. When modern democracy was a new creation during the French Revolution there was a period of time when the Jacobins "came to power" in the General Assembly. The leader of this group was one Robespierre, and during this time was when the terror occurred in the French Revolution.

One interpretation that can be placed on the terror was that Robespierre was a believer in "direct democracy", that is, doing what the people want. In reality he had no institutional structure to accurately ascertain the wishes of the people, and certainly no structures to ensure the people wre informed and making a full set of choices.

The consequence was mob rule where the Government responded to the calls of the Paris mob. And thus the guillotine commenced its work. This was not because the Government had no control and was appeasing - it was at their time the Government's belief that this is what constituted democracy.

We are seeing our own modern version of this in our justice system. New South Wales Chief Justice Jim Spigelman has recently seen fit to criticise the populism with which politicians of both sides have taken to criticising the courts. He said "Long experience has established that such tasks are best done by independent, impartial and experienced persons, who are not subject to the transient rages and enthusiasms that attend the so frequently ill-informed, or partly informed, public debate on such matters."

This general critique is closely related to our understanding of the meaning of justice and the purpose of the justice system. The modern idea is that justice is about the victims and "closure" - for which we can read retribution. The older idea is that justice was about deterrence and remediation - and that the social response should be to forgive. As a society we are moving from the New Testament values of forgiveness to the Old Testament values of "an eye for an eye".

See also.

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