The Dissent article is a month old, so the facts are a bit dated, but the question remains relevant. Maybe nuclear power, if we employ it at all, should be relegated to totalitarian, or at least authoritarian, regimes.
JAPAN’S CURRENT troubles could plausibly be said to stem from one of the foundational principles of the liberal worldview. Liberal democracy—and this, after all, is the very reason why many of its advocates regard it as the only legitimate form of government—is an individualistic creed.
What exactly this individualism amounts to is subject to much debate. But liberal individualism does seem to include at least two distinctive claims. First, liberal democracies are supposed to protect individuals against the potentially life-threatening demands of the collectivity. Whereas other regimes would happily sacrifice one of their own to serve the common good, liberal countries recognize that they cannot legitimately ask their citizens to make vast sacrifices from which those same citizens will never profit. Second, liberal countries think that the coercive power of the state is only justified insofar as citizens have—tacitly or explicitly—consented to them. Thus, what liberal countries can ask their citizens to do is limited by what their citizens can reasonably be said to have agreed to.
Both of these claims seem to offer an initial explanation for why the Japanese response to the evolving nuclear crisis has been so tepid. An authoritarian regime might simply have made some of its citizens sacrifice their lives for the collectivity. This is what happened at Chernobyl: the Soviet Union felt no need even to inform its citizens of the dangers they faced by continuing to stay at the plant, trying to stop it from melting down.
The article would make a great chapter in Erich Fromm’s Escape from Freedom.
So what do you think? Does a liberal democracy have the right to demand the ultimate sacrifice? Not just potential death as in when you enlist. But certain death – for the greater good? Can a liberal democracy with values reinforcing individual autonomy adequately address crisis of such nature? The author believes so, but is a little vague on the method of obtaining the sacrifice. A system of voluntary sacrifice offers no guarantees.