Liberalism v. Democracy, Round 2

On Friday, the Field Guide delved into the distinct – and often divergent – traditions of liberalism and democracy. Today we bring them to bear on current events.

The struggle today in the Middle East is eerily familiar. After World War II, with the collapse of colonialism, many countries gained independence, and people across the world got the right to vote for the first time. Going with the political fashion of the day, many voted for socialists. This was extremely troubling for the US and for US business interests: socialist governments were more likely to align themselves with the USSR; and property rights were less secure under socialist democracies than they were under liberal dictators. Largely over the concern of US businesses, the US instigated at least 3 revolutions that overthrew democratically elected governments (Iran 1953; Guatemala 1954; Chile 1973), all of which led to the installation of brutal dictators. Right into the 1980s, Reagan was funding a terrorist organization in its effort to overthrow democratically elected socialists in Nicaragua; while propping up dictatorships from El Salvador to Egypt – including Guatemala and Chile. (Iran deposed its American-sponsored dictator in 1979.)

Analogously, as some in the Middle East vote for the first time, many are going with the most popular political movement in the region today: Islamism. That’s how the Muslim Brotherhood came to power in Egypt, and how Hamas came to power in Gaza – by democratic processes. Elections held today in Iraq or Syria might produce a similar result. And so, once again, the US is finding itself at odds with democracy because of the results it’s producing – while the US is reminded again and again of the usefulness, and-or the lesser evil, of authoritarians.

From a policy standpoint, when judging illiberal democracies and liberal authoritarians, each case must be taken on its own merits. A good rule of thumb for US foreign policy would be that a democracy is good to the extent that it respects minority rights. Given an open and unfettered debate in the marketplace of ideas, one has every reason to believe that such a democracy will naturally find its way to liberalism, simply because it offers the greatest good for every facet of life: economic, health, happiness, and of course, freedom.

What this means is that the US should be tolerant of Islamist-led democratic governments if they allow opposing parties to organize, operate and compete for votes. One must note, however, that parties based on religion, and not reason, tend to be especially intolerant of competing viewpoints, because they often believe that their “truths” are handed down from on high, and thus are not open to debate, much less compromise. The ineptitude of the Tea Party in the US legislature is a fine illustration of this problem. Democracy simply cannot function in the absence of rationality – dogma is anathema to democratic processes.

One might further posit that liberal dictatorships are acceptable, because history has shown that, with time, liberalism begets wealth, and a wealthy populace comes naturally to demand a political voice commensurate with its material well-being. This is the dynamic that brought democracy to much of Europe, and to countries all along the Pacific Rim – and, of course, to the US as well. One hopes the same will happen in China, where an increasingly wealthy class of industrialists should – if history teaches us – also come to demand a role in their own governance. To make a bolder point: within a given polity, it seems constructive for liberalism to precede democracy – for a population to first learn respect for procedural fairness, before taking on self-governance.* That’s how it happened in most of the developed world, perhaps not coincidentally.

Liberal dictatorships, simply put, are not so bad because they tend to be self-eliminating – and liberals should be tolerant of such states as necessary stepping stones toward liberal democracy. Illiberal democracies, by comparison, can be much more persistent, to the considerable expense of their persecuted minorities. The West Bank is a modern example: its Arab population has had no civil or political rights, nor has it known procedural fairness, during nearly a half-century of domination by “democratic” Israel. The Jim Crow South endured for well over 100 years – vestiges are still apparent today, 150 years since the Civil War.

The Field Guide continues Wednesday on the themes of liberalism and democracy, with a look at individual regimes in the Middle East and elsewhere.



* CT thanks Fareed Zakariah for making this and many other acute observations in his excellent book, The Future of Freedom. While the work of many pundits is dated a month after publication, this 2003 work is as compelling and relevant today as ever.



One comment

  1. Pingback: Hong Kong Rising | Carlton Thurman's Liberal Field Guide

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