Suffocating Liberty by Spreading Democracy

One of the heroes of the Cold War, Russian dissident Natan Sharansky, published a book in 2004 called The Case for Democracy.  His book is often cited as an influence on Bush Administration policies.  Sharansky makes a bold argument that is seeded with a subtle, catastrophic flaw.  Sharansky argues that freedom is a universal value desired by people everywhere.  So far, so good perhaps.  He fails to take into account that everybody wants freedom for themselves, but significantly fewer people are willing to tolerate their neighbor’s distasteful choices.  Unfortunate, but still not the kicker.

Here’s where it gets ugly.  He also argues that the US should respond to this universal need by acting forcefully to spread democracy around the world.  This is where Sharansky and the Bush Administration went off the rails and took the world with them.

Somewhere in the past couple of generations we lost track of the critical difference between democracy and liberty.  Bush the First understood this distinction and it guided his masterful interactions with the broader world.  Democracy is a form of government in which leaders and public policy are determined by a majority of citizens through voting.  Voters in a democracy might choose to elect officials who promote basic human freedoms, who protect property rights, free markets, freedom of thought and religious expression.  On the other hand, they might elect the Nazis or Hamas.  In short, democracy, which has never been widely practiced outside Europe and North America, has no more than a coincidental relationship to liberty, peace, or capitalism.

This is a mistake that our founding fathers fortunately were not tempted to make.  They had nothing but suspicion for democracy.  They felt that democracy was a step short of mob rule, which was a season away from tyranny.  Unlike the regimes we are promoting around the globe, they filled our government structure with checks designed not only to limit the power of government, but also to curb democratic tendencies.  They did not build a democracy.  They built the Republic.

The Bill of Rights, the structure of the Senate, and numerous checks small and large were adopted with an eye toward limiting the ability of the majority (the “mob” as they so often called them) to impair the liberty of everyone else.  Over the course of the past century we have found that embracing a more democratic political structure has added strength and depth to our political process.  Democratic reforms have made our institutions more transparent, given our government greater flexibility to adapt, and deepened our involvement and investment as citizens.  But these advantages have only been possible because of a favorable, maturing political culture, and because of the checks on government power which have prevented democracy from running amuck.

So as we influence the formation of governments across the globe, we could choose to spread governments that look more like our own.  But that risks trouble.  First, our form of government assumes the presence of an underlying political culture in which people expect to solve most of their own problems, respect the rights of others to live as they please, and are more or less willing to live in peace with their neighbors.  Where this political culture is absent, we cannot create it by simply holding an election.  As in Gaza, their votes will reflect their political culture and will create conflict and oppression rather than peace and prosperity.

Second, a democracy, even with constitutional safeguards to help it function effectively, is inherently conservative.  It is extremely difficult to implement sweeping change of any kind under a democratic system.  That’s fine in Denmark or South Korea.  But in places like Afghanistan or Pakistan which desperately need wholesale transformation in order to place them in any position to function effectively, democracy can be stifling at best, or at worst help create a failed state.

The Bush Administration, so unwilling to think in even the best of circumstances, seemingly never paused to consider what national elections in places in Afghanistan, Gaza, and Iraq would produce in a political culture hostile to liberty.  The absurd spectacle of national elections in a place like Afghanistan where the “nation” is nothing more than a concept imposed on them by foreigners, has produced predictable results.  What we got were governments that were corrupt, fundamentalist, and generally opposed toward us and our interests, without promoting peace or stability.

How could this have been done differently?

One Response

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