I wish people would stop talking about bringing democracy to Iraq, as if it were the utmost value in Western political civilization. In fact it runs well behind rule of law, freedom of expression, and property rights — which is probably not a winning platform here, let alone there. Don’t get me wrong, the franchise certainly has its uses. It helps forestall violent revolution, as von Mises long ago pointed out, and it’s a tiny measure of protection against governments running utterly amok. Civil societies are all democracies; it does not follow that all democracies become civil societies.

Democracy, however, is the only good on which essentially everyone agrees, and so democracy it is. Its recent track record does not inspire confidence. Turkey is a democracy of sorts, and insofar as they have a rational polity it’s because the military enforces it. Hugo Ch├ávez, busily expropriating Venezuela, was elected. They vote in Egypt, which gets us resentment and an enormous foreign aid bill. Hitler* ascended to power through democratic means, even if he never won an actual election. What do you suppose a Saudi Arabian democracy would look like? Or a Palestinian one? Like lipstick on a pig, I’m guessing.

Bush, whatever his other limitations, appears to grasp this much. In last night’s speech he talked about a free Iraq, a vital Iraq, an Iraq without torture chambers, and a self-governing Iraq. The last was almost an afterthought. And remember the howls of outrage when Bush said the U.S. would not negotiate with the Palestinians until they got rid of Arafat? But he was elected! He’s the people’s choice! Exactly. What’s your point?

*I claim a Godwin’s Law exemption on the grounds that this isn’t a thread yet.

Aaron Haspel | Posted March 18, 2003 @ 12:00 PM | Politics

10 Responses to “One Cheer for Democracy”

  1. 1 1. Michael Krantz

    If there are any nations that have free expression, rule of law and property rights but lack democracy, I don’t know of them. Can’t we therefore say that you’re wrong in suggesting that democracy is less important than the above rights? It would be more accurate, to call democracy a necessary but not entirely sufficient condition for the existence of said rights. Not entirely sufficient, but it comes pretty damn close.

    At least you were self-aware enough to invoke Godwin’s Law to mock your largely specious invocation of Hitler’s "election." Perhaps we should say, a nation needs democracy and an annual inflation level under 1,000,000%.

  2. 2 2. Aaron Haspel

    One would think from this comment that I claimed that Hitler was elected and civil societies arise in the absence of democracy, when I took pains to say the opposite. If I argue that B does not imply A, it is a poor answer to say that A is never found without B. If democracy is useful, as I claim, only insofar as it protects individual rights, then its relative importance is obvious. If it has some other use, I would be happy to hear what that is.

  3. 3 3. Eichra Oren

    Actually, from my reading of "The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich", Hitler WAS elected.

    In any case, Godwin was a dumbass. Don’t bother invoking or even mentioning his law.

  4. 4 4. Aaron Haspel

    Having reviewed the history I agree with Eichra: Hitler was elected Chancellor in 1933, with 44% of the vote. Of course he had already acceded to the post in 1932, and spent the year eliminating the political opposition, but it was a real election.

    And yes, Godwin was a dumbass, but his law holds nonetheless.

  5. 5 5. John Hinchey

    To me, democracy describes a kind of society, one in which all the people have real control over their own lives within the framework established by whatever rules society deems necessary both to sustain itself and to protect these individual freedoms. Self-government–which is usually all that people use the word "democracy" to denote–is just a means toward this end, of no inherent value in itself. It’s certainly true that you can have a system of self-government that does not protect democracy as I defined it; indeed, lots of Americans don’t feel they live in a true democracy, and with some justification.

    And it’s not self-evident that self-government–or political democracy–is a necessary means to provide real democracy. I mean, maybe it wouldnt be a bad idea to choose our leaders by lot. That’s certainly one way to get not just campaign finance reform but campaign reform. You could have everyone serve very short terms–like one year–with the stipulation that you had to be available for at least 3 years after your term to provide advice and "institutional memory" to your successors. Particularly apt representatives could serve longer, say, by putting themselves up for election and getting, oh, let’s say, 90% of the vote. Oh, sure, it’s a crazy idea, but it’s no crazier that the charades of our current elections.

    Tyrannical political systems can and will ruin anything, but in most circumstances the political system is a lot less important that the social and economic institutions it guards. So, if we want to bring democracy to Iraq or Afghanistan, self-government will have to come last. We–which I wish meant the U.N. –will first have to provide them the de facto political stability with our troops that gives them the breathing space to get their societies back functioning again. And who knows, when they get there, democracy–in our sense–may, for better or worse, not be what they want. And if that’s the case, it won’t do any good to force it down their throats.

  6. 6 6. Aaron Haspel

    John: if you wish to use the term "democracy" in some peculiar, private sense, you are welcome to do so. But to call your sense "true" democracy, as opposed to its customary meaning, is to stretch a point.

    Michael: I’m delighted that you have removed the scare quotes from Hitler’s "election." But if you don’t care for the Hitler example, I cited plenty of others that you have yet to contest. Did special conditions obtain in Weimar Germany? Yes. Do special conditions always obtain? Yes.

    The claim that no democracies have warred on each other already has a counter-example in India and Pakistan. It is now usually phrased as "no liberal democracies" or "no stable democracies." And that rather makes my point.

    I will spare you embarrassment by passing over your comparison of Sweden with Iraq in silence.

  7. 7 7. jay mckee

    intersting that hitler was elected with a higher % than bill clinton.
    we are a republic. If we were strictly a democracy apartheid would be law in places like Boston, Ma and bangor Maine

  8. 8 8. Jim Valliant

    Women (that’s at least 50% of us couldn’t vote in England or America until about the time of World War I. Blacks couldn’t even theoretically vote in America until after the Civil War, nor could Catholics vote in England until the 1830’s. Only property owning men had anything to do with the adoption of the Bill of Rights in our Constitution. It seems that as the franchise expands, liberty contracts, no?

  9. 9 9. Aaron Haspel

    Jay: I use democracy in its ordinary sense, meaning any form of representative government. Voting on everything is impracticable for more than a few thousand people. You really think Boston would vote for segregation laws? I haven’t visited for a while, but I’m inclined to doubt it.

  10. 10 10. Brian

    Blabla – I suppose that property rights are indeed incompatible with democracy. But we’re just making this up as we go along, aren’t we? None of us live long enough to see it unfold. And if democracy is repugnant it is only so because it fails. Repugnance seems better suited for violations of principle and ethics rather than merely failing at an ostensibly worthwhile goal.

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