Tuesday, January 20, 2004

Is plain democracy so important?

Freedom News Service

Ever since Iraq was invaded, those who championed the policy have issued calls for democracy there. Indeed, both Afghanistan and Iraq are supposed to be moved toward democracy now.
This democracy crusade is not new, of course. Woodrow Wilson was the president who made such a great deal about America "making the world safe for democracy." This was a big turning point in how the American government saw itself in the world.
The earlier ideal, laid out in President George Washington’s farewell address, was for the country not to get entangled in foreign affairs. And that really follows the principles of the Founders who saw government established so as to secure the rights of the citizens being served by it, not as a crusading force either at home or abroad. If we do have the rights listed in the Declaration of Independence and referred to in the Constitution, these are liberty rights, meaning they signify what we are free to do. The purpose of the law then would be to protect our liberty, to defend us from aggression, not to embark upon crusades even for the best of ideas.
It isn’t all that clear anyway that democracy is an idea that is all that great, in and of itself. As Fareed Zakaria, editor of Newsweek International, argues in his book, "The Future of Freedom," democracy without a constitution of liberty is often just as tyrannical as are dictatorships or theocracies. "Illiberal democracies," as Zakaria calls them, have the rather unsurprising danger of simply becoming regimes of mob rule. And they can last for just a short time, as it was made so tragically obvious when Hitler was elected democratically to become Germany’s Fuehrer.
Yet, somehow the call for democracy keeps ringing in American diplomatic circles, as well as on the editorial and op-ed pages of many newspapers, without any mention that an unrestricted democracy is a very oppressive system. If all that characterizes a country is that its citizens have the right to vote, and to vote on any subject matter whatever, it is clear enough that any majority – and that usually means the majority of those who are politically involved – can subdue the rest of the society, use it for its ends, deprive it of freedom of speech, religion, trade or most anything else.
So, for example, in Iraq a mere democracy isn’t going to be of much help in ridding that country of some of its worst elements under Saddam Hussein. Sure, there may be a shift of power – the majority Shiites may take over from the minority Sunnis and, later perhaps, vice versa. As Dan Murphy of The Christian Science Monitor reported on The New Republic online, "Hussein worked assiduously to divide Sunni, the national minority who benefited most from his rule, and Shiites, the majority sect who were ruthlessly suppressed during his reign." Now, it turns out, the two sides have many leaders who do not like Americans being in that country. One may wonder why they agree so much on this.
Probably one reason is that if Americans have much to say about how Iraq will shape up as a legal order, neither the Sunnis nor the Shiites will have a chance to be in full charge. So, naturally, both sides agree that the Americans must leave ASAP. But not because Americans are some oppressive, brutal occupying power but because Americans, if they had it their way, would probably exert their influence to make Iraq religiously tolerant, for example.
Not that there might not be other reasons why the American government wants to have a strong say in how Iraq emerges from the current chaos, for better or for worse. But this feature of the American influence is especially unwelcome to those whose idea of democracy is to bring about the overpowering of some other group.
This is one more reason to be skeptical about America’s foreign excursions. Although constitutional democracy – understood in its liberal fashion, namely a constitutional system of individual rights for everyone, including all women and members of all faiths – can be a good idea, the kind of "blank check" democracy that nearly everyone is talking about (with the unqualified use of the term) is worse than useless. It can give people the false impression that something good is being done by the U.S. government (since most take democracy to mean the American limited version), thus making it appear there is something really wonderful about "making the world safe for democracy." It’s a dangerous illusion.

Tibor Machan is a professor of business ethics and Western Civilization at Chapman University in Orange, Calif., and author of "The Passion for Liberty" (Rowman & Littlefield). He advises Freedom Communications, parent company of this newspaper. E-mail him at Machan@chapman.edu

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