Thursday, July 12, 2007

Two cheers for democracy

It’s too early to call for a post-mortem on Iraq; while the country may be in intensive care, it’s not dead yet. There is still a chance that a stable and independent Iraq might someday emerge. But one thing that ought to be declared dead as of today is the idea that anybody, sole superpower or not, can simply install, proclaim, ship in prefabricated or impose democracy.

I’d go further and say maybe we should take a hard look at whether democracy ought to be our priority in the first place.

Heresy, I know. But Fareed Zakaria, in his book The Future of Freedom: Illiberal Democracy at Home and Abroad, claims that the world may actually have suffered from the spread of democracy in the last decade. Making a crucial distinction between democracy and freedom, he points to countries such as Russia as examples of places where premature democratization has failed to produce a free society. So in the light of our experience in Iraq, let’s ask: should the installation of political democracy in countries in crisis be our principal aim?

It’s facile to assume that democracy, in the sense of holding free and fair elections, ought to be the supreme political value. A simple commitment to majority rule cannot be made the highest value. If fifty-one percent of the electorate votes to send the Jews to the ovens, must we simply shrug and say, “Hey, that’s democracy for you”? If you bang the drum too loudly for democracy, you may be embarrassed when the Palestinians vote Hamas into power.

I’d say the highest political value is good government. That means government that polices abuses, maintains conditions that promote reasonable prosperity, and otherwise lets people go about their business. Democracy is not irrelevant to good government, but the two are most certainly not equivalent.

So what’s the relationship between democracy and good government? It’s mainly negative. Democracy certainly doesn’t guarantee prosperity. The backlash against democracy which has appeared in Russia and Latin America is due in large measure to bitter disappointment that it has not brought more material benefits. But democracy promises material benefits only indirectly; it promises at best a restraint on destructive governments. The best democracy can do is to remove a government that destroys prosperity. Democracy is a brake, not an accelerator.

In a functioning democracy, politicians are limited in their folly by one prime consideration: sooner or later, they have to stand for election. Presuming the elections are reasonably fair, the need to take it to the voters means that a politician has at least to pretend concern for the public good. He may, of course, cater dishonestly, disingenuously or manipulatively to public opinion. Ultimately, however, if he commits too great a blunder or crime, he will be punished by being dis-elected. That’s democracy’s hole card: you screw up too badly, you go home. It is a blunt but effective weapon.

If we’re looking for a principle to guide us in our dealings with failed states (or those we have destroyed by invasion) I’d suggest that the highest value has to be security. A reasonable assumption that you will live till sundown is the prerequisite for just about any human activity. If you have to invade a country, make sure you get the security situation under control and provide a semblance of good government (by benevolent military despotism if nothing else) first. Then you can worry about creating the conditions for democracy.

But what are those conditions? A well-considered constitution is generally considered to be important, but even that is not determinate: Egypt has a written constitution; Britain does not. Take your pick. The truth is that democracy is more than just a set of electoral arrangements; it’s a culture. The set of institutional arrangements we call political democracy must rest on a solid cultural foundation that promotes rational discussion, protects free expression of ideas, and tolerates dissent. These are characteristics that cannot be legislated, and they are not universal. In too many countries, the ad hominem argument and the conspiracy theory are the primary forms of political debate. Meanwhile, personality cults exalt the ruler above the institutions of the nation. These may appear grotesque to the Western observer, but in some places they rest on a long tradition of deference to power. The rule of law cannot prevail unless there is a cultural consensus in its favor.

The good news is that cultures can change, and sometimes rapidly. Examples are plentiful of rapid cultural change, for better or worse. And this is where anyone hoping to promote democracy where it has never existed must begin. Positive cultural changes cannot be imposed, but they can be encouraged. Simply removing constraints is a good first step: dismantling the machinery of censorship, removing barriers to the importation of ideas. The next step is to nurture free discussion, to establish the principle that refutation is a better response to pernicious ideas than repression. And sometimes you do have to exercise power: those voicing unpopular opinions may need to be protected from others intent on silencing them by violence.

Finally, of course, all human institutions are fallible and require maintenance. Installing a democracy is only the beginning. Good institutions require constant supervision, vigilance, tinkering, criticism and adjustment.

That’s the real battle in Iraq, and everywhere else.

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