Sunday, May 29, 2011

Democracy is a means, not an end

Two recent and thoughtful pieces on the Middle East are worth contemplating:

"Democracy or Liberty" by Steve Hanke in Asharq al-Awsat (also in Arabic) and
"The Weak Foundations of Arab Democracy" by Timur Kuran in the New York Times

One of the striking features of the revolutions in the Arab world has been the difficulty in understanding what the demonstrators want. Yes, they wanted to do away with the Mubaraks and Assads of the world, but what do they want their countries to be like the day after the next election? ( In a previous post, I highlighted the confusion in Egypt).

Democracy cannot be an end. It is simply a workable formula for self government, which has been proven successful when certain preconditions are met. It has led to disastrous results when these conditions are absent, If in doubt, take a look at Chavez's Venezuela.

Hanke raises a very important point: the success of the US is precisely because the Founding Fathers subordinated Democracy to Liberty. Individual freedom was the overarching principle that circumscribed policy.  Democratic decisions that breached that principle, no matter how popular, were taken to court.

The absence of a serious discussion on the role of the state, and individual rights, is woefully absent from political discourse in the Middle East. The demonstrators (in Egypt in particular) are focussing on entitlements, not liberties. If asked to explain their position, the demonstrators effectively call for bigger government, not a government constrained by the protection of individual rights.

Timur Kuran presents an interesting hypothesis of why this is the case. Kuran's point is that the preconditions of democracy are lacking in the region because the culture is based on Sharia law. In turn, Sharia law does not provide for the concept of a corporation, and this is why civil society is weak. Without civil society to champion individual rights democracy is bound to fail.

I'm not familiar enough with Islamic issues to opine on the validity of Kuran's hypothesis. But regardless of its validity, I'm not convinced that civil society is a precondition for success. Civil society can also mean special interest groups that will turn any constitution into Salmagundi. Brazil's experience in writing it's 1988 constitution with far-reaching input from civil society is instructive. Since 1988 Brazil needed 67 constitutional amendments and three serious economic crises (including a default) to get policies "about right." Since enacting the Bill of Rights in 1791, the US amended the constitution only 17 times (bringing the total to 27 amendments).

The problem in the Arab world is the complete absence of thoughtful leadership. I don't expect the average demonstrator to have read either Adam Smith or Thomas Paine. But unfortunately, few people are even vaguely familiar with their ideas at all. I was surprised and dismayed to discover through an article in the Wall Street Journal that most liberal thinkers have never been translated into Arabic.

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