DEMOCRACY

I’m working on a longer post about democracy (and the fact that we aren’t one, thankfully) and its history as a political concept in the West. but that’s going to take a while. and in the meantime I keep hearing people on both the Right and the Left say that the problems in the Third World stem from ‘a lack of democracy’, and that many problems, including the problems of Arab-Israeli conflict in the Middle East cannot be solved until the United States gets out of the way and ‘supports democracy’.
People keep using that word, but I do not think they really know what that word means…
Look, democracy isn’t like Vitamin D tablets, which we can airdrop into poor countries where rickets is prevalent. It’s not a consumer product we can package up and export in shipping containers. Soldiers with guns and bombs can’t enforce or create democracy. People who suggest that they can are simply ignorant of two or three thousand years of political history.
The history of First World efforts to ‘give things’ to the Third World is fraught with examples where we’ve taken something, plunked it down, and wondered why it didn’t work.
We might as well take a million Ducati 998 racing motorcycles and airdrop them into Afghanistan. They’re fast and sexy, but out of the million, half a million won’t be running in a year, and less than 10% in the year after that. It’s not because the Afghans are mechanically ignorant; they are brilliant at improvising ad-hoc machining to make parts for, for example, guns. They self-manufacture clones of AK-47’s and other weapons in artisan’s shops.
But to keep something as complex as a Ducati running implies a number of things; it implies a public infrastructure of smooth roads, synthetic oil, and premium gasoline. It implies a network of artisans trained in maintaining electronic fuel injection and desmodromic valve trains. It implies a supply of parts, from tires, which only last about 3,000 miles, to spark plugs, wires, bodywork, brake pads, etc. etc. etc.
The product that we see…the motorcycle…is the visible peak of a complicated pyramid of relationships, skills, and assets.
And an industrial product such as a motorcycle is vastly less complex than the social, cultural, economic, and political systems necessary to stably and peacefully share political power among the citizens of a nation. You have, first of all, to have the concept of citizenship, which implies a concept of nation.
Look, this isn’t some racist ‘the wogs aren’t ready for self-rule’ position. Nor is it a ‘the revolutionary vanguard must guide the lumpenproletariat’ one. But I’m frustrated at the shallowness of the commentators who casually toss off the notion that a Healthy Dose of Democracy will cure whatever ails folks. Democracy doesn’t come in doses, and while I’m positive that non-Western forms of democracy can bloom and thrive, I’m also sure that they won’t be created by fiat.
This is an important issue, because within U.S. politics, the temptation to simply assume that we can help create foreign democracies where there are none of the cultural or political precursors is a ‘cargo cult’ that we must get beyond.
So can we find another panacea?? Or better still, can we start thinking a bit harder about this and come up with something that might actually work?
Better still, go read the The Federalist Papers and then talk casually about how simple it is to ‘create democracy’…
UPDATE: I swear I hadn’t looked at OxBlog, where David is apparently taking a contrary position. I’ll read him and follow his links when I get a chance, and we’ll see if he can change my mind. I’m dubious…
(fixed typos)
(Updated)

8 thoughts on “DEMOCRACY”

  1. “Democracy” works when you actually facilitate a true democracy: people getting together, debating a problem, and deciding on a solution.
    I read one of those little throwaway, filler AP articles in the local paper a few years ago about a village in Iran having some irrigation problem. Rather than waiting for some cleric in Tehran to eventually tell them what to do, the villagers got together, talked thing over, and built themselves a dam. Sometime last year, I read another one of those filler articles last year about a village in Afghanistan that was relying on the local US military liaisons as ‘tribal elders’ to solve their disputes, and how the US guys were encouraging the locals to settle problems themselves rather than relying on folks who aren’t going to be around for too long.
    Democracy starts at the bottom, and has to work its way up the political ladder to be a lasting, effective system. Taking the opposite approach leads to a feel-good mess-o-crap like Haiti.

  2. As long as you’re going all philosophical on us, I’d be interested on what you think is the principled middle ground on property rights. Between say, property rights absolutism, even if the result is “Pottersville”, and a collectivist borg, i.e. “Share and Share alike – that’s Democracy”

  3. William F. Buckley once proposed for Brazil a return to constitutional monarchy as a possible solution to its constant political turmoil. Maybe there’s something about living under the “divine right of kings” that sets a nation up for representative democracy. Were not Germany and Japan ruled by the equivalent of “kings” before U.S. military occupation enforced democracy? Is the monarchy (or equivalent) a probable stepping stone?

  4. Via Eric Alterman, an article in Dissent by Shlomo Avineri: Failed Democratization in the Arab World.
    . . .This double economic failure in the Arab world-the failure to share the wealth and the failure to develop economically-turned many middle-class Arabs against the West as well as against their own leaders. . .Arab intellectuals know that the per capita GNP in Egypt and South Korea was the same in 1950. They cite this fact again and again. . .
    also very good, though off-topic, is Michael Walzer’s crystal clear analysis:
    The Four Wars of Israel/Palestine

  5. > I’d be interested on what you think is the principled middle ground on property rights.
    Doesn’t that depend on what “principled” means?
    The USSR had a property rights principle.
    The US has one.
    So does Zimbabwe.
    One way to choose between them is to decide on a goal. For equality, the USSR’s method seems to work. For poor people who live better than most in other countries, something like the US seems to work.
    There don’t seem to be any examples of both well-off poor people and equality.

  6. I agree that just dropping “democracy” on a state and expecting it to work is a pipe dream.
    But not necessarily impossible to do, if you are an occupying power who will stick around for a while. This was the key in Germany – time, and throttling recidivists while the people got accustomed to a government that might listen instead of just talking.
    This gives me some hope for Afghanistan, which has never actually been a nation. Time to give the “warlords” (some of whom, at least, never wanted to be such but as tribal leaders had to be) time to establish local control and then send representatives to the central governnent. But if we declare the job “done” because of the “democratic” government-in-place, I don’t give it more than a year. Think Egypt.
    Iraq has the format, and is accustomed to centrral secular rule. Still not easy, but easier than Afghanistan.
    Iran may institute it by itself, if with a peculiar Islamic (not Islamist) flavor. It already does, if they manage to get rid of the override power of the clerics. This week’s judiciary ruling against capital punishment for “adultery” (which includes rape if four men or eight women do not testify to having witnessed it as rape) is a direct challenge to the clerics, and backed (last I knew) by the president and legislature. If the clerics overrule in favor of Sharia, expect an explosion: if they do not, expect more such actions until their power is gone.
    Saudi Arabia? Syria? All the others have different problems.

  7. Democracy doesn’t require nationalism per-se. It just requires citizens to feel that someone can represent their positions, feel that their vote for their representative will count, and feel that their representative can have some effect.
    However, the most effective democracies will exist in countries with a sense of communalism, and nationalism can be a type of this communalism. Without a sense of community within the entire state, each will always vote for his or her own interest, rather than the best interest of the people.

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