The Stone City

Words Made to Last

Monday, May 09, 2005

So-Called Democracy

It is generally accepted [outside of a weird recent strain of synthetic alarmism meant to belittle the recent progress in the Middle East] that democracy in a given country is a certain good thing, benefiting its own citizens, its neighbors, and the world. I confess that I myself have a tendency to support democracy for its own sake, for reasons similar to those voiced by G. K. Chesterton in Orthodoxy [ch. 4]:
If any one finds the phrase vague or threadbare, I can only pause for a moment to explain that the principle of democracy, as I mean it, can be stated in two propositions. The first is this: that the things common to all men are more important than the things peculiar to any men. Ordinary things are more valuable than extraordinary things; nay, they are more extraordinary... The sense of the miracle of humanity itself should be always more vivid to us than any marvels of power, intellect, art, or civilization. The mere man on two legs, as such, should be felt as something more heartbreaking than any music and more startling than any caricature. Death is more tragic even than death by starvation. Having a nose is more comic even than having a Norman nose.
This is the first principle of democracy: that the essential things in men are the things they hold in common, not the things they hold separately. And the second principle is merely this: that the political instinct or desire is one of these things which they hold in common. Falling in love is more poetical than dropping into poetry. The democratic contention is that government (helping to rule the tribe) is a thing like falling in love, and not a thing like dropping into poetry. It is not something analogous to playing the church organ, painting on vellum, discovering the North Pole (that insidious habit), looping the loop, being Astronomer Royal, and so on. For these things we do not wish a man to do at all unless he does them well. It is, on the contrary, a thing analogous to writing one's own love-letters or blowing one's own nose. These things we want a man to do for himself, even if he does them badly. I am not here arguing the truth of any of these conceptions; I know that some moderns are asking to have their wives chosen by scientists, and they may soon be asking, for all I know, to have their noses blown by nurses. I merely say that mankind does recognize these universal human functions, and that democracy classes government among them.
In short, the democratic faith is this: that the most terribly important things must be left to ordinary men themselves -- the mating of the sexes, the rearing of the young, the laws of the state. This is democracy; and in this I have always believed.
[Emphasis mine.]

However, the manifold alleged benefits of democracy, almost without exception, in fact stem not from democracy itself but from the rule of law favoring no man. It is the rule of law which enables ownership, personal responsibility and reasoned risk-taking, security and hope for the future. The role of democracy in all this can be reduced to a single point: Democracy provides the only known mechanism for preserving the rule of law. This is the sole empirical reason for desiring democracy for others.

Thus democracy is necessary in order to receive "the benefits of democracy" -- but it is not sufficient. Institutions to implement and enforce the rule of law must be present, and democracy alone cannot create them. The Bush administration seems to act with awareness of this, though it is palpably absent from the President's admirable but vague speeches on the subject.

So far, this should be familiar ground. Now let us consider the tools which empower the protection of democracy and law. [One of these is probably the arming of economic stakeholders, but I do not wish to delve into that issue here.] Citizens must have the expectation that lawful rule is the usual case, and illegality the exception; they must have the freedom of speech, and the tools of communication, to evaluate illegality; and they must have the power to act against abuses.

The first criterion (expectations) expresses the needed commitment from the populace. Without this expectation, each individual and interest group will self-interestedly pursue socially destructive strategies, such as stealing common assets before their neighbors can. Democracy requires optimism, to such an extent that the fabled optimism of Americans should be no surprise.

The third criterion (power) is just the crudest expression of the need for democracy. Thus we turn now to the second criterion: communication. Much has been made of the potential of the internet as a tool for freedom, because of its importance in this regard. However, there have been free democracies without telecommunications -- the United States in 1905, for example. The key point is not that communication must be long-distance, but that the scale of easy communication must be commensurate with the scale of government.

In the Iraqi case, the oil revenue problem and the presence of Iran mean that no smaller scale is readily available; thus Iraq must be built as a large unitary state. However, in other places such as Latin America, where these problems are absent or less pronounced, a more federal approach would almost surely lower the bar to stable and lasting democratic government. [See also here.]

[Update 9 May 2005: Perhaps I underrate, or misunderrepresent, President Bush above:
Hadley said during the trip Bush will deliver speeches stressing that democracy is more than elections. He said Bush will emphasize the importance of respect for minorities, rule of law, and inclusion of minorities in political systems.
Hat tip: Publius, via Instapundit.]