February 25, 2011

The Roots of Democracy

The other day I stole a quote from CK Chestertonin in a piece about the Egyptian brouhaha. CK once wrote “You can never have a revolution in order to establish a democracy, you must have a democracy in order to have a revolution.” Today Jerry Brower at Forbes expands this idea in a piece titled, Democracy: The God that Failed.
One of the tenets of classical political theory is that people get the government they want, which means they ultimately get the government they deserve. This does not just apply to democracies that are based on an explicit commitment to the “consent of the governed,” but it applies to other types of regimes as well

A monarchy, or even a dictatorship, still depends on the consent of the governed. The people can, and often have, refused to submit to an autocrat who strays too far from the zone of the people’s consent. Coups, civil wars, mass exoduses, disintegration's, and anarchies are just some of the tools that the people have used to withdraw consent from regimes to which they no longer can offer loyalty. Democracy doesn’t create a situation in which consent can be withdrawn–it simply institutionalizes the transition, creating a situation in which consent can be withdrawn without the bloodshed associated with regime change in non-democratic orders. In other words, the ballot is cheaper than the bullet.

This is why revolutions so seldom make things any better; they change governments but don’t change people. A revolution exchanges one group of rulers for another, without exchanging one group of rules for another. History is strewn with the corpses of stillborn liberal democracies starting with France in 1789, which attempted to imitate the United States experiment in self-government without supplying the spiritual, cultural and legal foundation that ensured its success.
Pity the poor disparaged French. They had all the ingredients of a successful liberal revolution right at their fingertips; they had Thomas Paine who brought along his experience in Americas revolution, they had the works of Montesquieu the philosophical backbone of the American experiment, and they had a motivated populace longing to free themselves from the tyranny of the Monarch and his snotty cake eating wife.

Yet, the whole project went off the rails because of one simple miscalculation. Instead of the triad of Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness (or property)  they opted for Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity. Now two of these things belongs with the other, but one of these things just doesn't belong. Liberty and equality can co-exist harmoniously as long as equality doesn't morph into equity. Fraternity on the other hand is problematic; and people have been loosing their heads (figuratively and literally) over being communal ever since.

But this little foo pah should have come as no surprise. Unlike America who  had the English political experience and 150 years of benign neglect to build the democratic institutions necessary to sustain a republic the French had no such experience. They were drawing on their own experiences, their own ideals,  and certainly the philosophy of that other great French thinker JJ Rousseau who wrote:
The first man who, having enclosed a piece of ground, bethought himself of saying This is mine, and found people simple enough to believe him, was the real founder of civil society. From how many crimes, wars, and murders, from how many horrors and misfortunes might not any one have saved mankind, by pulling up the stakes, or filling up the ditch, and crying to his fellows: Beware of listening to this impostor; you are undone if you once forget that the fruits of the earth belong to us all, and the earth itself to nobody.  
I have no doubt that the people of the Mideast have that innate human desire to be free from tyranny but what are the experiences, ideals, and philosophies that will underpin the end result. Perhaps they will surprise us all but if the French couldn't pull it off who can?

No comments: