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By The People?
Democratic rights and wrongs.


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Jonah Goldberg

As we all know, democracy is not the best form of government. In pure democracies — which thankfully do not exist — 51 percent of the people can vote to atomic-wedgie 49 percent of the people. The very best form of government is that of the omniscient benign dictator, what my ancestors called “the good czar.” The problem is that the very worst form of government is the bad czar.

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Unfortunately, there’s always a rich surplus of candidates for the bad-czar job. And, worse, you can be sure someone is a good czar only after you’ve given him the job, at which point it’s too late to fix the problem if you’re wrong. Thus, after a remarkable amount of Hayekian trial and error, we’ve decided to throw out the whole good czar system entirely because — even though it’s preferable in many respects — it’s unreliable.

Instead, we picked liberal democracy. It’s much less efficient, and you need to install independent courts and all sorts of republican firewalls that don’t come standard. And, yeah, the regular maintenance (our Founding Fathers called it “vigilance”) is a huge headache, especially when it involves listening to bilge pumps like Alan Dershowitz. But, all in all, it’s simply the most reliable jalopy around. Or as Churchill noted, it’s the least-worst form of government we’ve been able to come up with.

An added benefit of democracy is that we don’t go to war with other democracies. We yell at each other, but we don’t fight.

For these reasons — and others — those who say America’s national interest would be best served if all nations of the world became democracies are indisputably correct (on the Right, these folks are called “neoconservatives”; on the Left, they’re called pains in the ass). We want history to end (see “History Makes a Comeback“).

What is also indisputable is that we don’t know how to make that happen, at least not overnight. Saying “all countries should be democratic” is like saying “all countries should be nice to each other” or “dogs shouldn’t lick their nether regions.” It’s a sentiment as nice as it is irrelevant, because we don’t know how to make that happen.

The truth is that many nations aren’t ready for democracy. Their cultures are too primitive or their elites are too corrupt or their middle classes are too small — or all of the above. In nations unprepared for democracy, the least democratic elements take over. Hitler was a democratically elected leader.

Or take a better and more recent example: Algeria. In 1990, Algeria had its first free elections. (It used to be ruled by the French. Stop laughing.) The Islamic Salvation Front cleaned up at the polls. The next year, the Islamic Salvation Front won 188 of the 231 open seats in parliament.

Now, one of the many problems with the Islamic Salvation Front was that they don’t validate parking. Even more troubling is that they promised to abolish democracy and create an Islamic fundamentalist state whose constitution would be the Koran. Does that sound familiar?

The army did the right thing (though whether they did it for the right reasons is a mystery) — when they nullified the vote, and seized control of the government. If the Islamic Salvation Front had won, they would have installed a Taliban-like regime and banned democracy entirely. By intervening, the military may have subverted a democratic election, but they kept the long-term prospects of democracy alive. Predictably, the New York Times editorialized against the Algerian military’s decision, believing that nice-sounding words are always very, very important.

A similar story can be told of General Augusto Pinochet, a ruthless man who saved his country from a worse fate, and who voluntarily restored democracy when the country was ready for it. Indeed, Pinochet saved democracy from itself. The man he deposed (and possibly killed) — the socialist Chilean president Salvador Allende — won the election with 36.2 percent of the ballots, because the 62 percent of the electorate that was anti-socialist was split. Allende’s failed leadership — egged on by Soviet chicanery — was rapidly leading the nation to civil war and economic oblivion. Pinochet stepped in and saved Chile, killing several thousand people in the process. He is now an internationally recognized criminal, a fact applauded by people who think that international recognition is the best, if not the only, kind of recognition. (The New York Times, needless to say, is delighted.)

Someone who failed to save his country was the former Shah of Iran. Long one of the greatest bogeymen of the pro-Soviet but anti-CIA Left, the Shah was an unpleasant guy. So was his father. They killed people. They uprooted peasants and killed a few, but in hindsight not enough, opponents. But they also modernized Iran, along many of the lines of Ataturk in Turkey. American liberals despised the Shah because he wasn’t a democrat and he was pro-American. If you want to despise someone for that, that’s your prerogative. But it’s an awfully dumb thing to act upon when the only available replacement is the Ayatollah Khomeini.

The Shah’s opposition wasn’t from his left, it was from his far, far, far, far right. The Shah educated women. He invited Western educators, planners, and intellectuals — known as the “massachusetti,” after the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (“Where Men Are Programmers, and Women Are Bored”). When faced with rebellion from radical Islamic fundamentalists, he didn’t shoot them. Instead, he banished the Ayatollah to Paris, where he led a would-be government in exile and ate croissants. When faced with the opportunity to purge his enemies and shoot protestors, the Shah balked and fled the country, taking much of the middle class with him. When the Ayatollah took over, he had no such qualms about killing all of his enemies (for more on the Shah, see Rich Lowry’s “Bring Back the Shah“).

The point here is that democracy is the best of all possible options — when it is an option at all. But the truth is that, sometimes, democracy is as plausible an option as organizing the entire country into competing foosball teams. Sometimes nations can’t handle democracy when they have it, and others couldn’t even recognize a democracy if it was offered to them (“What is this ‘ballot’? Can I eat it?”).

What this means for American foreign policy is simple. Sometimes, we’re going to have to be friends with bad dictators — if they are better than the worse alternatives. And sometimes, I think, we’ll need to be colonial rulers of some kind ourselves (see Max Boot’s wonderful piece in the Weekly Standard, or my own calls to colonize Africa: “African Invasion” and “A Continent Bleeds“). And, of course, sometimes we’ll need to just let some countries stew in their own juices. But the long-term aim shouldn’t change. We want the whole world to be democratic, at least until we can find a better system.



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