Politics & Policy

Is Democracy Viable?

We cannot take liberty for granted — even here.

Those who see hope in the Middle East uprisings seem to assume that they will lead in the direction of freedom or democracy. There is already talk about the “liberation” of Egypt, even though the biggest change in that country is that a one-man dictatorship has been replaced by a military dictatorship that has suspended the constitution.

Perhaps the military dictatorship will be temporary, as its leaders say, but we have heard that song before. What we have also heard, too many times before, is the assumption that getting rid of an undemocratic government means that it will be replaced by a freer and better government.

#ad#History suggests otherwise. After Russia’s czars were replaced by the Communists, the government executed more people in a day than the czars had executed in half a century. It was much the same story in Cuba when the Batista regime was replaced by Castro, and in Iran when the shah was replaced by the ayatollahs.

It is not inevitable that bad regimes will be replaced by worse regimes. But it has happened too often for us to blithely assume that overthrowing a dictator means a movement toward freedom and democracy.

The fact that Egyptians or others in the Middle East and elsewhere want freedom does not mean that they are ready for freedom. Everyone wants freedom for himself. Even the Nazis wanted to be free to be Nazis. They just didn’t want anybody else to be free.

There are very few signs of tolerance in the Middle East, even among fellow Muslims with different political or religious views, and all too many signs of gross intolerance toward people who are not Muslims.

Freedom and democracy cannot be simply conferred on anyone. Both have preconditions, and even nations that are free and democratic today took centuries to get there.

If there was ever a time when people in Western democracies might have been excused for thinking that Western institutions could simply be exported to other nations to create new free democracies, that time has long passed.

It is easy to export the outward symbols of democracy — constitutions, elections, parliaments, and the like — but you cannot export the centuries of experience and development that made those institutions work. All too often, exported democratic institutions have meant “one man, one vote — one time.”

We should not assume that our own freedom and democratic form of government can be taken for granted. Those who created this country did not.

As the Constitution of the United States was being written, a lady asked Benjamin Franklin what he and the other writers were creating. He replied, “A republic, madam — if you can keep it.” Generations later, Abraham Lincoln also posed the question whether “government of the people, by the people and for the people” is one that “can long endure.”

Just as there are nations that have not yet developed the preconditions for freedom and democracy, so there are some people within a nation who have not. America’s advance toward universal suffrage took place slowly and in stages.

Too many people, looking back today, see that slow progress as just being biased against some people.

But putting the fate of a nation in the hands of the illiterate masses of the past, many with no conception of the complexities of government, might have meant risking the same fate of “one man, one vote — one time.”

#page#Today, we take universal literacy for granted. But literacy was not universal across all segments of the American population during all of the 20th century. Illiteracy was the norm in Albania as recently as the 1920s and in India in the second half of the 20th century.

Bare literacy is just one of the things needed to make democracy viable. Without a sense of responsible citizenship, voters can elect not merely leaders who are incompetent or corrupt, but even leaders with contempt for the constitutional limitations on government power that preserve the people’s freedom.

#ad#We already have such a leader in the White House — and a succession of such leaders may demonstrate that the viability of freedom and democracy can by no means be taken for granted here.

— Thomas Sowell is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution. © 2011 Creators Syndicate, Inc.

Thomas Sowell — Thomas Sowell is an American economist, social theorist, political philosopher, and author, whose books include Basic Economics. He is currently senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University.

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