The Arab Spring and Economic Freedom

As Libya falls, Syria teeters on the brink, and Egypt braces for an anti-Israeli and anti-American Islamist ascendancy, it’s a good time to take a step back and ask what principles should now be guiding our diplomacy with respect to the new regimes. First, I’m not sure to what extent the principle of “non-interference in the domestic affairs of a sovereign state” is guiding the U.S. stance on the new constitutions of those countries, but the fact is that we have a vital interest in what shape those constitutions take. It is not enough that the constitutions be subjected to referendum. The U.S. should be working with partners to ensure that recognition is conditioned on the structural elements of a democratic constitution: an impartial executive, an independent judiciary, a representative legislature, and a respect for basic freedoms, including freedom of religion, freedom of speech, and — crucially — economic freedom.

The regimes created after World War II in the wave of decolonization were to varying degrees participatory in the political sense; what turned them into dictatorships was socialism. From the start, most of those regimes championed economic systems based on the state as an economic engine, putting the people in a state of dependency, rather than self-reliance. It was a short step from there to command economies. Remember, that’s how this whole Arab Spring started — a Tunisian fruit-and-vegetable vendor was so tired of all the abuse and interference of government that he immolated himself. He wasn’t protesting political repression, but rather lack of economic freedom.

There isn’t much in the nature of a democratic constitution to stand in the way of Islamist extremists — witness Lebanon and the rise of the Hezbollah, in a country where freedom of expression and freedom of religion are both sacrosanct. If you look at Hezbollah’s actual base of support, you will discover that a large majority of Hezbollah supporters don’t care a wit about Hezbollah’s religious doctrine and don’t agree with its revolutionary political aims or even its ambition to destroy Israel. What gets them is the services Hezbollah provides — from hospitals to trash collection to food, all courtesy of the government of Iran (and, unfortunately, also USAID).

The international charity that is doled out to these peoples, combined with state-heavy socialist policies, has the effect of replacing dynamic self-reliance with befuddled, angry dependency. Where countries succeed in embracing dynamic entrepreneurialism, people are generally content, and too busy to sit around hating all the time. But something about dependency — and Mark Steyn understands it better than most conservatives — produces dangerously infantilized people, the perfect breeding ground for Islamism, and for obscurantism of all sorts.

Obama has demonstrated how urgent it is to return to the principle of economic freedom here at home — that will be the issue of the next American election. But we also need to return to that principle as a central driver of our foreign policy urgently. It will be difficult to emerge from the Arab Spring with regimes that are any better than those they replace — and it will be impossible unless the U.S. is vigorous and effective in championing economic freedom in those countries.

Mario Loyola — Contributing editor Mario Loyola is senior fellow and Director of the Center for Competitive Federalism at the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty. He began his career in corporate ...

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