The Corner

Democracy Versus Liberalism

This is one of those thinking-out-loud posts.

Here’s an interesting question (to the extent I find it interesting): Could the Bush Administration have argued for liberalism instead of democracy in Iraq? As longtime readers know, I’m in the camp (some might call it the Zakaria school, though he was hardly the founder of it) which holds that liberalism is more important than democracy. Obviously, I mean liberalism in the classical or philosophical sense: rule of law, individual liberty, free markets, free expression, etc etc.  Lost on many people is the fact that these things don’t necessarily come with democracy. Indeed, democracy can often take these things away. It seems to me that most Iraqis crave a liberal order more than they crave machinery. I’m not saying they don’t want democracy — nor am I saying that all of them want it at all — but my guess is that the average Iraqi would rather feel safe to walk the street, safe to speak his mind, safe in his home and property, safe to form contracts and assured to get a fair shake in court than be able to vote for this or that politician. 

My answer to my own question: Bush could do no such thing. It has been baked into the cake since at least Woodrow Wilson — and re-baked by JFK –  that we have to champion “democracy” first and the rule of law second — if at all. The problem, it seems to me, is that we don’t even have the language to talk about the nobility or merits of classical liberalism independent of democracy because ever since the Progressive era it’s been taken as a given that enlightened rule is anything but classically liberal. For example, many on the left see no problem singing the praises of  leftwing regimes which put “equality” ahead of democracy. As Derb once put it,  “Wherever there is a jackboot stomping on a human face there will be a well-heeled Western liberal to explain that the face does, after all, enjoy free health care and 100 percent literacy.” But regimes which put liberty and the rule of law ahead of democracy and the like are always immediately derided as dictatorial “strong-man” regimes. I’m not saying that such criticism isn’t sometimes accurate. After all, democracy is good and tends to innoculate against tyranny and without democracy enlightened regimes often go bad.  But  I would still have preferred to live under Pinochet than Castro or Lee Kuan Yew instead of Hugo Chavez (or, heh, the Hapsburgs than the Soviets). 

More importantly, it does show how stacked the ideological deck is.  Ever since Progressives decided that classical liberalism is morally illegitimate and ever since John Dewey redefined democracy into a form of socialism, it has been impossible to talk about liberalism first, democracy second, in foreign policy. All in all, that’s a real shame. 

Jonah Goldberg — Jonah Goldberg holds the Asness Chair in Applied Liberty at the American Enterprise Institute and is a senior editor of National Review. His new book, The Suicide of The West, is on sale now.

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