The Corner

“Political Order in Changing Societies”

When I was in Afghanistan, one of my journalistic compatriots recommended one of Samuel Huntington’s first books to me as his best. It is indeed fantastic. Although the then-contemporary examples he uses are all out of date, it bristles with enduring insights. Here is one passage I particularly liked. The first part addresses an argument you’d sometimes hear from conservatives about Iraq and we heard from some coalition officers on the ground in Afghanistan–sure these societies are having trouble setting up governments, but so did the United States. This facile comparison ignores the extent to which our government was a cultural inheritance, not a new implant on previously barren terrain. The second gets to a key flaw in the Bush approach–it’s the absence of order and functioning institutions not democracy that is the fundamental problem in these societies.

[A] reason for American indifference to political development was the absence in the American historical experience of the need to found a political order. Americans, de Tocqueville said, were born equal and hence never had to worry about creating equality; they enjoyed the fruits of a democratic revolution without having suffered one. So also, America was born with a government, with political institutions and practices imported from seventeenth-century England. Hence Americans never had to worry about creating a government. This gap in historical experience made them peculiarly blind to the problems of creating effective authority in modernizing countries.

When an American thinks about the problem of government-building, he directs himself not to the creation of authority and the accumulation of power but rather to the limitation of authority and the division of power. Asked to design a government, he comes up with a written constitution, bill of rights, separation of powers, checks and balances, federalism, regular elections, competitive parties—all excellent devices for limiting government. The Lockean American is so fundamentally anti-government that he identifies government with restrictions on government. Confronted with the need to design a political system which will maximize power and authority, he has no ready answer. His general formula is that governments should be based on free and fair elections.

In many modernizing societies this formula is irrelevant. Elections to be meaningful presuppose a certain level of political organization. The problem is not to hold elections but to create organizations. In many, if not most, modernizing countries elections serve only to enhance the power of disruptive and often reactionary social forces and to tear down the structure of public authority. “In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men,” Madison warned in The Federalist, No. 51, “the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.” In many modernizing countries governments are still unable to perform the first function, much less the second. The primary problem is not liberty but the creation of a legitimate public order. Men may, of course, have order without liberty, but they cannot have liberty without order. Authority has to exist before it can be limited.

UPDATE

E-mail:

Subject: Contra Huntington: it’s our generation, not past Americans, who don’t get it

Mr. Lowry,

Contra Huntington, our Founders, and Americans of many generations, had reason to appreciate the primary need to establish order. There were many occasions where Americans confronted the problem, and addressed it with varying degrees of success.  During the Revolution, when a large portion of the population was indifferent or hostile to independence, the Founders used coercion (sometimes brutally) to compel loyalty.  The Constitution itself, by giving taxation and greater military authority to the central government, was a deliberate response to the disorder under the Articles of Confederation.  After the Civil War, the disorder of the American South was quite acute, and for African-Americans especially, the retreat from reconstruction and the endurance of lynch law taught a brutal lesson in lawlessness.  And the settlement of the American west, also made the need for order apparent.

But so many Americans of our times, however, do not appreciate the need for order because we have become so accustomed to relative order.  And it was, I believe the Bush administration’s failure to see that the rebuilding of Iraq required, first and foremost, the subordination of all potential organized resistance, that led to the failures of ‘03-’07.

E-mail:

 

Subject: Huntington

 

Is dead right, of course. My own list of desiderata before you get around to worrying about democracy (though there are times when, as in Iraq, the psychological consequences of investing people with suffrage are profound enough that they may warrant skipping ahead) are property and contract rights, a neutral, independent judiciary to enforce them, public order, and the willingness of all parties (or at least the vast

majority) to have their disputes settled politically (rather than through, say, tribal or sectarian violence). The sort of unpleasant dictatorships you saw in Turkey, Korea, Taiwan, Chile, etc., are clearly one way to manage these things until the basic preconditions are established. The British’s undemocratic administration of Hong Kong is another. But, man, what model you could use to get Afghanistan from point A to point B—I dunno. In theory, if the UN weren’t worse than useful, it’s exactly the kind of thing that they were set up for. 

 

Make it a UN mandate territory and let the UN keep the peace (of course, they can’t and won’t, cf. Rwanda) until a large enough native class of Afghans is produced who create wealth and can manage a modern administrative state appear, and social considerations permit it. That could be a loooooooooooooong time. Though, honestly, even if you have a sort of tribally-inflected democracy (like Kenya or Iraq) where people basically vote their group identity, that’s not the worst thing— as long as people agree to play by the rules…

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