Author’s note: Back in the summer of 2005, I took the opportunity provided by elections in Ethiopia to challenge the neoconservative fantasy (or is it just an excuse?) that it makes any sense for America to use force to export “democracy” to the world. It’s liberty that matters, and we’re down to just our last little bit as it is.
Asked why the Ethiopian government arrested 14 opposition leaders in the wake of post election unrest – in which government troops, firing into unarmed crowds, killed 26 and wounded dozens – Ethiopia’s Information Minister Bereket Simon would not confirm the arrests, but told Reuters:
This ought to be carved in stone above the entrance to every legislative chamber, every courthouse, every government building on the face of the earth, because it pretty much summarizes, with admirable succinctness and brazen verve, the central operating principle of all governments everywhere, including democracies. The elites – whether elected or self-selected – are above the law, and act accordingly. Crimes for which ordinary citizens would be incarcerated, and perhaps even executed, are legalized and even considered admirable when carried out under the color of state authority. Sociopathic behavior, such as murder and robbery, are simply repackaged as “war” and “taxation” and touted as our collective moral duty, or, at worst, unfortunate necessities.
How to legitimize a regime based on naked coercion and robbery is the central problem faced by governing elites, and they have come up with various and sundry answers down through the ages. In the beginning, they claimed the divine right of kings, averring that their rule was ordained by God in Heaven. For this they often had the backing of the Church, or various shamans of one sort or another, although not always. After a while, however, as belief in the divine retreated before the advance of science, this rationale fell apart, and the Brahmins – for lack of a better word to replace the tired old Marxist epithet of “ruling class” – had to look for alternatives, one of which was “democracy.”
After all, even the most repressive regimes must maintain some measure of popular support, and that is why the totalitarians of the Left and the Right put such a premium on unanimity. The idea that even a single person challenged them was intolerable, because it recognized that another way of thinking was possible. However, not even the most successful totalitarians managed to get 100 percent support: even in phony “elections” where there’s only one candidate, such as the one conducted by the “president” of Kazakhstan in 1991, the foreordained victor usually manages to garner something close to 99 percent of the vote. There’s always that recalcitrant 1 percent, the contrarian minority, that dissents from the popular consensus no matter what. And since the entire system is based on coercion and fear, that support may be a mile wide – but only an inch deep. At the first sign of trouble – say, a losing war with a neighboring despot – the avowed supporters of authoritarian regimes tend to melt away: the suddenness of the Soviet implosion underscores the brittleness of the old-model ideologies, which usually looked to some external force – either divine or dialectical – to rationalize their rule.
Rooted in the old-fashioned idea that people are merely the playthings of all-powerful and highly abstract forces, Soviet socialism was a throwback to the reactionary mechanistic doctrines that had ruled the earth and its peoples since time immemorial. Human beings, in this view, are passive lumps of clay whose fate is determined by History, the gods, or, perhaps, the gods of history. In any case, this view was challenged, albeit not completely overthrown, by the rise of liberalism – in the classical, not the Air America, sense – which ushered in a series of revolutions, memorably described by Murray N. Rothbard in his magnificent essay, “Left and Right: The Prospects for Liberty” (1965):
“The Old Order was overthrown or severely shaken in its grip in two ways. One was by industry and the market expanding through the interstices of the feudal order (for example, industry in England developing in the countryside beyond the grip of feudal, State and guild restrictions). More important was a series of cataclysmic revolutions that blasted loose the Old Order and the old ruling classes. … The society of status gave way, at least partially, to the ‘society of contract’; the military society gave way partially to the ‘industrial society.’ The mass of the population now achieved a mobility of labor and place, and accelerating expansion of their living standards, for which they had scarcely dared to hope. Liberalism had indeed brought to the Western world not only liberty, the prospect of peace, and the rising living standards of an industrial society, but above all, perhaps, it brought hope, a hope in ever-greater progress that lifted the mass of mankind out of its age-old sinkhole of stagnation and despair.”
“Soon there developed in Western Europe two great political ideologies, centered around this new revolutionary phenomenon: one was liberalism, the party of hope, of radicalism, of liberty, of the Industrial Revolution, of progress, of humanity; the other was conservatism, the party of reaction, the party that longed to restore the hierarchy, statism, theocracy, serfdom, and class exploitation of the Old Order. Since liberalism admittedly had reason on its side, the Conservatives darkened the ideological atmosphere with obscurantist calls for romanticism, tradition, theocracy, and irrationalism. Political ideologies were polarized, with liberalism on the extreme ‘left,’ and conservatism on the extreme ‘right,’ of the ideological spectrum. That genuine liberalism was essentially radical and revolutionary was brilliantly perceived, in the twilight of its impact, by the great Lord Acton (one of the few figures in the history of thought who, charmingly, grew more radical as he grew older). Acton wrote that ‘Liberalism wishes for what ought to be, irrespective of what is.’ In working out this view, incidentally, it was Acton, not Trotsky, who first arrived at the concept of the ‘permanent revolution.’”
I have cited this rather long quote from Rothbard’s famous essay – or, at least, from an essay that deserves to be famous – because it illustrates several points that have particular relevance as we look at American foreign policy and its doctrine of “global democratic revolution” in the age of Empire. It seems to describe a historical reality that this White House seeks to replicate – yet only succeeds in parodying.
The ideological pretensions of the neoconservatives, who gave birth to this tendentious dogma of the U.S. as the agent of “regime change” worldwide, are as brazen as the lies they told us on the road to Baghdad, and just as credible. For it is clear that Bush and the neoconservative vanguard of the War Party consider themselves nothing less than the heirs of authentic liberalism: in their view, the Actonian and not the Trotskyite idea of “permanent revolution” is the very essence of our foreign policy of “exporting democracy” throughout the world. It is clear, from their rhetoric, that the White House and its allies portray themselves as the armed prophets of “modernity,” out to roll back the forces of a dark medievalism by means of the sword as well as the word. However, there are several problems with this ambitious claim to the mantle of Acton and the Founders, starting with a flaw in the otherwise admirable structure of classical liberal ideas: the idea of a “society of contract.”
What is this “contract” we all have supposedly consented to? Did we enter into it simply on account of being born? If so, then it was signed unwillingly, under extreme duress, and is therefore neither enforceable nor legitimate. As the great libertarian writer and early opponent of the U.S. postal monopoly Lysander Spooner so eloquently put it:
“The will, or the pretended will, of the majority, is the last
lurking place of tyranny at the present day. The dogma, that certain
individuals and families have a divine appointment to govern the rest of
mankind, is fast giving place to the one that the larger number have a
right to govern the smaller; a dogma, which may, or may not, be less
oppressive in its practical operation, but which certainly is no less
false or tyrannical in principle, than the one it is so rapidly
supplanting. Obviously there is nothing in the nature of majorities,
that insures justice at their hands. They have the same passions as
minorities, and they have no qualities what-ever that should be expected
to prevent them from practicing the same tyranny as minorities, if they
think it will be for their interest to do so.
“There is no particle of truth in the notion that the majority have a right to rule, or to exercise arbitrary power over, the minority, simply because the former are more numerous than the latter. Two men have no more natural right to rule one, than one has to rule two. Any single man, or any body of men, many or few, have a natural right to maintain justice for themselves and for any others who may need their assistance, against the injustice of any and all other men, without regard to their numbers; and majorities have no right to do any more than this. The relative numbers of the opposing parties have nothing to do with the question of right. And no more tyrannical principle was ever avowed, than that the will of the majority ought to have the force of law, without regard to its justice; or, what is the same thing, that the will of the majority ought always to be presumed to be in accordance with justice. Such a doctrine is only another form of the doctrine that might makes right.”
The liberal revolutions of the 18th and 19th centuries ushered in the era of “democracy,” in which the society of contract replaced the society of status in the economic sphere. In the political sphere, however, an uneasy compromise was reached. The authority of the State was preserved, and even extended, by the adoption of the democratic principle. Instead of might making right, 50 percent plus one makes right – and, of course, this principle was applied by force, or the constant threat of it. Worse, a natural law theory of human rights gave way to a utilitarian conception, in which rights once thought to be conferred by God on his human creations were subordinated to the vagaries and imagined necessities of life. The rights to property, free association, the right to speak out and publish one’s opinions – all became conditional, subject to review, and ultimately put at the mercy of those “elected officials” on whom Ethiopia’s minister of information confers the sole power to incite violence.
The liberal guarantees encoded in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights have always been fragile, and it took only 19 hijackers wielding box-cutters to inflict a large and rapidly growing crack in their very foundations. The “right” of government agents to spy on and detain us without showing probable cause before a judge, or even charging us, is now returning as a routine method of operation. The infamous “PATRIOT” Act, instead of being curtailed, as formerly proposed, is not only coming back with a vengeance – it is being expanded even as I write.
If the fragility of individual rights is a fact of life in the democratic West, their status in the rest of the world – say, in the Middle East or Africa, which the liberal revolutionary wave left largely untouched – is beyond precarious. The neoconservatives over at “Freedom House” have come up with a study that bemoans the “democratic deficit” that afflicts the nations of the Middle East (except for Israel, of course): according to this theory, the lack of “democracy” is what is holding the region back from entering the modern world, and is making Muslims blame others for faults inherent in their own backward-looking anti-Western psychology. The president of the United States has taken up this cause and declared that the goal of our foreign policy is to ignite a “fire in the mind” – the sacred flame of “democracy” will burn away the tyrannies of the Middle East and dry up the swamp in which terrorism breeds.
What do you do, however, when “terrorists” start winning elections? This is a question American policymakers must confront now that Hezbollah has swept the polls in southern Lebanon. Hamas threatens to overtake the Palestinian establishment at the ballot box; Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas has had to postpone the Palestinian elections because of this very real possibility. In Ethiopia, where protestors challenging the election results were mowed down by government troops, it may very well be that the parties supporting President Meles Zenawi got as many seats as they claim – although I doubt it. The point, however, is that there is no “democratic” solution to Ethiopia’s vast problems: indeed, democracy worsens those problems and brings to the boiling point issues that would otherwise never become so heated.
I realized this shortly after writing a brief blog entry on events in Ethiopia. No sooner had I posted it than I got an e-mail from an Ethiopian congratulating me for attacking President Meles Zenawi, and basically saying “That creep Zenawi is a hateful tyrant, and, besides that, he’s not even a real Ethiopian – he’s one of those rotten Eritreans, and therefore can never be trusted!”
This underscores my essential point: it isn’t the lack of democracy, but the centralization of political authority and economic decision-making that has kept Africa, the Middle East, and much of Asia mired in medievalism and eternal conflict. Ethiopia is not a real entity, but merely lines drawn on a map by Europeans who carved empires out of a decentralized tribal patchwork of clan-based indigenous “nations.” The Ethiopians, the Eritreans, the people of Tigray, the Oromos, and so on and so forth, are all at each others’ throats and have been for centuries: forcing them all to inhabit the same “democracy” where majority-rule prevails is a prescription for perpetual civil war.
In Iraq, we have seen the same failure of the democratic panacea, and for precisely the same reasons. The Western insistence on a centralized state legitimated by “national” elections is not going to produce governments that are either friendly to the U.S. or benign examples of liberalism and tolerance. Iran, too, has “democratic” pretensions – and yet individual rights are nonexistent. Democracy in Lebanon and Syria is likely to produce the same deformed offspring – not liberal democracies, but “democratic” tyrannies in which an irrational majority lords it over the rest, censoring them, jailing them, and generally making life thoroughly miserable for anyone with an iota of independence.
The lesson of all this is clear, or it ought to be by now. To export democracy – either at gunpoint, or by means of propaganda – in the guise of a crusade for “freedom” is to export endless trouble overseas. In societies where the concept of the person as a thinking, acting individual is a blasphemous heresy, or simply unknown, democracy is truly, as Lysander Spooner would have it, “the last lurking place of tyranny at the present day.”
The proposition that America ought to use force to export democracy is self-refuting however one chooses to formulate it. One can export communism at gunpoint: the same holds true for fascism and all other forms of totalitarianism. But in the case of Western-style liberal democracy, which depends on the thinking, choosing, voluntary actions of disparate individuals, it cannot be done. The reason is simple: the means contradict the ends. It is like holding a gun to someone’s head and saying: Be free, dammit – or I’ll blow your head off! That’s some “freedom”!
I’ll not quibble over the definition of “liberal democracy,” because the evidence of its common meaning – majority will constrained by custom, the Constitution, and the rule of law – is all around us, including our alarm as it slips away. When people say “democracy,” they mean not only majority rule, which can and often does degenerate rather quickly into tyranny; they generally mean the whole panoply of rights to which Americans lay claim – not only the right to vote, but the right to property, the right to publish and disseminate one’s views, freedom of religion, the right to bear arms and be secure in our homes, all of it based on the fundamental principle – a libertarian principle – of self-ownership. Democracy, in short, is shorthand for the 18th-century conception of liberalism that animated the Founders and made the American Revolution possible.
Aside from reiterating that we cannot export the gains of that Revolution by force, however, I must say that democracy isn’t doing so great here on the home front that we have a huge surplus for export. Is it a coincidence or some ironic mechanism in the machinery of history itself that ordains this particular moment as the starting gun of what the president calls a “global democratic revolution”?
We are living in a time when civil liberties are sacrificed on the altar of “national security,” when an American citizen can be jailed indefinitely and held without trial, and it is easier for a third party to get on the ballot in Vladimir Putin’s Russia than it is in the U.S.
Yet now, we are told, we have a moral obligation to set out on a holy crusade to convert the heathens into Jeffersonian democrats and make sure that the elections held in Outer Slobbovia conform to a universal standard of fairness and efficacy – a standard we all-too-often fail to live up to.
This brings us to the most important reason why democracy cannot and must not be imposed by the U.S. on other nations, and that is the great danger such a task poses to the continued existence of republican (small-r) government in the U.S. For if we take seriously this alleged moral obligation to democratize the world – by force, if need be – then we will find that the price of such hubris is higher than we thought.
The great paradox of American power is that the more we exercise it, the greater our chances of losing that which makes it possible: our system of constitutionally limited government and a legal system based on the primacy of individual rights, including the right to property. The reasons for this boomerang effect are built into the costs of such an ambitious enterprise.
To begin with, the cost of implanting “democracy” in Iraq is, so far, over $100 billion – now multiply that by 1,000, and you get the total cost, give or take $100 billion, of what it will take to carry George W. Bush’s “global democratic revolution” to the ends of the earth.
This militant “democratic” globalism depends on an endless supply of tax dollars to fuel the war machine. Chances are that we will be defeated by bankruptcy long before we can credibly claim victory. The interventionist foreign policy embraced by today’s phony conservatives can only increase the power of government in America – and that, it seems to me, is its real purpose.
Since the worldwide “democratization” project is bound to end in failure, and is even now failing in every country it has been tried, one has to question the motives of its authors.
War, as Randolph Bourne pointed out, is the health of the State – and that, it seems to me, is the real point. To increase their own power and prerogatives, gain political traction at home, reward their friends, punish their enemies, and – always – perpetuate their rule. What other motivation could a politician have?
By taking the course of Empire, U.S. policymakers are ensuring that an ever expanding share of the national wealth will be allocated to government, while the American people groan under the increasing burden. All such complaints, however, will be answered by a call to duty, our duty to export “democracy” on the backs of taxpayers and soldiers – until the seeds of revolution are planted right here at home. That, too, will be a color-coded revolution – red, white, and blue – although you can bet your bottom dollar that it won’t be subsidized by the National Endowment for Democracy.