Democracy or Peace

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Will Iraq Have Democracy or Peace?

George Bush has decided that Iraq will be a democracy. Let’s skip right over that oxymoron and discuss the prospects for democracy in Iraq. According to the CIA — and, for all the money they spend, they should at least get this right — here is a breakdown of Iraq by ethnicity, religion and language:

Ethnic groups:

Arab 75%-80%, Kurdish 15%-20%, Turkoman, Assyrian or other 5%

Religions:

Muslim 97% (Shi’a 60%-65%, Sunni 32%-37%), Christian or other 3%

Languages:

Arabic, Kurdish (official in Kurdish regions), Assyrian, Armenian

Roughly speaking, Iraq has three large separate groups, each located in a discrete area. The Kurds are in the north, the Shiites in the south, and the Sunnis in the middle. The Shiites appear to be the most populous group. Let’s assume for the sake of argument that there is no strong tradition of limited government in Iraq. Thus, any democracy will be of the relatively unrestrained variety. Whichever group is in charge will impose its will on the others. The prospects for peace are dim.

This goes against the prevailing wisdom which tells us that "democracy promotes peace." So be it. The conventional wisdom is wrong. Perhaps the leading cause of organized violence in today’s world, aside from George Bush’s inferiority complex, is intrastate conflict between and among ethnic and religious groups. Though many of these conflicts have taken place under oppressive dictatorships, a large number of them have occurred either entirely or partially under democratic regimes as shown in the chart below.

Recent Intrastate Conflicts (source: Federation of American Scientists)

State Type of Dispute Form of Gov’t.

Afghanistan

Ethnic/religious

dictatorship

Algeria

Religious

mixed*

Angola

Ideological

mixed

Burma

Ethnic

mixed

Burundi

Ethnic

mixed

Colombia

Ideological

democracy

Congo (Congo-Brazzaville)

Ethnic

mixed

Congo (Zaire)

Ethnic/ideological

mixed

Georgia

Ethnic

democracy

India

Ethnic/religious

democracy

India

Ideological

democracy

Indonesia

Religious

mixed

Indonesia

Ethnic/ideological

mixed

Indonesia

Ethnic

mixed

Indonesia

Ethnic

mixed

Mexico

Ethnic

democracy

Namibia

Ethnic

democracy

Nigeria

Ethnic

mixed

Peru

Ideological

democracy

Philippines

Religious/ethnic

democracy

Russia

Ethnic/religious

democracy

Rwanda

Ethnic

mixed

Sierra Leone

Misc./ethnic

mixed

Solomon Islands

Ethnic

constitutional monarchy

Spain

Ethnic

democracy

Sri Lanka

Ethnic/religious

mixed

Sudan

Ethnic/religious

mixed

Turkey

Ethnic

democracy

Yugoslavia

Ethnic/religious

mixed

*Changed between democracy and dictatorship at various times.

Thus, 25 out of 29 recent intrastate conflicts were ethnic or religious in nature. In 23 of the 25, the prevailing regime was democratic throughout the dispute or at least at certain times during the dispute. In certain cases, a democratic government was overthrown because of the feeling of an ethnic or religious subgroup that its interests were not being advanced by the democratic state.

The empirical evidence indicates that democracy promotes ethnic and religious conflict. An examination of the dynamics of the democratic process explains why this is so. In democracies, people tend to vote along ethnic/religious lines. (Since ethnicity and religion are closely linked, they can be dealt with together.) All experience confirms this. People of one ethnic group tend to vote for candidates of the same ethnic group, or candidates known to favor the interests of such group. For example, 93 percent of Republicans are white according to the Gallup Poll; while 93 percent of blacks voted for Al Gore for President in 2000. That being the case, it must be true that the candidates people vote against are usually identified with other ethnic groups. Since those voters opposed that candidate, it is reasonable to assume that they harbor a certain amount of resentment against those whose votes put that candidate into office. Voters may come to view any increase in the population of other ethnic groups as a threat to their well being, portending as it does the election of officials they believe will harm their interests.

It is no accident that people tend to vote along ethnic and religious lines. It is inherent in the nature of democracy. Democracy gives each person a virtually meaningless single vote. It allows them to vote for one of the candidates on the ballot, none of whom may represent the views and values of the voter. The average voter in a lifetime is unlikely to decide an election with his vote. The odds of casting the deciding vote in favor of a candidate whose views precisely mirror your own are millions to one. Since voters implicitly recognize the virtual meaninglessness of their one vote, they have little incentive to inform themselves in detail about candidates, issues, and polices. It is much easier to vote for ethnic reasons. The ethnic identity of candidates is usually clear. Further, it takes little additional effort to ascertain which ethnic groups a candidate serves. Thus, ethnic voting is a rational response to the problem of rational ignorance about candidates and issues. Ethnic identity provides valuable information at very low cost. Given its efficiency, it always has been and likely always will be a major factor in elections.

Even if it is argued that people of similar ethnic and religious backgrounds vote alike, not because of those backgrounds per se, but because of their similar experiences, situations, values, and needs, we reach the same conclusion. Since these factors themselves are closely tied to ethnic and religious identity, the voting patterns they produce will be closely tied to and, in practice, virtually indistinguishable from, ethnicity and religion.

Thus, democracy, inherently, contains the seeds of ethnic conflict. History shows that, under certain circumstances, people who are members of ethnic minorities prefer to fight wars of secession to escape from the control of majority ethnic groups they believe are hostile to their interests. Moreover, the ethnic conflict created by democracy necessarily worsens over time. The natural tendency of democratic government is to grow in size, power and scope. By its nature, the state is the means by which some people can impose the costs of achieving their goals onto unwilling others. As Bastiat put it, "Government is the great fiction, through which everybody endeavors to live at the expense of everybody else." The desire to impose costs on others is virtually limitless. Thus, governments tend to grow over time. As government power increases, so does the threat perceived by exploited ethnic minorities. At some point, ethnic minorities will simply refuse to have their wealth confiscated and their cultures destroyed by majority ethnic groups. They will fight.

The solution to all this is obvious. The Kurds, Shiites, and Sunnis should each form their own separate republics and allow people in their domains the right to leave or stay and live in freedom. (For you neoconservatives, freedom means doing what you will with what you own. It has nothing to do with voting). If each of these would-be republics paid me a one million dollar consulting fee (Swiss Federal Bank, Account No. 983570957187) for this advice and followed it, it would be an infinitesimal fraction of the money and lives that will be wasted trying to force these disparate groups to live together. Assalaamu Alaikum. Roughly translated into English, this Arabic phrase means secession. Which would, however, lead to just one more ethnic/religious conflict — with the Yankees. Since 1861, "secession" in American English roughly translates into "United States preemptive strike against."

April 29, 2003

James Ostrowski is an attorney practicing in Buffalo, New York. See his website at http://jimostrowski.com.

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