Let's Hear It For Democracy!

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In a grim sort of way, it’s amusing to hear the government’s justifications for the carnage in Iraq.

Initially, we went there to rid the world of Weapons of Mass Destruction, after the nightmare of September 11, 2001. But there were no WMDs, and Iraq, and its President, had nothing to do with 911. Well, never mind. Saddam was a vicious tyrant, and had to be removed. Of course, the planet is studded with vicious tyrants, but Saddam’s viciousness and tyranny were so egregious that it was obviously the proper job of the United States (not Denmark or Argentina!) to remove him. That was accomplished, but so what? Incredibly, the Iraqis keep shooting at our soldiers, totally ungrateful for the service we had provided them.

Now, it turns out, we really are in Iraq to bring democracy to the Iraqis. Who can argue with that? Democracy, like motherhood and social security, is beyond criticism. All social good flows from it. At least that is the impression I got from reading an article by Richard N. Haass, who was not only the Director of Policy Planning Staff, U.S. Department of State, but, perhaps more importantly, is the President of the Council on Foreign Relations, and Director of Foreign Policy Studies at the Brookings Institute. For one thing, as Mr. Haass tells us, "Democracy is also closely linked to prosperity. Economic growth in South Korea, Taiwan, and Chile helped create a stronger foundation for democracy in each of these nations, while the transparent rule of law and greater equality of opportunity fostered by democracy in turn helps spur economic growth and prosperity." Wow! Just give people a vote and they’ll get rich.

But it’s more than just money. "Democracy," Mr. Haass continues, " is based on a diffusion of power in government and in society. In a democratic government, power is distributed such that no one voice dominates. — A strong government must face the constraint of an electable opposition at every level. Democratic leaders enjoy temporary power that must be transferred. John Adams was a great U.S. president for many reasons, but arguably none was more important than his willingness to relinquish power peacefully when he lost a bitterly contested election to Thomas Jefferson." John Adams is a strange choice of presidents to cite in a paean to democracy. He said, "There was never a democracy yet that did not commit suicide." Indeed, it would be difficult to cite anything favorable to democracy from the Founding Fathers. Ben Franklin’s remark is well remembered: "Democracy is two wolves and a lamb voting on what to have for lunch." And the Founders’ attitude toward democracy is further shown in their adoption of a Constitution that did not permit the direct election by the people of Senators, or the President.

"Democratic leaders," Mr. Haass tells us, "lease their authority rather than own it, so to speak, because their grant of authority comes from the people. The office retains the power, not the individual." Would it be quibbling to ask what difference it makes? If an individual has authority (over others — what else?) he has authority, period. And the office doesn’t exercise the authority, the office-holder does. If I am shot with a leased gun, are my chances of survival enhanced thereby?

The glories of democracy are not limited, moreover. Muslims can enjoy them also. "Dynamic reform experiments underway in many parts of the Muslim world demonstrate that democracy and Islam are compatible. In September 2002, citizens of Morocco voted in the freest, fairest, and most transparent elections in the country’s history, creating a diverse new parliament. In October 2002, the people of Bahrain cast votes for the first time in 30 years to elect a parliament."

Democracy is desirable, then, because it is "closely linked" to prosperity, and allows self-determination by voting. But does it?

The social institution most closely linked to prosperity must surely be freedom! A people given the opportunity to act without government-imposed restraints in satisfying their own needs and desires will almost certainly prosper. Strangers with authority cannot enhance that prosperity, whether that authority comes from birth, or is begged, borrowed, or stolen at the ballot box. It is obvious, in fact, that government places roadblocks on the way to prosperity at every turn, and seizes the profits of every enterprise to distribute as it sees fit.

And is voting something to be desired, when the choice is between Tweedledum and Tweedledee? I am an old man, yet I cannot recall an election when anything of importance hinged on the election of candidate A over candidate B. The trend toward ever larger, more tyrannical government proceeds smoothly, regardless of elections. And why should that be surprising? Government is a big business, probably the biggest. Is it going to throw up for grabs its important executive positions every few years? Does any business operate that way? The drug store on the corner does not allow strangers to pick its top management positions bi-annually. If it were forced to do so, it would obviously offer, as candidates, good "company men" who could be trusted to continue running things in the old familiar way. Anything else would be madness. Recall the elections in the Soviet Union, when 90% of the people voted. A triumph of democracy!

Finally, what government does not claim that it operates democratically, with the welfare of the people in mind? Every tin pot dictator insists that he does the will of the people, and functions only for their benefit. If he calls his system "democracy," and even has nice elections to prove it, does that make the people free? If the ultimate goal of men in society is to be free, then any government, whatever entitled, is undesirable.

Dr. Hein [send him mail] is a retired ophthalmologist in St. Louis, and the author of All Work & No Pay.

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