Monday, December 27, 2004

Liberty and Democracy in the Middle East

In the first municipal elections in Palestine since 1976, the militant Hamas party scored gains against the more moderate (in a purely relative sense) Fatah movement. According to a report in The Age, "figures released by the Palestinian Authority's Supreme Council for Local Elections showed Hamas scored victories in nine councils against 16 for Fatah, with the two factions tied for control of one municipality." These results constitute a strong pro-militant message from the Palestinian people to their likely new leader, Abu Mazen (the nome de guerre (war name) of Mahmoud Abbas).

It is also a reminder to the us in the United States and the West that democracy is not sufficient in and of itself to secure peace and justice. As highlighted by political writers such as Bertrand de Jouvenal, democracy can become a legitimizing principle for the worst kinds of tyranny and injustice -- that is, majoritarian tyranny. When a lonely dictator consolidates power and tyrannizes his subjects, his legitimacy is automatically suspect and it is easy to rightly denounce his actions and rule. However, when a democratically elected majority gives its consent to the same kinds of tyranny and evil, it is much more difficult to denounce those actions because they are clothed with the will of the people. It is especially difficult for us, who live in a country that champions the will of the people, to denounce anything that is selected by a democratic process. In this way, democracy can become one of the most dangerous tools of evil.

Our founders understood this principle full well. Madison in the Federalist papers wrote much of the danger of majoritarian tyranny. His call for an expanded democratic polity such that the multiplicity of interests rendered impotent parochial factionalism was a call to guard against the very evil we see now in Palestine -- faction taking control of the state through democratic processes and fousting evils on its minority members and its neighbors by democratic consent. In a small democracy, or in a relatively homogenous larger democracy, if the majority believes in something objectively evil (like the legitimacy of suicide bombing as a tactic to achieve political ends, for instance) is justified, there is a greater possibility that the democracy will end up endorsing and strengthening that evil.

So it is clear that democracy will not be sufficient to bring peace to the Middle East. Liberals would use such a principle to argue that we ought not be fighting proactively in the Middle East at all. But this is not correct -- we are not fighting there simply for the promotion of democracy, but for a particular kind of democracy. We are fighting for freedom and liberty first and constitutional democracy second as a way to secure the former. Liberals often conflate the concept of liberty with that of democracy. But they are not at all the same -- liberty is a principle that respects man's personal autonomy and individual, inherent value. Democracy also relates to autonomy, but it is not centered on the individual. Rather, it rests on a judgment that government which takes into account individual judgments on matters of political and social importance will lead to more just outcomes. But in order for this judgment to be correct, the democracy must be limited and the shared values of the people must already conform to the Good and to justice. Otherwise, as in Palestine, they will simply use democracy to select evil.

So as we fight for democracy in Iraq and Afghanistan, we are also fighting for the ascendancy of the principles of personal autonomy, liberty, and, perhaps most importantly, the principle of religious freedom and toleration. These are values which will be (and must be) enshrined in the Iraqi and Afghan constitutions for our greater goal, establishing a freedom not unlike that we enjoy in the United States in the Middle East, to occur. These values limit democracy, they narrow the range of acceptable options the people may select through majoritarian processes. Some groups disagree with these fundamental principles of autonomy and religious tolerance. To the extent people disagree, those people are insurgents -- they are against the new Iraqi and Afghan order of liberty, peace and tolerance, a new order that will empower a very oppressed people and allow them the happiness and prosperity so long and so unjustly withheld.


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