9 July 2005 - Saturday

Notes on CfD: Chapter 1

The first chapter of The Case for Democracy, entitled "Is Freedom for Everyone?," presents Sharansky's belief that all societies desire and are capable of liberty. The author holds that freedom is not only "a universal desire" (18) but also a universal possibility.

The author does some good work in this chapter. He attacks ethnocentrism; to refute claims that some peoples are inherently unsuited to self-rule, he brings up a list of now-democratic societies that were once described that way.

Italy, Germany, Russia, Japan -- these nations once had many people convinced that democracy was alien to their national characters. Sharansky admits that the countries of the Middle East have been more stubborn, but points out, quoting Freedom House, that "'the majority of the world's Muslims live under democratically constituted governments'" (35), suggesting that Islam is not inherently incompatible with democracy. He admits that the absence of democracy in the Middle East itself is troubling. Even so, the histories of other cultures give him hope.

This universalism is a credit to Sharansky. So far, it has been the most enjoyable aspect of CfD. The author has done nothing to suggest a fear of The Other; if he is unlikely to ask "why do they hate us?" it is because he is unlikely to talk about "them" in the first place. I find this refreshing. Sharansky's universalist rhetoric of liberation is a lot more convincing than the mélange of liberation, threat eradication, and revenge I find in the work of many war advocates. (Then again, the neoconservative elite generally seems to be better about this than the GOP rank and file.)

On the other hand, one need not appeal to racial or religious theories in order to question the universal appeal of democracy. One need not believe that a democratic Arab government is impossible in order to believe that it is unlikely within the next few years or that it will require some sort of transitional system first. While people in the past might have talked about the special qualities of Anglo-Saxon blood or Christian religion, modern skeptics have much different concerns. They worry about a scarcity of local political thinkers, about the power of warlords, about simmering ethnic hatreds, about a popular distaste for constitutions and compromise, about instability, about charismatic dictators-in-waiting. Sharansky has not addressed this sort of concern except by insisting that everybody, deep down, wants freedom.

This brings up another weakness in Sharansky's argument. It may well be that everyone wants to be free, but this is not the primary requirement for what we usually think of as free government. The most important aspect of my participation in a free society is not my wanting to be free but my wanting other people to be free. Respect for individual rights is far more important than demand for the franchise. If this is so, then Sharansky's conviction that freedom is a universal desire means less than he thinks it does. As Isaiah Berlin said, "liberty for wolves is death to the lambs." The majority in a democracy may not be any more deferential to individual rights than the minority in a dictatorship.

Granted, democracy and limited government tend to go together. But Sharansky himself supplies us with an exception, which suggests several other exceptions.

"Twelve years after a revolution occurred in France in the name of liberty, equality, and fraternity," he writes, "its people lived under a dictatorship. Did that mean that French society could not abide democracy?" (28). The French example is interesting not for what it tells us about the resilience of democracy but for what it tells us about democracy's limits. Undermining Sharansky's claim that freedom guarantees peace and security (xxv et al.), the very word terrorism was coined in the wake of the democratic revolution of 1789. Since then, the term has very often been applied to popular resistance and independence movements.*

More than anything else, I think, this exposes a weakness in Sharansky's terminology -- an equivocation that undermines the logic of his argument. Democratic urges do not always result in respect for individual rights, as several ostensibly democratic movements have shown (e.g., France in 1789, Russia in 1917, Cuba in 1959, Iran in 1979). Yet so far, Sharansky has been writing of democracy as if it were a synonym of limited government. One might argue, I suppose, that limited government is necessary for democracy to survive for long, but that does not mean that democracy will always (or is even necessary in order to) limit government.

Democracy is relatively easy to establish. It only requires a certain amount of bloodshed (or even just the possibility of bloodshed) over a brief period in order to clear away minoritarian impediments. It is, by definition, more popular than dictatorship is -- at least in the abstract. But holding elections is the easy part. The earliest democracies in recorded history elected tyrants, started wars for prestige, and executed philosophers.

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