When Is Democracy Viable?

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Those who see hope in the Middle East uprisings seem to assume that they will lead in the direction of freedom or democracy. There is already talk about the “liberation” of Egypt, even though the biggest change there has been that a one-man dictatorship has been replaced by a military dictatorship that has suspended the constitution.

Perhaps the military dictatorship will be temporary, as its leaders say, but we have heard that song before. What we have also heard, too many times before, is the assumption that getting rid of an undemocratic government means that it will be replaced by a freer and better government.

History says otherwise. After Russia’s czars were replaced by the Communists, the government executed more people in a day than the czars had executed in half a century. It was much the same story in Cuba, when the Batista regime was replaced by Castro and in Iran when the Shah was replaced by the Ayatollahs.

It is not inevitable that bad regimes are replaced by worse regimes. But it has happened too often for us to blithely assume that overthrowing a dictator means a movement toward freedom and democracy.

The fact that Egyptians or others in the Middle East and elsewhere want freedom does not mean that they are ready for freedom. Everyone wants freedom for himself. Even the Nazis wanted to be free to be Nazis. They just didn’t want anybody else to be free.

There is very little sign of tolerance in the Middle East, even among fellow Muslims with different political or religious views, and all too many signs of gross intolerance toward people who are not Muslims.

Freedom and democracy cannot be simply conferred on anyone. Both have preconditions, and even nations that are free and democratic today took centuries to get there.

If there was ever a time when people in Western democracies might be excused for thinking that Western institutions could simply be exported to other nations to create new free democracies, that time has long passed.

It is easy to export the outward symbols of democracy— constitutions, elections, parliaments and the like— but you cannot export the centuries of experience and development that made those institutions work.

All too often, exported democratic institutions have meant “one man, one vote— one time.”

We should not assume that our own freedom and democratic form of government can be taken for granted. Those who created this country did not.

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  • Supreme_Galooty

    Reading this article is somewhat of a chore for me. I have to assume that when Dr. Sowell uses the term "democracy" he is talking about self governance in general and merely uses the term as a sort of short hand. Being that he is first and foremost an economist, I can forgive that intellectual laziness, but it is tough. Most folks who have studied self governance, or folks who have thought deeply on the subject, have come to the conclusion that "democracy" is essentially mob rule when applied on a scale larger than a social club or a lunchroom.

    While there have been free peoples scattered throughout the history of man, the very first time in that history when the concept of Individual Liberty was codified and institutionalized occured in the late 1700s when the United States was founded as a nation. It was founded as a Republic since the Founders had significant disdain for democracy. But today, after numerous mistakes, this country moves further and further from the Republic of its founding and closer and closer to a despotic democracy.

  • Supreme_Galooty

    Then he talks about literacy. I know that many people believe that the ability to read constitutes literacy, and in a small sense they are right. For me, literacy is not only being able to read, but also being very WELL read. One of the only ways that a person can know if they are misinformed is if they read widely, including many diverse sources. In the United States today I would guess that very few would be included in my concept of literacy.

    To make matters even worse, Americans are very poorly served by a fourth estate that has been in dereliction of its duty for decades. The result is a large number of misinformed – or even MALinformed – voters. This situation allows disasters like the election of Obama. Luckily with the advent of the internet and the rise of talk radio, the traditional news media are being rendered superfluous.