One Cheer for Democracy
Communism in Eastern Europe collapsed and died at the end of the 1980s because the third generation of leaders lost the religion. Ivan Twelve-Pack had been disillusioned for decades; only the intellectuals were still on board.
Similarly, if the Wehrmacht had triumphed, the disenchanted grandchildren of Himmler, Göring, Goebbels, and Co. might eventually have "liberalized" Nazi Europe. The Jews and millions of Slavs would be gone, but we might have seen die Offenheit (glasnost) and die Zusammensetzung (perestroika) in the German Empire of the 1980s. But a Wahhabist Europe may last more than three generations, and there won't likely be any more Arab Springs in the Middle East.
The leaders of one African country had no illusions about political Islam. Algeria in December 1991 was the scene of a one-off election of a different kind. An Islamacist party won nearly 50% of the vote and took over 80% of the seats in the legislature. The military immediately stepped in, canceled the second round of voting, and ruled by emergency decree. An eleven-year civil war followed. The Islamic guerrillas carried out brutal massacres of civilians that shocked even hardened observers. The government hardly had clean hands -- thousands were imprisoned and many tortured -- but there was no moral equivalence between the two sides, as the media claimed, when they noticed the conflict. The army prevailed in the end, and the country was spared the rule of leaders who proclaimed that it was God's will that non-believers be butchered.
Is a military coup always wicked?
The rival whom Franz von Papen turned the tables on in January 1933 was General Kurt von Schleicher. While chancellor, von Schleicher had tried to break up the Nazis by luring the "socialists" out of the party and into a broad coalition. When this failed, he twice went to President von Hindenburg and asked permission to ban the Nazi and Communist Parties. The old World War I idol said no. After von Papen's January coup, some believed that von Schleicher would launch a counter-coup, overthrow the government, and jail the Nazi and Communist leadership. Wishful thinking. A quintessential political general, unpopular with field officers, von Schleicher chose not to act. Eighteen months later, Hitler had him murdered.
This was during the "Night of the Long Knives," June 30, 1934, in which Himmler's S.S. killed some 85 enemies inside and outside the party, including leaders of the rival S.A. Again people wondered if the army would rise against the Nazis. Would they permit a private paramilitary organization to terrorize the country? They were more than happy to do so. Hitler had promised to let the army expand beyond its Versailles limits and to remilitarize the Rhineland.
In November 1937 came another opportunity. Hitler summoned the commander of the Wehrmacht and the ministers of War and Foreign Affairs to announce that he wanted to launch a war very soon in order to acquire Lebensraum in Eastern Europe. They were horrified, but they did nothing to organize opposition. Three months later, the Führer got rid of them, inventing a homosexual scandal for the respected army commander and another sex scandal to implicate the minister of War. Once more, some generals were restive. But the troops stayed in their barracks.
A coup was finally planned for September 1938, on the eve of the invasion of Czechoslovakia, which the dissident generals were sure would trigger a war that Germany would lose. But this was called off after Britain and France capitulated at the last minute and agreed to let Hitler occupy the Sudetenland. When patriotic officers finally rose against the Führer in July 1944, the war was already lost, and millions had been killed.
The army's failure to overthrow Hitler was an incalculable tragedy. Yet von Schleicher, had he acted in 1933, would undoubtedly have been roundly condemned by right-thinking people in Britain and America.
This was certainly the response to coups against Communist takeovers in Indonesia in October 1965 and in Chile in September 1973. Castro had been lionized by the left in the U.S. for two decades. But the prospect of a one-party state, the elimination of private property, a government-controlled press, and the jailing and murder of opponents was alarming to those who didn't view Cuba through rose-colored lenses, and the army moved against Castro's admirer, Allende.
Military coups are often bloody and brutal, and no one would want to defend everything that happened after the army seized power in Chile, let alone in Indonesia and Algeria. And though generals as a rule are loath to turn out a government, colonels (Egypt, 1952; Central African Republic, 1966; Greece, 1967; Libya, 1969), lieutenants (Ghana, 1979), and sergeants (Liberia, 1980) are more trigger-happy. Though the officers in the latter cases often had Napoleonic visions of their own, these and the many other coups of the '60s, '70s, and '80s were directed mostly against third-world Bonapartes. When an army intervenes to prevent a Thousand-Year Reich, however -- even one that's been blessed by the electorate in a one-off election -- we might want to think twice before issuing the usual condemnations. The lesser of two evils is a lot less evil, and has a much shorter half-life.
Is democracy exportable?
Can't we prevent the coups and counter-coups, the one-off elections? Can't we export American democracy the way we export iMacs and Big Macs? At least five presidents seem to have believed this. We are now about to see the results after ten years in Iraq and Afghanistan, and most informed observers are not very sanguine. We may well be seeing the beginning of a long civil war in Iraq between Saudi-backed Sunnis and Iran-back Shi'ites, with Kurds seizing the opportunity to establish their own state -- that last part being the silver lining. You can send thousands of American soldiers to their death in "nation-building," but you can't build a nation that shares America's political values. That takes centuries, and it takes people who value the kind of society Americans value, or used to.
What evolved in the West over centuries was a solid and enduring belief in the rights of individuals. The right to elect politicians every few years who will decide what to do with the taxes we've handed over, and how much more they should spend when they've run through them, is only one of these rights. And it's one that can erode other rights that are more precious.
It's worthwhile to take a glance at the long evolution of individual rights.
The famous Magna Carta of 1215, the first charter of rights, was not a revolutionary proclamation. The barons who forced the cash-strapped King John to acknowledge their right to be consulted before he levied taxes and the right of all free men to a trial by a jury of their peers believed that they were asking him only to reaffirm ancient precedents. (Their threat to enforce the charter by seizing his castles and lands was another matter.) After all, decisions made by the rulers of German tribes twelve centuries earlier had to be approved by assemblies of free men. The kings themselves were elected, though only from men of royal blood; they shared power with dukes, who were also chosen, on the basis of military prowess. Neither rex nor dux had coercive power over his followers. Freedom, as 19th-century historians liked to proclaim, was born in the forests of Germany.
After the revival of the Roman Empire under German leaders, the emperor was elected as well. By the mid-twelfth century, his co-ruler and sometime rival, the pope, was also elected. As there were only seven electors choosing the emperor and fewer than seventy cardinals choosing the pope, Chicago-style politics was the rule rather than the exception. The bribes were particularly lavish in heated contests like that pitting Henry VIII against Francis I of France and Charles I of Spain (better known as Charles V, after he outspent his rivals). Nonetheless, this was another historically unique precedent for democracy.
Parliaments and estates, the descendants of the ancient Celtic and German assemblies, controlled the royal purse-strings and thus continued to check the power of kings. But these institutions were overwhelmed by monarchs in early modern Europe -- except in England. The story of how this backward island was able to preserve its medieval parliament is long and complicated, but it has a lot to do with the king's chronic lack of money and the deep pockets of the members of the House of Lords and the House of Commons. In the seventeenth century, when most of the nation was Protestant, Parliament was seen as the defender of the true faith against the threat of a return to Catholicism under Charles I and his son James II. The two kings were overthrown, and, after the second Stuart was sent packing, foreign monarchs were imported who were content to let Parliament hold sway in return for funding their European adventures.
Protestantism itself is often seen as supporting individual rights and self-government, encouraging people to read and interpret the Bible themselves and to run their own churches. Radical Calvinists preached that no allegiance was owed to an ungodly monarch. Whether or not it contributed to the growth of "capitalism" -- the famous Weber thesis -- Calvinism encouraged independent thinking -- or else appealed to those already of independent minds.
Primogeniture -- the practice of the eldest son inheriting everything -- made for an open aristocracy, as younger sons went into business and married the daughters of successful merchants and bankers. By the 18th century, aristocrats themselves were investing in trade and introducing scientific farming methods; their great-grandfathers had already shown a keen interest in profiting from the wool market. To the disgust of aristocrats on the continent, the commercial spirit was rife across the Channel. The Channel itself made a huge difference. Without the need to defend the country from direct attack, warriors in England could become gentlemen. The tourism and fashion industries were born, and bewigged aristocrats read Cicero and Tacitus and collected Old Masters instead of drinking, dueling, and drilling. Meanwhile, the navy that permitted the upper classes to live so well enabled England to acquire a vast empire -- "in a fit of absence of mind," as the historian J. R. Seeley put it -- and curiosity about the ancient cultures the traders encountered had a further civilizing influence, as well as filling the coffers of investors. The English had become "a polite and commercial people," wrote the great jurist Blackstone. "A nation of shopkeepers," sneered Napoleon.
The mention of Blackstone recalls another important difference in the evolution of rights -- the development of Common Law in the latter 12th century. While Roman Law was revived on the continent, in England, under Henry II, justices touring the shires attempted to determine and apply local customary law. Their judgments, recorded for the first time, slowly created precedents for case law. The king also made royal justice cheap and easy. Plaintiffs could purchase writs and have property disputes resolved quickly by juries. The reliance on juries in both civil and criminal trials, not a feature of Roman or feudal law (which depended on oaths or trial by ordeal or battle), fostered the habits of mind necessary for self-government.
It's been suggested that these habits were simply the result of natural selection. The rich in England -- that is, those who were bright, inventive, and self-disciplined -- out-bred the poor. But of course, only in a market-based economy are these traits rewarded with wealth.
In any case, a substantial, growing, and confident middle class seems to be an indispensable condition for a durable democracy. Town air brings freedom, as the familiar saying went, and successful apprentices could rise in their trade and, with luck, become burgesses and aldermen. The guilds and other urban organizations were schools of self-government. In the great Reform Bill of 1832, the middle classes were belatedly invited to join their betters at Westminster. When all of Europe was convulsed by revolutions in 1848, England alone was quiet.
Continental Europe shared little of this long and rich heritage, Asia and Africa none. It is hardly surprising that democratic institutions and practices have not easily taken root elsewhere. What is surprising is that anyone would be surprised at this. It was a very long and winding road to the Constitutional Convention that met in Philadelphia over the summer of 1787.
There are, of course, great exceptions in East and South Asia, where peoples with intelligence, self-discipline, and altruism -- that is, the ability see beyond family and tribe -- have established successful democracies. In the case of India, it was after over a hundred fifty years of British tutelage (as was the case for the U.S.). Japan is the remarkable exception, adopting Western institutions and modernizing on its own, then transitioning to a full democracy under U.S. occupation after World War II, following a disastrous flirtation with militarism.
Is democracy worth exporting?
Critics in 19th-century Britain were convinced that popular sovereignty shouldn't be adopted at home, let alone introduced into traditional societies. The balanced constitution was working well; why tamper with it? These distinguished jurists and historians made the case on historical grounds. Though admiring the accomplishments of ancient Greece, they deplored the shortsighted decisions of the polis. But it was the Roman republic of the first century B.C. and the French republic of 1791 that provided the most chilling lessons. Democracies were unstable and short-lived. They led to civil war and were soon replaced by dictatorships. The demos loves a demagogue, and the demagogues gave way to tyrants.
The quasi-democracies of Britain and America worked precisely because the will of the people was checked. But now the limits on popular sovereignty in Britain were being overturned, and dire predictions were made. A mass electorate, inspired by resentment and greed, would be tempted to confiscate private property and eliminate free markets. New economic "rights" would supersede traditional legal rights. Law would be made by bureaucrats and judges. Public opinion would be malleable, and it would be molded by journalists. Complicated policy questions would be reduced to slogans and decided by emotions. There would be no self-doubt among the ignorant: all the mindless flattery that had been lavished for centuries on monarchs would be directed toward the People. Vox populi, vox dei. Real power would rest with party operatives, sometimes manipulating a charismatic charlatan as a front man. In short, liberty and the prosperity that it created would be sacrificed on the altar of equality. The successful would be expropriated, the dissenters gagged. Democracy was mobocracy.
The predictions seemed alarmist at the time. They seem less so today.
Here is the historian W.H. Lecky:
No fact is more incontestable and conspicuous than the love of democracy for authoritative regulation[.] ... The great majority of the democracies of the world are now frankly protectionist, and even in free-trade countries the multiplication of laws regulating, restricting, and interfering with industry in all its departments is one of the most marked characteristics of our time[.] ... A school has arisen among popular working-class leaders ... to restrict by the strongest trade-union regulations the amount of work and the amount of the produce of work, to introduce the principle of legal compulsion into every branch of industry[.] ...
The expansion of the authority and the multiplication of the functions of the State in other fields, and especially in the field of social regulation, is an equally apparent accompaniment of modern democracy. This increase of State power means a multiplication of restrictions imposed upon the various forms of human action. It means an increase of bureaucracy, or, in other words, of the number and power of State officials. It means also a constant increase of taxation, which is in reality a constant restriction of liberty. One of the first forms of liberty is the right of every man to dispose of his own property and earnings[.] ... If taxes are multiplied for carrying out a crowd of objects in which he has no interest, and with many of which he has no sympathy, his liberty is proportionately restricted[.]
Lecky published these words in 1896.
He could not have imagined the reach of the state 115 years later, nor the way in which a political party, calling itself Democratic, could become enchanted by a radically anti-democratic ideology, so that the electorate would not be consulted on issues that affected the daily lives of most men and women. Mass immigration; the use of racial preferences in hiring and in acceptance to college and professional school; the legalization of abortion and same-sex marriage; "desegregation" of public schools; draconian regulations ostensibly protecting the environment and protecting individuals at school, at work, and on the road; sweeping restrictions on public and private discourse -- all were introduced by judicial and bureaucratic fiat, despite polls showing widespread public opposition.
But democracies can restore lost rights, and the most hopeful sign that the alienable rights proclaimed by the Declaration and enumerated in the Bill of Rights might one day be resurrected is the Tea Party movement of the last two years. The way in which the movement has been vilified is a tribute to the threat it poses to the governing class. It is truly radical -- that is, seeking to return to the roots of the republic -- and even revolutionary -- which originally meant restoring laws and practices that had been corrupted and perverted. Unfortunately, there will be no Tea Party candidate in 2012. We will elect a politician. All the more reason to press the campaign on all fronts, particularly in the courts, to recover and protect the liberties that statist elites have overturned in the name of egalitarianism.