Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

Liberty over democracy

Peter Berkovitz (again) has a thoughtful piece on the difference between promoting democracy and liberty. Promoting the idea of liberty is better, he urges, because it is incremential, doesn’t demand regime change (note Jordan), and always takes steps toward democracy, rightly understood.

Discussions - 3 Comments

Thanks for citing Peter’s good article.

On the `liberty strategy vs. democracy strategy’ question, I think that the answer should depend on the circumstances. Incremental moves toward greater civil-social liberties are intended to go in the direction of--what? If not eventual regime change? If commercial republicanism is the goal, then the question for Americans will be, quickly or slowly?

It strikes me as strictly a prudential question, then. If a given tyranny poses an urgent threat, incrementalism will be too slow and immediate regime change will be necessary. If not, then sure, the Vaclav Havel approach makes sense, and the U. S. can be helpful in a variety of ways.

In Iraq, we’ve done both. After Gulf War I, we shielded the Kurds for ten years and they developed some pretty good self-governing institutions. Then, rightly or wrongly, we lost our patience with the Saddam regime that controlled the rest of the country. Was there any real chance for incrementalism, there?

Elsewhere, we can afford to be more patient, though I wouldn’t count on Mubarak lasting much longer. Have we developed a strategy for the days following his demise? (Has he?) What about the Saudis, those breeders of bin Ladens? It’s easy to hold up the Jordanian Hashemites as wholesome poster boys, but what about the harder cases?

It’s probably not a good idea to be sanguine about monarchies. Wilhelmine Germany was no Nazi Germany when it came to liberty, but it did cause some trouble. Even Jordan, which has been quite well-behaved for nearly forty years, did join a coalition against the Israelis in ’67.

When the spokesmen for many of the current regimes in the Middle East talk about gradualism, they sometimes mean mere cosmeticism. For that reason alone, we shouldn’t take any of our options off the table. As for which options to choose among those, I don’t pretend to know enough to say, on a case by case basis. That’s what we hire statesmen for.

I’m a bit suspicious of any `liberty vs. democracy’ talk, unless it includes consideration of the timing problem and clearly states that regime change is the goal, sooner or later.

Will’s too modest to mention this, so I will: his recent book, Regime Change: What It Is, Why It Matters (Fenestra)develops his thoughts and position succinctly but amply. It also would be a good book to use in an intro to political philosophy course.
I noted, and smiled at, Will’s (flippant?) line: That’s what we hire statesman for. Puts new (higher?) meaning in the phrase, commercial republicanism.

Better, yes. Practical, no...at least not always. Would Nazi Germany or Imperial Japan have reached liberal democracy incrementally without the encouragement of the allied militaries? I think not. With only one superpower incrementalism becomes more practical (the external pressure for human rights and democratic reform is singular and consistent), but even in a unipolar world there are countries where no amount of incrementalism will ever do (e.g., North Korea, Iraq).

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