Monday, March 25, 2013

The Evolution of Shylock Holmes on Democracy, Part 1

Shylock circa 2003 was mainly a neo-conservative. By this, I mean that I tended to view democracy as both a moral good and an instrumental good. In the moral category, I tended to think that democracy was important as the only legitimate measure of the consent of the governed, and hence replacing authoritarian regimes like Saddam with some expression of the average Iraqi’s opinion was inherently an important increase in their freedom.

In terms of the importance of the invasion though, I was perhaps more sold by the idea of democracy as an instrumental good –that democracy tended to have a civilizing effect that would cause Iraqis to be less interested in starting wars with their neighbours and trying to develop weapons of mass destruction. At a minimum, it seemed like a better bet for the Middle East than the apparent previous policy of mostly non-engagement, which had brought September 11.

The longer the Iraq war went on, of course, the more it became apparent that neither Iraq nor Afghanistan was turning into a functioning government at any rapid rate. The new states were incredibly weak and riddled with violence. At the same time, democratic elections in the Palestinian territories produced government by Hamas, which seemed, if any anything, slightly worse than the terminally corrupt Palestinian Authority. It all started to call into question the idea of democracy as an instrumental good, as it wasn’t producing anything like decent governance in all these places.

More reading about the history of government in Singapore, Taiwan, South Korea and Chile cast the previously observed correlation between prosperity and democracy in a new light. These places tended to start out with authoritarian capitalism, and once this created prosperity, they were then able to transition to democracy. From this point of view, democracy was better understood as the symptom of a functioning society, rather than the cause. It seemed more that once a society had a culture that respected property rights and generally allowed individual freedom (at least in non-political matters), they were more likely to transition to democratic suffrage.

In this view, democracy is like a luxury good – it may have some positive treatment effects in a society that’s already peaceful and rich, but if it’s tried in a society that’s tribalist and doesn’t respect private property, the result is likely to be something like the disaster in Zimbabwe. At best, it’s a practical neutral overall, being maybe welfare-improving in some cases and harmful in others.

In moral terms, democracy was still a weak moral good, but the argument was more tied to the idea that you got the government you deserved. If you as a society voted for Hamas, you deserved to be governed by Hamas, for better or worse (in this case, worse). But it was at least a just outcome – as long as the vote was respected, the only way you got Hamas was if the median person supported it. This was the overall perspective of Shylock circa 2007/8.

( be continued)

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