Thursday, July 4, 2013

Egypt and the Endless Wellspring of Western Optimism

So the Military in Egypt decided they'd had enough of the democratically elected Muslim Brotherhood government and removed them in a coup.

Firstly, can you blame them?

This Business Insider article from May details quite well exactly how screwed the country has gotten since the Muslim Brotherhood took over in the glorious Arab Spring. Some highlights:
Homicide rates have tripled since 2011
The number of armed robberies rose from 233 in 2010 to 2,807 in 2012.
Brotherhood president Morsi declared no court is authorized to overturn the president's decisions.
And on, and on, and on...

Should these events have come as a surprise?

The average westerner, to the extent that they think about the matter at all, is convinced that democracy is both an inherent moral good and an effective intrumental good. It is morally just to put matters to a vote, and doing so produces outcomes that will be judged as good even aside from the manner of decision.

The reactionary viewpoint tends to view democracy as inherently a moral neutral - what does it matter if things are voted on? Is it better than just having a wise king decide on what he thinks is the best outcome? And in terms of the practical angle, it tends to produce permanent social conflict - the Cold Civil War, in John Derbyshire's description.

Still, a Cold Civil War is a hell of a lot better than a hot civil war. The current state of the west, however decayed, is still rather pleasant. And the governance, while sclerotic and disfunctional, works way better better than most non-democratic places in the world.

But even a passing familiarity of places that have tried to implement democratic systems will reveal plenty of places that actually got significantly worse once people started voting (Zimbabwe, Egypt, Palestine, Iraq), and way more that certainly didn't improve (see: all of Africa, nearly all of the Middle East).

So what to make of it?

A skeptic's middle ground might be to simply note that democracy is a tool whose outcomes depend entirely on the quality of the people voting and what they're minded to vote for. If you have civilised people voting for their best estimate of what will be in the overall national interest, then it will probably turn out pretty well. Then again, if you have a population of civilised people who are looking out for the national interest, your country will probably turn out pretty well even if they're not voting (see: Singapore).

But if you have people minded to vote for tribalism, or for tyrannical religious rule, or to attack and drive out minorities, or to eat the rich, or to start endless wars with their next-door-neighbours... well, then that's what you'll get.

Sometimes, you can shrug this off as a national comeuppance - if people want stupidity, they deserve to get it.

But what about when a majority votes to oppress the minority (e.g. the Copts)? Do the Copts 'deserve' their fate for simply not being numerically superior? Someone has to be a minority group, after all.

The real question is whether it is predictable that certain national populations are likely to view voting as an excuse to impose a tribal or religious totalitarianism.

Of course, to even begin to answer that question, you'd need to be willing to contemplate the possibility of such a thing as 'national character'.

And since nobody is willing to do that, when democracy seems to lead to disaster, it must be posited that there was some flaw in the voting or political process that prevented righteousness prevailing. This is No True Scotsman meets Whig History on steroids - the good are always more numerous than the evil, and so elections will always produce good outcomes, unless they're thwarted by some evil group. The protesters in Tahrir square must all be freedom-loving democrats, notwithstanding that they seem to keep raping female reporters that stray too close.

In other words, the answer to disastrous outcomes following elections is always more elections:
As acting leader, Mr Mansour will be assisted by an interim council and a technocratic government until new presidential and parliamentary elections are held. No details were given as to when the new polls would take place.
Second verse, same as the first.

Ex ante, I wouldn't have thought that Egypt was a particularly bad candidate for democratic elections, at least as far as third world countries go (certainly more so than Afghanistan). But it keeps not working out that way. At some point, it must be considered whether in Egypt, Liberty and Democracy are at inherent odds with each other.

This is Egypt under liberty but not democracy.

This is Egypt under democracy but not liberty.

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