Monday, January 16, 2012

What if Arab Spring is followed by Arab Winter?

The Arab Spring has gotten a generally favorable press in western countries—not surprising, since the governments attacked were undemocratic and, to varying degrees, oppressive, and democracy is very nearly the civic religion of modern developed states.

Like other religions, it relies as much on faith as on reason. African decolonization, carried out on a democratic model, repeatedly took the form of one man, one vote, once. Its results included some of the bloodiest conflicts of the postwar world.  In several different countries, casualties were in at least the hundreds of thousands—worse, I think, than anything in colonial Africa since Leopold's Congo atrocities. That history should remind the supporters of democracy that it is a means, not an end, hence not always and everywhere an unambiguously good thing.

The recent success of Islamist parties, especially in Egypt, raises similar concerns. The final results might be governments worse than the ones that were overthrown—either democratic governments responding to majority opinion inconsistent with liberal values or a new and even worse generation of dictatorial rulers.

If that happens, it will be interesting to see the response in the U.S. and elsewhere.


At 5:16 PM, January 16, 2012, Blogger John David Galt said...

Indeed, one wonders strongly why the Left supports these regime changes, since most of them, on net, take away rights the Left holds dear here, including political freedoms and freedom of movement for women.

It almost makes me wonder if some Islamist or anti-Jewish group/movement, maybe backed by Iran, is funding these movements as a propaganda effort, just as the Soviets did the US peace movement during the Cold War.

Then again, the backer could equally well be some wealthy but misguided Westerner such as George Soros. I find it intriguing that Soros has found the perfect defense against our campaign finance disclosure laws -- simply by never explaining himself.

At 3:09 PM, January 17, 2012, Blogger Andrew Bennett said...

I do not see the point with all the hand wringing. Of course the Arab Spring could go sideways. Of course the citizens of these countries will not adopt western values of liberty overnight.

Any time a despot is overthrown it should be a cause for rejoicing across the human race.

Yes, democratic countries may turn out worse than the despot but I think it is a safe bet that they are usually do not.

Cautious optimism is appropriate.

The focus of the West should be aiding the transparency and accountability of governments. Everyone can agree on that. Leave the social values out for now as they are contentious with backwards societies.

Liberty will triumph in the long run because it works.

At 9:27 AM, January 18, 2012, Anonymous Anonymous said...

>Yes, democratic countries may turn out worse than the despot but I think it is a safe bet that they are usually do not. in the religion of Democracy.

At 11:43 AM, January 18, 2012, Anonymous Patrick R. Sullivan said...

'Any time a despot is overthrown it should be a cause for rejoicing across the human race.'

Are the people of Iran better off now than under the Shah?

At 2:10 PM, January 18, 2012, Blogger Hume said...

"history should remind the supporters of democracy that it is a means, not an end, hence not always and everywhere an unambiguously good thing."

There are a few things to recognize in your post. First, I think we have come a long way from Schumpeter's weak conception of democracy, and it is time for libertarians/an-caps to realize that the democratic ideal is not equivalent with 'majority rule.' Dworkin's "The Moral Reading and the Majoritarian Premise" is a good read on this issue. Better is Thomas Christiano's The Rule of the Many or Henry Richardson's Democratic Autonomy. Although I disagree strongly with their accounts of a morally-meaningful conception of democracy, they are nevertheless worth the read and will make you think twice when one says democracy legitimizes the brutal treatment of the minority.

Second, once we recognize that 'democracy' does not equal majority rule, we are able to recognize what many have recognized long ago about free markets: just as free markets can lead to a state of affairs very different from a free market, so to can 'democracy' lead to a state of affairs very different from those we would call democratic. But this recognition does not mean we should abandon democracy as an ideal, just as it does not mean we should abandon the free market as an ideal.

At 5:08 PM, January 18, 2012, Blogger Andrew Bennett said...

Anonymous > in the religion of Democracy.

I would say faith in history generally repeating itself. Can you offer a general pattern to the contrary? Show me how I am wrong over a time period of your choosing.

Patrick R. Sullivan > Are the people of Iran better off now than under the Shah?

Hard to say, but I do not hear many Iranians clamouring for a new Shah.

However, is it a good thing that the Shah and his secret police are gone? Yes, he was a horrible human being.

Is it a bad thing that Iran is still under a theocratic government? Yes.

A good event followed by a bad event does not make the first event bad. The second event is bad.

Find a little joy in the end of something horrible. At least now things have a chance for improvement.

At 12:14 AM, January 19, 2012, Anonymous Andy Z said...

What if the United States elects George W. Bush, and he starts a war in Iraq that kills over 100,000 Iraqis and 4400 Americans?

What if Libertarians win in 2012 and their policies result in massive chaos and complete economic failure?

Funny how we can come up with all of these fascinating hypotheticals overseas but fail to think about them for ourselves.

At 1:17 AM, January 19, 2012, Blogger TheVidra said...

It might be interesting to compare democratic revolutions in countries which have historically applied a democratic model, versus those moving to a democratic model for the first time. For example, the French revolution, the Russian revolution, etc were nominally democratic revolutions, but those societies had never experienced democracy. We know the atrocities committed after the success of the rebellions (and that in most cases the result was not a democracy, at least not within one or two generations). Whereas some of the 1848 movements across Europe, and definitely the 1989 Eastern European revolutions involved societies which wanted to REVERT BACK to a democratic system. I would argue that many Arab societies fall in the first category, although it is not so clear cut; for example Tunisia had a French-influenced education system and thus society is indoctrinated in certain ideals.

At 9:46 AM, January 19, 2012, Anonymous Anonymous said...

>Can you offer a general pattern to the contrary? Show me how I am wrong over a time period of your choosing.

I choose the 20th century.

At 11:03 AM, January 19, 2012, Blogger Andrew Bennett said...

Andrew B >> Can you offer a general pattern to the contrary? Show me how I am wrong over a time period of your choosing.

Anonymous > I choose the 20th century.

Really?!? You think democracies have done worse than despots in the 20th century? Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot just to start with a few? I would be surprised if you could beat any of their body counts with all the bad democracies combined.

Show me. Provide some evidence.

At 11:14 AM, January 19, 2012, Blogger jimbino said...

Andrew Bennett:

I don't know about the others, but Adolph Hitler was definitely the product of democratic elections.

At 3:25 PM, January 19, 2012, Anonymous Anonymous said...

>Show me. Provide some evidence.

South America has loads, then there's Iran. Somebody already mentioned Hitler. I want to also include Woodrow Wilson in the list of democratically-elected despots but I can't because he is not recognized as such.

The U.S. has suffered on account of democracy.

1. Universal White Adult Male Suffrage:
Result: trail of tears, Mexican-American war

2. Woman's suffrage:
Result: Prohibition, prostitution made illegal.

The more people get the right to vote, the more your nation's policies are influenced by the bottom-half of the bell curve. It used to be that you didn't get to vote if you didn't pay taxes or received social services. I miss those policies.

At 4:17 PM, January 19, 2012, Blogger Hume said...

"It used to be that you didn't get to vote if you didn't pay taxes or received social services. I miss those policies."

I have to disagree. These policies would assure a cogent voter more in tune with *their own* property rights and *their own* conceptions of justice and legitimate holdings. As made clear by Christiano, Dahl, and many many others, there is pervasive disagreement as to what “justice” and property rights requires (I put *justice* in quotation marks not intending to use scare quotes, but to emphasize that justice is an interpretive concept susceptible to differing conceptions and in need of moral argumentation in support of the conception put forth). In collective decision-making, the principle of justice requires us to weigh and compare the interests of other persons who are very different. However, we are morally fallible and likely to be mistaken about what those interests are and how to compare them. In addition, the principles by which one is to bring together these complex interests are difficult to discern and asses, and these difficulties are exacerbated when we try to assess the interests of others.

Furthermore, we all suffer from cognitive biases that skew our judgments regarding questions of justice and the common good, thus resulting in our undervaluing the interests of those from different communities with different worldviews. Individuals’ judgments of justice are more sensitive to their own interests than to the interests of others, and we are more sensitive to our own harms, downplaying the harms of others. Thus, even good-faith controversies over principles of justice often reflect conflict of interest: we necessarily understand our own interests better, inducing us to interpret the interests of others in a way that assimilates our own. Therefore, “no citizen wants to be treated in accordance with someone else’s conception of [justice]” because such a conception is likely to skew her interests and downplay her burdens; rather, she wants to be treated in a way that she can agree that she is being treated as an equal and fairly. Christiano, The Authority of Democracy, 3 J.Political Philosophy 266, 272-73 (2004). As such, we cannot place blind trust in others to “vote responsibly” when those others are in fundamentally different positions in the social environment.

Moreover, I note that the problems associated with the human condition (moral fallibility, cognitive biases, limited information) are front and center in the political theory of John Locke. Cognitive biases is what Locke is after in discussing the problems associated with persons "being a judge in their own case." Fast forward a few centuries to the point I was making above in response to the claim that only property owners should be afforded the franchise: if I know that persons' conceptions of justice are skewed by their cognitive biases, thereby downplaying my interests in favor of their own (even if granting them good faith), it is unjustifiable to enforce those laws against me in which I had no say in their process of promulgation, i.e., those laws in which I was denied participation. This is because these laws are necessarily skewed in favor of those who took part in the law-making process.

At 4:18 PM, January 19, 2012, Blogger Hume said...

Furthermore, although this problem is acute in a pluralistic political unit in which people fundamentally disagree over the principles of justice and the good life, it is also a problem in more homogenous societies. So even if we assume a libertarian political community in which all the citizens agree on the fundamental principles of justice (liberty as noninterference, Lockean homesteading, vast contractual rights, etc.), people would *still* disagree over the contours of these rights and their application. For example, what is the status of risky or threatening behavior? If I choose to play Russian roulette with your head and the chamber that comes up happens to be empty, would I have "interfered" with your liberty? What if I play this sick game while you are asleep and never know about it? And if this risky behavior is 'interference', what of other risky or threatening behavior? Does driving 65 mph rise to this level of risk/threats? Does 75? How about 95mph? Most importantly, who decides? In light of cognitive biases, moral fallibility, and limited information, I will not simply trust you and a small group to make the proper decisions. I will demand a say in the process.

Another example in case you are unconvinced. As noted by David Friedman and Loren Lomasky, the rather miniscule 'interferences' in property and causal determinants of 'interference' raise questions of what is an *impermissible* interference. Driving a car that releases substances that are causally contributory to cancer and other diseases is an interference. So is shining a flashlight onto someone's property. Are these *interferences* to be proscribed in the libertarian society? The answers are not obvious and reasonable libertarian philosophers and citizens alike disagree. The basic point is that these determinations do not read off of "the libertarian ideal" in a straightforward deductive way. Nevertheless, a decision *must* be made: are we to forbid these actions or allow them? Because a decision must be taken, a decision procedure is required. This is where the democratic ideal comes into play: in light of the human condition (cognitive biases, moral fallibility, limited information) individual citizens are entitled to a say in the process of decision-making if they are to be obliged to abide by the system of laws and property rights in existence in the libertarian political society.

At 1:10 PM, January 20, 2012, Blogger SheetWise said...

Anonymous said...

"It used to be that you didn't get to vote if you didn't pay taxes or received social services. I miss those policies."

Yes. Belief in democracy has made the U.S. Constitution meaningless.

At 2:53 PM, January 20, 2012, Anonymous Patrick R. Sullivan said...

'...I do not hear many Iranians clamouring for a new Shah.'

Do you suppose that has anything to do with a lack of freedom of speech and press?

At 4:05 PM, January 20, 2012, Blogger David Friedman said...


"I do not hear many Iranians clamouring for a new Shah."

I remember my father reporting a conversation with a cab driver in India many years ago, about the Indian political situation. The cab driver's comment was:

"Bring the British back."

At 7:15 AM, January 22, 2012, Blogger Andreas Collvin said...

Sovereignty is a cheap virtue if your leaders are misbehaving, true. To what extent, though, should In General the majority of a nation be willing to adopt itself away to a new master, losing its pride and identity in some sense since it's hard to untangle state and heritage (cultural/economic), especially in socialist countries. Are we speaking in absolute or relativistic terms; the more free a country is, from what we as humans today can perceive, the less interesting it would be to give away what we got, until confronted by a superior race inflicting 'freer' freedom upon us? Would we not fight back? Could freedom ever come from 'above'? No pun intended! It seems as though, if it's not practical, it shouldn't exist, not even to fail.

I wrote a poem an hour ago, kind of touching this topic, I'd like to share it:


in its struggle to change the core
of human race in a pace
so fast as to not question the haze
leaving fellow man in a daze
likely to embrace another case
for infringing on what
we should praise regardless of
your whereabouts in what became this maze
for some to ace and keep the
rest in place, from climbing the walls,



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