Liberty is more than mere democracy
- Ivo Vegter
- 01 Feb 2011 06:53 (South Africa)
After a few abortive starts over the last decade, it is starting to look like we are finally witnessing, in the words of one pundit, the Arab world's 1989.
The date refers to the wave of democratic revolutions that swept through Eastern Europe as the Soviet Union collapsed. A similar wave of uprisings appears to be sweeping across North Africa and the Middle East, as the region's long-suffering people protest poor living standards, rising food prices, high unemployment, and oppressive, autocratic regimes.
Tunisia's dictator, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, has already fallen, after 23 years in power. So, barring a few formalities, has Egypt's president, Muhammad Hosni Sayyid Mubarak. To reach the 30th anniversary of his accession to the presidency later this year, Mubarak will have to take measures even more extraordinarily tyrannical than merely shutting down the media and the internet. He would have to kill a lot of his people, which the army may not prove willing to do for him.
With over 80 million people, Egypt is the largest Arab nation, but it is certainly not the only one. The wave of protests has sparked fears among leaders from Morocco and Algeria in the west, to Yemen and Bahrain in the east. Not to mention Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Libya.
No Arab dictator will be sleeping easily, as 300 million Arabs chafing under their yoke gain confidence from what they see on Al Jazeera, the television channel which is has taken the undisputed lead in covering the region.
Each country has somewhat different dynamics, and I'm no expert on any one of them, so generalising about the entire region would be presumptious on my part. What has become clear, however, is that the West, led by the United States, is between a rock and a hard place in terms of how to respond.
The equivocation of US President Barack Obama and his secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, is painful to watch, but not unexpected.
For decades, Cold War realities have enforced a foreign policy on the part of the West in which stability was paramount. The broader US-Soviet standoff threatened to turn every hot spot into a site for a newer, nastier proxy war. Each of these could spark a nuclear world war, and a few very almost did.
The standing commitment on the part of the US to defend Israel's right to exist, along with the terms of the peace deal struck at Camp David in 1979 between Egypt and Israel, also played a role in the US approach to the region. So did the more utiliarian consideration of securing global trade routes. And as if all this isn't complicated and intractable enough, Middle East politics is spiced with nuclear proliferation and international terrorism.
Since the end of the Cold War, however, the US has explicitly stated that its policy had changed. Condoleezza Rice, the Secretary of State under George W. Bush, stated it most clearly in a clarion call made in Cairo, which echoed across the region: "For 60 years, the United States pursued stability at the expense of democracy in the Middle East - and we achieved neither," she said. "Now, we are taking a different course. We are supporting the democratic aspirations of all people."
In 2009, Barack Obama went to Cairo in fulfilment of a campaign promise to make a major speech from an Arab capital. He said: "I do have an unyielding belief that all people yearn for certain things: the ability to speak your mind and have a say in how you are governed; confidence in the rule of law and the equal administration of justice; government that is transparent and doesn't steal from the people; the freedom to live as you choose. These are not just American ideas; they are human rights. And that is why we will support them everywhere."
This formulation – perhaps unwittingly – gives a clue to what many observers, including angry Egyptians, view as the hypocrisy of the US and the betrayal of its own stated ideals. The US has long supported Hosni Mubarak, still sends boatloads of Camp David bribe money to Egypt, and now – when the people themselves have risen – can't seem to bring itself to go beyond polite, almost bashful mutterings about "reform" and "the aspirations of the people".
Much popular rhetoric would have you believe that US motives are simply venal. It's all about the oil, the Suez canal, the Zionists, the financiers, a little racism and a lot of corrupt American corporate interests. I'll ignore those claims with the contempt they deserve.
A more realistic explanation lies in the fear of radical, Iran- or Taliban-style theocracies. If they emerge through revolutionary force, it is easy to condemn them. If, however, they arise democratically, how could the West object? That was the conundrum when Hamas took over in Gaza. Isn't democracy exactly what the West advocated? Doesn't objection amount to the kind of cultural imperialism which the rest of the world resents so deeply?
True, religious regimes have a nasty record. Hamas, the Taliban, and the Iranian mullahs aren't exactly poster children for political tolerance, moderation and progress, any more than Western monarchies before the separation of church and state were beacons of progressive thought. As a rule, they were opposed to freedom and intolerant of different cultures and opinions. Often, they were cruelly oppressive about it. The Crusades, the Inquisition and Apartheid were not among the West's proudest moments.
The popularity of the Muslim Brotherhood and other strictly religious political movements in the region fuel fears that democratic revolutions in the Arab world might just make a bad situation worse, as military dictatorship gives way to theocratic rule.
The experience of Somalia is, perhaps, instructive. After the ouster of Mohamed Siad Barre in 1991, after 22 years of military-socialist dictatorship, the country disintegrated. Clan rivalry, not uncommon in Africa, was fierce. The attitude of one clan to another was no less bigoted than the attitudes of whites against blacks in colonial Africa, of Japanese against Chinese in Manchuria, or of Hindus against Muslims in pre-partition India. It seemed then – and history has proven since – that such a disunited country could never exist as a peaceful, sovereign, united state, unless it was under either a strong military dictator or religious rule.
The rivalries become even more complicated when different religions and sects are pitted against each other, in addition to different clans. As a consequence, the fear right across the region is that a democratic majority will prove to be a disaster for less powerful clans or religious groups. In Tunisia, the population is relatively homogeneous. In most countries of the region, however, different races, tribes, clans, religions and sects co-exist in varying degrees of hostility to one another.
Therein lies an important point. The West has been promoting democracy, as if this is the holy grail for peace and prosperity. It is no such thing. Democracy is nothing without liberty. It is individual liberty that brings peace and prosperty.
Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn, an Austrian political theorist, once put it this way: "Fifty-one percent of a nation can establish a totalitarian regime, suppress minorities and still remain democratic."
He was a monarchist opposed to totalitarianism, and described himself as an arch-liberal who did not believe democracy could achieve freedom.
He may well be wrong. I'm sceptical of monarchy on the same basis that Plato thought a philosopher king would have been ideal if there were any guarantee that such a ruler would not turn into an oppresive tyrant. Nor do I agree that democracy and liberty are mutually exclusive. However, Keuhnelt-Leddihn's observation does make the distinction clear: democracy and liberty are not the same thing.
If democratic revolutions are to result in peaceful, prosperous societies, those societies must be based on constitutional liberty. The principle of liberty, which affords everyone the right to act in their own interest according to their own conscience, provided that such action does not infringe on the same right of another, is what truly matters.
If a population can be convinced to accept this principle, it removes both the threat of radical theocracy, as well as the danger of factions turning on each other when order is no longer enforced by a military dictator.
This principle of liberty, more so than mere democracy or a power-sharing agreement, accounts for the South African "miracle".
Accepting the differences between us is why this country did not slide into civil war. Accepting the equal right of each of us to think, believe and act according to our own conscience, is why this country did not break up. Accepting liberty as a guiding principle of our constitution is the reason why communists and capitalists, whites and blacks, Xhosas and Zulus, Afrikaners and Englishmen, liberals and conservatives, men and women, rich and poor, Christians, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, atheists and one Anglican could unite to reach for our dream.
The principle of individual liberty isn't a Western concept, but a universal one. It applies no matter the particular dynamics, cultures or rivalries in a particular country. It is not based in Judeao-Christian tradition, but permits every person to live according to their own religion, or no religion at all. It does not preclude religious law, but forces it upon nobody. It is free of coercion, rises above bigotry, and abhors violence.
The reason the West appears so timid and even hypocritical in the face of the popular revolts sweeping through the Arab world lies in this distinction. To throw off the yoke of autocratic oppression, democracy is only a first step. Strictly speaking, it is not even a necessary one.
What we should be advocating is liberty. DM
- My old South African flag
- Fearful Fukushima fiction fatigue
- Do we tolerate private sector corruption?
- In defence of a lion killer
- Save the rare wine and endangered craft beer
- Forever blowing bubbles: shale gas economics
- Promotion and Protection of Investment Bill: When “certainty” means “wait and see”
- This land is my land: a revolution
- The launch of SA's Libertarian Party: herding cats in time for 2014
- The African case against the ICC
- The fossil fuel subsidy myth
- Think of the little fishies!
- The hilariously misunderstood libertarian
- The sickly history of sweeteners
- Pants on fire, but they’re not mine
- The obstructionism of shale gas activists
- How mind-numbing numbers whip up fear
- Why pick on Khanyi Dhlomo?
- Half-measures will fail the rhino
- Malema’s righteous anger... and naïve confusion
- Lottery licence to go to one lucky winner
- Vaccinations: when the state stabs the people
- Do reusable shopping bags kill people?
- The long walk to serfdom
- The Karoo desperately needs development
- The trials of Samson Shuttleworth
- The girl who kicked the hornet’s nest
- Raping the discourse about rape
- Who is the reasonable man?
- Fracking: Debating a big deal
- Who needs the Queen’s English?
- Electric cars: Taking from the poor to give to the rich
- Business Licensing Bill: An indefensible defence
- Red-tape tourism
- The Big Business Bribery Bill
- On Thatcher and society, Vavi and the market
- Extinction: Let’s make up numbers and panic!
- Feeding the world is getting easier
- Stop talking shit: Build your own toilet
- Climate change is pseudo-science
- Anti-competitive competition law
- The Department of Less Government
- An open letter to President Zuma
- In defence of Kim Kardashian
- The world’s weirdest wildlife sanctuary
- Boycott calls are simple-minded
- In defence of vegans
- The population explosion implodes
- Environmental backpedalling picks up pace
- How Mangaung can help and hinder entrepreneurs
- The elusive libertarian enclave
- The Gathering: Ivo Vegter
- The hidden overemployment crisis
- The case for constructive environmentalism
- Privatise the Western Cape's shacks
- Tenders: Not open to employees or their families
- Hurricanes fuel climate sensationalism
- Next: Gross-out warnings on food
- No new deal: The failure of Zumanomics
- Benoni has a bright idea
- Was I wrong about acid rain?
- Public food gardens: Where dumb ideas thrive
- Rethinking the costly food label madness
- Give hunting a chance
- Fracking gets green light, but here's the risk
- Socialists, bless 'em, visit Cape Town
- Buy a 1Time ticket now
- Give the ANC credit where credit is due
- The myth of the competent apartheid government
- It's a disaster that 'peak oil' is not a disaster
- No Gravy: a label for sustainable business
- This lightbulb's going to blow
- Smokers? Get 'em up against the wall!
- Inflating the obesity scare
- Bring a Shotgun to School Day
- GMOs: Hacking genes to feed the world
- The hidden dangers of charity
- Fracking: the unread paper debated
- Fracking: The “U-turn” paper nobody has read
- Eco-cronyism is as dangerous as any other
- SKA: Be grateful Karoo residents didn't object
- Energy: Get cracking on fracking
- Fair trade, unfair trade-off
- Casual labour is only bad for Vavi's unions
- 'Externalities', the catch-all justification for regulation
- 'Externalities', the catch-all justification for regulation
- How do we fix our dismal education?
- Barter: the rebirth of sound money
- Rights are not entitlements
- Debunking 'limits to growth' inanities
- Tax: Why align with "most other countries"?
- Newspaper sensationalism doesn't help rhinos
- Rolling Stone reprises Gasland's fracking fantasies
- Cosatu's manipulative march move
- Why do 16 million people not constitute an economy?
- The age of smear politics
- Does fracking cause earthquakes?
- The Chinese model is morbidly obese
- Green tech: doubling down on a losing bet
- Rape, pornography, and hell's grannies
- Petrol taxes won't hurt the poor
- Jailtime mooted for bad weather warnings
- Let's ban bans, and start with CITES
- In defence of overpaid sport stars
- On the death of Kim Jong-Il
- COP17: Let's ban fire
- Cancer gets you when nothing else can
- COP17: The 'party on' agenda
- COP17: The Blue Line of Death
- New seven natural inanities
- Occupiers' anger is all that makes sense
- The Luddites and Technocrats live on
- Malema marches for economic slavery
- Profitable purveyors of pudendal prettiness
- Sense? Us?
- If they want rhino horn, let's sell them some
- "Stimulate" economy by ending telco abuses
- Executive pay makes nobody poorer
- Malema's real persecution
- Mogoeng: Lock up your daughters
- Don't mandate insurance, deregulate healthcare
- I sympathise with Malema's persecution complex
- Short selling: panicked pols ban proof of failure
- Don't blame those who saw it coming
- What's obscene about profit?
- In defence of Bombela
- Dear president Zuma, you are not above the law
- The economics of love
- Treasure the Karoo? Ban the SKA!
- Malema is right, you know
- Gautrain's PPP: political patronage profiteering
- Kumi Naidoo is no hero
- LeadSA fails to lead when it matters
- No logo means carte blanche
- The drug war: dopey but dangerous
- A response to fracking critics
- Don't vote. It's your right.
- Welcome Walmart
- If you're happy and you know it clap your hands
- Buy local, support poverty
- Ubuntu, the free-market way
- Karoo fracking scandal exposed!
- I'm ashamed for my profession
- The bill of bunkum
- Being gay: a brand new concept!
- Who's afraid of the nuclear wolf?
- The nationalisation canard
- Ogilvy should grow a spine
- The new robber barons
- A classy revolution: Why we cared
- Bombastic Bombela balks
- Liberty is more than mere democracy
- Gautrain has a law unto itself
- The irony of 'services for all'
- How to hire a hitman in SA
- Arrive alive and neurotic
- The oppression of taxis
- Protection of Information Bill and why WikiLeaks is so dangerous
- Fifa, Russia and Qatar deserve each other
- One day, we'll all hate WikiLeaks
- The cycling mafia strikes again
- What Julius got for Christmas
- Let's return the beads
- Away with fascist seat belt laws
- Tintin Mbeki in the Sudan
- How the ANC can make everyone happy
- Currency: the race to the bottom.
- Hurrah for national healthcare!
- Give Zimbabweans citizenship
- Carte Blanche has no carte blanche
- That finger-licking, lip-smacking taste
- Bomb the barbaric lot already
- Green tax: another raid is coming
- Do strikers deserve anything?
- The media will lose this battle
- Global warmism needs a fisking
- A glass half-full
- Go ahead, have a baby
- Stop the handouts - end xenophobia
- The right to fire
- FIFA's heart of darkness
- Have some self-respect
- I ordered an orange skirt
- Secretly, Match blames South Africa
- The stupendous Gautrain: a rare marvel!
- The Fifa conquistadors are coming!
- What's wrong with everyone?
- Leave poor BP alone
- The destructive power of government
- The bonsai economy
- The darkness of Africa
- Who is ripping off whom?
- Anatomy of a whitewash
- While FIFA takes over, we fight
- The pointless pretence of Earth Hour
- Ten reasons to reject climate alarmism
- Really, boycott the FIFA farce
- The climate dominoes fall
- Lessons in ethics from Dick Cheney
- Screw the consumer
- In defence of bankers
- Break the banking cartel
- Julius Malema, the walking contradiction
- Boycott FIFA
- Climate clarity
- In defence of Boney M
- Pray Copenhagen fails
- Capitalism is not unkind
- Climate fraud kills people
- Pop goes the hot air balloon
- Peace, love and schadenfreude
- The irony of the left
- Too late to cool it?
- Going cold turkey