Blogs > Liberty and Power > Rahman, Democracy, and Liberalism

Mar 31, 2008 7:57 am

Rahman, Democracy, and Liberalism

Like David and Aeon, I've been following the Abdul Rahman case as well. This BBC story captures things pretty well.

In the comments on David's post, Aeon wrote:

Maybe the problem is that democracy per se isn't the desideratum. What's needed is _liberalism_. Democratization of tyrannical regimes can lead to liberalization, but doesn't necessarily do so. I think many political leaders and their speechwriters confuse the two, but I suspect Eugene knows the difference, and isn't in favor of pure majoritarianism, either as an export or as a domestic product. I'd wager that what Eugene favors is limited government. Democratic institutions are often a part of that, esp. when the regime used to be a dictatorship, but the demos also needs to be limited, typically by some codified rights theory. Then there's no contradiction.

I think Aeon's distinction between the exportation of "liberalism" and "democracy" is right on target. The problem with much of the talk about "fixing" the Arab world, especially from the current administration, is that it is focused on exporting "democracy," as if that were the panacea. Of course what the Rahman case forces us to confront is "what if the 'demos' votes in the theocrats?" For those who talk only of democracy (and I certainly don't mean Eugene here), what possible objection do they have to this? Until and unless people start talking seriously about liberalism, they will not have much of an argument against what's happening in Afghanistan. For smart folks like Eugene, they understand this point even if they don't always use the words as carefully as they might. I'm much more concerned about the folks in the administration as well as the general public who perhaps don't see this distinction in the ways we wish they would. (I find myself on the first day of class in Comparative Economic Systems having to make the democracy/liberalism distinction for my students, many of whom have never thought about it before.)

To take Aeon's point another step or two and link it to David's response in the comments, this use of "democracy" is particularly invidious because it's a lot easier to create the trappings of democracy and think the job is done than it is to create anything resembling liberalism. Democracy is, after all, ultimately about the processes and procedures by which state power is created and allocated, and not directly about the scope of that power. At some level, as the history of the West nicely illustrates (unfortunately), democracy is compatible with a very large state and all kinds of restrictions on the freedom of the individual. So, yes, one can create electoral processes and get political decision makers who have been voted into office, yet still end up with the Rahman problem. This is even more clear when it's noted that the Afghan judiciary is "independent" of the political process. Isn't this the worst of all scenarios: a demos that supports a state religion and a judiciary independent of that with no constitutional limits on the power of the state? For all the talk of an Iraqi constitution, it's much more about constitutional processes than it is about the substance of rights. Where are the Iraqi and Afghan George Mason and Thomas Jefferson?

Bottom line: if your goal is to create "democracy," it's no wonder that the Wilsonians in the administration think this is doable in the Arab world in the shortest of runs. After all, just create the processes necessary to have elections and a legislative body, and you're basically there. If the real issue is, however, moving the Arab world toward liberalism, then you've got your work cut out for you because liberalism must, at some level, grow out of the culture (and here's where Chris's concerns come into play - although he's talking "democracy" there and should be talking "liberalism"). Only when you have a culture of liberalism can democracy really flourish. Changing the culture of the Arab world to accept liberalism is not going to happen in a matter of months or years, and certainly not going to happen at the point of a gun. The very sorts of Hayekian unintended consequences David notes in his original post will make that even more difficult. The West did not adopt liberalism in a day - after all, how different is the Rahman case from our own history of Inquisitions, pogroms, and witch hunts? Our transformation took centuries. Baghdad and Kabul will, like Rome, not be built in a day.

We'd do a lot better modeling the very liberalism we want them to adopt by bringing the troops home and finding ways to exchange goods, people, and ideas peacefully with the Arab world. If you want to make cultural change happen, technology and books go a lot farther than tanks and bullets.

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More Comments:

David T. Beito - 3/27/2006

I agree with everything Steve says. To expand on Steve's point, an attempt to guarantee "liberal democracy" rather than simply democracy will create endless complications to any hopeless interventionist agenda. This was really my main point.

To make such a policy work, the U.S. can no longer just establish the trappings of democracy and then stand back. Instead, it will have always be prepared to countless "micro interventions" to uphold liberalism in special cases like this. The Hayekian complications that ensue can be multipled several times under such an micro interventionist policy.

Robert Higgs - 3/25/2006

Well said, Steve. In your comparative systems class, you might find it helpful to have the students read Randall G. Holcombe, "Liberty and Democracy as Economic Systems," The Independent Review 6 (Winter 2002): 407-45, which is available online at