Blogs > Liberty and Power > A Quick Take on Iraq

Jan 30, 2005 1:07 pm

A Quick Take on Iraq

After months of deep pessimism about the Iraq war, I have to admit that I am encouraged by the conduct of the Iraqi elections so far. It's still too early to come to any firm conclusions, but the voting seems to have gone as well as anyone could reasonably have hoped. The counting phase will if anything be more delicate and important to monitor, and it will be interesting to watch as events unfold in the coming days. Let's hope that it too goes well.

Josh Claybourn at In The Agora has links and commentary. Here's the key passage as I see it:
Iraqi expatriates living in Syria are able to take part in the vote, even though Syrians can't take part in the democratic process of their own country. What impact will this have on countries like Syria? A successful Iraqi election may very well be the most significant step for freedom and democracy since the fall of the Berlin Wall.
There is nothing like the power of a good example; I can only hope it outweighs the ill-will that we have accumulated so far.

Today does bring a lot of good news on that front. This AP story suggests that the Iraq vote is making a lot of middle eastern dictators very, very nervous. And they should be. I think it's also no coincidence that a top Saudi diplomat suggests that women may soon be able to vote. Thanks, but we shouldn't need to invade your neighbors to make it happen.

Look for Saudi fundamentalists to claim that women's suffrage is fine for lukewarm Muslims like the Iraqis--but that the better sort would never allow it. Only a select few people are pure enough to disenfranchise half the population, and just remember--a really holy society would be an absolute monarchy.

Regarding the prospects for permanent change in the middle east, I still remain deeply skeptical on two fronts. First, as I have written before, a democracy without respect for individual rights means nothing. Without firm protections for persons and property, without protections for the freedom of thought and expression, democracy is indistinguishable from mob rule. The choice of which thug ends up holding the stick isn't a choice worth fighting over.

Second, even if all goes well, then this election will only prove that an utterly incompetent, heavyhanded, and rights-violating democratic intervention can sometimes still succeed. It will not prove, however, that our intervention was competent, deft, or respectful of human rights. It's far too late to change any of that.

Still, best of luck. I really hope this thing works out. If, a year or two from now, Iraq looks like Poland or East Germany in the early 90s, then it will be time for a major reconsideration of my foreign policy beliefs. We'll just have to wait and see.

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Charles Johnson - 1/30/2005

Mark Fulwiler:

"I'm afraid democracy doesn't "work" well anyplace---it always end up as "mob rule" to some degree."

"Here's the bottom line: Once the majority figures out that they can use the ballot box and democracy to loot and oppress other people, they always do it. Always. And a written Constitution doesn't offer much of a defense. Constitutions can be ignored or amended."

I agree with you, Mark, that a rights-violating government doesn't magically become OK just because there is popular input into it, and that the idea that protection of individual rights appears magically through the hocus-pocus of a plebiscite is silly. But the direction of critique here is a bit odd. It's true that democracies *can* end in corruption and majoritarian looting of the minority. But how does that make them any different from any other political constitution? Certainly monarchies and oligarchies pretty quickly figured out that they could use minority rule to loot from the majority--and that written Constitutions were never much of a defense against them.

In fact, it's true of any conceivable constitutional form that it could be corrupted and those with control over the guns could turn them on others. It's even true of idealized anarcho-capitalist enforcement agencies. The will is free and people may end up choosing to do evil. The question is which constitutions are comparatively better and more resistant to encroachments on rights, and which ones are comparatively worse.

Is there any reason to think that rule by the many is comparatively worse than rule by the few, and more prone to rights-violating "mob rule" than rule by the few is prone to rights-violating cabal rule?

Or is this just a general complaint against the State as such, being applied to the limitations of democracy in this particular case? In that case, it's a fair enough complaint, but it would be odd to suggest the other plausible alternatives for Iraq's near future (e.g. a military colony headed by a U.S. proconsul or a tyranny run by some suitable client such as Allawi) are better, or even that they aren't any worse.

Jason Kuznicki - 1/30/2005

I am well aware of what Mencken said about democracy. Happily I do not have to agree with everything that someone said merely because I have quoted him once. If that were the case, I would never be able to quote anyone on any subject.

I have to say I am not nearly so hostile to democracy or to government in general as many at this site seem to be. I am not an anarchist, and if this means that I don't fit in too well here... I suppose I can always bow out if I become too obnoxious.

One thing Mencken said that I do agree with, though, is that democracy is the most amusing form of government. It was a jab, obviously, but if one accepts the premise that government may exist legitimately--a point I'm not going to argue in a comment, much less in an aside--then it makes sense to have a government that serves as an outlet for people's frustrations, a government that diverts them and that keeps the bad impulses of would-be rulers to a minimum.

The question for the minarchist then becomes what sort of government this would be, but I suspect we probably won't have a lot to talk about on that score.

M.D. Fulwiler - 1/30/2005

OK, I was a bit hasty in my reading of your post.

Here's the bottom line: Once the majority figures out that they can use the ballot box and democracy to loot and oppress other people, they always do it. Always. And a written Constitution doesn't offer much of a defense. Constitutions can be ignored or amended.

William J. Stepp - 1/30/2005

Jason, you quoted Mencken earlier. He also said that "Every election is a sort of advance auction sale of stolen goods." Which indidual rights should be protected? Freedom of speech? What about the right to own a printing press or a building in which to operate it? What about the right to own property in general?
Why should the state have a right to a third or your income or more?

Jason Kuznicki - 1/30/2005

Your last sentence shows that you entirely missed my point: Without protections for individual rights, democracy is meaningless--as I said above. Iran illustrates that fact perfectly.

Max Swing - 1/30/2005

Yes, in a way you can say Democracy is the rule of the mob, but this isn't entirely true. First of all, the mob only elects those who rule. Second, the mob isn't that big as you may think. I don't think that more than 30 per cent of the population truly invest much time in politics or their outcome (except there are such radical challenges as in the last elections).

The third arguemtn in favor of democracy is that in all other cases, radical elements (not only libertarians, but mostly "NAZI" and Socialists) could prevail.

I understand that there are certain disadvantages, but they are prefarable to a state where such criminal elements could easily take the reign.

M.D. Fulwiler - 1/30/2005


I'm afraid democracy doesn't "work" well anyplace---it always end up as "mob rule" to some degree. And yes, I am well aware that the United States and Switzerland are better places to live than Saudi Arabia or Syria---that's not the point. The point is that democracies ALL degenerate into the majority infringing on the rights of minorities. Look at your tax bill or check on the people in prison for non-violent drug "crime." And I'm not impressed with the "choices" we have in the United States. You can either vote for one of two horrible statists, or vote for a 3rd party with no chance whatever of winning.

I happen to wish the best for the Iraqi people. But hoping this U.S. military intervention and election will have some happy end result is sort of like hoping communism might "work" in Cuba.

And btw, Iran has an elected Parliament and allows women to vote. Wanna move there?