Towards A Good Samaritan World

Tuesday, November 21, 2006


Recent events in Iraq reminded me of a blog post I once wrote while I was in the desperately poor sub-Saharan African nation of Malawi:


This idea, that some peoples are just not ready for democracy, has a long history. It used to be a favorite notion of the old colonialists, who practiced liberal principles at home and, to justify not practicing them abroad, opined that non-Europeans had to be "civilized" first, before they could be trusted to govern themselves (and in the meantime, Europeans would govern them instead). More recently, the anti-war "left" has taken up the old colonialist notion: they are livid that America has aspired to bestow freedom on lowly Arabs, whom, they are certain, are "not ready for democracy" (thus implying, though they are reticent about this, that they wish the Iraqis were back under Saddam's murder-ocracy). (I should add, by the way, that this is crediting the anti-warriors with far more coherence than they are generally able to muster; generally they have no arguments whatsoever but instead take refuge behind a cloud of snobbish contempt for anyone who disagrees with them… but anyway…) America is the object of two contradictory charges on this issue: first, that we betray our democratic principles by collaborating with dictatorships (in the Cold War, for example); second, that we are far too convinced that our system is the perfect one and go around imposing democracy in all sorts of places where it is not appropriate. Hmm…

Anyway, our friends down in Blantyre were of the opinion that Malawi is not ready for democracy. One of the Indians was a great admirer of Banda, even though he acknowledged his "atrocities." He was very fervent, and declared "I will speak the truth, I don't care what they do to me."

The other Indian had a similar view, but with a more thoughtful approach. He was sure that things were getting steadily worse for Malawi, and he blamed democracy. People used to respect the chiefs more, he thought. Democracy undermines the authority of the chiefs, and accelerates social breakdown. People in the villages can't read, and don't know what they're voting for. There is tremendous corruption.

What's my view on this?… Well, I place a pretty high value on freedom of thought—yet it is an elite value, for most people just think the way they're raised and taught and would rather have a full stomach than the right to (in the words of Czech president Vaclav Havel) "live in truth." They say too, that 1) there has never been a war between two democracies ("democratic peace theory") and that 2) no democracy has ever suffered a famine (Amartya Sen). My general inclination is still to go with Churchill's idea that "democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the rest." But it seems a little coarse to look at what happened in Russia in the 1990s, or Malawi in the present, and say "that's just the price you pay…"

Yet we face an intellectual vacuum here: if not democracy, then what? Nowadays, elections are the only way a government can be accepted as really legitimate. No matter how successful a ruler who chooses not to render his tenure dependent on the vote-counted judgment of the people, he will get a heavy dose of scorn from the press. Malawian democracy is a function of the global climate of ideas: educated people can no longer articulately support anything else, so democracy becomes the default, whether the people is ready for it or not. But perhaps the alternative is tradition, a deep Burkean consciousness of gradual civilizational maturation, rooted in and drawing strength from tradition… in this case, the authority of the chiefs.

I remember having a feeling that democracy in Malawi was like permanent summer vacation; a general carefree mentality, part of African culture I think, was masking an unraveling of the social fabric. The Malawian people welcomed losing the ferocious discipline of the brutal old dictator, Kamuzu Banda, but the economy and the social fabric were unraveling-- though, unlike Iraq, this unraveling did not take the form of violence or civil war, but of fatal atrophy: people died young, AIDS was spreading, children were being born out of all proportion to the country's capacity to raise and educate them, and everywhere, hunger and destitution. Above this mess the president was the richest person in the country, totally uncaring for the people. The level of civilization in the country was simply not high enough for democratic processes to lead to good choices of leaders, and I sensed that the traditional leadership-- empower the chiefs-- would have been better, but how to do it?


  • In an illiberal democracy one can control at least as easily through misinformation and economic dependency and through actual force. Chavez has not, after all, needed to use a great deal of force in maintaining his kleptocratic pseudo-socialist strongman position. It leaves us with the same "how do we get there from here?" question as always, of course. I doubt there's a single answer to that question, since there's a wide variety of factors working to prevent the rise of thoughtful, activist polity in such places. Probably there's a different set of answers for each culture.

    Incidentally, I see folks all over the blogosphere blaming the current violence in Iraq on their failure to get with the American program. "We've given them the tools; if they can't figure out how to make it work it's because they're just so darned beknighted," seems to be the refrain of a certain class of Bush apologists. The same ones who seem to think that a JDAM or ten in Damascus is about the right response to an assassination in Lebanon.

    Leftists like George Packer have made much of the difficulty of impressing Democratic ideas on the minds of Iraqis, pointing to our failure to understand that as a source of many mistakes we made from the beginning. He's not self-exculpatory on this - he didn't see that problem ahead of time either - but it's worth noting that Iraqis really were not ready and there's a proper response to that. Not to withhold the same, but to take an approach of teaching and constructing a democracy than simply bestowing it in the manner of a man with a hacksaw bestowing freedom on a prisoner.

    It's a hard task in which even the well prepared and resourced may easily fail (at least for a long while). But one must try honestly in order to avoid ruining the chance of a generation.

    By Blogger Nato, at 4:32 PM  

  • It's taken our democracy a long long time to get to where it's at now. We have had periods of extreme internal strife and violence ourselves, and we're supposed to be the model. One of the main differences between us back then and the Iraqis now is simply technology; it's just a lot easier to cause death and destruction now than it's ever been. So I don't really think that the current troubles in Iraq validate the notion that we "gave Iraqis democracy before they were ready". When were they ever going to be ready under Saddam? The Kurds are the simplest refutation of that premise, as their region is flourishing. No, I'd say the current troubles are more a product of the complete dismantling of the infrastructure due the war and poor security. Once the infrastructure is fixed, the standard of living will skyrocket, dissent will decrease, and the democratic institutions will start gaining ground (if the government isn't usurped by an elite class again, that is). That's my prediction.

    By Blogger Thomas Reasoner, at 12:37 AM  

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