Democracy isn’t everything

By Harrison Searles

egypt mct
Courtesy of MCT

With the riots and political unrest in Egypt, many Western governments have called for more democratic reform there, and those that have not encouraged such actions have been chastised for refraining from doing so. It is difficult to not sympathize with those who protested against Hosni Mubarak’s regime. Nevertheless, it cannot be forgotten that democracy is a means, not an end. A democratic society is simply not what the goal of liberal reform should end at; rather that goal should be to work toward a freer and more open society.

The view that a democratic society is a sufficient condition for both has been a common doctrine in Western political thought for over a century. Not only have Western governments used it to justify a hodge-podge of laws, but it has also been the foundation of the foreign policies of many presidential administrations, from Wilson’s Fourteen Points to Bush’s recent attempt to democratize the Middle East. The impression created by words like “democratization” is that a nation is heading towards the direction of freedom and that all that is needed to help them along the way is even more involvement of the people in politics. Indeed, often all that is thought to be necessary for freedom to flourish is a government, according to that time-honored phrase, “of the people, by the people, for the people,” and that the rest will simply sort itself out.

However, it is dangerous to equal an open society with a democratic one because those pillars of freedom and liberalism, including private property, freedom of religion and free speech, are not guaranteed by the existence of a democracy. This can be seen in the disastrous fate of the French Revolution and the Weimar Republic, but even more generally in the greater assumption of power that the modern state has made ever since World War I. As not only many of the Founding Fathers realized, but also European classical liberals like Edmund Burke and Lord Acton, even though greater participation of the people in politics may be desirable, it can lead to undesirable and tyrannical conclusions if things like civil liberties are not enshrined in law. It does not matter if 95 percent of voters decide that freedom of speech is an outdated obsession, if a democracy votes to rescind that liberty, it is acting contrary to the values of an open society. While democracy may very well be able to solve how laws ought to be created, and the concrete terms may differ from nation to nation, it cannot be looked at as a guide as to what laws ought to be legislated.

Instead, the operation of democracy must be guided by rules and institutions that demarcate the spheres of society that legislation can be passed in from those that cannot.

Without such lines in the sand there would be nothing to prevent a majority in a democracy from stripping away the rights of those in the minority or even the majority outright abolishing the democracy. Herein lies the genius of the Constitution, not only does it explicitly list the powers that have been delegated to the federal government, but also contains a Bill of Rights that ensures that certain liberties cannot be infringed upon even if an overwhelming majority were to call for such an action. Absolute power over society does not lie in the hands of the voters in the United States, but the power of the ballot is limited and even that is checked by other centers of power like the courts. While democracy may be a very important pillar of the American system of government, the limited government envisioned by the Founding Fathers is just as important.

When the situation in Egypt is considered, and this holds true for any possibly emerging democracy, it is important to not only to consider the enfranchisement of the common person and the fairness of elections, but also whether there are the other factors there necessary to maintain an open society. Are there cultural norms, institutions and leaders sufficiently dedicated to not only an Egypt where laws are legislated according to democratic means, but an Egypt where the laws are legislated towards the end of preserving the liberties of each individual Egyptian? This is a question of great importance, because it will determine if a truly democratic Egypt would even be worth praising because there is little difference between a democracy that does not recognize human dignity and liberty and a dictatorship that does. However, I will not pretend to know the answer to that question here, but nevertheless it should help define one’s view of the prospects of Egyptian democracy.

What is needed for an open society to succeed is not merely the existence of democracy, but also the limitation of that democracy. To forget that and to naïvely state that democracy is a sufficient watchman against the malaise of tyranny is to threaten the very foundation of the open society. Instead, it is necessary to be mindful that the commitment to democracy must also be matched by the commitment to limited government and the respect of the fact that there are certain areas of life where laws should not tread. Lessons like this should not be forgotten when a popular revolt against an unpopular strongman flares up.

Harrison Searles is a Collegian columnist. He can be reached at [email protected].