30 May, 2007

Which comes first? Good government or democratic government?

In light of the recent attempts at “nation building” in Iraq and Afghanistan, I’ve been wondering if and how such a thing might be accomplished. Were western efforts at reconstruction and democratization of Germany and Japan successful on their own, or were there a number of necessary pre-conditions that allowed this to happen? I think the latter. It would seem to me that the following conditions are necessary for democracy to succeed:

1] Formation of a Polity. As democracy is government of the people by the people it seems to me self evident that if a group doesn’t regard themselves as a “people,” with a national existence and a common interest, then you will simply have competing groups antagonistically jockeying for power so that they can lord if over each other. This is what appears to be happening in Iraq; the Shia, Sunni, and Kurds are each trying to gain ascendancy so that their group can then trample the rights of the others. Contrariwise, though England and Scotland were bitterly antagonistic through the Middle Ages and well into modern times, they have long since come to form a functioning polity (whereas the Irish had to be granted partial-independence since they were never integrated into the political/cultural whole). Nations with resident minorities (such as the Quebecois in Canada or Basques in Spain) have always had trouble with factionalism, while relatively homogeneous nations (like Japan and Sweden) almost always have good government because the feeling of community comes naturally to them.

2] Long Establishment of the Rule of Law.
As long as government remains the whim of a single ruler (or small oligarchy) it will be perceived as a mere form of personal aggrandizement to be used capriciously. People have to trust that government deals objectively and consistently with all groups in society so that people who play by the rules can prosper or else they will not trust the democratic process enough to feel that their rights will be protected under a regime not of their own choosing. In every case that I can think of in Western Europe as well as Japan, the rule of law became firmly established in the late Middle Ages, long before any democratic liberalizations were even imagined.

3] Formation of Civic Responsibility.
The ability of a democracy to function is directly proportional to the responsibilities that citizens are willing to shoulder. Switzerland is an ideal democracy because of the enormous civic responsibility shown by virtually all Swiss. Usually, these traditions are formed by long periods of local self government (but not always independence) that led to the formation of a reliable class of civil servants and a corresponding respect for government by the citizens. A stark example would be Italy. Whereas Northern Italy has long had institutions of local self-government and a high level of civic responsibility, Southern Italy has been ruled by despotic regimes almost continuously since Roman days, and the corresponding difference between the efficient prosperous north and crime ridden corrupt south could not be more striking. (Croatia and Serbia would seem to offer another example of this.) In the West civic responsibility has traditionally kept private (and corporate) interest in check, but now not only is this being undermined in the West but whole sections of the developing world are under the de facto rule of corporate interests and private greed.

4] A Prerequisite Experience of Good Government.
Every example I can think of where a country has gone smoothly from an autocratic regime to a successful democracy has been after a period of good government. Despite the misrule of the immediate past, both Germany and Japan had been rather well governed from the 1870’s to the Great Depression of the thirties, and so the people were primed and ready for a return to good government under a democratic form. It is all but self-evident that one of the reasons why Spain experienced such an smooth transition from the Franco dictatorship to a Constitutional Monarchy is that, however repressive Franco may have been, there was real economic progress and almost forty years of orderly government. Similarly we can see a direct relationship in Eastern Europe between the current strength of democratic institutions and the quality of government of the previous regimes, running from the highly favorable positions of East Germany and Hungary to the near chaös of Belarus and Rumania.

Perhaps I am wrong, but I think that not only must good government proceed democratic government, but that good government is actually preferable to democracy. The semi-fascist Turkey of Attatürk was plainly better than the irresponsible democracy there today and I would take the government of Wilhelmine Germany to the barely disguised plutocracy we have today. All around us we see democratic governments being undermined by an excess of regard for individual rights (as in the Dutch Netherlands), corrupted by the power of money over the electorate (as is particularly true in the US), or destroying their own polity through demographic collapse (as in Israel) and ill-advised immigration of culturally un-assimilable groups (such as Moslems in the Christian West). Not only are western style democracies not taking root in the developing world, but even when they do appear they only rarely deliver good government and simply become an elected form of cronyism.

Thus I ask: is our crusade for democracy ill-conceived? Would we not be better off (and the world’s people better off) if we worked for good government (under whatever form), integrated polities, and greater civic self-responsibility in the face of “market values?” Is it too much to hope for finding the “George Washington” of Iraq and would we do better to settle for a “Franco?”

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