Liberalism vs. democracy in Iraq

Sometimes you have to make a choice. Those who believe in republican government prefer liberal principles to democratic practices when the two conflict.

The new Iraqi Constitution will provide equal rights for women to the extent such rights don’t conflict with Shari’a: that is to say, to an extremely limited extent indeed. And apprarently the clergy will be the arbiters of family law, with each family judged by its own confessional standards.

(What happens when a Christian marries a Muslim, or a Shi’i a Sunni, no doubt will, presumably, need to be worked out in the future. Likely the clergy of all faiths will, as they almost always do, oppose the “mixed” marriages which are the best long-term solution to ethnic strife.)

Naturally, as a liberal (in both the Ted Kennedy sense of that term and the Friedrich Hayek sense of that term) I regard this as A Bad Thing, or rather as three Bad Things combined: subjection of women, rights defined on a communal rather than an individual/universal basis, and the sharing of the judicial power with the clergy.

But those Bad Things will be the outcome of a political process which, flawed as it is, no doubt reflects the will of the majority of Iraqis. That is to say, they , will result from a process that is, more or less, democratic. (And a more democratic process — one that reflected public opinion more and elite preferences less — might well be even less liberal than the result we’re going to get.)

The United States is both democratic and liberal, though not either as democratic or as liberal as I’d like it to be. So Americans frequently regard the two sets of ideas as more or less interchangeable. Democracy is indeed a liberal value: if all are equal before the law, then no one has an special claim to disproportionate political power, and therefore the majority ought to prevail. And liberalism serves democracy by in insisting on the republican institutions that limit the capacity of those who hold temporary power to make that power permanent by depriving their opponents of the means of organizing democratic opposition.

But nothing guarantees that democratically-made decisions will respect liberal ideas about the rights of individuals and the limits of state power, just as nothing guarantees that democratically-made decisions won’t be wicked or stupid in other ways. The Athenian demos voted cheerfully for both the execution of Socrates and the Sicilian Expedition, and I suppose that if I thought hard I could think of some illiberal and stupid decisions made more recently and closer to home.

My commitment to liberalism is logically prior to, and stronger than, my commitment to democracy. I’m a democrat because I’m a liberal and no despotic government is compatible with liberal principles or the dignity of the citizen. But I prefer democracy tempered with various institutions that buffer the capacity of temporary or local majorities and their elected leaders to do dumb things and to trample on the rights of others: bills of rights, for example, and courts to enforce them.

That is, I want to live in a democratic republic (in the literal, rather than the Soviet, meaning of that term): a form of government where all power flows, eventually, from the people, but where the flow is channelled and dammed in various ways, and in particualar where policies dictated by liberal values are given procedural advantages.

Under some circumstances, a less-democratic republic will better advance liberal goals, and do more to lay the basis for true popular self-government, than a more- democratic republic.

No one who does not deeply respect the rights of people he disagrees with and dislikes, and no one who would sacrifice republican government for the sake of some pet interest or ideology, is fit to be a republican citizen. That is, a republic depends on the bulk of its citizens being, deep down, both liberal and republican. But those characters are grossly lacking in most of the Middle East, as they seem to be in, for example, Russia.

In the absence of a public commitment to liberal values and republican institutions, a closer approach to “democracy” in the sense of having things decided by elections may or may not be an advantage with respect to the long-term goal of creating a public capable of restrained self-government. If, in fact, Osama bin Laden would win in a free election for President of Saudi Arabia, then perhaps that election ought to be postponed a few years or decades.

My only hope is that the neocon artists (and their marks) who keep maundering on about “bringing democracy to the Middle East” are just blowing hot air. If they mean it, and if they get their way, the resulting suffering will be immense, and that debased form of “democracy” won’t bring the countries in question any closer to true republican government.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: