July 08, 2015

Democratic impositions

I'm amused when neo-conservatives are criticized for running around the world imposing "American-style democracy" on foreign peoples. It's a policy memorably articulated by Rudyard Kipling about the long-forgotten Philippine-American War.

Take up the White Man's burden, No tawdry rule of kings,
    But toil of serf and sweeper, The tale of common things.
The ports ye shall not enter, The roads ye shall not tread,
    Go mark them with your living, And mark them with your dead.

In September 1898, anticipating Colin Powell's "Pottery Barn rule" by a century, Kipling wrote to Theodore Roosevelt:

America has gone and stuck a pickaxe into the foundations of a rotten house and she is morally bound to build the house over again from the foundations or have it fall about her ears.

I agree with most critiques of neo-conservative adventurism, and hew to the Prime Directive in this regard (though preferring Captain Kirk's interpretation to Captain Picard's: sometimes you do have to send the Marines to the Shores of Tripoli).

The Prime Directive is not just a set of rules. It is a philosophy, and a very correct one. History has proven again and again that whenever mankind interferes with a less developed civilization, no matter how well intentioned that interference may be, the results are invariably disastrous.

The problem with the "American-style democracy" jibe is that no neo-conservative has ever imposed "American-style democracy" on anybody. The American political system is uniquely a product of our own history, geography, and demographics.

Bottom line: the Rube Goldberg machine called the United States is too weird to impose on anybody anywhere else. Rather, what neo-conservatives have been doing is running around the world imposing European-style parliamentary democracies.

All the more troubling, these parliamentary democracies tend to be modeled on unitary states with hyper-strong central governments and little shared sovereignty or "local rule." Japan, France, and Great Britain are three notable examples.

If any political system was going to be imposed on anybody, countries like Afghanistan and Iraq would have been better off with an "Articles of Confederation" framework that made the provinces fairly independent and got them on board first.

Functioning provinces first, nation-building second. After all, learning from our mistakes with the Articles of Confederation gave us version 2.0, the current U.S. Constitution.

Even then, the anti-federalists didn't lose the ideological battle until after the Civil War. Then over the next century, the political pendulum swung too far in the other direction. As it did in Japan.

The Meiji Restoration in 1868 upset 250 years of fairly strong local rule, abruptly centralizing power without the necessary checks and balances. The temptation is understandable: to rule by decree and to right wrongs "because we know best."

Because, you know, those provincials in the provinces are just too provincial to get with the times (exactly the same attitude that brought down the Tokugawa shogunate).

Alas, without the (implicit or explicit) consent of the governed, governing ends up a game of Whac-A-Mole. The people forever out of power may decide to shoot the people in power. Except that the people with the most guns are usually the military.

That was Japan during the 1930s. Creating "facts on the ground" that couldn't be undone by feckless politicians, middle-ranked army officers in Japan and China launched coups and started their own wars. In most cases, the government caved.

Wrote Robert Heinlein, "The human race divides politically into those who want people to be controlled and those who have no such desire."

In the end, it's not an election or a constitution that makes the difference. It's the widely-understood rules of the game and everybody's willingness to play by them. Common law becomes the rule of law by first being common.

The United States started with Jeffersonian republicanism before moving to Hamiltonian federalism. The rule of law predated the U.S. Constitution. Key elements of the Bill of Rights had already been written into state constitutions.

Before relying on--and yielding sovereignty to--the big, people must build trust in the small. They have to "trust, but verify." Otherwise, even the most perfect democratic system will never work, no matter how, by, or on whom it is imposed.

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# posted by Blogger Joe
In his quote, Heinlein articulates a point I made in a previous comment to Dan. The notion of Left/Right is deceptively inaccurate. It leads, for example, to a muddled Republican party which in actual practice, all to often seems to be the pro-life-Democrat party. Neither are Hayek's "Classical Liberals" (which is what most non-crazy libertarians seem to be.)

What's interesting about Heinlein's observation is that there is very little grey area between the two, though I've long observed that many people, especially religious people and orthodox/"conservative" religions, try to pretend so. For example, Mormonism's doctrine of free agency is completely at odds with their relatively heavy handed top-down approach to authority (it's just a variant of "you can choose any color as long as it's black.") The rationalizations of this range from bizarre to just plain idiotic (the dumbest being that free agency exists only when you make correct choices, meaning the ones we tell you to make.)
7/10/2015 11:03 AM