Wednesday, February 22, 2006

democracy overrated?

recent election victories of hamas in palestinian controlled areas in palestine and shia coalition in iraq and the resulting complications have made some people question the united states' drive to spread democracy in the world and in the middle east in particular.

there is no doubt about the benefits of democracy to the people who are able to participate in one. what i am discussing is whether having democracies to deal with as opposed to other forms of government is really beneficial to other countries and to world in general.

i have no idea where and when the ideas, that democracies do not make war on each other, that they usually respect international laws, and that they are more reasonable and stable, than countries governed by other forms of government came in to being. it is true that during latter half of 20th century democracies in fact acted in a very creditable reasonable manner to achieve a more or less stable world order. however that was imo a fluke.

history of united states, britain, france, and netherlands show that democracies are capable of unprovoked aggression just like any fascist dictator. one can argue that when these countries acted like that they were not really democracies, but that argument can be made against any democracy. in my book a government that reflect the wishes of a large group of people and which has functioning institutions that aim to ascertain those wishes, is a democracy. so a government that deprives slaves and women of the vote can still be a democracy if it reflects the majority opinion of free men. even a sufficiently broad based oligarchy will pass this test. besides if we examine closely almost all democracies can also be classified as broad based oligarchies.

anyway as i said history shows that democracies can in fact be highly unstable, highly aggressive, and prone to extremes, perhaps even more than the other forms of government. this was so from the first. athens, as anyone who has read ancient greek history knows was very aggressive in accumulating power and wealth, much more than oligarchical sparta. same was true of rome. roman republic was almost always at war, always expanding, but after it was converted into a disguised dictatorship by augustus it more or less stopped expanding. in fact augustus expressly instructed his successors not to expand the empire, an advice all dictators ignore at their own peril. democracies become stable only if they have a very large property owning middle class satisfied with the status quo, but even then there are no guarantees that they will not be aggressive towards other countries.

this is partly due to a very real advantage that democracies have; they almost always win wars, when fighting against other forms of government, especially when the stakes are high. this too was clear from the first. so called father of history herodotus understood this fact when he wrote his history of the persian invasion of greece in early 5th century b.c. it was because they were democracies that several poor disunited city states with relatively minuscule populations in a rather barren peninsular was able to defeat a huge army drawing on the strength of the greatest empire of the time. that is why rome was able to keep on fighting even as hannibal kept on destroying roman armies (in the process killing about quarter of the roman citizens) at the start of the second punic war. same happened in 16th century netherlands, american civil war, first world war, and in second world war. if you are going to fight a democracy you better come prepared for the very long haul and probable defeat.

this is so because people in a democracy identify with the state, to them a loss to the state is a loss to them personally. patently this not the case with other forms of government, though some try to create same sort of thing using nationalism or some ideology or religion. however all those efforts have failed in the long run or when the going got tough. fascists and communists certainly failed.

given the above facts it was really surprising that u.s. wanted to spread democracy in a region where the americans are unpopular. while i do not buy the theory that getting rid of a dictator and spreading democracy was their primary motivation that was part of it. (for the record i personally think u.s. did the right thing in the long run by invading iraq; having a war criminal in control of iraq with potential ability to blackmail the world was way worse than even anarchy.) surprising factor was that instead of installing a puppet regime (whether nominally democratic or plain dictatorial is beside the point) and getting out quickly, they actually wanted to establish a real democracy. they went through the same process in palestine. instead of helping fatah to stay in power by whatever means necessary, as they have in fact done before, they forced the palestinian authority to have a real free and fair election.

result of all this muddled thinking and reliance on unfounded assumptions about democracy by u.s. administration was the establishment of anti american democratic governments. once they are established it would be next to impossible to wish them away. i don't think that the present effort to use aid as a lever to mold those two governments into required shape will work in either case. given the facts u.s and its allies including israel would do better to be more flexible, or risk a huge embarrassment or worse, in the long run.


Keshi said...

I personally feel that democracy is underrated...only cos no one still seems to know what democracy really is (government of the people, by the people, and for the people)...what happens in the US and many other countries is monopoly under the name of democracy...


Yo said...

I agree that democracy is over-rated.

The fact that it is based around the popular opinion of the electorate is its biggest strength, but also its biggest weakness.

Because "what is popular is not always right, and what is right is not always popular."

Peter (AsianWildRose) said...

Democracy is always underrated. People need to be able to choose and even though their decisions are not always correct, at least it was theirs unlike in non-democarcies where people have no voice at all.

Keshi said...

wheres u Sittingnut?


sittingnut said...

keshi :
i am /was busy, will soon be free, i hope. so will post something soon. thanks

Anonymous said...

People often speak of democracy like it's a great end in itself. It's not. A democracy can be just as oppressive as a dictatorship. Personally, I think people are too stupid to rule over other people, be it rule by the many or the few. The entire idea of a government is fundamentaly flawed.