Sunday, June 10, 2007 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Guest columnist

Liberty: A capital idea

Special to The Times

During a recent visit to Seattle, I encountered a young woman standing on a street corner demanding that President Bush take action to stop the genocide in Sudan. When I asked her if she thought Bush should send troops to the region as he did in Iraq, she responded with a blank stare. It was then that I realized she had not thought that far down the road. Although she wanted to use American power to stop genocide, she did not want to get her hands dirty accomplishing the task.

Dilemmas like hers are why I often remind my students and colleagues that only the impotent and the naïve have the luxury of self-righteousness. After our five-year experience in Iraq, Americans are also learning this lesson.

As a nation, we have messianic tendencies. We want to make the world a better place, but we often recoil at the real-world consequences of pursuing such policies. Our experience in Iraq requires us to re-examine the practicality of our goals and tactics, and ask ourselves what we might do differently in the future when we will most assuredly be needed to again intervene abroad.

I want to start with a relatively controversial premise. Despite the continual barrage of attacks from the blogging left, the neoconservatives got one core argument correct: Killing Osama bin Laden will do nothing to stop terrorism. If we want to stop terrorism, they correctly argue, we need to bring hope, social and economic mobility, and the rule of law to the places that foster terrorism. The mistake the neocons made was assuming that democracy would foster such an environment in the Middle East.

There are two reasons why initiating democracy early will not bring economic, social or political stability to the Middle East. First, democracy only works in places where it doesn't matter if you lose. Second, democracy does not bring about liberty. Liberty, though, may bring about democracy. Let's start with the first argument.

Democracy works in America because our lives are not dramatically altered in any way if our preferred candidate loses.

Would my life really be that much different if Al Gore had won in 2000 or John Kerry in 2004? Not really. My taxes would be a little higher. The regulatory state would be a little bigger, and heath care would be a little more bureaucratic. But the more fundamental aspects of my life, such as my job, my religion and my personal security, would be the same.

American elections don't lead to violence because although we fight so hard, we fight over differences that are minimal. I care if my taxes are 33 percent instead of 39 percent, but I won't kill someone over it. Can we say the same thing about democracy for the Hutus and the Tutsis in Rwanda or the people of Nigeria? Democracy doesn't work in some of these places because it matters if you lose. If you lose, you may have all your property taken, or worse, you die.

Turkey is currently learning the same lesson. As long as they only had secular candidates on the ballot, it didn't really matter who won or lost. Turkey would still be Turkey. Only life on the margin would change. When an Islamic candidate made the ballot, however, the Turks realized it would matter if the secular party lost. Their entire way of life might change. So they stripped that candidate from the ballot. Democratic? No. Good idea? Yes.

On the second point, the neocons assumed that democracy fosters liberty. They got it exactly backwards. Democracy doesn't foster liberty. Liberty, from time to time, fosters democracy.

Democracy does not cultivate liberty because democracy trades tyranny of the one for tyranny of the 51 percent. It does nothing to limit the power of government, protect the rights of minorities, or establish the rule of law. Democracy ends up looking just as ruthless as a dictatorship because it transfers ultimate and unchecked power from one to anyone who can create a coalition of 51 percent. In such a democracy, the other 49 percent usually pick up a gun. Take Afghanistan for example. The Taliban keep losing elections, but these losses do little to stop them from killing people.

The neocons were correct to start with their initial premise: Liberty will nurture an environment hostile to radical Islam. From there, however, they should have done a better job finding the variable that actually creates liberty. If they had looked harder, they would have found capitalism, not democracy.

Although there are always exceptions to the rule, history has shown that capitalism (more so than democracy) does an excellent job of fostering property rights, independent courts, the rule of law, and dispersing power to multiple stakeholders — particularly in countries that have few cultural predispositions toward civil society. We political scientists refer to these characteristics collectively as limited government. And a government with limited power is the government with the limited ability to kill its citizens, strip them of their resources, and deprive them of their liberty.

By comparing the development of Africa to Asia, we find support for this thesis. Africa's revolutions ushered in democracy overnight. They also ushered in ethnic fighting, genocide and civil war. Africa got democracy, but it couldn't find liberty. Asia, on the other hand, developed "authoritarian capitalism," which has slowly moved South Korea, Taiwan and Indonesia toward stable democracies. But capitalism and an independent, stable middle class that demanded limits on the reach of majority rule came first.

Russia and China offer an ongoing test of this process. Which one will be a freer society in 10 years? My money is on China. Russia hurried headlong into democracy. Now it has little more than a kleptocracy. China, which has moved to capitalism but not democracy, is emerging as the freer society.

My mother often repeats the phrase, "Don't throw the baby out with the bathwater." I think that would be good advice for us all as we assess where we are in Iraq, what we did well, and what we should do better if there is ever a "next time."

On the left, there should be acceptance that America does have a role in promoting environments that deter the development of radical and hostile ideologies. No nation that claims to walk in the light can ignore cultures that use children as bombs. In confronting these cultures, we may need to get our hands dirty, even act unilaterally, and especially have the patience to pursue foreign policies that bear fruit over generations, not 24-hour news cycles.

On the right, however, there must be an acceptance that democracy is not the panacea we would like it to be.

The difficulty facing the next president will be rallying the citizenry to a new noble cause, and then having to convince people that the noble cause may initially require an economic solution, not a political solution — a task made more difficult by the fact that democracy holds a softer spot in our hearts and is more amenable to lofty and passionate rhetoric than something so pedestrian as economics.

Matt Manweller is an assistant professor of political science at Central Washington University in Ellensburg and chairman of the Kittitas County Republican Central Committee. This column was adapted from a speech he gave at the Mainstream Republicans gathering in Wenatchee in May. He can be reached at

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company


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