The power of the idea of liberal democracy

by John MacBeath Watkins

Events in Tunisia and Egypt have pointed to the little-remarked fact that liberalism, that artifact of 17th century Enlightenment thought, is more attractive to the man on the street in a wide variety of cultures than any other ideology.

Even those Egyptians who express disdain for America aspire to the sort of liberal democracy embodied in our constitution.  They aspire to a government that will serve the people, rather than the ruling elite.  They demand elections, equality before the law and protection from the injustices precipitated by the secret police, and more equality of opportunity.

There is no conflict between their wariness of America and their desire for democracy.  America must deal with the governments of countries as they exist, rather than attempt to determine what government other countries can have.  As a result, Egyptians see us as supporting the government they wish to topple.  And we've certainly given Egypt plenty of military assistance over the years, so it's good for us that the military has thus far been unwilling to fire on the protesters.

One of the things that seems most striking to me is that while liberty, the central ideal of liberalism, is the same for any society, conservatism might wish to conserve any sort of existing system against it.  George Soros famously set up offices of his Open Society Foundation in Eastern Europe and provided them with photocopiers that helped local dissidents produce samizdat in quantity.  American conservatives consider this man, who clearly has anti-Communist credentials, as a liberal, and their enemy.  The funny thing is, the Communists felt exactly the same about him.

In Eastern Europe then, and in China today, the conservatives are those who wish to stop the world from changing in a way that abandons the system they are used to and a part of, a system of Communist Party rule, collectivized agriculture, and state-owned industries, which would be anathema to American conservatives.  In the American South during the 1860s, it was the slaveholders who wanted to conserve a system they were accustomed to and which benefited the region's ruling race.

Conservatives in Saudi Arabia wish to conserve the value of a monarch who's legitimacy is vouchsafed by clerics who are rewarded with a state monopoly on religion, a situation anyone familiar with European history will recognize.  Such a system would be anathema to Chinese conservatives, who have tried their best to keep religious groups in check.

F.A. Hayek, in his 1948 essay on liberalism, pointed out that:

As a modern historian (R. W. Southern) describes it, the hatred of that which was governed, not by rule, but by will, went very deep in the Middle Ages, and at no time was this hatred as powerful and practical a force as in the latter half of the period.... Law was not the enemy of freedom: on the contrary, the outline of liberty was traced by the bewildering variety of law which was evolved during the period.... High and low alike sought liberty by insisting on enlarging the number of rules under which they lived.

Thus, the conflict was between the rule of will and the rule of law.  The Fascists attacked this directly, maintaining that some are born to lead, most are born to follow, and the "leader principle" or Führerprinzip, dictated that "the Führer's word is above all written law."

But to have complete moral freedom, as Rousseau told us, we must be subject to a law of our own making.  This can only be achieved with some form of democratic government.  Fascism is the only ideology to have taken over a modern industrial society that has had a taste of democracy, so it may have some power yet, but the liberal ideal of "liberty and justice for all" seems to seep into people's minds without any real attempt at propaganda.  Even China, with its continuing rule by the Communist Party, has within it an ongoing controversy about whether there are "universal values."

Last July 19, a Chinese banker named Qin Xiao spoke at a graduation ceremony for a Chinese business school, saying “Universal values tell us that government serves the people, that assets belong to the public and that urbanisation is for the sake of people’s happiness.”

The notion that government should serve the people is a powerful one.  Should China take this notion to heart and become a democratic society, it will no doubt take its own form and serve the wishes of its own people.  Just as the people of Gaza elected a party that George W. Bush did not approve of after Bush urged they have real elections, the Chinese people will elect who they want, not who anyone else wants.

And that's the real power of the liberal ideal.  Self-rule does not commit you to a way of life others think you should live, which Communism does.  You can even elect Communists, and sometimes the citizens of, for example, Italian cities, do so.

Hayek, of course, claimed that the term "liberal" had been taken over in America by people with socialist aspirations, but the aspects of liberal democracies he feared were in fact the ones citizens of liberal democracies have voted for.  His essay on liberalism contains this remarkable statement:

But the endeavours to prolong the prosperity and to secure full employment by means of the expansion of money and credit, in the end created a world‑wide inflationary development to which employment so adjusted itself that inflation could not be discontinued without producing extensive unemployment. Yet a functioning market economy cannot be maintained under accelerating inflation, if for no other reason than because governments will soon feel constrained to combat the effects of inflation by the control of prices and wages. Inflation has always and everywhere led to a directed economy, and it is only too likely that the commitment to an inflationary policy [131] will mean the destruction of the market economy and the transition to a centrally directed totalitarian economic and political system.

Now, the last American president to use price controls was Nixon.  During the Carter Administration, we defeated inflation with monetary policy.  Carter also increased economic freedom by deregulating the airline and trucking industries.  Hayek  underestimated the resilience of liberal democracies, which is strange, because most of those who do so are opposed to liberal democracies.  The heirs to Hayek's pessimism use his writings to criticize economic policies Milton Friedman would have found congenial, such as using monetary policy to fight off the possibility of a depression.

The result is that in societies that actually represent the values of classical liberalism, there is confusion about how to realize liberty, and what really threatens it.  In Egypt, there is no such doubt.